The Sad Saga of Diego Garcia

Imagine a scenario where Venezuela wanted a military base somewhere in the Caribbean and offered the United States a nice discount on oil if it would move the residents of Puerto Rico off their island, demolish all existing structures and lease it over to Venezuela in perpetuity… Sounds improbable, doesn’t it? Perhaps Puerto Rico isn’t a good example – with a modern infrastructure, a population of almost four million people and thousands of American businesses on the island, it would be a monumental task (logistically as well as politically) to pull something like that off. But what if the island’s population was much smaller? Could something like that happen?

Well, something like that already did. You might of heard of the island of Diego Garcia on the news. Located in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia is one of the largest American airbases in the world, and planes regularly take off from the island for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. What you probably haven’t heard is how it came to pass that America got an airbase there in the first place. It’s a story of realpolitik, nuclear weapons, a few thousand Creoles and the mysterious powers of the British monarch.

It all began in 1961. The United States had long wanted an airbase somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Aside from the obvious concerns (oil), this was the heart of the Cold War, and the US was keen to keep an eye on India, which had long flirted with the Soviet Union. An American rear admiral landed on the island on that fateful year and found it to be almost perfect: Diego Garcia was centrally located, surrounded by reefs and a deep trench to keep tsunamis and typhoons at bay, its huge lagoon could easily be dredged to allow huge naval ships to dock there… and there weren’t a lot of people on the island.

In fact, the island was originally uninhabited. It was devoid of any signs of human existence when the Portuguese landed in the early 1500s. By the 1700s the island had come into the possession of the French, who established coconut plantations on the island with the help of slave labor from Africa and East India. But then Napoleon happened, and the island came into British hands as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. And so, from 1814 to 1965 Diego Garcia was a lonely outpost of the British Empire, governed as a dependency of another nearby British possession, the island of Mauritius.

But then America decided that it wanted the island. To woo the British into clearing the island, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations offered significant discounts on Polaris missiles if the Brits would ready the island and allow the US to put an airbase there. But the Brits just couldn’t pack up everyone and move them away – that would have been illegal, plus there might have been significant fallout for Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. So the Foreign Office went to work: they split their Indian ocean possessions into different groups; Diego Garcia (as part of the Chagos Islands) now became part of a brand-new crown dependency called the “British Indian Ocean Territories”. A year later, the Crown purchased the islands and all of the plantations (which had long since ceased being profitable).

Everything was almost ready for the Americans to take over… but there still remained the issue of the island’s inhabitants. It started off quietly – natives that temporarily left Diego Garcia for nearby Mauritius or the Seychelles to shop, go to school or seek medical attention were simply not allowed to return. Sir Bruce Greatbatch, governor of the Seychelles and defaco “sanitizer” of Diego Garcia, rounded up all of the island’s beloved dogs and either shot them or euthanized them using the exhaust from the American military’s Jeeps. Some were even disposed of in a furnace at one of the plantations while workers watched, which sent a not-so-subtle message: “get out”. Many took the hint and left of their own accord. The remaining population – referred to as “Tarzans or Men Fridays” in Foreign Office memos – were then legally declared to be “migrant workers from Mauritius” and forced off the island, with each resident allowed to carry a single suitcase. Of course, these people were not migrant workers, most having lived on the island for five generations. But if the island had no native population and only a few thousand “migrant workers”, who’d complain about moving them off the island?

Aside from the native population itself, no one complained. And that’s because of the mysterious powers of the British monarch. Many are under the impression that the modern British monarch is a powerless figurehead. And compared to her predecessors, she is. But she still has an amazing amount of power within the royal prerogative – a body of customary powers that common law recognizes as the monarch’s alone. The British monarch has the power to appoint and dismiss ministers, dissolve Parliament and call elections, pardon prisoners, declare war or an official emergency, grant charters of incorporation, collect tolls, mint coins, issue and revoke passports, expel any foreign national from the kingdom, create new common law courts and universities, appoint bishops and archbishops in the Church of England, print the authorized version of the Bible for use in the Church of England… and issue Orders-in-Council. It’s the last thing that interests us at the moment. An “Order-in-Council” is something like an executive order issued by the American president, although the scope of what a legal Order-in-Council might contain is historically much broader than an executive order (which only affects the executive branch of the American government and\or are used for matters of national security). Here’s how an Order-in-Council works: the Queen’s privy council (a group of advisors analogous to the president’s cabinet for purposes of this discussion) agrees on what needs to be done and writes up a legal document detailing the action to be taken. The Lord President of the Council then meets with the Queen and reads the Orders aloud. As soon as the Queen says “agreed”, it’s done. It’s law. It’s that simple. And because governing overseas territories is one of the royal prerogatives, Parliament doesn’t even need to be informed of the order (much less approve it). And thus, one day in 1973, the Lord President of the Council read a document that proposed to move the “migrant workers” off the island. Elizabeth II simply said “agreed” and it was done.

Any Order-in-Council can be declared illegal, though, and that’s what happened on May 11, 2006. The High Court declared that a subsequent Order-in-Council which banned the islanders from returning home (which itself followed a 2000 court decision that allowed the islanders to return to their home) was illegal, and the natives are now (technically) allowed to return to Diego Garcia – although the British government will almost certainly appeal this decision and it’s doubtful that the American military will simply roll over and let the natives have their land back.

Read more about the sad (yet intriguing) story of Diego Garcia here and here.

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