Out of Eden

29 May 2006

In long-forgotten archives in London and Mauritius is rare film of a community of contented people. The grainy, flickering images, full of movement of children playing on sandy beaches, and proud young women presenting their newborn for christening, and men setting out to fish, their dogs swimming alongside, are glimpses of a true paradise. There are thriving villages, a school, a hospital, a church, a light railway, set in a phenomenon of natural beauty: strings of coral atolls, floating in the turquoise of the Indian Ocean.

These were some of the 2,000 people who once lived on the Chagos archipelago, the majority on Diego Garcia, an atoll the shape of a tiny Italy, 14 miles long and six miles wide. Their ancestry went back to the 18th century, when the French brought slaves from Mozambique and Madagascar to work a coconut plantation. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815, the islands passed from French to British rule; about 20 years later, slavery was abolished.

Chagossian society continued to grow with the arrival of indentured labourers from India in the mid-19th century. By the 20th century they had developed a distinct language that was a lilting variation of French Creole. There were now three copra factories, supplying the coconut oil that lit street lamps in London, and a coaling station for ships en route to and from Australia; by the 1960s, there were plans for tourism. The workers received a small wage or payment in kind with commodities such as rice, oil and milk. They supplemented this by fishing in the abundantly stocked coastal waters, growing tomatoes, chilli, pumpkins and aubergines, and rearing chicken and ducks. As if celebrating a perfect vision of empire in such a place, a Colonial Office film from the 1950s describes the population as "born and brought up ... in conditions most tranquil and benign". The camera pans across a laughing woman hanging out clothes to dry in a coconut grove while her children play around her. This is Charlesia Alexis.

I met Charlesia recently, 50 years after she was filmed. She was sitting in the shade of her small, sparsely furnished house on the edge of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, more than 1,000 miles from her home. I asked her for her fondest memories of Diego Garcia. "Oh, everything!" she replied. "The sense of wellbeing is my fondest souvenir. My family could eat and drink what they liked; we never lacked for anything; we never bought anything, except clothes. Can you imagine that?"

"Why did you leave?"

"I left in 1967. My husband was very ill and I decided to take him to Port Louis to get the special treatment he needed. When we were ready to return, we went to Rogers & Company [they ran the boats] and asked for our tickets. They said they had instructions not to let us go back. They said Diego had been sold."

"Sold?"

"Yes, that's what they said. We were tricked. Looking back, the day before we left, the administrator told us to take a lot of fruit with us. They tricked us in so many ways, and when this game had run its course, they deported everyone, just like that. I was the fourth generation. Diego was my bird in the sky that was taken from me. I was sent to live in a slum, in rooms previously inhabited by goats and pigs. That's how they saw us."

What happened in the Chagos Islands was so searing, it may seem barely credible. Indeed La Lutte, as the Chagossians call their struggle for justice and freedom, arose from a crime that allows us to glimpse how great power works behind its respectable, democratic facade and how governments justify their actions with lies.

During the 1960s and 1970s, British governments, both Labour and Tory, tricked and expelled the entire population of the Chagos, a British colonial dependency, so that their homeland could be given to a foreign power, the United States, as the site for a military base. This "act of mass kidnapping", as one observer describes it, was carried out in high secrecy, along with the conspiracy that preceded it. For almost a decade, neither parliament nor the US Congress knew anything about it, and no journalist revealed it. BBC newsreaders still refer to US aircraft flying out to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq from the "uninhabited" island of Diego Garcia. Not only was the Chagossians' homeland stolen from them, but they were taken out of history. This scandal is unresolved today - even though the high court in London has twice ruled that the islanders' "wholesale removal" was an "abject legal failure".

The year was 1961. Two men strode up the jetty on Diego Garcia, filmed by missionaries unaware of the significance of their visitors. One was Rear Admiral Grantham of the US Navy, the leader of an American advance survey team whose objective was to find an island suitable for a military base that would allow Washington to dominate the Indian Ocean and beyond. For the next three years, British and American planners and engineers inspected the Chagos group. Finally, they selected the nearby island of Aldabra.

Their secret decision leaked out to the scientists of the Royal Society in London, who were horrified. Together with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, this formidable establishment body mounted a campaign that saw off the Ministry of Defence and Admiral Grantham. The island's precious wildlife, including the giant land tortoise and the last flightless bird, were safe. The second choice, however, was not. This was Diego Garcia which, although rich in terrestrial and marine life, was not unique enough to excite the collective indignation of naturalists.

As for the presence of a flourishing human population, this was "not an insurmountable problem", advised the Foreign Office, for people could be "removed" and "the outside world [presented] with a scenario in which there were no permanent inhabitants on the archipelago".

In February 1964, a secret Anglo-American conference was held in London, at which the final decision was taken. Again, parliament was not informed. The following April, Anthony Greenwood, the colonial secretary in Harold Wilson's Labour government, flew to Mauritius, then a British colony that included the Chagos Islands. Greenwood spelled out the terms for granting independence to Mauritius. Despite United Nations Resolution 1514, which held that all colonial peoples had an inalienable right to independence without conditions, Greenwood offered it with strings. Mauritius could be free as long as Britain could keep the Chagos archipelago. The bribe was a mere £3m, together with a promise to support Mauritian sugar preferences.

Thus Charlesia's homeland was "sold". On November 8 1965, in the twilight of its colonial era, Britain created a new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), whose principal territory was the Chagos Islands. It was a ruse of which perhaps only Britain's ancien régime was capable; for the new colony was a fake, an entity created for the sole purpose of handing it over for the use of the American military. This was made possible by using the archaic powers of the royal prerogative, a throwback to the divine right of kings.

Although barely reported in the press, word of this manoeuvre reached the United Nations in New York, spurring the General Assembly to pass Resolution 2066, which called on the British government "to take no action which would dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate its territorial integrity". This was ignored.

In December 1966, Lord Chalfont, a Foreign Office minister, signed a contract in Washington giving the Pentagon a 50-year "lease" on Diego Garcia with an automatic extension of 20 years. Declassified state department documents obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act in 2005 reveal that Washington wanted the entire population expelled; as one official put it, the islands were to be "swept" and "sanitised". This was described in a secret file as "a neat, sensible package".

In 1974,a joint UK-US question-and-answer "official truth" primer for embassies around the world asked: "Is there a native population on the Chagos Islands?" The reply was "No." A Ministry of Defence spokesman denied this was a lie, in the process uttering perhaps the most amazing lie of all. "There is nothing in our files," he said, "about inhabitants or about an evacuation." It was not until 1975 that the US Senate revealed that the British government had been secretly "compensated" for the Chagos with a discount of $14m off the price of a Polaris nuclear submarine. This itself was illegal, as it was never submitted to Congress for approval; and the document Chalfont signed stated falsely that the US would pay no rent for acquiring "base rights". There was no mention of a population.

Lizette Talate is also in the Colonial Office film. She was 14 years old at the time and remembers the producer saying to her and her friends, "Keep smiling, girls!" Sitting in her kitchen in Port Louis, she says, "We didn't need to be told. I was a happy child, because my roots were deep in Diego. My great-grandmother was born on Diego, and my grandmother was born there, and my mother was born there, and I was born there. I made six children there. Maybe only the English can make a film that showed we were an established community, then deny their own evidence and invent the lie that we were transient workers. That's why they couldn't legally throw us out of our own homes; they had to terrify us into leaving or force us out."

"How did they terrify you?" I asked.

"They tried to starve us. The food ships stopped arriving, and everything was scarce. There was no milk, no dairy products, no oil, no sugar, no salt. When they couldn't starve us out of our homes, they spread rumours that we would be bombed, then they turned on our dogs."

The Chagossians love their dogs; they are inseparable. The plan to kill all the dogs on the island - with its unsubtle implication that humans might be next - came from Sir Bruce Greatbatch, then Her Majesty's Governor of the Seychelles. "At first they tried poisoned fish balls," said Lizette. "That killed a few and left many in terrible agony. Then they paid a man to walk round with a big stick beating them to death, or trying to. Finally, American soldiers, who had already begun to arrive, gassed them, and the bodies - many still alive - were thrown on to a shelf that usually held the flesh of coconuts as it was cooked ... children listened to the howls of their pets being burned to death."

Along with 180 others, Lizette and her family were forced on to the vessel Nordvaer, which had plied between the Chagos and Mauritius and the Seychelles, transporting copra and taking supplies back to the islands. The men were herded on to the bridge and had to stand or crouch in very rough weather; the women and children were made to sleep in the hold on a cargo of fertiliser - bird shit. People vomited and suffered diarrhoea; two women miscarried.

"Even water was scarce," says Lizette. "What I can't forget is the fear and uncertainty for myself and my family. When we got to the Seychelles, the police were waiting for us. They marched us up the hill to a prison, where we were kept in cells until the boat was ready to take us on to Mauritius.

"I suppose we took some hope in the promise that in Mauritius we would be granted a house, a piece of land, animals and a sum of money. We got nothing."

The former president of Mauritius, Cassam Uteem, who has championed the Chagossians' rights, told me: "You can't imagine how bewildered and terrified they were ... These were a people who would sing their way through life; and here they were, weeping their way through life, and they are still weeping.

"I know of one lady who lost two children within two or three months, and she wasn't able even to perform their funerals because she didn't have any money. The children were taken from the hospital straight to the cemetery. That lady is still weeping."

Lizette is that lady. She lost Jollice, aged eight, and Regis, aged 10 months. Her husband died soon afterwards. "They died of sadness," she tells me. "It is true, because the doctor said he could not treat sadness. Lizette is a wiry, formidably intelligent woman who wears a mask of grief and determination. "I am going home," she says. "I am not to be pitied; I am fighting."

By 1975, the Chagossians in exile began to die from their imposed poverty. Most were unemployed and penniless and either sharing a slum or sleeping rough. In a letter to an MP, a Foreign Office official wrote: "Although we have no information about deaths, some deaths are bound to have occurred in the normal course of events."

That was a lie. The Foreign Office had sent a senior official, ARG Prosser, to investigate; he had sent back a graphically detailed report on the islanders' living conditions and advised that "something needs to be done".

The government's response was to offer a minuscule £650,000 in compensation to the entire population. Even this did not arrive until 1978, five years after the last islander had been deported.

In 1981, several hundred Chagossian women converged on the British High Commission in Port Louis, sat down and sang, and demanded proper compensation. Thanks to their protest, it appeared that progress was being made on compensation. On March 27 1982, a group of the most impoverished islanders accepted a "full and final" settlement of £4m - less than half the estimated minimum that they could survive on. But on what the islanders wanted most - the right to return - there was a deafening silence.

In the 1990s, the islanders' struggle took a dramatic turn when a treasure trove of declassified official documents was discovered in the National Archives at Kew, in London. This provided the narrative of a conspiracy between two governments to carry out, in the words of Article 7 of the statute of the international criminal court, the "deportation or forcible transfer of a population ... a crime against humanity".

On July 28 1965, a senior Foreign Office official, TCD Jerrom, wrote to the British representative at the United Nations, FDW Brown, instructing him to lie to the general assembly that the Chagos Islands were "uninhabited when the United Kingdom government first acquired them". This Brown did on November 16 1965. He also misrepresented the population as "labourers from Mauritius and the Seychelles" for whom Britain's obligations under the United Nations Charter "did not apply", and he lied that the "new administrative arrangements" had been "freely worked out with the ... elected representatives of the people concerned".

In a secret memorandum, a Colonial Office official, KWS MacKenzie, spelt out the truth. "One of the things we would like to do in the new Territory," he wrote, "is to convert all the existing residents into short-term, temporary residents by giving them temporary immigration permits, describing them as inhabitants of Mauritius or the Seychelles."

Reading the files, it is clear that the British government did as it was told by Washington. Mass deportation, wrote a Foreign Office official, "was made virtually a condition of the agreement [with the Americans] when we negotiated it in 1965".

What these files also reveal is an imperious attitude of brutality and contempt. On August 24 1966, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, wrote: "We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours. There will be no indigenous population except seagulls."

At the bottom of the page is a postscript handwritten by DA Greenhill, another senior official, who became Baron Greenhill of Harrow.

"Unfortunately," he wrote, "along with the Birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are being hopefully wished on to Mauritius etc. When this has been done, I agree we must be very tough."

The cover-up went to the very top. On November 5 and 8 1965, the Colonial Secretary, Anthony Greenwood, wrote two secret minutes to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in which he described the problem of a "population of 1,000 inhabitants" living in the Chagos. He urged that the Queen quickly approve the "order-in-council detaching the islands" so that the new colony could be declared and "we should be able to present the UN with a fait accompli".

So when Wilson gave the green light to the order-in-council, he was aware he was overriding the legal and human rights of British citizens. He was stealing their country and ignoring the risks of "dumping unemployables in heavily over-populated Mauritius", as one honest Foreign Office official warned, not to mention the incalculable suffering this ensured.

Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart, a quiet, grey-haired, grandfatherly-looking man, took charge of the deceit. Writing secretly to Wilson on July 25 1968, he proposed that the government lie to the world that there was "no indigenous population", even though he had signed a memorandum circulating in the cabinet which admitted that "there was an indigenous population and the Foreign Office knew it".

On April 26 1969, Wilson's private secretary wrote to Stewart that the prime minister approved the "plan". Seven successive British governments have - to recall the memorable expression of a Foreign Office legal adviser in 1969 - maintained the fiction.

In his two autobiographies, Denis Healey, who was defence secretary in the Wilson government and responsible for turning Diego Garcia over to the Pentagon, makes not a single mention of the expulsion of the population. In 2004, I asked Healey for an interview. He replied, "I fear I have no memories of the Chagos archipelago. Sorry."

On May 6 1969, Healey's private secretary wrote to Downing Street, confirming that the Defence Secretary had read Stewart's plan and "agrees with its recommendations". Healey even queried the cost of expelling the population and sought an assurance that any "excess" above £10m would not be borne by his department.

The "policy of concealment" (as a Foreign Office file called it) ran almost to the end of the century - until the files at Kew were cracked open. Armed with this extraordinary evidence, Richard Gifford, the tireless lawyer representing the islanders, headed for the courts. In October 2000, Lizette Talate, Charlesia Alexis and others, led by a courageous islander, Olivier Bancoult, flew to London to give evidence in a high court action that challenged the legality of their dispossession.

The government had feared this, and, prior to the hearing, the Foreign Office mounted a disinformation campaign, led by Peter Hain. "The outer islands," Hain told the House of Commons, "have been uninhabited for 30 years, so any resettlement would present serious problems, both because of the practical feasibility and in relation to our treaty obligations."

A "treaty" implied an agreement scrutinised by parliament. There was no treaty: only a secret, criminal deal. On November 3 2000, in the high court, Lord Justice Laws and Mr Justice Gibbs stunned the government.

Citing the Magna Carta, which proscribed "Exile from the Realm" without due process, they unanimously squashed the 1965 ordinance used to deport the islanders as unlawful.

Lizette and Charlesia at last could go home, it seemed. But the Blair government had other ideas. That afternoon, the Foreign Office published a new immigration ordinance that banned the islanders from returning to Diego Garcia. Once again, "treaty obligations" with Washington were cited.

In 2003, the islanders were back in the high court, now seeking compensation. But this time they faced a judge who described the case as "unmeritorious" and "hopeless", and awarded the islanders not a penny - a decision "welcomed" by Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office minister responsible for the Chagos.

The following year, Rammell employed the same sleight of hand that the Wilson government had used to expel the islanders in the 1960s, when he sent an order-in-council to the Queen for her rubber-stamped approval. This overturned the Chagossians' high court victory of 2000 in its entirety and and banned the islanders from ever returning home. The order-in-council appeared on a list of innocuous royal decrees, between an amendment to the royal charter of the College of Optometrists and the appointment of Her Majesty's education inspectors for Scotland. No reason was given; a privy councillor simply read out the fate of thousands of Her Majesty's most vulnerable, abused and wronged subjects.

Richard Gifford and the islanders refused to accept this and were back in the high court last year. On May 11, two judges found unreservedly in their favour, describing the government's behaviour as illegal, repugnant and irrational. The government is considering an appeal, knowing that the Americans, having attacked Iraq and Afghanistan from Diego Garcia, are furious. The bombing of Iran is planned to take place from this British territory. Both governments apparently still believe they can "wear down" the islanders' resolve. They are mistaken, I can assure them.

This article is an edited extract from John Pilger's new book Freedom Next Time