Wednesday, May 24, 2006

 

Yachting in the Chagos Islands

Last week I wrote about the declaration of the British High Court in London in favor of the right of return of the native Chagossians. The natives, who happen to be black, were forcibly evicted from their islands in the Indian Ocean in the 1960s at the request of the U.S., which leased Diego Garcia from the British to build an air base.

Yesterday National Public Radio (NPR) got around to reporting the matter. Anchor Steve Inskeep introduced the segment by summarizing the facts of the eviction and then said wonderingly—

Now a British Court has called their eviction "illegal, repugnant and a breach of accepted moral standards."

Reporter Deborah Amos followed with a sympathetic account of the Chagossians but kept reminding us of the security issues at the airbase—

It is now one of the largest and most important U.S. bases in the world, home to 2,000 military personnel, long-range bombers and surveillance aircraft ....

At American insistence the British cleared the population to ensure maximum security....
....

Even last week's High Court ruling is a bitter victory. The judges' opinion could open the way to resettlement on some of the 65 islands in the Chagos chain. But it is unlikely islanders will ever live on Diego Garcia again. The U.S. government opposes any resettlement on security grounds. While the U.S. military recruits outsiders to work on Diego Garcia, former residents are barred from applying for those jobs. [my transcription]

NPR has not quite told the whole story. Not only are the Chagossians barred from jobs at Diego Garcia—which are apparently much better handled by Filipinos and Mauritians—they are in fact barred from setting foot on any of their home islands, though a British court has ruled otherwise.

The coconut threat

Chagossian Jacques Gervais Florian gave this account, in which you will see what has become of the rule of law—

5. I was on the crew of the Mauritius vessel Le Gentilly which left Mauritius for a fishing campaign on 5 June 2001. The vessel reached the Chagos waters on or about 10 June 2001 and we began fishing on 12 June 2001.

6. On the same day, we were near the Chagos island called Six Islands {Egmont Islands}. A group of us, all native Chagossians, decided to step on the island to get some coconuts.... We had been on the island about ten minutes when we saw a ship, the Pacific Marlin, rushing towards us. The officer on board, Glen Quelch, approached us and ordered us off the island immediately. He spoke in a threatening and condescending manner causing us all to feel belittled. We politely informed Mr. Quelch that we were all Chagossian and had been allowed by the High Court of London to be on the Chagos islands. He replied that the judgment was not binding on him and that he was the one to decide whether we could be on the island or not. He then stated that he had decided that if we did not leave the island in three minutes, we would be prosecuted and liable to pay a fine of £200,000. His statements offended us all and made us feel that our efforts to go to the High Court in England had been worthless if not implemented. All of us are extremely poor so we had no choice but to return to the boat before the three minutes expired.

7. This experience was very frustrating particularly since I have seen sailors and yachtsmen landing on various Chagos islands without any problems and without being questioned by BIOT [British Indian Ocean Territory] officers. The difference between people allowed on the Chagos islands and us, besides the fact that we are Chagossian, is that we are black and they are white. I feel that this plays a significant part in the BIOT officer’s attitude towards us. He seemed furious that we dared to tell him that we had a right to be on the islands, a right which he vehemently denied.

Security concerns

Well, I'm sure Mr. Florian completely misunderstood the situation. Surely the colonial officer had only the security of the islands in mind. The coconut problem has been acute.

But come to think of it, the islands are so lovely and there's so much to do that it's almost unthinkable that they should be wasted on natives who have nothing better to do than eat coconuts. Here's what Eric Toyer and Lynne Sands of the Amarula found

We were soon greeted by Richard and Kathy off the 53 ft, Chuck Payne designed sloop Mr. Curly, who had been at Chagos for the past 3 months (another 3 months to go), as have many of the other 30 or so visiting yachts. It is easy to see why this remote region is such a magnet for visiting yachts with its stunning islands and clear water, offering fantastic diving, snorkelling, fishing and a totally relaxing Robinson Crusoe style existence.

Ah, yes. There's nothing quite like "going native." Of course, no matter where you go these days, there's no escaping bureaucracy—

The only form of bureaucracy here being the British patrol ship which visits every couple of weeks to collect an $80 fee (which allows up to 3 months stay) from each yacht and to take away the rubbish. For most of the yachties this is a very cheap fee as they generally stay for a minimum of 3 months and with no shops closer than a minimum 3 days sail north to Gan (Maldives), they live off their provisions and the fish they catch each evening. Days are passed by communal gatherings at camp sites ashore and for the adventurous, energetic types there is a volleyball court set amongst the palms.

Well, that is adventurous.1 And to have the British Navy as your own personal garbage collector is really more than one would expect—especially for such a nominal fee!

The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) officials have quite frankly been maligned. For instance, here's the side of them that Al and Beth Liggett of the Sunflower experienced

Grand Finale. The BIOT officials and the crew of the Pacific Marlin, the Fisheries Patrol boat, threw a big party aboard the ship for all the yachties. They did a bar-b-que on the deck that included steak, chicken, hot dogs, pork fillets. For once--no fish! We were hoping for salad, but with the mob aboard I think the cook had second thoughts. However, we did have a cup of pistachio ice cream--it was terrific!

The following night we did turn about and hosted the Pacific Marlin crew and BIOT guys ashore for a pot luck. A couple of the fellows went fishing that day and got some nice wahoo, dorado and yellowfin tuna. We offered fresh sashimi, freshly smoked fish and the good old standby: bar-b-que fish fillets. But we had to eat desert first--the ice cream they brought in wouldn't hold either in temperature or quantity until after dinner.

It's unfortunate about the salad; it would have made the whole affair. And you would think British officialdom could manage an ice chest. But I guess that's what "roughing it" means, really.

Security of course was much in evidence. Again, the Liggetts' account

We were surprised to see a US Navy airplane flying patrol over the atolls nearly every day.... I'm sure the patrols were a fact of heightened security due to the Afghanistan situation, and the fact that US B-52 bombers were flying out of Diego. We could hear the patrol planes on VHF 16 challenging ships in the surrounding waters for identification. Often the Navy P-3 planes would come in fairly low over the atoll for a look at the yachts at anchor. I bet it was a pretty sight! .... Now and then we had jet fighter planes buzz the fleet doing wing waggles or a barrel roll. Our own private air show!

I enjoy a good wing waggle myself now and again.

Islanders chances not good

By now I'm sure you've come to understand fully the U.S. position regarding security. The interests of the Free World cannot brook coconut-eating Negroes canoeing about the last vestige of the British Empire in the Indian Ocean.

The NPR story noted the flim-flam the British had played on the U.N. at the time of the islanders' removal. The British simply maintained that the islands were uninhabited. The CIA's World Factbook entry, last updated May 16, concurs

no indigenous inhabitants
note: approximately 1,200 former agricultural workers resident in the Chagos Archipelago, often referred to as Chagossians or Ilois, were relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles in the 1960s and 1970s; in November 2000 they were granted the right of return by a British High Court ruling, though no timetable has been set....

Previous post
The appalling week in review - 2 (The "Royal Prerogative" and the Chagos Islands) (5/15/06)

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Footnote

1This reminds me of the scene in the film Auntie Mame in which Mame's nephew Patrick introduces Mame to his betrothed from the Connecticut country club set. The young lady amuses everyone by recounting the "absolutely ghastly" experience she had during a ping-pong tournament in which she stepped on and squashed the ball. [back]

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