For a book that is fundamentally about hope, Philippe Sands’s The Last Colony is a depressing read, not just its in its tale of colonial injustice, but also in its recounting of the US and Britain’s refusal to abide by the norms, the “rules-based order”, that they demand of others. “One rule for you, another for us?” as Sands succinctly puts it.
The Chagos Archipelago is not among the world’s best-known places; if it registers at all, it is probably for the US military facility on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands. Exactly how the US ended with a base in the middle of the Indian Ocean provides the prologue to the story. When Mauritius was negotiating its independence from Britain in the 1960s
London was privately plotting with Washington, which had an eye on some of Mauritius’s more distant islands. Secret talks began in the spring of 1963, on the use by the Americans of ‘certain small British-owned islands in the Indian Ocean’ for a new military base … Diego Garcia was identified as a desirable spot… In 1964 the Americans asked the British to consider emptying the island of Diego Garcia, by removing the inhabitants.
There are several ways to tell this story, but Sands, who represented Mauritius in international tribunals in its attempts to recover the Chagos, uses the lens of international law. He starts with his key witness in the final case at The Hague just a few years ago:
Liseby Elysé lived happily on Peros Banhos until her twenty-first year. Then, without warning, one spring day she was rounded up by the British authorities, allowed a single suitcase, and ordered to board a boat that would transport her a thousand miles away. ‘The island is being closed,’ she was told. No one explained why. No one mentioned a new military base the British had allowed the Americans to build on another island, Diego Garcia. No one told her that Chagos, long a part of Mauritius, had been severed from that territory and was now a new colony in Africa, known as the ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’. Madame Elysé, and the entire community of some 1,500 people, almost all Black and many descended from enslaved plantation workers, were forcibly removed from their homes and deported.
Elysé, a constant human presence in the book, prevents the story from descending into a mere recounting of cases, hearing and precedents, all of which Sands describes as clearly as may be humanly possible. While fascinating, the intersection of international law with the wrongs of colonialism can have a certain Alice in Wonderland quality about it. The legal arguments, for example, center on whether Britain splitting the Chagos off from Mauritius was a violation of international law rather than on the basic incongruity of Britain claiming sovereignty over islands in the Indian Ocean in the first place.
Sands notes the irony of Britain claiming sovereignty over one set of islands against the wishes of the inhabitants when compared with its attitude toward a different set of remote islands in a different ocean:
In May 2015, the British government would even publish a paper titled Falkland Islanders’ Right to Self-Determination. It did so with a straight face, as it opposed the right of Mauritius to self-determination in relation to Chagos.
“One rule for whites, another for Blacks,” he remarks drily.
Despite the halting, decades-long process and Britain’s continuing refusal to follow the rulings against it at both The Hague and the UN, Sands expresses confidence in the processes of international law: “the real-world consequences of a ruling… can take time to work their magic.”
The legalistic approach to remedying the injustices perpetrated on the islanders is perhaps better than the alternative, but involves its own contradictions. That the Chagos were ever “part of” Mauritius was itself a legacy of colonialism. Presumably the Mauritian claim is behind Sands’s referring to the Chagos the “last British colony created in Africa”: the Chagos lie south of the Maldives making it awfully far east for “Africa”. Sands notes that some Chagossians
hope that Chagos might even become an independent country, even if they recognise that its size and location, and international law’s recognition that the archipelago is part of Mauritius, make that unlikely.
If one wonders why the rest of the world doesn’t fall reflexively into line with the West’s current calls for sanctions against Russia, The Last Colony provides an explanation. “Britain’s reputation as a guardian of the international rule of law is shattered,” writes Sands. The US comes off little better.