DECEMBER 30, 2019
“THEY TOLD US our dogs would be given a vaccine.”
As Olivier Bancoult speaks, I could see the Chagossians stroking their animals’ fur, reassuring their pets, telling them they’d soon be immunized against some unknown virus. I could see the British in their white uniforms, luring some of the larger dogs with raw meat, grabbing pups, throwing them in the kalorifer, the furnace where coconut flesh is desiccated into copra: “They plugged the exhaust pipes of their Land Rovers into the furnace. Gassed them all. We couldn’t move, weren’t allowed to move. We screamed. They burned the carcasses. We weren’t able to bury them.”
The leader of the Chagos Refugees Group pauses, taking in the diverse assemblage of people who’ve come to attend the launch of the new Group Tanbour Sagos (Chagos Tambour Group) album and exhibition of Chagossian cultural heritage.
When we were allowed in 2006 to visit our home, we took care of our family’s graves, overgrown and dirty. I heard a shout: “Olivier, come see this!” And that’s when we spotted them, in a clearing not too far away, closer to the base. The graves of the American military dogs who died during their service. They were given graves. They were well-kept.
The Chagossians come from “a string of islands strewn across the sea. Milky droplets traced in white sand, as if fallen from the languid teat of the Indian peninsula, floating beyond the Maldives.” These are the opening lines of Shenaz Patel’s Silence of the Chagos, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman. “Chagos. Ensconced within the Indian Ocean, an archipelago balanced precariously along the arched curve of the Mid-Indian Ridge.” A group of about 60 Edenic islands clustered in seven atolls, named — forebodingly perhaps — after the Portuguese word chagas, “wound.” It is an isolated archipelago that lies almost at the center of the Indian Ocean, equidistant from the east coast of Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia.
A perfect base, thought the American military. They’d sought to establish their presence in these waters during the Cold War; the archipelago’s 2,000-strong population was, in their words, “negligible.” They wanted the islands “swept and sanitized.” The Americans were lucky, too; the islands belonged to the Republic of Mauritius, still under British rule. They began secret talks with the British government in the early 1960s: the plan was to illegally detach the archipelago from Mauritius and rename this “new” island colony the British Indian Ocean Territory, over which the American military would have exclusive control. The British would lease the colony to the US government and receive a $14 million discount on the Polaris missile system to boot. Both countries knew Mauritius was fighting for its independence: all the British had to do was to force the soon-to-be prime minister, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, to accept the excision as the price that needed to be paid. He relented.
Between 1965 and 1973, the Chagossians were uprooted from their homes. Their pets were killed. They were allowed to take only a small box of their belongings, before they were forced onto overcrowded ships to Mauritius and the Seychelles. The American and British governments would tell the world that “there were no permanent inhabitants on the archipelago.” Among themselves, officials would describe the deportation of the Chagossians as an “exercise” to
get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a Committee […] Unfortunately 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.
Shenaz Patel is at the album launch, too. It’s a wet November afternoon in Rose Hill, Mauritius; in just about a year’s time, Silence of the Chagos will have been translated into English and have garnered a star from Kirkus. Patel’s one of our most prominent journalists and authors: one of her first articles was on the Chagossians’ plight, but she always felt like it wasn’t enough. “I wanted to give flesh and voice to their story, tell it from the inside.” She spent time with a number of Chagossians living in Mauritius, becoming particularly close to Charlesia Alexis, one of the fiercest Chagossian activists. Patel told them she was writing a novel, and they opened up their lives to her. A product of many years, the result is a searing, meticulously detailed account of the deportation of the Chagossian people and their struggles in Mauritius. I was honored to help with the translation of a few words, along with Chagossian activists, researchers, artists, and academics. Patel had rightly insisted that many instances of Chagossian diction remain in Kreol, and Zuckerman worked in an atypically close collaboration with her so that she’d be “front and center in speaking for this book and for the Chagossians whose voices it represented.”
The novel’s first chapter opens, fittingly, on the day of Mauritian Independence. Like all Chagossians, Charlesia is in no festive mood: she knows of the misery that underlies the peals of liberation, the price that was paid for the celebratory blasts of the cannon. She walks to the quay in Port Louis every afternoon, searching the sea for the home she was ripped from. She is engulfed with sagren. Her son is too young to know “the source of this chasm within her body,” but feels it running “from his belly to his guts, and it is filled by an echo from far away.” Her older daughter Mimose is “listless as one of those gas-lamp flame that had sputtered out with a quick twist of the knob.”
Sagren, a Kreol word meaning “sorrow,” is listed as the cause of death of 60 Chagossians from the time they arrived in Mauritius to 2001; a physical manifestation of root shock caused by forced displacement, compounded with the abject poverty that awaited the Chagossians the minute they disembarked. When they left the ship, they trailed the slums of Port Louis, seeking shelter. There were no resettlement programs put into place, and they were given nothing. The British knew of this, of course, though they’d made a flurry of promises to the contrary. Telegrams speak of “the near impossibility of [Chagossians] finding suitable employment,” in a country recovering from a series of wrecking-ball hurricanes, where unemployment was over 20 percent, where there was an acute housing shortage.
The Chagossians say that sagren did not exist in the archipelago. In the 1770s, enslaved laborers were brought to the islands from East Africa and Madagascar to work on the coconut plantations; they produced copra and coconut oil, which was then exported to Mauritius and beyond. After the abolition of slavery in 1835, copra companies controlled and administered the islands: employment was guaranteed, as were pensions upon retirement, rations, land to grow crops and raise animals. Housing, health care, education, and customary passages to and from Mauritius were provided, too. It wasn’t an idyll — Chagossians would revolt from time to time against low wages, exploitation, high prices of goods in the shop — but compared to Mauritius the islanders didn’t have to worry about money, and had ample leisure time to spend as they wished. “Back there, they’d had fresh food aplenty, they never ate the same thing two days in a row,” Charlesia reminisces.
When Charlesia’s husband falls ill in 1967, she is urged a little too forcefully by the administrator and the hospital nurse to go to Mauritius for treatment, but she leaves Chagos anyway. She doesn’t know that her island has been sold; that the moment she embarks on the boat with her family she’ll never be allowed to return. “Zil inn ferme” she is told. “Her island is closed.”
Midway through the novel, the narrative shifts to tell the story of Raymonde, who Charlesia sees disembarking from the last ship to leave Chagos in 1973. She was nine months pregnant when British authorities ordered her to leave the Chagossian island of Peros Banhos within an hour; she gives birth crammed in the Nordvaer, a ship filled to twice its capacity with no doctors on board. Professor of Anthropology David Vine describes in his book Island of Shame how, at the orders of a British colonial governor, Sir Bruce Greatbatch, horses were given the best places on deck: Chagossians were made to sit on the cargo of copra, coconuts, equipment, and guano; the deck and hold were covered in manure, urine, vomit. Laura Jeffery, professor of Anthropology of Migration, tells in Chagos Islanders in Mauritius and the UK how “passengers died, miscarried, or committed suicide, and dead bodies were thrown overboard.” Somehow, Raymonde’s son Désiré miraculously survives. They’re taken to the poor neighborhood of Cité La Cure once they disembark, where Raymonde “was overwhelmed by a smell of filth and excrement. The terrified children grabbed at her skirt and did not dare to move. In her arms, a smell roused her from her torpor. She had to change the baby’s diaper. She opened the tap. Dry.”
Patel’s novel then continues with Désiré, Raymonde’s son: “Everywhere he went, doors slammed shut the minute they realized who he was […] Two syllables they spat out, zil–wa, with mistrust, contempt, disdain.” The Chagossians would face horrendous racism from Mauritians, too, racism infused with a peculiar classist streak: they were from smaller, less developed islands, even more inferior in the local racial hierarchy than “regular” Mauritian Créoles. They were called savages, abused in places where they worked. Vine states that some Mauritian public officers raped Chagossian women when they first arrived, and recommended that their friends do the same.
The dancers twirl to the rhythm of Chagossian sega. I spot Mimose Furcy on stage, Olivier Bancoult’s sister and head of the Chagos Tambour Group. Their mother, Rita Bancoult, was a formidable activist: along with other women such as Charlesia Alexis and Lisette Talate, she led a protest that lasted several months in 1978, fighting until the Mauritian government distributed the £650,000 that the UK government had paid Mauritius in 1972 to help resettle the community (money which was, in their words, “hopelessly inadequate” if and when it reached the families). They kept fighting, and were beaten, incarcerated at times in the 1980s. Rita, Charlesia, and Lisette were some of the founding mothers of the Chagos Refugees Group, the first solely Chagossian support organization.
These women were — and Chagossian women are, still — repositories of their heritage, preoccupied, in the words of Professor Jeffery, with “remembering, enacting and transmitting Chagossian culture […] [which, for them] primarily took the form of cuisine and music.” Chagossian households are matrifocal in structure, too. It is no accident, therefore, that in Silence of the Chagos Désiré meets Charlesia and learns about his legacy, one that his mother cannot express due to sagren. The novel is emblematic of the Chagossian matrifocal tradition — a child seeking knowledge of himself and of his heritage through the women of his community — but it is also an act of collective memory since it was woven not by Patel alone, but with the narratives of the Chagossians exiled in Mauritius.
One of Patel’s great strengths is her ability to infuse the novel with a cornucopia of details about Chagossian culture, without the text ever feeling laden, forced, or academic. Take seraz, for instance, a traditional Chagossian dish with rich, creamy coconut milk as base ingredient. Patel takes her time, describing in gorgeous prose how Charlesia prepares her meal:
In just a few minutes, Charlesia caught three banana fish; their white, firm meat made them her favorite dish. […] [S]he walked into the forest, looking for small coconut buds. She pulled apart the fresh tree barks, reaching for the youngest inflorescences […] crushed it all with her fist then with the flat of her hand, again, and again, like some dough that needed to be pummeled into submission. […] The milky juice coated her fingers[.] […] She gave the karay three stirs of the spoon and then she started frying the fillets of fish, which quivered in the oil […] [t]hen she added a bit of tender, finely grated fresh coconut meat and a few spices.
The Chagossians’ forcible uprooting to Mauritius threatens their whole cultural heritage. Mauritius is not rich in coconut palms, and so unlike the archipelago we don’t have a coconut-based cuisine; seraz is particular to Chagos (and another Mauritian island, Agaléga), as is kalu, an alcoholic drink made of fermented coconut palm sap. If you don’t have trees in your garden, coconuts are expensive to buy, as is quality seafood. A whole way of life moves perilously close to extinction every time an elder dies.
In the second page of Silence of the Chagos, Patel juxtaposes the archipelago with a description of Afghanistan. The passage encapsulates the links of death and blood woven by the American military, in their global tapestry of war; people are uprooted so that others can be killed. “A child looks up […] his mother is outstretched, her terrified eyes looking at her legs and feet cast far off, two yards from her body. High above, two dark shapes linger in the sky […] the B-52s set off again” to Diego Garcia, the largest island of the Chagos Archipelago, touted as the United States’s most important overseas military base. A sign on the island says “Welcome to the Footprint of Freedom.” Island of Shame describes how the island is occupied by about 3,000 to 5,000 US troops and support staff; of “an armada of almost two dozen massive cargo ships ‘prepositioned’ for wartime,” each almost the size of the Empire State Building. The deep lagoons, home to an abundance of marine life, are reportedly used to house nuclear submarines. Superlatively secretive, Vine writes that “many have identified the island as a clandestine CIA ‘black site’ for high-profile detainees.”
Olivier Bancoult and the Chagos Refugees Group have fought for decades against the British government in a series of lawsuits that demand acknowledgment of the harm done to the community, monetary compensation, and the right to return home. The group has stated time and time again that they are not demanding the upheaval of the military base; they see it as a source of employment, and don’t understand why Chagossians are still banned from working there (though since 2006, a few have been permitted to work on the base), or why they should be prevented from living on the other 60 or so islands.
Over the years, the British government has fabricated devious, sometimes plainly ludicrous schematics to keep control of Chagos. In November 2000, the High Court in London ruled that the Chagossians’ forced displacement was illegal, but the Queen rendered the judgment null and void. In 2010, David Miliband announced a project to designate the waters of the archipelago a Marine Protected Area, banning all fishing activity nearby, restricting access and undermining the Chagossians’ right to return. The same year, WikiLeaks cables revealed that the move aimed to enhance the isolation of the islands; plus, the government had devised a legal loophole that would allow the US military to continue to store cluster bombs off Diego Garcia. So much for the environment.
The real turning point would come on February 25, 2019, three months after the album launch and exhibition. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared that the process of decolonization of Mauritius was unlawful, following the excision of the Chagos Archipelago, that the United Kingdom was obliged to end its administration of the archipelago as soon as possible, and that all UN member states had to cooperate with the UN to complete the decolonization of Mauritius. The British government obviously had no intention of honoring the ICJ’s opinion, so the Mauritian government took the case before the United Nations General Assembly. On May 22, 2019, despite aggressive British and American lobbying, a majority of 116 countries voted on a resolution to recognize Mauritius’s sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, and called on the United Kingdom to cede the islands back to Mauritius within six months. That date has come and gone, with no action taken by the British government.
“Memory is a hook digging into your skin. The harder you pull, the more it tears your flesh, the deeper it digs,” says Charlesia. Without these constant acts of retelling, memory’s left to die. The future’s still uncertain, but the dissemination of the Chagossians’ story is a crucial way of ensuring that the struggle lives on.
Ariel Saramandi is a Mauritian writer and essayist. She is a nonfiction editor of the Bare Life Review, and her work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Boulevard, LitHub, Electric Lit, and other places.