Until coming across this in the New York Review of Books, I knew essentially nothing about the tiny island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia. I should have. We all should have.
After our squalid land grab and ethnic cleansing some 40 years ago, the tropical island has been purposely kept under wraps and out of bounds. Most recently it has served as a base for bombing Iraq and Afghanistan, as a way station on Bush’s rendition network and, despite our denials, as a “black site” for the imprisonment and torture of suspected terrorists. As you will see below.
Go here to read Jonathan Freedland’s entire review of David Vines’ Island of Shame.
Drained by World War II and rapidly retreating from empire, [London] could no longer afford to police the Indian Ocean the way it had since the Napoleonic Wars. Better to hand the island over to its richer, stronger ally and retain at least some involvement than to pull out altogether and watch the Communist enemy step in.
To sweeten the pill still further, Washington took $14 million off the bill Britain owed the US for its supposedly independent nuclear weapon, the Polaris missile. For that money, Britain was expected to leave the islands in the condition the US wanted to find them: pristinely empty of human habitation.
On this point Washington could not have been more explicit: a British official note of talks with US counterparts stated that the United States wanted the islands under its “exclusive control (without local inhabitants).” Later, in 1971, the US chief of naval operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, responded to a memo on the people of Diego Garcia with three clear words: “Absolutely must go.”
The British were told that they were to be responsible for the expulsion — thereby handing Washington an albeit thin form of deniability and the chance to avoid any unpleasant questions from the United Nations, then animated by postcolonial notions of the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination…
So it was that, too far away to be noticed, the people of the Chagos Islands saw their birthright sold. The Americans paid the British, who in turn paid the government-in-waiting of soon-to-be-independent Mauritius. The latter was given a choice: accept a $3 million bribe and the loss of the Chagos Islands — or there will be no independence. It took the money.
With the UK, Mauritius, and the US Congress all lined up, the path was now clear for building to begin. Vine describes how in March 1971 a tank landing ship and five others “descended on Diego with at least 820 soldiers … The Seabees brought in heavy equipment, setting up a rock crusher and a concrete block factory. They used Caterpillar bulldozers and chains to rip coconut trees from the ground. They blasted Diego’s reef with explosives to excavate coral rock for the runway. Diesel fuel sludge began fouling the water.”
Wasting no time, the British began ridding Chagos of its people. First those luckless enough to be away from home were told they could not return: their islands were now closed. Those still on the archipelago were then informed that it was a criminal offense to be living in Chagos —a place that most of them had never left — without a permit.
Next they were, in effect, starved out, as British officials deliberately ran down supplies of food and medicine. Salvage crews came to dismantle the plantations: there would be no work and no rations. Then, in a demonstration of US and UK resolve, the commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory, as it was now renamed, gave the order for the islanders’ pet dogs to be killed; after US soldiers armed with M16 rifles failed to shoot them all, the animals were gassed as their owners looked on.