Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia

Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia by David Vine came to me as an interloan from the Vancouver Public Library. Vine chronicled the story of the Chagos archipelago from the time of first settlement to the unlawful expulsion of the 1970’s and detailed the numerous court cases and rulings for and against the Chagossians in their attempts to return home.

I found this a speedier read than Limuria in spite of the author’s overabundance of apologetic endnotes. For a main text totalling only 202 pages, Vine appended 44 additional pages of notes, wherein he tried to explain away the reality of race (his argument was not convincing) and other nonsense about empire. The kids today would call Vine “woke”; I would call him annoying. I’d rather have read a text that didn’t come off every other page as an apology for Vine being Caucasian and ipso facto responsible for the Chagossians’ expulsion. The end of the book was the real killer, where the author plopped “collective responsibility” into our laps and then left us with it, supposedly to ponder or weep over.

While I am on the side of the Chagossians to return home and to receive generous reparations, I don’t believe the way to advance their case is by turning on the schmaltz in the retelling of their stories. It doesn’t take long for the reader to moan about a certain maudlin exiled Chagossian yet again.

Vine published this book in 2009, nearly five decades after the campaign to expel the Chagossians began. I commend him for trying to track down those in the American, British and Mauritian governments who were responsible for this act of inhumanity. He also found declassified documents that were curt in their instructions. The Chagossians were ordered that they “Absolutely must go.”. Most were deported to Mauritius while some went to the Seychelles. Those still on Chagos were gradually forced off as supply ships containing food and medicine stopped coming. After they arrived on their new unwelcoming islands, the Chagossians had nowhere to stay and lived in poverty for the rest of their lives. Many died of sagren, which is a Chagossian term meaning “profound sorrow”. Vine wondered about this–is it a legitimate cause of death to die of a broken heart–and attempted to find a physiological link to prove it.

All the American government wanted was to build a military base on Diego Garcia. Those who lived on that main island were forced to leave. Chagossians on other islands, even hundreds of kilometres away, had to leave as well. The end justified the means so much that the military was oblivious to the idea of a native population being there:

“Almost all remembered spending little time thinking about the islanders. The people were, as State Department official James Noyes put it, a ‘nitty gritty’ detail that they never examined. Or as another said, they were something to which officials turned a ‘blind eye.’ The removal was a ‘fait accompli…a given’ never requiring any thought.”

Half a century later, courts are slowly coming round to rule in the Chagossians’ favour. I am hopeful that even if they are unable to resettle on their home islands to live out their final days, the people will be able to visit the place they still consider as home. That would include being allowed to set foot on Diego Garcia again.

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