Three forgotten, grainy films shot more than 40 years ago reveal the evidence of a crime committed by British governments against some of its most vulnerable citizens. What they tell is a shocking, almost incredible story in which the Blair Government has played a major part. One of the films, made in 1957 by the government’s Colonial Film Unit, shows the people of the Chagos islands, a British Crown colony in the Indian Ocean.
The setting is idyllic; a coral archipelago lying midway between Africa and Asia: a phenomenon of natural beauty and peace where, says the commentator, “most of the people have lived for generations”. There are thriving villages, a school, a hospital, a church, a railway, docks, a copra plantation. In the second film, shot by missionaries, the islanders’ beloved dogs splash in a sheltered, palm-fringed lagoon catching fish; and there is a line of proud mothers, in their finery, with their babies awaiting their baptism. Here surely was Britain’s Empire at its most benign.
The third film marks the end of all this: an act of ruthlessness and duplicity with few Imperial parallels. The year is 1961; a stocky man strides ashore in Diego Garcia, the main island of the Chagos group.
He is Rear-Admiral Grantham of the US Navy and his visit is followed by a top secret Anglo-American survey of the island for a military base – one of the biggest American bases outside the United States: what the Pentagon in Washington calls an “indispensable platform” for policing the world. Today on Diego Garcia there are more than 2,000 American troops, anchorage for 30 ships, including nuclear-armed aircraft carriers, a satellite spy station and two of the world’s longest runways from which B-52 and Stealth bombers have attacked Afghanistan and Iraq.
Through the vapour haze as the bombers take off you can just see, on the other side of the lagoon, the broken villages: the houses claimed by the jungle, some still with their furniture, pictures and other personal belongings that were left the day the people were expelled.
Roaming wild are their donkeys and dogs that are now feral, but there are few of these descendants of the islanders’ pets. As the Americans began to build their billion-dollar base 30 years ago Sir Bruce Greatbatch, KCVO, CMG, MBE, governor of the Seychelles, ordered all the dogs on Diego Garcia to be killed. More than 1,000 pets were gassed with exhaust fumes. “They put the dogs in a furnace where the people worked”, Lisette Talatte, in her 60s, told me, “and when their dogs were taken away in front of them our children screamed and cried.”
Sir Bruce had been given responsibility for what the Americans called “cleansing” and “sanitising” the islands; and the killing of the pets was taken by the islanders as a warning. For what had been agreed between Washington and Whitehall in secrecy was that the 2,000 Chagos islanders would be forced from their homeland. A 1965 Foreign Office memorandum describes how the Americans made the expulsion of the entire population “virtually a condition of the agreement”. As for the gentle Creoles they were throwing out, “these people have little aptitude for anything other than growing coconuts”. They are, wrote Sir Bruce Greatbatch, “unsophisticated and untrainable”. In other words, expendable.
Files found in the National Archives in Washington and Public Record Office in London provide clear evidence of a conspiracy between the Labour government of Harold Wilson and two American administrations in the form of a searing narrative of official lying that will be all too familiar to those who have chronicled the lies over Iraq. The conspiracy got under way with the creation of a fake colony called the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT. The sole purpose of this was to get rid of the people.
To do it, the Foreign Office invented the fiction that the islanders were transient contract workers who could be “returned” to Mauritius and the Seychelles, 1,000 miles away. This was the equivalent of “returning” the majority of Australians, whose ancestry dates from 1770, the same year the first islanders settled in the Chagos. The aim, wrote a Foreign Office official in 1966, “is to convert all the existing residents into shortterm, temporary residents”. What the files also reveal is an attitude of brutality and contempt.
In August 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 was to get some rocks that will remain ours. There will be no indigenous population except seagulls.” At the end of this is a handwritten note by DH Greenhill, later Baron Greenhill of Harrow. “Along with the birds go some Tarzans or Men Fridays?” Under the heading Maintaining The Fiction, another official urges his colleagues to reclassify the islanders as “a floating population” and to “make up the rules as we go along”.
As for the United Nations and international law, which invested in the remaining colonial powers a “sacred trust” to protect the basic human rights of their citizens in dependent territories, a senior Foreign Office official proposed “a policy of ‘quiet disregard’ – in other words, let’s forget about this one until the United Nations challenge us on it”. Reading these documents, I could find not a single word of concern for the suffering caused or even recognition that Britain was, in effect, kidnapping its own citizens. There is worry about the press finding out and “damaging publicity” and now and then the conspirators appear to get the wind up. “This is all fairly unsatisfactory,” wrote one official, “We propose to certify these people, more or less fraudulently, as belonging somewhere else?”
The cover-up went right to the top. In 1968 Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart wrote that “by any stretch of the English language, there was an indigenous population and the Foreign Office knew it”. Yet on April 21, 1969, in a secret minute to Harold Wilson, Stewart proposed that the government lie to the UN “by present(ing) any move as a change of employment for contract workers – rather than as a population resettlement.”
Five days later Wilson gave his approval, which was copied to senior members of the Cabinet. At first the islanders were tricked into leaving; those needing urgent medical care in Mauritius were prevented from returning home. There is a photograph taken outside the administrator’s office on Diego Garcia. It is a haunting image, taken in 1973, not long after the massacre of the dogs. The stunned crowd has just been told their islands have been sold and they are to be expelled.
They could take only one suitcase. On one journey in rough seas the copra company’s horses occupied the deck, while women and children slept on a cargo of bird fertiliser. Arriving in the Seychelles they were held in a prison until they were transported to Mauritius. In the first years of exile suicides were common. “Elaine and Michel Mouza: mother and child committed suicide,” said a report in 1975. “Josie and Maude Baptiste: poverty – no roof, no food, committed suicide.” Lisette Talatte lost two children. “The doctor said he cannot treat sadness,” she told me. Rita Bancoult, now 79, lost two daughters and a son; she told me that when her husband was informed the family could never return home, he suffered a stroke and died.
Only after more than a decade did the islanders receive compensation: less than £3,000 each. In 2000 the High Court ruled their expulsion illegal. However, the Blair Government, although it did not appeal the decision, blocked them from going home by conjuring up a “feasibility study” to determine whether the islands could be resettled. It found they were “sinking” – perhaps under the weight of the thousands of US servicemen, their bars, barbecues and bombers. In 2003 the islanders were denied compensation in a now notorious High Court case, with the judge referring to “we” as if the Foreign Office and the court were on the same side.
Last June the Government invoked a “royal prerogative” – a decree – to overturn the 2000 decision, bypass Parliament and ban the islanders from ever going home. Last week, after the screening of my documentary on ITV, this epic struggle turned yet another corner when the High Court agreed to a judicial review of the royal decree. The islanders, led by Olivier Bancoult, who went into exile as a child, and their extraordinary London lawyer, Richard Gifford, say that if this fails they will head for the European Court of Human Rights.
Article Seven of the new International Criminal Court leaves little doubt that what was done to these gentle, tenacious people was a crime against humanity. As Bush’s bombers take off from their homeland, his collaborator in Downing Street might reflect on that.
John Pilger’s ITV documentary, Stealing A Nation, can be ordered on video. Write to: Video Library, ITV1, Gas Street, Birmingham B1 2JT, UK. If you would like to help the islanders, you can give to the Ilois (islanders) Support Trust. The London bank account is Natwest, No 90213319, sort code 60-30-06.