The Dispossessed

Greenpeace International Skippers Protest Treatment of Islanders
In 1969, Marie Aimee took her two children for medical treatment, a six-day voyage across the Indian Ocean from their home on Diego Garcia island to Port Louis, Mauritius. Her husband, Dervillie Permal, stayed behind to work at a coconut oil factory and tend the family garden and animals.

After visiting the doctor and picking up supplies in Port Louis, Marie and her children arrived at the quay for the trip home. However, a British Government agent refused to allow them onto the boat, stranding Marie and her children in Mauritius. Throughout the following weeks, other marooned islanders appeared, congregating in a local slum, living in boxes or tin shacks. Two years later, Marie's husband arrived in Port Louis with one small bag and a chilling story.

Environmentalists are sometimes accused of caring more about animals than people, an idea refuted by countless actions protecting human victims of industrial and military disasters. The 1970s Greenpeace campaign to stop nuclear testing in the South Pacific, for example, included support for the displaced and irradiated innocents of Rongelap Island. More recently, in March 2008, two former Greenpeace skippers - Jon Castle and Peter Bouquet, both from the original Rainbow Warrior crew - sailed into the lagoon of Diego Garcia, to protest the treatment of dispossessed islanders, including Marie Aimee and her descendants.

Diego Garcia island sits in the Chagos Archipelago, east of the Seychelles, 1000 nautical miles south of India. In the eighteenth century, French Navy ships marooned lepers on the island and later established coconut plantations worked by slaves.

The British seized the islands in 1815, eventually converted the slaves to indentured labourers, and imported peasant workers from India and Mauritius. Marie and her husband are descendants of these workers. They are the Chagossians.

By the twentieth century, around 2000 Chagossians lived modest but pleasant lives on Diego Garcia, under the dominion of British colonists and military officers. The islanders worked on the coconut plantations, maintained family gardens, raised chickens, and ate lobster and fish from the bountiful lagoon. Their children grew healthy on the rich diet, attended schools, and played in the marine paradise.

In 1961, American military officers arrived, looking for a suitable US bomber base in the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia, with its protected coral lagoon and clear, long-range radio reception appeared perfect. One problem, however, persisted. The Americans desired privacy, and did not want indigenous inhabitants near their base.

In 1966, Britain granted the US a 50 year lease on the island, for US$ 1 per year, plus a one-off payment of US$ 14-million Britain paid its own colony of Mauritius £3-million for unrestricted rights to the Chagos Archipelago and formed the "British Indian Ocean Territory" (BIOT) among the islands. Their first legal act, "BIOT Ordinance No. 1: Compulsory Acquisition of Land," presumed the authority to confiscate land deemed necessary for British or American security.

In 1966, Britain granted the US a 50 year lease on the island, for US$ 1 per year, plus a one-off payment of US$ 14-million (£5-million at the time, a neat profit on their real estate investment). The US delivered the payment in trade, in the form of Polaris nuclear submarine missiles.

Documents later released under court order by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) described islanders as "Tarzans and Men Fridays" with "little aptitude for anything except growing coconuts." The FCO promised Americans that deportations could be "timed to attract the least attention," leaving "no indigenous population except seagulls."

When Richard Nixon became US president in 1969 he handed the Diego Garcia portfolio to his protégé, 32-year-old law school dropout Donald Rumsfeld. British officers, on behalf of their American clients, closed coconut plantations, putting people out of work. They lured families to Mauritius with free holidays, barred them from returning, and made no provisions for stranded islanders such as Marie Aimee and her children.

In 1971, armed soldiers seized the island. They ordered Marie's husband, Dervillie Permal, to leave immediately allowing him to take only the possessions he carried on his way home from work. British troops burned homes, killed livestock, and corralled some 800 dogs, including family pets, into an abandoned coconut oil plantation building. They converted the building into a gas chamber by attaching vehicle exhaust pipes and executed the dogs in full view of weeping families.

The soldiers herded distraught islanders, traumatized men and women, onto ships. Marie Therese Mein, now 68, suffered a miscarriage on the six-day slave-ship style voyage, and Christian Simon, 28, overcome by despair, threw himself into the sea.

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