"Tara" in the Indian Ocean!
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A SHORT HISTORY
The first effort to prepare Diego Garcia for people was in 1774 when the British ship DRAKE dropped off pigs, sheep and goats to propagate for future victualling ships and maroons. The French dropped off the first people, marooning lepers from Mauritius there in the 1780s because it was believed that they would eat the abundant sea turtles, and this would cure their leprosy, or at least delay the inevitable. The British tried to establish a "victualling station" of farms (using 6 ship loads of topsoil imported from India) in 1786, but the attempt was a failure, primarily because the East India Company ship ATLAS wrecked on DG about a month later and the extra 250 mouths to feed doomed the effort. Then, a Monsieur Lapotaire came out from the French colony of Mauritius and set up the first plantation on Eclipse Point in 1793. He brought the first slaves with him. For those of you who don't know, Eclipse Point is where the Officers' Club sits today.
Eventually, the French set up four plantations: Eclipse Point, Minni-Minni, Pointe le est (East Point - the "plantation" everyone goes to visit today) and Pointe Marianne. There were also several other small outlying "villages". In 1810, the British captured Mauritius from the French during the Napoleonic Wars, and with it Diego Garcia. By 1838 the Eclipse Point plantation closed, and in 1840 donkeys were imported because British law (which freed the slaves in 1834) forbade using humans to do work that could be done by beasts of burden. The descendants of those donkeys remain on the island to this day.
Even so, the islanders were exploited. As Steve Forsberg notes in his Masters' Thesis in History, an 1849 article in The United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine took a very dim view toward the progress of the islands, whose proprietors “do not themselves reside in these Islands, but live in opulence where they like, deputing the management of the affairs of the Chagos to a number of registrars, or overseers.” There is dismay that the laborers “resemble the tribes of Africa, from whom they took their origin” and that “No idea of a Supreme Being appears to exist in the Chagos Archipelago.” After all, the article points out, the proprietors are of “French descent." The article states that pigs, sheep, cows and chickens were everywhere, and that a "valuable breed of pointers [dogs]" were raised. It also noted that there sea turtles, but that "seals and walrus were almost entirely gone" from the island...
No doubt because of the whaling ships that lurked in that part of the IO in the mid 1800s, when the population of Diego Garcia was in the 300-400s. In 1859 there were 338 souls (258 men, 39 women, and 41 children) and 350 donkeys. Anglican Bishop Vincent, who visited that year, noted that many of the inhabitants were Malabars (people from the SW coast of India). In 1864, the Main House at the East Point Plantation was constructed, and plantation records showed 20 Europeans and 358 other inhabitants on the island.
Not that careful official records were common - government officials from the British colony of Mauritius visited infrequently. For example, no official visited between 1859 and 1875. Missionaries were few and far between, and seemed to come out to the island with the government officials - and leave with them. The aforementioned Bishop Vincent visited in 1859, stayed for a while, then left the islanders to their own devices (Sega Parties, I suppose) until a Roman Catholic Priest visited in 1875. It wasn't until 1895 that a church was built on Diego Garcia, but it was crushed by a falling palm tree in the early 1930s, and the current chapel at the East Point Plantation was built to replace it in 1932.
In 1881, the British sent HMS ECLIPSE to survey the island for use as a coaling station for the steamboats operating on the Suez-Australia run. The next year, two companies set up shop. The Orient Steam Navigation Company used "hulks" anchored off Minni Minni Plantation to store their coal, although they later moved their operation to Middle and East Islands. W. Lund and Sons, LTD, used hulks anchored at the East Point Plantation. The "Coaling Station" period lasted until 1888, and was marked by wild times, complete with mutinies by the workers, bizarre witchcraft rituals in graveyards, wildcat strikes, and even an invasion by a drunk ship's captain. In 1884 Captain Raymond of the WINDSOR CASTLE (carrying coal for Lund and Company) gets drunk, lands at East Point with 16 armed men, takes pot shots at an unoccupied building he thought was the Manager's house, nailed a Union Jack on a nearby palm tree, and claims the (already British) island for Great Britain. He sobers up two days later, and sails away. No one else in the history of Diego Garcia ever got quite that drunk, except one or two people, maybe once or twice.
In 1883, the three plantations on Diego Garcia, as well as others on the tiny islands of the NW Chagos, were bought out by the Societe Huiliere de Diego et Perhos. The new company closed the plantation at Minni Minni, leaving only Point Marianne and East Point as managerial centers. Remember, the people lived in small communities around the island, so there were still people living at Minni Minni, on Middle and East Islands, and on Eclipse Point.
The first recorded "typhoon" hit in 1901. Although there have been some strong storms since, one blowing away the US Air Force Tent City at Point Marianne in 1990, but nothing rating the name "hurricane". Actually, in the IO, tropical storms are properly "cyclones".
In the 1700s & early 1800s most Naval ships calling at Diego Garcia carried scientists. For example, Captain Moresby of the [British] Indian Navy visited in 1837, and some of his observations were used by Darwin in his books. True scientific expeditions didn't call on Diego Garcia until 1886 when G. C. Bourne spent four months studying the natural history of the island. In 1899, the Germans arrived and surveyed the marine fauna of the lagoon. In 1905, the American's showed up with their Percy Sladen Trust Expedition, and established that Diego Garcia and the Chagos are of volcanic origin. In 1967, the British sponsored a complete hydrographic survey of the lagoon, as well as carrying D.R. Stoddard and J.D. Taylor who completed the first book-sized study of the geology and ecology of the island. There have been many others in the 2nd half of the 20th Century, most notable the 1996 Charles Sheppard expedition that resulted in the book "Ecology of the Chagos Archipelago".
For all of its isolation, Diego Garcia has played a role in every war of the 20th & 21st centuries. One of the most interesting parts of the history of the Plantation was that it played host to the German Cruiser SMS EMDEN, which arrived at the pier on October 9, 1914. The EMDEN had spent the preceding 30 days capturing or destroying allied shipping in the Bay of Bengal and the Maldives, and shelling the oil storage tanks at the Indian port of Madras. She put in to DG to scrape her bottom after a stunningly successful, and chivalrous, voyage of commerce raiding. At one point, the EMDEN's Korvetten Kapitan (Karl Von Muller) released a captured ship to continue on its way, simply because there were women passengers on board. Well, he ran off to DG to take a break, do some repairs, and refuel from his collier. The Plantation Manager there, who did not know WWI had started, helped him get fixed up, reprovisioned, and on his way, and Kapitan Von Muller paid handsomely for the services, using cash captured from British ships! After leaving Diego, the EMDEN had an equally successful second cruise, until she met her fate off Cocos Island, where the HMAS SYDNEY caught her and shot her to pieces on the reef (the SYDNEY stood off with her six-inch guns and the EMDEN couldn't return fire with her 4.1s). What's really cool is that the shore party of 50 men, led by the Executive Officer Kapitan-Leutnant Helmuth von Mucke, which was busily destroying the Cable and Wireless station on the atoll when the SYDNEY arrived, stole a yacht, the AYESHA and sailed to neutral Java, talked their way out of internment by the Dutch, snuck off in a tramp steamer to Arabia, and then hiked to Istanbul, which was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany - the longest Escape and Evasion in history (it took them seven months, and many died on the way - most killed by Arabs who were revolting against the Turks).
In WWII, the Brits built the gun positions at Cannon Point in 1942, billeting the crews at Camp Marcel and Point Marianne, and established a forward sea-plane base at East Point. British and Canadian sea-planes were based there. The UK's military left in 1946, and didn't return until the Amercans arrived in 1971 (the history since then is detailed elsewhere in this website).
Throughout all this, the East Point Plantation was the center of the island population, until it was closed in 1971. Here's a map of the island in 1971. Most of the names are in French, since that language had been spoken by the workers since they first came ashore as slaves 178 years earlier.
In the late 1980s, getting to the Plantation was practically impossible. First you had to get to Diego Garcia - and only if you were assigned there by the US or UK militaries, did you have a chance. For the swabbies and other Americans living in downtown DG, it meant getting one of a limited number of permits from the Brits, then finding somebody with a truck to take you down there (it was possible to bicycle down - it was only a 45 mile round trip from downtown). For the Filipino and Mauritian workers, it was even harder to work the deal, and I'll bet there were hundreds of them who worked on DGAR for years and NEVER got to go to the Plantation. LOTS of interesting deals were made in exchange for a trip to the one place on the island that had any mystique about it.
One way was to be a good boy or girl and get awarded "On-Island R & R". This was a 3-day pass awarded to "top performers" and others in the good graces of the honchos. The SEABEES had refurbished the old Met Office just north of the Plantation, and turned it into a bunk house. If you got one of these passes, you were given a box of food and a ride over to the place and dropped off for a couple nights. It was supposed to be a reward, where one was unbothered by the day to day bullshit of the military base, but most of the people I talked to didn't care much for it - no TV, no radio, no booze, no friends. Here's a picture of the R&R Center undergoing renovation in 1982. The guy without the shovel must be the LPO...
I first visited the Plantation during a stopover in 1981. Our C-141 had broken down so we had some time on our hands, and our loadmaster had a brother in the SEABEES deployed there at the time. So we hitched a ride over to the plantation in a construction van. First we had to change a tire at the SEABEE work yard, and get some food from the "Silver Fox" there in Splinterville.
When I was deployed there myself in 1982, I met a young Australian Naval Officer, Steve Swayne, who as a member of the British Commonwealth and therefore didn't need to get a special pass to visit the Plantation, and we went over there 2 or 3 times, and strolled the Main Street with impunity. Of course, it rained. And rained. And rained.
During the huge buildup of Gulf War II, they had 2 buses take tourists over to the Plantation on Saturdays and Sundays. And they instituted "Tip to Tip" bicycle races that passed through both Minni Minni and East Point plantations. Once a month, participants would be taken to Barton Point on the Mike Boats and dropped off and they then rode their all-terrain bikes all the way to the Officer's Club.
THE EAST POINT PLANTATION'S BUILDINGS
By 1982, the Plantation had been abandoned about 10 years, and was in real bad shape. When I was stationed on DG in 1987-88, the deterioration was severe, and the US Navy Chief's Association wanted to do a civic service project to restore some of the old buildings. However, the British Administrator for the BIOT came through on his annual visit, and told the USN not to permit it. His reasoning was that then Mauritians employed as contractors on the island would take photos of the restored buildings, and send them to relatives in Mauritius, where the newspapers would then print them, and create more hard feelings by the displaced Ilois Islanders. Well, now there's the internet, and no Plenipotentiary Minister is able to stop the free flow of info and photos because it might be embarrassing to one government or the other! Its also apparent that his decision was reversed sometime in the near distant past, as these "before and after" photos show.
The "Master's House" at East Point Plantation:
Below: The hand-made dugout canoe used to sit out front of the Chief's Club downtown, and is the only artifact of "native" life on the island I ever saw. The door on the left is the door to the kitchen, which was a separate building behind the main house.
The Chapel at East Point Plantation
Above - the Chapel in 1946. Nobody kept it up in those days - organized Christianity never was a big part of Diego Garcia's Plantation era, unless there was a missionary on the island - Father Dussercle was there from 1933 into WWII, but gave up and moved away because the British troops didn't cooperate with his theocratic rule, and the Chapel went to ruin.
Larry Duran took these photos of the Chapel in 1972, just a few months after the plantation was evacuated:
Below - the Chapel in 1981. It had been fixed up prior to the closure of the Plantation in 1972. When I took this picture, there was still a confession box and holy water basins inside, but the roof was a sieve and everything was moldy and rotten from the 100 inches of rain that fell annually.
Here's the Chapel in 2002 (photo by Bob Ralph):
Above - This everyone thought was the "jail" but it was actually the blacksmith shop. Photo from 1982.
Below - Larry Duran's photos of the infirmary. Medical care during the Plantation Period was pretty basic...
Here's Larry's picture of the only motorized vehicle they left behind!
Below is the home of the plantation "tally-man", Michel Vincatassin (Grandfather of Allen Vincatassin, who was born in this house) with the Chapel behind it (photo by Larry Duran, 1972):
THE PIER AT EAST POINT
It's hard to believe that cruisers and seaplanes used to tie up here, but they did. The small "railroad" you see was for the coconut carts hauled by the little donkeys. According to some, these little railroads ran all over the island, clear up until 1971. This photo is from 1982. It's only deteriorated more.
THE GRAVEYARD AT POINTE de l'EST
There are two cemeteries on the island that I know of. One is on the airfield at Point Marianne, and one at the East Point Plantation (it is the big one). There may also be one at Minni Minni, however as that site was abandoned in the late 1880s, it may not be noticeable these days. When I was there in 1982, the Brits told me that in the 1970s some SEABEES broke into some of the graves at both Point Marianne and East Point, and because of that, the Brits had made the East Point Plantation "off limits" and to visit, one needed to obtain a permit from the Brit Rep. Every time I ever went to the Plantation, or to Point Marianne for that matter, everyone in my party was very respectful of the graves.
The displaced Ilois Islanders have a deep regard for the graves of their ancestors, and have petitioned from time to time to return to visit the grave sites. In 2006 they were finally allowed to do so, and brought with them a Catholic Priest. No offense to the Ilois or the Pope, but from everything I've read about the history of the island, and despite the crosses on many graves, Christianity played little role in their lives and the religion practiced involved witchcraft and what in Haiti would be termed voodoo. But one man's cult is the next man's religion, and visiting the graves of their ancestors appears to be very important to the Ilois, and they should be aware that the Brits and USN have taken great pains to make sure the graveyards have remained unmolested for at least 25 years. Here's a photo of it in 1982:
Believe it or not, there is actually a
who is working on a history of DG, and he's a fellow traveler!
Many thanks to Steve Forsberg for sending me this information:
I've found some material (surprisingly) on life in the plantation days. I've had retrieved from the bowels of the PRO (Public Records Office) in England copies of reports from administrators and representatives from several hundred years back up until WWII. There are some interesting tidbits in those:
In a handwritten message from Auditor General E.C. Ashley, it is noted that in 1886 there were 363,094 liters of coconut oil exported to Mauritius. In an 1886 report the Police Officer on Diego Garcia estimated that it cost about Rs 10,000 to maintain his station (apparently, they often used Indian Rupees as the currency in reports), and then went into options as how to pay for it. A flat tax of Rs1 a ton on imported coal would "probably stop all industry", but a figure 1/4th of that (along with a subsidy) would do nicely. Apparently, approximately 3,000 to 6,000 tons of coal a year were imported to the island. The British, however, concerned that such paying such a huge sum would wreck their empire ;-), were looking into getting rid of the police officer.
A 1913 report by a visiting inspector discussed the "prison" on Pointe Marianne. "There are three cells in good condition. The Book contains one entry, Noel Bonguot--Disturbance--One day. The prison diet consists of rice and salt, and the prisoners are given also black or red lentils or salt-fish and sometimes both............As regards the physical exercise granted to the prisoners, I have issued instructions to the Managers to grant at least one full hour to each prisoner to go out and walk about. A fact which must be taken into consideration is that the maximum term of imprisonment which a Manager is empowered to inflict is 6 days. So, supposing a prisoner were deprived entirely of physical exercise during 6 days, he would not suffer to an alarming extent."
Some other data from 1913: There were 18 births, 13 deaths, and 3 marriages. Causes of death were "worms", heart disease, and tabes mesenterica (carreau). There were 144 donkeys, 1 mule, and 2 horses on the island. There were 7 boats (pirogues) and 2 pinnaces. Exports from Sept 1913 to March 1914 were: 16,109 veltes of oil 2,925 bags of coprah 2,186,285 cocoa-nuts.
Question: How much was a velte? How heavy was a bag of coprah? Any idea what the population was at any given time?
I don't recall offhand exactly how much a 'velte' was, but it was something like 10 bottles of a certain size. At Pointe Marianne, in 1913, there were 135 men, 92 women, 67 boys, and 36 girls. Sometimes the statistics are a bit hazy, because often they are broken up differently. For example, sometimes Peros Banhos is included in stats for what were known as the "Lesser Dependencies", or "Oil Islands". Peros Bahnhos is about 120 miles from DG, and its main settlement was Ile du Coin. At various times, there were also small populations occupying the 'Six Islands' and the "Three Brothers".
In 1940 Magistrate M. Rousette wrote "It was a moving sight to see two centenarians coming every afternoon to rest in the hospital bed when they are given tea; one of them suffering from "cataract"; in spite of all persuasive argument and solicitations the old man refused obstinately to come to Mauritius when I tried to convince him that he could successfully be operated on. He refused, saying that he preferred to die on his island and be buried together with his wife" (so much for the "no natives" line the Brits later took).
Another report from this time frame covered the early boozing days "Bacca: Legislation should be passed to prevent the preperation or drinking of 'bacca' a fermentation of vegetables and sugar which is not only highly deleterious of health but promotes great excitement with the result that disturbances and affrays commonly occur."
During World War II some of the Brits on the island were secret GCHQ types (radio intel, predecessors to modern cryptologists). They apparently made at least one significant discovery, they found that the Portugese embassy in India was secretly retransmitting messages from the Japanese, forwarding them to the Germans in Europe.
For most of the Islands "recent" (150 years) history there have been two settlements, one being Pointe de l'Est and the other Pointe Marianne. I don't think that the current "downtown" area was permanently inhabited until the early 1970s when the base construction began.
Question: Do you recall the incident with the German Cruiser EMDEN (Oct 1914)? Brian Mendham, who was the Cable & Wireless Station Manager there in 1988 told me the story of her sailing to East Point, and getting refurbished just before sailing for Cocos, where she was blown to bits.
This is basically what happened. IIRC the Emden was damaged during an engagement near Madagascar but escaped in a rainstorm. When she pulled into Diego Garcia the captain claimed the ship had suffered "storm damage". The Island managers were very suspicious, but helped the Germans restock and soon the Emden was off. A few days later a couple of British cruisers pulled into the islands and the inhabitants were informed that the 'Great War' was ongoing. The Emden was destroyed later at Cocos, the first warship ever sunk by the then newly established Australian navy. It was not until after WWI that the island got its first radio set. Several books have been written about the "Emden" and her crews exploits.
Question: Have you run across any explanation as to why they expelled the Illios? I almost understand from DG, but why from the whole archepelgo? Was it just the economics of keeping up a civil administration? As I say somewhere on the web site, I'd not be very happy if they tried to run me back to Glasgow or Reuen or Cadiz.
The reasoning was fairly straightforward -- the islands were wanted for military purposes, and the US in particular did not want to have to deal with any "natives". The late 60s and early 70s were times of some tumult. The British were making their famous withdrawal from "East of the Suez" and the US was afraid that the Soviets would move into the area with the assistance of regional third-world nations. The original treaty did not specify which island/islands the US would use "for defensive purposes", and the US wanted them all cleaned off 'just in case'. Originally, the US wanted to use not Diego Garcia but another nearby island (Adabaran?? or something like that). At any rate, the US was getting kicked out of Vietnam, our very large intelligence station at Asmara, Ethiopia, was about to be abandoned (due to civil war), it seemed the Indians and Somalis were getting ready to host the Soviets, etc. etc. The US wanted a facility in the region, and did not want any hassle with "local natives". So for a pile of money the British kicked the Ilois off for us.
I've thought of the Ilois as the "american indians" of the Indian Ocean. They basically did not own land or settle 'permanently'. They moved freely over the islands of the central and western Indian Ocean --- Mauritius, Seychelles, Chagos, Maldives, Ceylon..... They might be born on one island, be raised on another, go from island to island working, get married on another..... and so on. Everywhere they went they were an ethnic minority, with the exception of the various Chagos Islands which served as a sort of 'homeland'. It probably never even occurred to them to try and stake out any 'legal' claim of ownership. Unfortunately for them, as 'westernized' nations took over various islands all sorts of legal and economic factors started interfering with their free movement. If they now had to sign an 'employment agreement' to get from Island to Island, so be it.
As for "amply compensated" [following there removal], well..... To make a long story short, the island of Mauritius thought that when it got its independance from the UK its territory would include the Chagos Islands. At the last moment, the Brits formed the BIOT and told the Mauritians that they had to drop their claim. Well, the Mauritian leaders basically agreed as long as any compensation for the dislocated Ilois was paid to the Mauritian government, and not directly to the Ilois. The Mauritian government would see to it that the money was "fairly distributed". Most of the money apparently dissappeared. Most of the Ilois ended up living in the worst ghettos in Mauritius (though I've never visited, I'm told that the *best* ghettos in Mauritius are pretty darned bad).
The statistics and data I've given are mostly from a stack of official British reports from the Public Records Office of the UK (newly located in Kew). The paper is footnoted, but it is hard to find good data on the island. Most of the time you just find a short mention here or a one-liner there. I've got a couple of books that were printed in India, but they mainly deal with political/diplomatic aspects of Indian Ocean issues not much with history.
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This, and everything else I write and every photo I produce is copyrighted by Ted A. Morris, Jr.