Wednesday, May 13, 2009

After Paradise Island: NEGL

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[Pic: Google Maps, British Indian Ocean Territory. Zoom in on the atoll at the lower right, Diego Garcia, for a glimpse of the front lines of the wars of the 21st century, complete with B-52s and destroyers in action, tank farms, radar arrays, and even some tennis courts and swimming pools — like your favorite military strategy game or fighter jet simulator, only real!]

Speaking of island diasporas, the May 28 issue of The New York Review of Books has an amazing article about the story of the Chagos Islanders, "A Black and Disgraceful Site" by Jonathan Freedland, reviewing David Vine's Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia.

The Chagos Archipelago is an array of atolls located in the very center of the Indian Ocean, 300 miles south of the Maldives, 1000 miles southwest of India, and half way between Tanzania and Java. The Wikipedia entry reads like Tolkien on the beach:

The ancient Sanskrit phrase, Lakshadweepa referred to the Islands of Laccadives, Aminidives, Maldives, Suvadives and the Chagos Archipelago as well. They were ruled from India originally[citation needed], although never settled.

Maldivian mariners knew the Chagos Islands well. In Maldivian lore they are known as Fōlhavahi or Hollhavai (the latter name in the Southern Maldives Adduan dialect of Dhivehi). According to Southern Maldivian oral tradition, traders and fishermen were occasionally lost at sea and got stranded in one of the islands of the Chagos. Eventually they were rescued and brought back home. However, these islands were judged to be too far away from the Maldives to be settled permanently by Maldivians. Thus for many centuries the Chagos were ignored by their northern neighbors.

The first European explorer to spot the Chagos was Vasco da Gama in the early 16th century. Portuguese seafarers named the group and some of the Atolls, but they never made these islands part of their seaborne empire. They judged this lonely and isolated group to be economically and politically uninteresting.

The French were the first to lay a claim on the Chagos after they settled Réunion and Ile de France (later renamed Mauritius).

On 27 April 1786 the Chagos Isands and Diego Garcia were claimed for Britain. However, the territory was ceded to the United Kingdom by treaty only after Napoleon's defeat, in 1814. On 31 August 1903 the Chagos Archipelago was administratively separated from the Seychelles and attached to Mauritius.

The islands were retained as part of the British Indian Ocean Territory when Mauritius gained independence. Since 1976, the archipelago has been coterminous with the British Indian Ocean Territory, but it is also claimed by Mauritius and Seychelles.[3]

The archipelago's first inhabitants arrived in the 18th century. These were the lepers of Ile de France (Mauritius) who were brought there in the second half of the 1700s. Soon after, a plan was drawn up by the French to settle the Chagos and make them profitable. Workers for a massive French project to establish coconut plantations and produce oil were sent from Ile de France (Mauritius) and settled in some of the largest islands. Consequently, in some maps of the time the Chagos are known as the "Oil Islands". Most of these workers were of African origin, but it is likely that there were also a few South Indians among them. The supervisors of the plantations were probably Frenchmen and the workers were probably little more than slaves, but very little has been recorded about conditions on the islands during that time.

By the mid-20th century the oil plantations had largely failed, but the original workers and their families had settled some of the largest islands and survived there. The islanders were known as the Ilois (one French Creole word for "islanders") and they numbered almost 2,000. They were of mixed African and South Asian descent and lived very simple, spartan lives in their isolated archipelago. Few remains of their culture have been left, except for the ruins of a few dwellings and a stone church that can still be seen in Diego Garcia.

Before the Vietnam Era, the island is recalled as some sort of proto-communist Utopia. Freedland on Vine:

[The Chagossians] remember a paradise island. That their ancestors were either enslaved Africans or indentured south Indians—the victims of an earlier empire and its desire to control the Indian Ocean—did not prevent them from developing a deep attachment to the islands they called home. Even discounting for the rose-colored vision of exile, they recall a place of lush plenty, easy kinship, and relative freedom. They were the employees of a conglomerate that ran the islands as an extended coconut plantation, but they were also the subjects of British imperial power, via the colonial administration of Mauritius, who, though they elsewhere exercised a tight grip, ruled Chagos with a looser rein. That was thanks in part to the islands' remoteness from anywhere else: "neighboring" Mauritius is 1,200 miles away.

Throughout the book, Vine quotes Rita Bancoult, who was born in 1928 and whose son, Olivier Bancoult, leads the Chagos Refugees Group. "You had your house—you didn't have rent to pay," she tells Vine, recalling how, when the sea was at low tide, her dog would catch fish in his mouth and bring them back to her. The men would harvest the coconuts; the women would shell them, usually completing their task by midday. Then they would either tend their gardens, growing squash, chili peppers, and eggplant, or "hunt for other seafood, including...lobster, octopus, sea cucumber, and turtles." Saturday night was sega night, when the villagers would gather around a bonfire:

Under the moon and stars, drummers on the goat hide–covered ravanne would start tapping out a slow, rhythmic beat. Others would begin singing, dancing, and joining in....

As Rita recalls, "Life there paid little money, a very little...but it was the sweet life."

The islands' rulers shared that view. "Funny little places!" wrote Sir Hilary Blood, former colonial governor of Mauritius, "But how lovely!" The landscape turned him lyrical: "Coconut palms against the bluest of skies, their foliage blown by the wind into a perfect circle.... Its beauty is infinite."

They are all gone now, recalling in some weird way all the abandoned islands of fantasy literature, a trope that has some cryptic potency. But their demise is of a peculiarly Virilian sort: the entire population was evicted between 1967 and 1971 by the Anglo-American war machine to make room for a military base on Diego Garcia, which seems to have achieved its highest and best use as a black site in the GWOT. While the Chagossians hear tales of their lost paradise from the elders in their new homes in the dreary post-Shepperton around Gatwick Airport, and the slums of Mauritius. Freedland paints the picture:

In the very lowest reaches of organized English soccer, in the bottom division of the amateur Crawley and District Football League, there is a team whose name sets it apart from its rivals. They are identified with their home villages in Sussex in southeast England: Ifield, Maidenbower, Worth. But this team has a name replete with an altogether different history. It is Chagos Island.

The soccer club is one of the few visible signs of a community of former subjects of the British Empire who now live in what they rarely thought of as "the mother country"—clustered, to be precise, in the unlovely exurbs around Gatwick airport. They, or their forebears, lived once in the Chagos archipelago, a string of more than sixty white-sanded, palm-fringed coral islands that are tiny dots on a map of the Indian Ocean, halfway between Africa and Indonesia. Many of these Chagossians trace their roots back to the archipelago's largest and best-known island: Diego Garcia.

To explain how they come to be living in Crawley, many of them working menial janitorial jobs in and around the airport, is to tell one of the more shocking tales of modern-day imperialism. It is a story of an old empire passing the torch to the new, Britain handing over one of its furthest-flung territories to the United States and expelling the native inhabitants to make way for the construction of a military base that has since become central to US control of the Indian Ocean and domination of the Persian Gulf. It is the tale of how a remote island idyll was simply emptied of its people, allowing for the creation of a place so secret that no journalist has been allowed to visit,[1] a key staging post in George W. Bush's war on terror, both the launch pad for the B-1s, B-2 "stealth" bombers, and B-52s that pounded Afghanistan and Iraq and a crucial node in the CIA's rendition system, a "black site" through which at least two high-value suspected terrorists were spirited, far from the prying eyes of international law.

...Trouble came to this paradise in the late 1950s, when Stu Barber, a bright American naval analyst, dreamed up what would become known as the Strategic Island Concept. Barber understood that in the era of decolonization, retaining US bases on other nations' soil would work in places where the host governments were pliant: Britain, Germany, Japan. But in geopolitical hotspots, local populations were bound to chafe against an armed US presence. They had already done so in Trinidad and Tobago, which celebrated independence by getting rid of US bases. Yet the US could not simply retreat from tricky parts of the world. To do so would invite the Communist enemy, whether Chinese or Soviet, to fill the vacuum. Barber hit on a solution that would allow the US to continue projecting its power across the globe without the complicating presence of other people: islands, especially those with next to no inhabitants.

Barber and his colleagues had only to look at a map to see that Diego Garcia was perfect. Its location was "within striking distance of potential conflict zones," enabling the US to reach both Asia and the Persian Gulf. In focusing on the Indian Ocean, Barber showed more foresight than even he probably realized. In an article in the March–April 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, the military analyst Robert D. Kaplan wrote that "the Indian Ocean is where global struggles will play out in the twenty-first century." Citing both the surge in piracy off the coast of Somalia and last year's terror attacks in Mumbai, as well as the strategic value of the ocean to the rising powers India and China, Kaplan argued that "the world's third-largest body of water" has now replaced both the Atlantic and Pacific as "center stage" in international relations.[2]

Not only was Diego Garcia in a vital place, the V-shaped atoll formed a natural harbor and there was room for a large airstrip, too—all under the control of America's most loyal ally. Best of all, the population was such that it could be written off, in CIA-speak, as NEGL: "negligible." Barber urged the Navy to snap the place up before it, and other conveniently placed islands, were lost to decolonization forever.

Now go read the whole story at NYRB" "A Black and Disgraceful Site" by Jonathan Freedland, reviewing David Vine's Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia

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