Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Chagossian Diaspora in Sussex Buoyed by London Vow to Examine Resettlement

Among the many stateless nations to which the British Isles are home—Scots, Welsh, Manx, Orcadians, Cornish, even modern separatists who regard themselves as members of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia—is one unexpected group: the Chagossians.  About half the global populations of this ethnic group, also called Îlois, live in the town of Crawley, in England’s County Sussex.  The rest live in Mauritius and elsewhere.  This is because their homeland, the Chagos Archipelago, smack dab in the middle of the Indian Ocean, was ethnically cleansed by the United Kingdom government in the late 1960s and early 1970s to make way for a massive joint British–U.S. military presence, especially on the largest island, Diego Garcia.  But the Chagossian exiles, having long despaired that the British government would ever notice them, let alone resettle them on the islands as they have long wanted, were encouraged this week by an announcement from the government’s Foreign Office to the effect that there would be a ministry study on the feasibility of resettlement—the necessary first step.

The announcement was made by Mark Simmonds, a Conservative Party M.P. for Lincolnshire, who is also an Under-Secretary-of-State whose portfolio includes the British Overseas Territories.  The B.O.T. includes Gibraltar, the Falklands, some bases on Cyprus, a bunch of Caribbean islands, a pie-slice of Antarctica, and the British Indian Ocean Territory.  The B.I.O.T., which is simply the Chagos Islands, was created in 1965 when it was hived off of the colony of Mauritius off the African coast, so that the strategic archipelago would not become part of an independent Commonwealth of Mauritius, which came into being three years later.

Airstrip visible at upper left
The Chagos Islands don’t have an indigenous population in the commonly understood sense of the term.  The archipelago was uninhabited when Vasco de Gama spotted it in the 16th century and in the 18th century France included it as part of the colony of Mauritius, which was in those days French. Both French and British colonists on the islands imported African slaves and freedmen to work the plantations there.  They quickly became the majority and are the ancestors of today’s Chagossians.  The British seized Mauritius from the French during the Napoleonic wars, and their ownership of it, and thus of the Chagos Islands too, was made legal in the Treaty of Paris.  (The Republic of Mauritius, as it is now known, still claims the islands, awkwardly enough.)

Chagossian activists in exile
Not long after, in 1833, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire, and probably by this time the French-based trade pidgin the islanders spoke had evolved into a full-fledged mother-tongue creole language called Îlois.  So, although in a sense the Chagossians are settlers as much as the French and British are, in another sense they are a nation whose only home is the Chagos Islands.

The annual village fair in Crawley, Sussex, is unlike that of any other in England.
Since the 1960s, Diego Garcia and the smaller islands have become heavily militarized.  The United States, the U.K., and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) regard Diego Garcia as indispensible—a spot from which they can respond militarily to events in the Middle East (and elsewhere, such as Somalia) on short notice, without relying on the fickle hospitality of countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.  The airstrips at Diego Garcia played a huge role in early stages of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Its total population of around 4,000 includes no Chagossians, except those that might happen to join the British military.

What could be more British?  Two quasi-nations face each other on the field.
The Chagossians have been lobbying for years for the right of return, and it is likely that, if and when they are resettled, some will favor eventual independence—though that is unlikely to happen unless it includes iron-clad assurances that the British can continue to use it as a military base.  If they do become independent, they may will probably ditch the existing Union Jack–laden and becrowned B.I.O.T. flag ...

... in favor of the Chagossian nation’s own jaunty, ultra-hip tricolor ...

... or even a blend of the two ...

... but would be encouraged to keep at least some components of the current charmingly-Lewis-Carroll-esque territorial coat-of-arms ...

... and will probably have to discuss whether to retain the current territorial motto, “In tutela nostra Limuria,” which is Latin for “Lemuria is in our charge.”  The name Lemuria, originally referring to the lemurs of Madagascar, was first coined by the 19th-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel to label a proposed proto-continent.  The term was embraced not only by geologists but by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the partly-Hinduism-based religion Theosophy, who said that it was a lost continent with a lost civilization—the Indian Ocean’s answer to Atlantis—and more recently by the Bengali anthropologist Sarat Chandra Roy, who bent the idea to nationalist ends.  Roy suggested that, since Lemuria possibly bridged what are now southern India and East Africa (hundreds of millions of years ago, but never mind that), this was a way to directly link the Dravidian-speaking peoples of southern India such as the Tamils and Telugus with the very origins of humanity.  So Lemuria is pined for not only by Western occultists but by Tamil nationalists in northern Sri Lanka and India’s Tamil Nadu state as an antediluvian paradise, supposedly called in Proto-Dravidian Kumarināṭu.  For them Lemuria is not just their own Atlantis, but humanity’s Rift Valley and Mt. Ararat, rolled into one.

Lemuria in the Tamil nationalist imagination—
reflected, too, in the British Indian Ocean Territory’s official colonial motto
Sunken continents, alas, are an appropriate theme in the Indian Ocean.  The Chagossians’ saga of national cohesion and international political activism while in exile is an inspiring tale, and is in particular being examined by much lower-lying island nations such as the nearby Maldives and Seychelles and the more distant Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu, and others in the South Pacific.  Even conservative estimates of the rise in sea levels expected from the ongoing climate changes will mean these entire countries will disappear beneath the waves.  The highest point in the Maldives, a nation composed of atolls, is 7 feet above sea level—as opposed to the more substantial Diego Garcia, which towers as high as 15 meters.  For many terrifying minutes during the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, the entire Republic of the Maldives was underwater.  If, as many scientists believe, this is a harbinger, then Maldiveans, Seychellois, and other Indian Ocean peoples will have to look for a new place to locate their nations.  Well, I hear there are a bunch of properties, and a community hall, in Crawley, Sussex, that are expected to be vacated before long ...  (Crawleyites can take cheer too: Chagossians are nice enough chaps, but I hear Seychellois curry is to die for.)

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  (That is shorter than the previous working title.)  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]

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