Among the most peculiar alibis the world’s maritime powers used for their programme of conquest and occupation was guano – seabird excrement rich in nitrogen, potassium and phosphates, sought after as fertiliser. As with other colonial enterprises, resources were extracted to feed the maw of capital in the metropole, in this case large-scale agricultural capital. ‘All progress in capitalist agriculture,’ Marx said, ‘is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil’ of its fertility. He was writing as the great powers competed over faraway islands covered in thick layers of guano, first near the shores of south-western Africa, and then more intensively on the coast of Peru and the far side of the Pacific. The British claimed a monopoly on Peruvian guano. In response, the United States – itself in the midst of a boom in cotton grown by an enslaved workforce on exhausted soil – passed the Guano Islands Act of 1856. The Act encouraged US citizens to plant the Stars and Stripes on top of the mountains of guano on around two hundred islands, though the sovereign claim to all but nine was eventually withdrawn. When the guano ran out, many of the islands were repurposed for the industrial production of copra – dried coconut flesh from which oil could be extracted, with the residue used as animal feed.
Fertilisers were also on the mind of the US naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1884, when he visited Lima to witness Peru and Bolivia’s defeat by Chile in a war fought over saltpetre. The germ of his influential treatise on imperialist uses of sea power was formed there. Mahan advocated for the US to supersede Britain’s ‘great sea power [and] her commercial establishments, colonies and naval stations in all parts of the world’. From 1898 onwards, the US military, inspired in part by Mahan, began occupying or annexing archipelagos and islands across the world’s oceans which had resources far richer than guano – notably Hawaii, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. While debates over the incorporation of these imperial holdings raged in Congress and the courts – racist representatives and senators blanched at the thought of so many non-white ‘brutes’ and ‘savages’ becoming citizens – Mahan himself argued that the far-flung islands were ‘valuable to us as positions even more than possessions’.
This dual utility – as possessions ripe for commercial exploitation, and as naval positions facilitating transoceanic strategic power – made islands particularly desirable for the maritime powers. Mahan coveted, for instance, the Île Bourbon (now Réunion) and the Île de Maurice (ceded in 1814 to Britain, which named it Mauritius), since they were ‘so well suited for the control of the Indian Ocean, the one a rich agricultural colony, the other a powerful naval station’. Island outposts were and remain useful as military and naval garrisons, victualling stops, coaling and bunkering stations, quarantine camps, detention sites for political dissidents and exiles, telecommunication cable landing points, and – with the advent of radio, satellite and other forms of signals intelligence – as surveillance and espionage stations. The US navy continues jealously to guard its bases on Hawaii, Guam, Samoa and other Pacific islands. Britain holds fast to its fourteen British Overseas Territories – from the offshore havens of Bermuda and the Caymans to the thornily disputed Falklands/Malvinas and Gibraltar to the sovereign military base areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus.
Among the British holdings, the Chagos Archipelago stands out for the curious fact of its having been retained as a colonial outpost so that parts of it could be gifted to the US military. The Chagos were claimed in the 18th century by France as part of its Île de Maurice dependency. Coconut plantations were established and enslaved men and women imported from Madagascar and south-eastern Africa to produce copra. After the British conquered the archipelago in 1810 they brought in both indentured Indian labourers and educated clerical and professional workers from their various colonies to work for colonial administrations and commercial ventures across the Indian Ocean. The archipelago’s coconut plantations were such a rich source of copra that the British colonial office called Chagos Mauritius’s ‘oil islands’.
In the mid-20th century, decolonisation and the Cold War gave these islands new strategic significance. It was a febrile moment in the Indian Ocean. Tanzania, Somaliland and Kenya all gained their independence between 1960 and 1963. The British army used military force, detention and torture against anticolonial militants in Aden until it was forced to withdraw in 1967. Singapore was wracked by communal violence and geopolitical uncertainty. Iran, Iraq and some of Britain’s oil-producing protectorates in the Persian Gulf were beginning to demand a larger share of the petroleum income that was flowing so copiously into the pockets of British Petroleum and its subsidiaries. The dollar was overtaking sterling as the world’s dominant currency. And British officials were wringing their hands over losing their footholds east of Suez.
It was in the midst of this whirlwind that London and Washington began secret negotiations over strategic ‘small island base complexes’ in the Indian Ocean. In particular, Pentagon planners had their eyes on the Chagossian island of Diego Garcia, a U-shaped volcanic atoll with a deep crystalline lagoon at the centre, which could be turned into a haven for warships alongside an airstrip and communications station. In Island of Shame (2009), a history of the military bases on Diego Garcia, the anthropologist David Vine reports that in 1960 a Pentagon policy paper advancing dominion was titled ‘South Atlantic and Indian Ocean Monroe Doctrine and Force’. From guano to copra to guns.
Britain’s former colonies in Asia were none too happy as news about these developments began to seep out. At the Non-Aligned Heads of State Conference in Cairo in October 1964, Sri Lanka raised the idea of a demilitarised Indian Ocean ‘zone of peace’, and received support from India. The Asian states took the initiative to the UN General Assembly, a body that had unexpectedly become a tribune for the newly sovereign states. The alarmed British and US security establishments, meanwhile, lopped off the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, and redesignated it as the British Indian Ocean Territory, known by the unartful acronym BIOT.
A few months later Denis Healey, Harold Wilson’s defence secretary, was asked in Parliament whether a military base was being built on Diego Garcia. He dissembled, claiming that neither the UK nor the US had ‘any specific plans for constructing military facilities on any of these islands’, while admitting that future military facilities were indeed ‘the justification for the establishment of the British Indian Ocean Territory’. Meanwhile the New York Times reported that ‘for Britain, Diego Garcia is nicely placed between her great bases at Aden and Singapore. Both are now threatened by local political pressures and British economic realities.’ The Pentagon, for its part, believed that Diego Garcia could fill a gap should US communication installations in Pakistan and Ethiopia fall victim to the anti-imperial ‘political climate’ of the time. Which they eventually did.
There was a problem, however. The Chagos Archipelago was inhabited. Despite the fond wish of military planners on both sides of the Atlantic for another terra nullius on which to build a base, hundreds of people lived on Peros Banhos and Diego Garcia. A State Department official reported to his boss that the secret negotiations in 1964 gave the US ‘exclusive control, preferably without employing local inhabitants’. He also indicated that the Foreign Office had promised to transfer the islands in such a way as to ‘minimise substantially or remove the possibility that use of the islands could be hampered by external pressures for self-determination’. To achieve these goals the inhabitants were expelled. BIOT Immigration Ordinance No. 1, issued on 16 April 1971, made presence on the islands without military clearance a crime. Shortly thereafter the islanders were unceremoniously deported under the cover of darkness and dumped in an old barracks in Port Louis, Mauritius, 1600 nautical miles away.
Among the people displaced from Peros Banhos was a woman called Liseby Elysé. Elysé is at the centre of the story Philippe Sands tells about the multiple cases Chagossians and the government of Mauritius have brought against the UK government in various legal forums. Sands, a specialist in international law, is known for his accounts of Britain’s illegal involvement in the 2003 war on Iraq and subsequent atrocities there (Lawless World and Torture Team). He is well placed to tell the story of the Chagossians’ struggle to return to their islands, since for the last ten years he has represented Mauritius in its claim to the Chagos Archipelago.
The Last Colony is intricately constructed. Sands weaves together the story of Elysé’s search for justice with an intimate account of his own evolution as a scholar and practitioner of international law. Along the way he sets out the history of the legal institutions and international organisations embroiled in the case – among them the UN General Assembly and Security Council, and the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The narrative begins in 1945 with a speech given by the African American diplomat Ralph Bunche about decolonisation and ends in February 2022 when Sands, Elysé and other members of the Mauritian and legal delegations sailed to the island of Peros Banhos. Martin Rowson’s cartoons accompanying each section of the book bring together the large cast of characters, both the valiant and the villainous, with each scene presided over by a panel of stern international judges.
Sands’s view of international law is refreshing, because though he himself relies on a range of international legal forums to contest global injustices, he acknowledges the fundamentally political nature of the law and the ideological attachments jurists bring to their cases. Sands portrays the Australian Percy Spender and the American Stephen Schwebel, two judges who served as president of the ICJ in the 1960s and 1990s respectively, as legally enrobed imperial apologists – though he doesn’t quite call them that. During a case brought by Liberia and Ethiopia against apartheid South Africa in 1960, Spender engaged in underhand manoeuvres to exclude a Pakistani jurist from sitting on the bench, and went on to rule in favour of South Africa. Schwebel was the sole dissenting judge in a case at The Hague in 1986, when the court ruled against the US in favour of Nicaragua, which had demanded that the US cease mining its harbours and supporting the Contras. In a dissent twice as long as the judgment itself, Schwebel co-opted humanitarian arguments, somehow contending that the US support for the Contras and El Salvador’s military incursions into Nicaragua actually arose out of commitment to self-determination and freedom.
Although Schwebel plays only a minor role in Sands’s book, I recognised his name from another context. He was a young lawyer on a case decided in 1958 which gave Aramco – then owned by Standard Oil of California – effective sovereignty over Saudi Arabian oil. In a much later reflection on the case, and on international arbitration in general, he defended the decision on the grounds that Standard Oil had been a ‘model investor’. For Schwebel, in disputes between foreign investors and newly decolonised sovereign states, the aim was to ensure that the states were ‘dethroned’.
Sands lays bare the various underhand schemes deployed by successive British governments in order to avoid their legal obligations to the Chagossians. In 2009 the US and UK concocted a plan to declare a vast oceanic zone around Chagos a protected marine reserve. According to Sands, David Miliband, then foreign secretary, was very keen on the idea. The plan would have scuppered the Chagossians’ right of return, leaving US military access and navigational rights untouched. A diplomatic cable from 2008, released by WikiLeaks, shows that British government lawyers wanted to distinguish Chagossians’ ‘right of abode’ from their ‘right of return’ as temporary visitors.
In the decades since the Chagossians’ expulsion, the initially ‘austere’ base at Diego Garcia has been greatly expanded. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution in 1979, first the Carter administration, then Reagan’s, began to plan a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force which eventually became the kernel of Centcom, the branch of the US military that now has responsibility for the Middle East and Central Asia. Diego Garcia was the force’s main support base in the region. In 1980, Thatcher’s government agreed that the US could expand its use of the base, and demanded prior British approval only if the US wanted ‘to place nuclear weapons there or to use the facilities to support actual combat operations’. The State Department political officer who had negotiated the agreement gloated that ‘without this substantially expanded flexibility to operate, we would have had trouble justifying to ourselves, let alone Congress, the $1 billion expansion programme DOD has developed.’ The US promised prior ‘consultation’ with the British government ‘on any politically sensitive use of Diego’, but was explicit about the fact that consultation didn’t have to mean approval.
Extraordinary rendition was one such ‘politically sensitive use’. In the war on terror, Diego Garcia proved to be perfectly placed as a hub for the transport of detainees, who were held and tortured at the base itself or on brigs anchored near it. This time the Pentagon didn’t even bother to consult British colleagues. Although we don’t have definitive information, it is thought that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed may have been held in a prison built on the island in 1984. We do know that the anti-Gaddafi guerrilla leader and politician Abdelhakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, were arrested in Malaysia in 2004 and rendered from a black site in Thailand via Diego Garcia back to Libya, where they were handed over to Gaddafi’s torturers.
In their submission to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into the Overseas Territories, the UK human rights charity Reprieve reported that a Guantánamo Bay detainee had told them:
One of my fellow prisoners in Guantánamo was at sea on an American ship … before coming to Guantánamo … he was in the cage next to me. He told me that there were about fifty other people on the ship. They were all closed off in the bottom of the ship. The prisoner commented to me that it was like something you see on television. The people detained on the ship were beaten even more severely than in Guantánamo.
The ship USS Bataan was used as a floating prison near Diego Garcia. And the US’s indefinite control of Guantánamo Bay is itself a legacy of the decades of island-hoarding that have shaped US maritime posture.
Diego Garcia now has a population of around 2500, with some 320 American and forty British military personnel, and nearly two thousand civilian contractors running the base. The base’s telecommunications network is operated by a company based in Bahrain and owned by members of the Bahraini royal family, who have been loyal servants of Britain and the US. The most frequent non-military visitors to the Chagos islands are affluent yacht owners who, for a fee paid to BIOT, can enjoy the glorious palm-fringed shores, have barbecues on the beach and swim in the azure lagoons. But in October 2022, when Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lanka on rickety fishing boats got too close to Diego Garcia, they were escorted by British forces back to the open seas.
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