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Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (New in Paper)

Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (New in Paper)

by David Vine


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Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (New in Paper)

The American military base on the island of Diego Garcia is one of the most strategically important and secretive U.S. military installations outside the United States. Located near the remote center of the Indian Ocean and accessible only by military transport, the little-known base has been instrumental in American military operations from the Cold War to the war on terror and may house a top-secret CIA prison where terror suspects are interrogated and tortured. But Diego Garcia harbors another dirty secret, one that has been kept from most of the world—until now.

Island of Shame is the first major book to reveal the shocking truth of how the United States conspired with Britain to forcibly expel Diego Garcia's indigenous people—the Chagossians—and deport them to slums in Mauritius and the Seychelles, where most live in dire poverty to this day. Drawing on interviews with Washington insiders, military strategists, and exiled islanders, as well as hundreds of declassified documents, David Vine exposes the secret history of Diego Garcia. He chronicles the Chagossians' dramatic, unfolding story as they struggle to survive in exile and fight to return to their homeland. Tracing U.S. foreign policy from the Cold War to the war on terror, Vine shows how the United States has forged a new and pervasive kind of empire that is quietly dominating the planet with hundreds of overseas military bases.

Island of Shame is an unforgettable exposé of the human costs of empire and a must-read for anyone concerned about U.S. foreign policy and its consequences. The author will donate all royalties from the sale of this book to the Chagossians.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691149837
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 01/21/2011
Edition description: With a New afterword by the author
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 336,375
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

David Vine is assistant professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt


The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia
By David Vine


Copyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13869-5

Chapter One


"Laba" is all Rita had to say. Meaning, "out there." Chagossians in exile know immediately that out there means one thing: Chagos.

"Laba there are birds, there are turtles, and plenty of food," she said. "There's a leafy green vegetable ... called cow's tongue. It's tasty to eat, really good. You can put it in a curry, you can make it into a pickled chutney.

"When I was still young, I was a little like a boy. In those times, we went looking" for ingredients for "curries on Saturday. So very early in the morning we went" to another island and came back with our food.

"By canoe?" I asked.

"By sailboat," Rita replied.

Peros Banhos "has thirty-two islands," she explained. "There's English Island, Monpatre Island, Chicken Island, Grand Bay, Little Bay, Diamond, Peter Island, Passage Island, Long Island, Mango Tree Island, Big Mango Tree Island.... There's Sea Cow Island," and many more. "I've visited them all...."


"A great number of vessels might anchor there in safety," were the words of the first naval survey of Diego Garcia's lagoon. The appraisal came not from U.S. officials, but from the 1769 visit to the island by a French lieutenant named La Fontaine. Throughout the eighteenth century, England and France vied for control of the islands of the western Indian Ocean as strategic military bases to control shipping routes to India, where their respective East India companies were battling for supremacy over the spice trade.

Having occupied Réunion Island (Île Bourbon) in 1642, the French replaced a failed Dutch settlement on Mauritius (renamed Île de France) in 1721. Later they settled Rodrigues and, by 1742, the Seychelles. As with its Caribbean colonies, France quickly shifted its focus from military to commercial interests. French settlers built societies on the islands around enslaved labor and, particularly in Mauritius, the cultivation of sugar cane. At first, the French Company of the Indies tried to import enslaved people from the same West African sources supplying the Caribbean colonies. Later the company developed a new slaving trade to import labor from Madagascar and the area of Africa known then as Mozambique (a larger stretch of the southeast African coast than the current nation). Indian Ocean historian Larry Bowman writes that French settlement in Mauritius produced "a sharply differentiated society with extremes of wealth and poverty and an elite deeply committed to and dependent upon slavery." Chagos, including Peros Banhos and Diego Garcia, remained uninhabited throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, serving only as a safe haven and provisioning stop for ships growing familiar with what were sometimes hazardous waters-in 1786, a hydrographer was the victim of a shipwreck. But as Anglo-French competition increased in Europe and spilled over into a fight for naval and thus economic control of the Indian Ocean, Chagos's central location made it an irresistible military and economic target. France first claimed Peros Banhos in 1744. A year later, the English surveyed Diego Garcia. Numerous French and English voyages followed to inspect other island groups in the archipelago, including Three Brothers, Egmont Atoll, and the Salomon Islands, before Lieutenant La Fontaine delivered his prophetic report.


Like tens of millions of other Africans transported around the globe between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, Rita's ancestors and the ancestors of other Chagossians were brought against their will. Most were from Madagascar and Mozambique and were brought to Chagos in slavery to work on coconut plantations established by Franco-Mauritians.

The first permanent inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago were likely 22 enslaved Africans. Although we do not know their names, some of today's Chagossians are likely their direct descendants. The 22 arrived around 1783, brought to the island by Pierre Marie Le Normand, an influential plantation owner born in Rennes but who left France for Mauritius at the age of 20. Only half a century after the settlement of Mauritius, Le Normand petitioned its colonial government for a concession to settle Diego Garcia. On February 17, 1783, he received a "favourable reply" and "immediately prepared his voyage." Three years later, apparently unaware of Le Normand's arrival, the British East India Company sent a "secret committee" from Bombay to create a provisioning plantation on the atoll. Although they were surprised to find the French settlement, the British party didn't back down. On May 4, 1786, they took "full and ample Possession" of Diego Garcia and Chagos "in the name of our Most Gracious Sovereign George the third of Great Britain, France and Ireland King Defender of the faith etc. And of the said Honourable Company for their use and behoof." Unable to resist the newcomers, Le Normand left for Mauritius to report the British arrival. When France's Vicompte de Souillac learned of the landing, he sent a letter of protest to Bombay and the warship Minerve to reclaim the archipelago. To prevent an international incident liable to provoke war, the British Council in Bombay sent departure instructions to its landing party. When the Minerve arrived on Diego, its French crew found the British settlement abandoned and its grain and vegetable seeds washed into the sand. While France won this battle, governing Chagos along with the Seychelles as dependencies of Mauritius, its rule proved short-lived. By the turn of the nineteenth century and the Napoleonic Wars, French power in the Indian Ocean had crumbled. The British seized control of the Seychelles in 1794 and Mauritius in 1810. In the 1814 Treaty of Paris, France formally ceded Mauritius, including Chagos and Mauritius's other dependencies (as well as most of France's other island possessions worldwide), to Great Britain. Succeeding the Portuguese, Dutch, and French empires before it, the British would rule the Indian Ocean as a "British lake" for a century and a half, until the emergence of a new global empire.


Ernestine Marie Joseph Jacques (Diego Garcia). Joseph and Pauline Pona (Peros Banhos). Michel Levillain (Mozambique). Prudence Levillain (Madagascar). Lindor Courtois (India). Theophile Le Leger (Mauritius). Anastasie Legère (Three Brothers). These are the slave names and birthplaces of some of the Chagossians' first ancestors. While most arrived from Mauritius, some may have come via the Seychelles and on slaving ships from Madagascar and continental Africa as part of an illegal slave trade taking advantage of Chagos's isolation from colonial authority.

Not long after Le Normand established his settlement, hundreds more enslaved laborers began arriving to build a fishing settlement and four more coconut plantations established by Franco-Mauritians Dauquet, Lapotaire, Didier, and the brothers Cayeux. By 1808 there were 100 enslaved people working under Lapotaire alone. By 1813, a similar number were working in Peros Banhos, as settlement spread throughout an archipelago judged to have "a climate ideally suited to the cultivation of coconuts." Less than eight degrees from the equator, Chagos's environment is marked by "the absence of a distinct flowering season and the gigantic size of many native and cultivated trees." The islands are also free from the cyclones (hurricanes) that frequently devastate Mauritius and neighboring islands. Meaning that coconut palms produce bountiful quantities of nuts year round for potential harvest. Hundreds more enslaved Africans were soon establishing new plantations at Three Brothers, Eagle and Salomon Islands and at Six Islands.


Despite being under British colonial rule, Mauritius and its dependencies surprisingly retained their French laws, language, religion, and ways of life-including that of enslaving Africans. "Mauritius became formally British but remained very French," explains one historian. Slavery thus remained the defining feature of life in Chagos from Le Normand's initial settlement until the abolition of slavery in Mauritius and its dependencies in 1835. Enslaved labor built the archipelago's infrastructure, produced its wealth (mostly in coconut oil), and formed the overwhelming majority of inhabitants. Colonial statistics from 1826 illustrate the nature of the islands as absolute slave plantation societies relying on a small number of Franco-Mauritians and free people of African or mixed ancestry to rule much larger populations of enslaved Africans.

The considerable gender imbalance in the islands is also important to note. Although it had generally equalized by the mid-twentieth century, the imbalance may help explain the power and authority Chagossian women came to exercise, as we will see in the story ahead.

Plantation owners at the time described their enslaved workforce as "happy and content" and their treatment as being of "the greatest gentleness." The laborers surely disagreed, working "from sunrise to sunset for six days a week" under the supervision of overseers. However, outside these grueling workdays, each enslaved person was allowed to maintain a "petite plantation"-a small garden-to raise crops and animals and to save small sums of money from their sale. Significantly, these garden plots marked the beginnings of formal Chagossian land tenure. Society in Chagos had little in common with the Maldivian islands and Sri Lanka several hundred miles away, sharing much more with societies thousands of miles away in the Americas from southern Brazil to the islands of the Caribbean and north to the Mason-Dixon line. What these disparate places (as well as Natal, Zanzibar, Fiji, Queensland, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Réunion, and others) shared was the plantation system. With the plantation system of agriculture well established in the sugar fields of Mauritius by the end of the eighteenth century, Franco-Mauritian entrepreneurs applied the same technology in Chagos. Like societies from Bahia to Barbados and Baltimore, Chagos had all the major features of the plantation world: a mostly enslaved labor force, an agriculture-based economy organized around large-scale capitalist plantations supplying specialized products to distant markets, political control emanating from a distant European nation, a population that was generally not self-sustaining and required frequent replenishment (usually by enslaved peoples and, later, indentured laborers), and elements of feudal labor control. Still, Chagos exhibited important particularities: Unlike most of the Americas, society was based on slavery and slavery alone. Similarly, there was no preexisting indigenous population to force into labor and to replace when they were killed off. And perhaps because of its late settlement, the plantations in Chagos never employed European indentured laborers, or engagés.

Likewise, although Chagos was an agriculture-based economy organized around capitalist plantations supplying a specialized product-copra-to distant markets, the majority of the copra harvest was not produced for European markets but was instead for the Mauritian market. The islands were thus a dependent part of the Mauritian sugar cane economy, which was itself a dependent part of the French and, later, British economies. Put another way, Chagos was a colony of a colony, a dependency of a dependency: Chagos helped meet Mauritius's oil needs to keep its mono-crop sugar industry satisfying Europe's growing sweet tooth.

From the workers' perspective, the plantations were in some ways "as much a factory as a farm," employing the "factory-like organization of agricultural labor into large-scale, highly coordinated enterprises." While some of the work was agricultural in nature, much of it required the repetitive manual processing of hundreds of coconuts a day by women, men, and children in what was essentially an outdoor factory area at the center of each plantation. Still, as in the Caribbean, most of the work was performed on a "task" basis, generally allowing laborers to control the pace and rhythm of their work. Plantation owners-who mostly lived far away in Mauritius-probably viewed the (relatively) less onerous task system as the best way to maintain discipline and prevent greatly feared slave revolts, given Chagos's isolation and the tiny number of Europeans. Authority over work regimens was carefully-and at times brutally-controlled, helping to shape a rigid color-based plantation hierarchy that mirrored the one in the French Caribbean. This was also undoubtedly related to owners' fears of revolt, which in Mauritius and the Seychelles made "domestic discipline," armed militias, and police the backbone of society.

Plantation owners came from the grand blanc-literally, "big white"-ruling class and ran the settlements essentially as patriarchal private estates. "Responsibility for the administration of the settlements, before and after emancipation, was vested in the proprietors," explains former governor Scott. "For all practical purposes, however, it was normally delegated to the manager on the spot, the administrateur," who was usually a relative or member of the petit blanc-"little white"-class, running the plantation from the master's house, the grand case.

Petit blanc or "mulatto" submanagers and other staff recruited to Chagos helped run the islands, and were rewarded with better salaries, housing, and other privileges rarely extended to laborers. The submanagers in turn delivered daily work orders and controlled the workers through a group of commandeurs-overseers-primarily of African descent who were given some privileges and, after emancipation, paid higher wages.

As on slave plantations elsewhere, owners and their subordinates generally ruled largely through fear. Despite the constraints on their lives, some laborers achieved a degree of upward mobility by becoming artisans and performing other specialized tasks. The vast majority of the population were general laborers of African descent at the bottom of the work and status hierarchy in a system that, as in the U.S. South, became engrained in the social order.


Slavery was finally abolished in Mauritius and its dependencies in 1835. After emancipation, a period of apprenticeship continued for about four years. The daily routine of plantation life during and after the apprenticeship period changed according to the dictates of each island's administrator. On some islands, like Diego Garcia, life and conditions changed little. On others, daily work tasks were reduced in accordance with stipulations ordered by officials in Mauritius. Following emancipation, plantation owners in Mauritius began recruiting large numbers of Indians to the sugar cane fields as a way to keep labor costs down and replace formerly enslaved laborers leaving the plantations en masse; by century's end, Indians constituted a majority in Mauritius. While plantation owners in Chagos also imported Indian indentured laborers, Indian immigration was relatively light and people of African descent remained in the majority. So, too, Chagos did not experience the large-scale departure of formerly enslaved Africans (in fact, at least some of those previously enslaved on sugar plantations in Mauritius appear to have emigrated to work on Diego Garcia). (Continues...)

Excerpted from ISLAND OF SHAME by David Vine Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables ix
Foreword by Michael Tigar xi
Abbreviations and Initialisms xvii
A Note to the Reader xix
Introduction 1

Chapter 1. The Ilois, The Islanders 20

Chapter 2. The Bases of Empire 41

Chapter 3. The Strategic Island Concept and a Changing of the Imperial Guard 56

Chapter 4."Exclusive Control" 72

Chapter 5."Maintaining the Fiction" 89

Chapter 6."Absolutely Must Go" 99

Chapter 7."On the Rack" 112

Chapter 8. Derasine: The Impoverishment of Expulsion 126

Chapter 9. Death and Double Discrimination 137

Chapter 10. Dying of Sagren 149

Chapter 11. Daring to Challenge 164

Chapter 12. The Right to Return and a Humanpolitik 180

Epilogue 197

My Thanks 199

Further Resources 203

Notes 205

Afterword to the Paperback Edition 249

Index 255

What People are Saying About This

Simon Winchester

The sorry tale of Diego Garcia—a saga of duplicity and collusion involving countries and politicians who should have known better—is impeccably and thrillingly told by David Vine, in a book that should be required reading for defense and human-rights officials in the new American administration. Vine can be justly proud of his tireless efforts to bring justice to a forgotten corner of the tropical world.
Simon Winchester, author of "The Professor and the Madman"

Frances Fox Piven

Island of Shame illuminates the interior workings of the American empire as it penetrated and shattered the lives of the people of the tiny island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. David Vine turns his anthropological lenses not only on the victims, the people who were expelled to make room for a military base, but on the perpetrators as well, the American officials who oversaw the tragedy.
Frances Fox Piven, author of "Challenging Authority"

Anne Fadiman

Until I read this book, why had I heard almost nothing about the Chagossians? Their forced relocation from Diego Garcia is a disgraceful violation of human rights that should be far better known. I hope that David Vine's painstakingly researched account is widely read, and that it makes its readers furious.
Anne Fadiman, author of "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down"


Provocative. This book is the first significant look at how the Chagossians' fate has been tied to the needs of empire. Vine convincingly connects the U.S. military's relocation of the Chagossians with a larger historic program of military imperialism and prolonged efforts to establish strategic bases in key geographical locations around the globe. This is a story that will find a wide audience.
David H. Price, author of "Threatening Anthropology"

Howard Zinn

The story of the U.S. base on Diego Garcia, and the cruel displacement of the island's people, has long been hidden from the American public. We owe a debt to David Vine for revealing it to the larger public.
Howard Zinn, author of "A People's History of the United States"

Chalmers Johnson

This is a very good, original book on an important and intellectually challenging subject—the ruthlessness and hypocrisy of the American government in its forced expulsion of an indigenous people in order to build the supersecret military base at Diego Garcia. Vine has done a brilliant job of reconstructing the history of Diego Garcia and America's interest in it.
Chalmers Johnson, author of "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic"

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