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Steven J. Forsberg's Master's Thesis
"Island at the Edge of Everywhere:  A History of Diego Garcia"

Completed in August 2005;
Deposited at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.

Click here to download an MS Word document of this Thesis, complete with footnotes (but no pictures). 

At the bottom of this page is Steve's paper on Captain James Alan Thompson, Royal Marines,
Author of "Only the Sun Remembers" and the man who installed the canons at Canon Point in 1942.



Geography is destiny.  Napoleon

A small mirror can reflect a large distant object. One example is that of telescope mirrors, which help us observe huge distant suns. Similarly, a historian can illustrate great events by showing how they are reflected in distant places.  Few places are as remote as the Chagos Archipelago, a cluster of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Their main island, known today as Diego Garcia, is more than 900 miles from the nearest significant land, the island of Sri Lanka.  For more than five hundred years various powers have fought for control over the Indian Ocean, yet for much of this time these islands have played little if any part. In general, however, there has been a trend toward their being increasingly important. For while the physical geography of the island has remained relatively constant, the political and economic geography of the Indian Ocean has undergone tectonic shifts. History has demonstrated other cases of small, obscure islands jumping into the headlines.  The Falkland Islands are a more modern example. You may not have heard of Diego Garcia, but you have probably not heard the last of it.

Physically, Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago of which it is part are located near the center of the Indian Ocean. Yet, for much of the ocean’s modern history the island has played a very peripheral role. Even the physical centrality of the island yields ambiguity. Some geographers consider the Chagos Archipelago to be East African Islands. Others think they are an extension from South Asia, a continuation of the Maldives south of India. Such arguments over the labeling of the island are not merely academic, as controversy over a “Nuclear Free Africa” demonstrates.   Thus, as the title of this thesis indicates, Diego Garcia may be at the center of the Indian Ocean in terms of physical geography, but it has largely been at the edge of everywhere else in terms of its history.

Table 1 lists most of the islands that comprise the Chagos Archipelago. Only the main island of Diego Garcia and the island of Peros Banhos have had significant permanent settlements. Others have been occupied by smaller numbers, for limited times, or are not large enough to support settlement. The Locations and names are given as known in 1857, when their locations were fairly well known.

Table 1.
Locations of the Main Chagos Islands
Island Name                         South Latitude     East Longitude
Diego Garcia                        7 deg 15 min       72 deg 32 min
The Six Islands                     6 deg 35 min       71 deg 25 min
Three Brothers                      6 deg 10 min       71 deg 28 min
Salomons Islands                    5 deg 23 min       72 deg 35 min
Peros Banhos (22 smaller islands)   5 deg 23 min       72 deg 03 min
Legour Island                       5 deg 39 min       72 deg 32 min
Source: British Public Records Office CO 167/38


In 1509 the bay of Diu, in what is modern day India, was the site of one of the most important naval battles in history.  On one side was Viceroy Francisco de Almeida, commanding a force of 19 ships and about 1,200 men comprising virtually the entire strength of Portugal in the Indian Ocean. On the other side was a combined Muslim fleet of Egyptian and Indian ships under the command of Amir Hussain.  With typical Portuguese audacity, Almeida sailed directly into the narrow and shallow harbor to attack the numerically superior enemy.  What followed was a “bloody hand-to-hand melee of broadsides, grappling, and boarding.”  When it was over, however, the Portuguese had destroyed the enemy fleet and become masters of the Indian Ocean. To emphasize this point, Viceroy Almeida had his fleet sail along the coast firing the arms and legs of prisoners out of cannon and onto the roofs and streets of native towns.

Shortly thereafter a visiting Marshall of Portugal, Fernando Coutinho, arrived and appointed his cousin, Afonso De Alboquerque, in place of Almeida.  Coutinho had arrived with 15 ships and 3,000 troops and soon led an attack on the important port city of Calicut. During the fighting, however, Coutinho was so intent on prying the ornate gilded doors off a palace that he allowed himself to get cut off from his troops. He was killed and Alboquerqe, himself wounded by an arrow, had to lead a retreat.   The manner of Coutinho’s death reflected one school of thought amongst the Portuguese. Coutinho has been described as “Falstaffian - Strong of arm, great of belly, but weak of brain.”   His emphasis had been on raiding and plunder, sacking cities and taking ships in order to acquire wealth that could be spent back in Portugal. Upon his death, however, Alboquerqe would be elevated to the de facto Portuguese ruler in the Indian Ocean, and he was of an entirely different mind.

The government of Portugal, in effect King Manuel, wanted to control the Indian Ocean in order to milk its commerce. Simple piracy might make a few rich individuals, but only an organized effort at control and trade would generate the revenues that would sate an entire kingdom. The Indian Ocean and its nations, however, would pose challenges to the Portuguese. Unlike in the “new world” of the Americas, the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean region often faced technologically advanced and politically sophisticated foes. The Portuguese had proven their naval superiority, but had few ships to patrol vast areas. Unlike the Americas, with its plague wracked and poorly armed natives, many Indian Ocean nations had large armies complete with modern cannons.  Unlike in the Americas, in the Indian Ocean the Portuguese could not carry out a straightforward policy of conquest.  More sophisticated strategies would have to be employed.

Afonso De Alboquerque was a proponent of what could be called a “forward strategy.” Some Portuguese believed that they should establish remote bases at key points located a distance from their main opponents, and use their naval superiority to project force. De Alboquerque, however, was among those who favored a much closer proximity to potential enemies. Only by establishing a permanent presence in target lands and playing a direct role in regional politics could the Portuguese hope to master the huge region. Naval power would be the lynchpin of Portuguese power, but it would enable Portuguese strategy rather become it.

The Indian subcontinent was the main prize, and with the victory at Diu the Portuguese had won an agreement with a local ruler to establish a base at Cochin. Cochin was not the most important port in India, however, and its rulers were not among the most powerful. In addition, the port facilities themselves were extremely vulnerable to attack by land armies. The Portuguese could only stay there at the sufferance of a second class ruler. This clearly would not do.  In a brilliant move whose details do not concern us, De Alboquerque seized the great port of Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur on November 10, 1510.   Goa, nicknamed “Golden Goa,” was the largest port on the western side of the Indian subcontinent and the Sultan of Bijapur was arguably the subcontinents most powerful ruler. In addition, the port featured a fortified “island” of land cut off from the mainland by rivers and marshes. It would give the Portuguese security against attempts to eject them from landward. For several years both the Portuguese and the Sultan would battle for control of this key city. These battles would lead directly to the discovery of a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and ultimately to this thesis.

On March 25, 1511, the first vessels of a 6-ship armada sailed from Portugal under the command of Dom Garcia de Noronha  .  Their destination was India, to reinforce De Alboquerque in his efforts to establish Portuguese control over the Indian Ocean. For a European vessel of that day, the trip “round the horn” of Africa was far from routine.  It would take over a year for the ships of Dom Garcia’s armada to reach their destination. The normal route for Portuguese ships on the trip would take them along the African east coast once they passed the continents southern tip. They would sail northwards, never too far from land, until they reached the Arabian Sea north of the equator. Only then would they turn and sail eastwards toward the Indian subcontinent.  The Portuguese were the greatest seafarers of their day, but the open ocean still held unknown dangers that wise sailors avoided when possible.

One reason to stay close to the coast was the crude navigation of the day. In particular, in the days before there were accurate chronometers aboard ships, determining the correct longitude of a vessel was a hit or miss proposition.  And, as several centuries of shipwrecks and disasters attest, a miss could be deadly. So while the distance of a ship to the north or south of the equator could be determined fairly well by a skilled navigator, the distance of a ship east or west was often little more than guesswork. Thus, Portuguese vessels sailing to India tried to follow the African coast so that landmarks could give them periodic fixes on their location. In addition, located to the west of the Indian subcontinent was a chain atolls that are today known as the Maldive Islands.  Without modern navigation or sensors, or even charts, such island chains were a grave danger to be avoided if at all possible.

The Portuguese had learned, however, that there was a wide passage through the Maldive and Laccadive islands at nine degrees north latitude.  Thus, they could sail northwards along the African coast and, when they reached the correct latitude they would turn eastward and could sail safely through the Maldives until they reached the coast of India. From there they could once again navigate with the assistance of landmarks.  It would seem logical that a faster route to India would travel straight from the southern tip of Africa northeastward to the subcontinent. Caution, however, usually prevailed over trying such a risky new route. In 1505 vessels under the command of Pedro Mascarenhas had ventured into the waters east of Madagascar. They had discovered several islands, dubbing them the “Mascarene” in honor of their captain.  One of the islands, which the Portuguese called Cirne, was home to a strange breed of large, flightless, birds.  In 1512 Mascarenhas would be tasked with expanding knowledge of this region in an attempt to reach India faster.

In early February of 1512 the six ship armada of Dom Garcia de Noronha reached the Portuguese supply station at Mocambique, on the east coast of Africa . It was here that he heard of De Alboquerque’s struggle to maintain control of Goa. Since it took months for news to reach even this far, Dom Garcia could not be certain how desperately De Alboquerque needed assistance, and clearly a faster route to Indian might prove useful. So Dom Garcia split up his small armada and sent one portion, under the command of the experienced  Mascarenhas, to try and reach India via a new route. Instead of sailing north along the coast of Africa (the “inner passage”), Mascarenhas would sail to the east, south of Madagascar, and then northeastwards toward India.

It was during this voyage that Mascarenhas apparently discovered a remote island and named it Dom Garcia after his commander, and then a whole string of small islands, reefs, and shoals, that he dubbed the Chagos archipelago.   There are no accounts of the Portuguese actually landing on any of the islands of the Chagos Archipelago on this trip, but clearly their discovery did not rate as a major discovery.  The islands were all rather small and unpopulated, and did not have any valuable natural resources (such as gold) to be exploited. They were marked on charts as accurately as the navigators could determine their location and, for the next 200 years, avoided when possible.

The Portuguese were not great colonizers, and had little use for the remote, unpopulated, islands. Since their ships could refit and get provisions at Africa on the long trip to India, the Chagos were not very important even as limited supply posts, though some ships may have stopped to gather food there. Indeed, the region was to be avoided. As stated earlier, island chains posed dangers to sailors of the era. The many small islands of the Chagos, combined with reefs and large shallows and poor navigation, were a ready-made burial ground for ships.  Even a hundred years later, ships making the great voyage to India would tend to sail northwards into the Indian Ocean either to the west of the Chagos when headed to the west coast of India, or to the east when headed to the east coast of India.  Like a net cast across the route to India the Chagos lay ready to snare the unwary ship. In less than three decades at least four Portuguese ships would wreck themselves on the reefs of Peros Banhos. In 1551 it was the Algarvia, in 1577 the Sao Joao, and already again in 1578 the Sao Pedro.

Another vessel was the Portuguese Conceicao. The ship sailed from Lisbon on April 1, 1555, and piled up on the rocks of Peros Banhos in the Chagos when the pilot refused to listen to a cartographer who was aboard as well as more experienced seamen. Almost 200 survivors were huddled together on the shore of this remote, relatively barren, atoll. The captain and a few chosen officers told the other survivors that they were going offshore to the wreck to salvage more supplies. They took the best boat and never looked back, sailing off toward Cochin, India on their own.  One of the shipwrecked passengers, Dom Alvaro de Castanheda, took charge and gathered the remaining boats, as well as the arms, jewels, and provisions, and sailed off for India with another 40 men .

This left behind 164 desperate souls to survive on the atoll. At the beginning there were more than 10,000 seabirds on the island. Within a month, however, fewer than one fifth remained.   The birds quickly adapted to having predators around, and 164 people can eat a lot of birds. Discipline broke down as there were attempts to ration the birds. Many were eaten “on the sly” and everyone was “fierce and quarrelsome.” The fifth month on the island, 30 people died of starvation and a last desperate attempt was made to go for help. From the ship’s wreckage a boat was constructed and 26 men put to sea. For over a month, the last days without food or water, they drifted until reaching “some” inhabited islands. Their numbers slowly dwindling, the survivors then spent a year sailing from one small island to another before a friendly prince sent the last 12 survivors to Cannanore, India, on his boat. .

The Portuguese solidified their control over the Indian Ocean. They soon controlled Goa, the main port on the Indian subcontinent, Ormuz, the key to the Persian Gulf, and Malacca, astride the eastern route to the Orient. Fortified settlements and trading posts known as feitorias ringed the Indian Ocean from Sofala in southeast Africa to Ternate in the Moluccas. King Manuel of Portugal could rightly claim his title as “Lord of the conquest, navigation, and commerce of Ethiopia, India, Arabia, and Persia.”  The Portuguese would stretch their reach to Japan, but a series of naval defeats at the hands of the Chinese thwarted their plans in the far east. .

Yet, despite establishing a maritime empire in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese remained uninterested in the Chagos islands. Despite their central location, their remoteness was compounded by the necessity of sailing ships to utilize prevailing winds, which meant that sailing vessels could not sail directly to and from them at will.  In addition, the islands were unpopulated and did not have valuable natural resources. While a ship that happened to pass could gather some food or spare wood, there was little else to stop for.  The islands also lacked good harbors and anchorages for vessels of the day, a point which will be addressed later on and might surprise modern readers who think of Diego Garcia as a fine port.  Indeed, due to navigational uncertainties the large, uncharted, archipelago was a danger to be avoided. This state of affairs would continue until well into the 18th century, when a new conflict over control of the Indian Ocean would make the islands of increasing interest to maritime powers.


By the year 1600 the English were a rising sea power and were eager to challenge the virtual Portuguese monopoly on trade with and through the Indian Ocean.. It was in 1602, while on a pioneering voyage to the East Indies, that captain James Lancaster would forge an English association with the Chagos islands that continues to this day.  Lancaster had survived an earlier, disastrous attempt by the English to reach the East Indies in 1591. He had reached Sumatra before losing his last ship, however, and then the Dutch had made their first successful voyage to Java and Bantam in 1595. Lured by the incredible profits offered by the spice trade, the English were intent on trying again. .

On March 30, 1602, while sailing across the Indian Ocean from west to east in the ship Red Dragon, Lancaster was six degrees below the equator when his ship came upon a large ledge of rocks and water only five fathoms deep. This was a surprise to Lancaster, who expected nothing but deep water in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Casting about the ship, he found water eight fathoms deep and carefully continued toward the East. A lookout aloft reported seeing low laying land five or six leagues to the southeast.  The charts Lancaster carried noted an island called “Cardu,” but it was not near his calculated position. After sailing another 14 leagues the ship came upon another flat of rocks, so it turned south, and after traveling 12 leagues in that direction found yet more rocks.

As Lancaster related, in “divers wayes, wee found flats of rockes round us.”  In some places the water was 20 or even 50 fathoms deep between the rocks, but threading a course between them taxed the ship’s crew dearly. For more than two and half days the ship was in extreme danger, creeping along behind its pinnasse which was sounding out a safe passage. Finally, at 6 degrees 43 minutes south, the ship found a channel six fathoms deep and slipped back into deep waters on its way to Nicobar island, which it reached on May 9.   James Lancaster had survived an encounter with the Chagos Archipelago.  While the Portuguese had lost several ships to the archipelago in the preceding century, the island’s locations were still not well charted. In addition, the maritime powers often jealously guarded geographic knowledge. This, combined with the accuracy problems of the navigation technology of the day, helped ensure that knowledge about the Chagos was fragmentary and often wrong.

Interestingly, on this trip Lancaster demonstrated a bit of knowledge that was for some reason lost, and would not become known again to the English for 170 years.  Sailors spending long times at sea had a very restricted diet, and various maladies associated with malnutrition plagued them. Among the worst was scurvy, caused by a vitamin deficiency that came from a lack of fruit and vegetables in the diet.  In 1591, on Lancaster’s  first voyage to the Indian Ocean, several sailors suffering from scurvy had made quick recoveries when the ship stopped at the island of St. Helena and the crew got fresh oranges and lemons. So on this trip Lancaster bought along a store of lemon juice, and every sailor got three spoonfuls for breakfast, otherwise fasting until noon. Using this method he greatly reduced the incidence of scurvy amongst his crew.    It was not until over a century and a half later during the expeditions of the famed Captain Cook that the practice of giving fruit juice to crewmen became commonly known and adopted, and the British sailor acquired the nickname “Limey.”

As an illustration over the uncertainty of geographers and map makers of the time, the main island of the Chagos seems to have gotten its name of “Diego Garcia” by accident. Originally Mascarenhas had dubbed the island “Dom Garcia” and early Portuguese maps call it such.  Beginning circa 1600, however, English maps called the island “Diego Garcia.”  While speculative, it is possible that British map makers assumed the island was named after the well-known Portuguese geographer and navigator Diego Garcia de Palacios, who in reality had nothing to do with the islands.  It also possible that the English had miscopied an abbreviation of “I de D Garcia.”  Some early English maps also call the island “Diego Graciosa.” or  “Diego Gracia,” and other variations can be found. At any rate, as Portuguese maritime prowess withered away and the English grew in influence, the name Diego Garcia stuck.

In December 5, 1604, another Englishman, Sir Edward Michelbourne, would sail across the Indian Ocean in quest of trade and plunder, leaving what is perhaps the earliest useful description of some of the main islands of the Chagos Archipelago. Michelbourne commanded the diminutive Tigre, a ship of 240 tons, and the accompanying pinnasse Tigres Whelp.   He also had in his service the famed English navigator John Davis, who had been Lancaster’s navigator on his earlier trip across the Indian Ocean. On the 15th of June they sighted the Ile Dos Banhos (Peros Banhos). Its location, according to Davis, was “sixe degrees and thirtie-seven minutes to the South-ward and one hundred and nine degrees longitude.”  Davis wrote in his log that the islands were “falsely laid” in most charts too far to the west.  In reality, Davis’ navigation was off by miles. Thousands of them, in fact.  The true longitude of Peros Banhos is about 72 degrees. According to Davis they were more than 2,000 miles further east. If that was the case, they wouldn’t be in the Indian Ocean at all but rather somewhere in Indonesia. This error, though rather large even for its day, highlighted how even experienced navigators were vexed by the longitude problem.

There were five islands in close proximity, and boats were sent ashore. The islands abounded with “Fowle, Fish, and Coco Nuts” but while there was good food there was no good anchorage. The sea bed dropped off rapidly from the island, and thus it was too deep to anchor very far from shore. If a ship came close in to anchor, however, it risked being pushed onto sharp rocks and shoals by wind and currents. The Tigre sailed on, and on June 19 it sighted the Ile of Diego Graciosa (Diego Garcia). According to Davis, “This seemeth to be a very pleasant Iland, and of good refreshing if there be any place to come to an anchor.”  Alas, a bad wind was forcing the ship toward the shore and it did not stay in the area very long. While passing the island, however, it was noted that it was ten or twelve leagues long and abounded with birds and fish, as well as having “a mightie wood” of nothing but Coco Trees. .

It is perhaps not coincidental that in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” written during this time,  the witches at the beginning of Act I, scene three, discuss a ship called the Tiger and her fate. In particular, the line “a pilot’s thumb / wrack’d, as homeward he did come” might be a reference to the death of the famed pilot/navigator John Davis, who died during an epic battle with Japanese pirates during this trip. .

The British were forging their way into the Indian Ocean, lured by profits. By 1608, for example, a trip to India yielded a 234% profit for its investors. By 1612, English captain Thomas Best engaged a Portuguese fleet while sailing off Surat, India.  The struggle amongst the European nations for control over the Indian Ocean had begun in earnest. Over the course of the 1600s the British generally gained in strength in the Indian Ocean, while the Portuguese and the Dutch were relegated to secondary powers. The French, however, would rise to challenge British hegemony in the region. This British-French rivalry would lead to a greater interest in the Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago by the mid 1700s.

While historical documentation is lacking, it is interesting to speculate about any ties between the Chagos Islands and one of the more fascinating developments in the Indian Ocean in the late 17th century, the rise not only of piracy but of a pirate nation. Located at the port of Diego-Suarez on the island of Madagascar, from approximately 1685 to 1730 there existed the nation of “Libertalia.” It existed as a haven for pirates plundering shipping from one end of the Indian Ocean to the other. The roll call of Indian Ocean pirates over the years was long and multinational. There were Englishmen such as Read, Teat, Williams, Avery, and Kidd.  Irishmen like Cornelius and Jamaican Plantain plundered alongside Frenchmen like La Vasseur and La Buse (a.k.a. the buzzard).  Later on Americans like Tew, Burgess, and Halsey would ply the age-old trade in the region.  Pirates did not always sail along normal streams of commerce, indeed their irregular navigation and desire for private places to rest and replenish may have made the Chagos a popular destination.

The 17th century passed almost as quietly as the 16th in the Chagos Archipelago. Even well into the 1700s the islands would be largely ignored and avoided. Indeed, as one French geographer would later relate:

The French, in their passage from the Isles of France and Bourbon to India, had conceived an insuperable dread of the archipelago which extends from the North to the North-East of Madagascar; nor had any of them attempted to pass through it, though it would have shortened the voyage upwards of three hundred leagues.

During the 18th century, however, there would be a growing interest in the island chain. Portugal was no longer the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean, and the Dutch were also no longer in contention for the place of preeminence.  Instead, the English and the French were both expanding their interests, and their rivalry, into the Indian Ocean. This rivalry led to a renewed interest in once neglected locations like the Chagos Archipelago. The “zero sum” reasoning of great power competition meant that even if a nation was not interested in owning and exploiting some island, its rival might. Thus, both the French and English would begin to look upon the Chagos, and Diego Garcia in particular, in a new light.  In order to carry out strategy, these nations needed information gathered and analyzed.

The French were among the first to actively investigate Diego Garcia and the other islands of the Chagos archipelago. In 1742 the French ships Elisabeth and Charles explored the Chagos region and more accurately fixed their location. April 15, 1744, would find the Elisabeth surveying Peros Banhos in the Chagos with a chart maker/geographer aboard.  In 1768 the French ships L’Heure du Berger and Vert Galant visited Diego Garcia. Among the passengers was the Abbe’ de Rochon, astronomer to the Navy.  A year later the Vert Galant returned, and her commander Lt. La Fontaine reported “a great number of vessels might anchor there in safety; but the principal object is wanting: for though it is covered with woods, it is not provided with fresh water.”   La Fontaine’s analysis was flawed.  The island is among the wetter places on earth, with an average annual rainfall of more than 87 inches. The island is very flat, however, and because of its shape no point is very far from the ocean. Therefore the rain quickly runs off.  There are no rivers nor even streams or creeks on the island. How, then, could a person get fresh water in between periods of rain?

The obvious answer would be to dig a deep  well. When this was initially tried on Diego Garcia, however, the results were marginal. There was plenty of water, but it was very “brackish,” with salt and minerals. The problem was twofold. Firstly, the island was made up of coral and water that percolated downward through it picked up minerals. Secondly, once the well reached below sea level (only a few meters at most on the island) then there was also the possibility of seawater seeping in from the ocean or lagoon. The answer, which was apparently not obvious to La Fontaine, was to not dig deep wells but rather shallow ones. On the island, large volumes of good fresh water are contained in “lenses” in the ground that are shallow but cover wide areas. Currently, with a major military base on the island, all water is provided by means of a “fresh water catch” system that utilizes these lenses.

The Vert Galant may have visited Diego Garcia once again in 1771 while carrying famed French explorer Kerguelen. The ship would eventually be destroyed by a cyclone while at Mauritius in 1773.

The British in the Indian Ocean were represented largely by two entities:  the Royal Navy and the East India Company.  The East India Company was far more than simply a business. Indeed it operated a navy of its own. From its foundation circa 1600 (it had sponsored Lancaster’s voyage in the Red Dragon) to its eventual demise in 1874 the company played a key role in the British presence in the Indian Ocean.  At times the Company served as the de facto government of India and held incredible influence over British government policy in the region. Service to the Company promised great opportunity to ambitious young Brits, and for generations the East lured the up and coming as well as those with nowhere else to go. Even before the British settled in the Americas, and long after its colonies there had rebelled, the East India Company was a cornerstone of British strength.


One of the first British to methodically gather and promulgate information on the Chagos islands was Alexander Dalrymple.  A Scott, born in 1737, Dalrymple went to work in India as a young man. While there, he became fascinated in the lesser known lands to the East and in the prospects of doing business with them.  In order to try and convince the conservative bosses of the British East India Company to back expansion he marshaled all the reports, maps, and data he could. His enthusiasm and skill led to him becoming Hydrographer to the East India Company in 1779, and eventually the Royal Navy’s first hydrographer in 1795.  At the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars the British were losing more ships to running aground than to French action, and advances in sciences related to cartography were making specialists like Dalrymple extremely valuable.

In one publication Dalrymple took up the question of the Chagos Archipelago.   During a lull in the century’s periodic British-French fighting, Dalrymple had been corresponding with French map maker M. D’Apres de Mannevillette about reconciling the contradictory information that was available about this island chain. Dalrymple had detailed charts from 11 British vessels that had visited the region between 1744 and 1776. To this he added D’Apres tracks of six French ships from 1757 to 1777. Finally, Dalrymple looked into journals and accounts of a further 26 British visits between 1699 and 1780.  Dalrymple insisted on calling the main island Chagos, though the French used the name Diego Garcia. By painstaking analysis of the varying accounts and charts, Dalrymple laid out the best locations for many islands in the chain and determined that the island known as Candy (or Candu) was nonexistent.

In May of 1786, Lieutenant Archibald Blair was tasked with conducting a survey of the island of Diego Garcia in conjunction with a tenuous attempt to settle the island. The East India Company had several specific questions it wanted answered. Among them; What dangers and difficulties did a ship face upon entering the harbor? What were the precise locations of the three small islands in the mouth of the harbor, and how safe were their respective channels? Within the harbor, where best to anchor?  Finally, Blair was to leave “distinguishing marks” of his survey for future reference.

In addition to making charts, Blair made several useful observations for future sailors. He sailed around Diego Garcia and confirmed that ships could not anchor on the seaward side because of the steepness with which the island dropped off into the ocean.   He noted that within the harbor there were patches of rocks and coral and that a ship should use a chain on its anchor, as a cable might be quickly ruined. He also took a careful look at the entrance into the harbor, which was divided into channels by three small islands. His determination was that the Main Channel, between the ‘middle’ and ‘west’ islands was a good passage with little danger as clear water exposed potential problems to incoming ships. Between ‘east island’ and ‘middle island’ the water was very shallow and treacherous, allowing only small craft to pass. And, finally, between “east island” and “east point” the channel was also dangerous for larger vessels, probably not even allowing a “sloop of war” to pass.   Finally, Blair noted that between May and November there appeared to be a constant NW current, which helped explain the wreck of many ships such as the Atlas, which thought it was 5 degrees further eastward when it ran aground on Diego Garcia.

The wreck of the East Indiaman Atlas was to produce another hydrographer, one who would eventually replace Dalrymple as Hydrographer to the East India Company upon his death. The First Mate of the Atlas was a young Scotsman named James Horsburgh.  A conscientious navigator, he was surprised when his ship ran aground on Diego Garcia. He determined that inadequate and incorrect information had lead to the wreck and dedicated himself to the task of improving navigation and hydrography. For years, even as he sailed the world on a variety of ships, he kept meticulous notes, studied journals, and corresponded with others. His most substantial accomplishments were the discovery of the diurnal fluctuation of air pressure over ocean areas and the publishing of an encyclopedic book on navigating in waters common to East India Company ships. As noted, he was later in life named Hydrographer to the East India Company as well as a member of the Royal Society.


As noted, Blair’s surveys were in conjunction with an attempt at settlement. In January of 1786 the East India Company officers received orders from London to establish a settlement on Diego Garcia, as well as another at Nancouvery Harbor in the Nicobar islands .

To the President and Council of Bombay

We direct that with all possible dispatch, you send two small vessels from Bombay to take possession of and settle the Island Chagos or Diego Gracia, situated in 7 [degrees] 16 [minutes] South, which was visited in the year 1774 by the Drake Ketch. We rely upon your discretion to chose proper persons to be sent in these Vessels to take an exact Survey of the Harbour and Island, and to give an Account of its produce and the best means of settling it, to make it a place for Refreshment of Ships, and also what might be necessary to make it tenable against Attack, which by the Plan, it appears might be done at a very small expence, some of the small vessels from the Bombay Marine should be employed with Diligent and Intelligent Officers to examine and ascertain the situation of numerous Banks and Islands in that part of the Sea, as an accurate knowledge of those hitherto much neglected Seas, is essential to the security and navigation of the Company’s ships;

By March the expedition was underway, with stores and supplies aboard the Admiral Hughes, which sailed along with the Napier and some other vessels. Two senior servants were in charge, one named Price and the other John Richmond Smyth. Serving under them was Captain Sartorius of the Bombay Engineers. He was to be the chief engineer, surveyor, and commanding officer of the military detachment. The expedition carried with it a set of “secret orders” to deal with contingencies, most notably the possibility of other European nations settling or claiming the island .

The summer of 1786 was a time of unprecedented activity on Diego Garcia. In conjunction with the settlement were the Blair survey and visits by various ships including the Drake, Viper, and Experiment as well as a supply visit by the Swift Grab. While details are unclear, field pieces of “European Artillery” were also put on the island, once again probably in the case of disagreement over the island’s status . Indeed, the French government would take offense at this British move. The French had settled the strategic island of  Isle de France  (Mauritius) to the southwest of Diego Garcia and the Chagos. Indeed, there were apparently a few French on the island of Diego Garcia, though not part of an official or organized settlement attempt. A British naval station on Diego Garcia could interfere with French attempts to employ their sea power from their Southwest Indian Ocean islands toward India. Precisely who legally possessed the island was open to question, but the British were apparently operating on the assumption that the unsettled island was legally Res Nullius (land not yet ‘owned’ by any nation).

A letter from Messrs. Price and Smyth to the “Secret Committee” would outline what the settlers quickly discovered about the island.  Potatoes, yams, and many “culinary plants” could be raised on the island, but importantly grains such as maize and rice did not seem to grow well. Sheep and goats throve, as did hogs and fowl. Cattle, on the other hand, did not do well. Captain Sartorius noted that every building material was found wanting. He also pointed out that the island was everywhere flat and level and that the island could be fortified only at “immense expense.”  When a French brig visited the island its Captain said he had known nothing of the English settlement plans, but predicted they would fail.  The French apparently felt that the island could not support a useful population and that this, combined with its remote location and lack of supplies (such as timber), made settlement purposeless .

In late November of 1786 the Indian Government sent the Drake and the Morning Star to evacuate the English settlement. The diplomatic waves, though small, continued. In the Spring of 1787 the French Governor General in India, Vice Comte de Souillare, sent the British government a letter concerning the English on Diego Garcia. It apparently made claims of mistreatment of the French who had been on the island, for British civil servant Boddam answered that Smyth and Price, the leaders of the expedition, had “showed signal humanity to the deserted wretches whom they had found on the island.”   Note that Boddam carefully claimed the French on the island had been “deserted,” asserting the British position that the French had never truly  settled the island and could not claim sovereignty. The French, however, apparently disagreed. The French ship Minerve was sent to investigate the English settlement but found that it had already been withdrawn, so it left behind a “stone of ownership.”  The island’s ultimate ownership  would not be decided for another 27 years.

Even as the settlement on Diego Garcia was being withdrawn, others within the British establishment were criticizing the attempt. One example was a dispatch sent to the Right Honorable Charles Earl Cornwallis, Governor General and Commander in Chief in Bengal, in December of 1786.  Only five years earlier Cornwallis had been forced to surrender a British army to the American rebels at Yorktown. Now he was on the other side of the world attempting to strengthen the British position in India and the Indian Ocean. Situated at Fort William, the British garrison in Calcutta, Cornwallis was receiving reports from across the region. This particular report was from  Captain James Scott, who wrote that he had heard of the settlement of Diego Garcia and “It is difficult to form an idea of the motive which has led to this measure.”  Captain Scott was a friend and business partner of Francis Light, who in August of 1786 had taken possession of Penang from the Sultan Abdullah Kedah on behalf of the East India Company.  They were intent on developing Penang into a major port, and apparently did not want to see rival efforts taking the attention, or the money, of the Company.

Captain Scott  laid out the case against investing resources into settling Diego Garcia. To begin with, the island could never be “an object of commerce.” Its produce was “confined to coconuts and a precocious supply of turtle and fish.” He then explained why, from a sailor’s viewpoint, the island was not as handy as its central geographic position might seem to indicate. To begin with, the lagoon had “dangerous and narrow openings, of difficult access at all times.” Even worse were the prevailing winds, which hampered sailing to and from the island and India. Captain Scott laid out several scenarios, noting that strong South East trade winds prevailed from April to October, and from October to April there were the North West monsoons. If used as a “port of retreat” for the British fleet in India, for example, it might take more than three months for the round trip from India. Added to this were dangers of running aground and the “foul ground” in the lagoon which made the use of anchor chains (vice cable) necessary.

The Captain then pointed out that as a “port of rendezvous” for the European fleet the island also had severe disadvantages. Its location closer to the French islands (Bourbon and Mauritius) necessitated fortification, which would be extremely expensive given the lack of local supplies and resources.  Captain Scott felt that British resources would be better spent building bases and settlements elsewhere. After his withering criticism of Diego Garcia he wrote “From a prospect so dreary and from difficulties which good luck only could cope with - Let us turn our eyes to Pooloo Penang.”   Penang, which had recently been re christened Prince of Wales Island, was a strategic port located near the Straits of Malacca. Unlike the waters near Diego Garcia, the Straits were a shipping route and served as a natural choke point for blockade.


The period of escalating British-French rivalry in the Indian Ocean would reach its crescendo with the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars.  It was during this time that the island of Diego Garcia got its first permanent settlement. While the French and English governments had decided that the Chagos were not fit to serve as significant military bases, several enterprising French businessmen on the island of Mauritius saw an opportunity to make some money off the island of Diego Garcia. By the late 1780s the French administration on Mauritius had given concession ( French joissances ) to two men: M Le Normand to harvest coconuts and M. Dauget to fish. There is no evidence that either actually set up any operations on Diego Garcia, and they may have simply obtained the concessions for resale.

By 1794, however, M. Lapotaire was producing coconut oil on the island for export to Mauritius. By 1808 he was joined by M. Dauget and M. Cayeux.  At the dawn of the 19th century oil was a valuable substance, it not only lit lamps but was being used as lubrication for an increasingly mechanized world.  This of course was the golden era of whaling, as whale oil was one main source. But coconuts were another source of oil. Harvested, shelled, dried, and then pressed, they could provide a valuable, high quality oil.  The key to the economic processing of coconuts (which will be described later)  was cheap labor, and the French in Mauritius had this in the form of slaves. Lapotaire had more than 100 slaves on Diego Garcia providing for 12 mills while Cayeux had an operation half as large.

There were soon complications from both business competition and France’s enemy, England. On the business end, two other men (one a former Cayeux employee) imported 20 slaves and set up a couple of mills of their own. There were disagreements over precisely who had the legal right to do what. Secondly, with open warfare raging in the Indian Ocean, there was concern by the French owners that the English might be tempted to plunder the island. These problems were all submitted to Governor Decaen on I’ll de France and he subsequently issued a set of orders. All the established businesses would get a share of the island, but no one could make finished coconut oil on the island. Instead, the island would only produce copra (dried coconut) for exportation to Mauritius and refining there. The idea was that the English would not bother stealing bulk copra but would take the more valuable and handy finished oil. If there were no oil on the island, the English wouldn’t bother the plantations.  In addition, Diego Garcia would have to do the island of I’ll de France a civic favor by accepting for settlement all lepers.

The primary base of operations for the French navy during this period would be I’ll de France, the island that was previously known as Mauritius and, confusingly, would be renamed that again in the future . During the French Revolution the island of I’ll de France and its occupants were often a mere afterthought to French authorities on the European continent, and as a result the island escaped much of the tumult and the terror. With the rise of Napoleon and war with the British, however, I’ll de France’s strategic location in the Southwest Indian ocean made it important once again. An island of considerable size and population, it served as an excellent place from which to terrorize British sea routes around Africa to India and the Far East. The French Navy was never strong enough to directly challenge the British in the Indian Ocean so the primary strategy became one of rue de guerre. French warships, as well as privateers and outright pirates, would sail from Mauritius to attack British shipping, usually with an eye to taking captured ships and booty back to Mauritius for sale. The island, awash with cut rate goods taken from the unlucky and incautious (as well as sugar grown locally), quickly attracted profit minded merchants from around the world. Among these were merchants from the new United States of America. Between 1786 and 1810 some 600 U.S. ships would visit Mauritius, and the U.S. would establish a consulate on the island in 1794.

The Viper, Drake, and Experiment, which had all spent a portion of 1786 in and around Diego Garcia, would all have various adventures during the Napoleonic Wars.  On 26 July, 1800, the 14 gun cutter Viper was blockading I’ll de France under the command of a 25-year-old Acting Lieutenant, Jeremiah Coghlan. He took a dozen men and a ten-oar boat and rowed in close to shore to try and storm the anchored French gun-brig Cerbere, which was manned with 87 sailors and 16 soldiers.  Twice the dozen or so Englishmen tried to storm the Cerbere, only to be beaten back into their boat. Finally, on the third attempt, an already twice wounded Coghlan would lead his men to take the vessel, which surrendered when its last officer fell. For this exploit naval regulations were waived and Acting Lieutenant Coghlan was promoted to Lieutenant .

In April 1805, off the coast of southern Africa the east Indiaman Experiment with her 20 guns would be captured by the French 30 gun Napoleon commanded by Captain Malo le Nouvel. She was carrying a cargo of tea from India, and was taken to I’ll de France to be sold . During the invasion of I’ll de France in 1810 the British ship Pitt carried 430 troops of the 59th regiment, 2nd Brigade, under Lt. Colonel Gibbs .  The Drake fought a particularly tough battle with the French Piemontaise commanded by Captain Louis Jacques Epron, while escorting a batch of East Indiamen . Ultimately, the British prevailed in the Indian Ocean, invading I’ll de France in 1810 and eventually taking permanent legal sovereignty over the island with the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1814.  By taking possession of I’ll de France (which they quickly renamed Mauritius) the British sought to ensure that the French would never again be in a position to challenge British hegemony in the Indian Ocean.  Along with the title to Mauritius, the British took possession of sundry miscellaneous small islands, rocks, banks, and chains.  Among them were the Chagos Islands and Diego Garcia, which were now officially declared British territory.

Though the British now had sovereignty over Mauritius, the island remained very much culturally attached to France. Its citizens continued to speak French and carry on French traditions, one of which conflicted with the policies of its new masters in England: slavery.  Mauritius, in addition to its role as a French maritime center, was dependant on a plantation economy consisting primarily of growing sugar.  During the French Revolution the island’s leadership had taken a dim view toward extending “fraternity and equality” to the slave class, and it continued to resist British efforts to end the practice. Following a bitter and complicated process, all slavery was officially ended in Mauritius in 1835, with slaves having their status changed to that of indentured servants. At this time, most of the residents of Diego Garcia were indeed former slaves. Many had come from Africa via slave trading centers on Madagascar and at Mozambique. At least officially some had been converted to the Roman Catholic faith, though with a strain of tribal syncretism that would continue through the 20th century. They generally spoke Mauritian French Creole, though over time the language of the Ilois (i.e., “Islanders”) would become more distinctly different.

The ‘Ilois’ (who would eventually call themselves “Chagossians”) have very little in the way of a written history, particularly from this era. Most of them were illiterate, and they lived a relatively simple life as laborers and craftsman on Diego Garcia. One can only speculate when the ‘Ilois’ emerged as a distinct ethnic group, as opposed to just being Mauritian slaves (or slave descendants) on another island.  To the extent that records exist, most deal with the concerns of plantation managers and owners as well as governments. The scientific expeditions that visited Diego Garcia, for example, did not consider the Ilois as meriting scientific study. Business and government records note births and deaths and administrative details, but there is virtually nothing about the “culture” of the Ilois, their traditions, their beliefs, etc. The history of the Ilois is largely a lost one.

To the extent that there is historical data from the early days of the Chagos, much of it seems due to serendipity. In 1819 the Dutch ship Admiraal Evertzen wrecked on the reefs of Diego Garcia. The ship was named after the famous Dutch admiral who captured New York during the 3rd Anglo-Dutch war in 1673, putting ashore 600 men near the spot where the World Trade Center would later stand, and fall. His namesake ship was homeward bound after traveling to Batavia when it met its fate. The first officer of the ship, Quirijn Maurits Rudolph Ver Huell, made drawings of scenes from the crews time on the island. The stranded sailors were eventually picked up by the US merchant vessel Pickering, which was on its way to Mauritius.  The drawings highlighted the natural features of the island: coconut trees, jungle, the ocean, birds, and an apparently primitive lifestyle. The natives shown appear to be fairly light skinned Creoles wearing little more than loincloths. At the time of the drawings (1820) they may very well have been slaves, as slavery was not finally abolished in all of Mauritius and the lesser dependencies until 1835.   One drawing appears to show the ship’s crewmen operating a coconut mill, which leads one to wonder if they had to work to earn their keep.


In the 1820s and 1830s the British were setting the stage for yet another extension of their worldwide maritime dominance. Ever since the Portuguese had first entered the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea had been a bastion of Muslim piracy and treacherous waters. Europeans had dreamed of being able to safely sail up the Red Sea to transfer goods from the East the short distance across the Isthmus of Suez. But the navigable waters were often relatively narrow, the ocean was poorly charted, and the prevailing winds made sailing difficult. Added to this was the proximity of the land enclosing the Sea, which meant many potential pirates who did not need sophisticated sailing skills in order to snare unwary ships. Finally, the Ottoman Empire had traditionally protected this ocean and much of its surrounding area. The British, like the Portuguese centuries earlier, would first try to establish a base on the island of Socotra near the mouth of the Red Sea, but would by 1839 decide to take the port of Aden on the Southeast tip of the Saudi Peninsula instead.

In 1829 the British Thetis, with 10 guns and under the command of Commander Robert Moresby, escorted the first coal ship up the Red Sea. The age of steam was approaching, and the eventual shift to coal fueled ships would impact even remote Diego Garcia. The British needed information about this new region, and soon Moresby was overseeing two vessels, the Palinurus and the Benares, surveying the Red Sea. Not only did the ships and their crews gather nautical data, but some crew members also traveled ashore and wrote descriptions of the Saudi Peninsula. As an indication of how difficult this task was, the Benares ran aground no less than 42 times during the endeavor.  A person no less esteemed than the famed explorer Richard F. Burton would explain, “Robert Moresby, the genius of the Red Sea, conducted also the survey of the Maldive Islands and groups known as the Chagos Archipelago.”  This survey, published in 1837, would update the work of Lt. Blair’s survey from almost 60 years earlier.  Conditions were difficult working in the tropics in that era, “ . . . death was busy amongst them for months and so paralyzed by disease were the living, that the anchors could scarcely be raised for a retreat to the coast of India.” In the end, however, the maps produced were of such high quality that they warranted a special viewing by the Queen of England.

As an interesting side note, one of the things Moresby found on Diego Garcia was litter. On September 18, 1837, he found a bottle with a note in it on the shore. It was signed by F.C. Montgomery, 4th Regiment and also mentioned Captain Twopenny of the 73rd Highlanders. They had been aboard a ship traveling from Plymouth, England to Ceylon when they threw their message in a bottle overboard, at a point more than 1,300 miles from Diego Garcia and two years earlier.

In 1849 an article on the Chagos Islands appeared in The United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine.  It 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.”   The article does not paint a very nice picture of life on the islands, but allowances have to be made for the British sensibilities of the authors. 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.” One senses that the authors expect little more from this combination of African and French influences. Interestingly, this account seems somewhat contrary to accounts of Roman Catholicism (if of a syncretic nature) being well established on the island.

Most of the islanders lived on huts set on posts 3 feet above the ground, the space below “being invariably occupied by pigs,” which abound and produced a “stench.” Sheep and cows were also to be found on the island, and poultry was “exceedingly plentiful.” There were turtles, both green and hawksbill, and the laborers were rewarded with “a piece of blue cloth worth seven or eight shillings” if they found a particularly fine example.  It was noted that by this time seals and walrus were almost entirely gone from the island. This was probably largely due to human hunting, but may also have come from the introduction of dogs.

Dogs were raised on the island and their sale resulted in “considerable revenue.”  The article notes a “valuable breed of pointers” being raised.  The article is not too clear about when it was referring to Diego Garcia in particular or another of the Chagos Chain. It described an island called  “Home of Dogs,” however, that could be one of the small islets in the mouth of Diego Garcia’s lagoon. A large number of dogs were raised there, tended only by “one Negro - generally a leper.”  The dogs were reportedly fond of human attention, and at low tides some would swim across to “neighboring islands.”

The islands were also hosts to two introduced insect species. Wasps had been imported from Mauritius to kill insects that infested the coconut trees. They thrived, much to the discomfort of the laborers. In addition, honeybees had been introduced and beeswax and honey were being exported. They made hives in hollow trunks of cocoa trees. The entire island ecology was reportedly fueled by the Bois Mapan, also known as the roose-tree. A native of the Maldives, it grew very fast and died just as quickly, its remains eventually forming the basis of the soil that could be found.

The Chagos Archipelago produced more than just coconut oil. It also produced an even more valuable kind of oil: whale oil. Whaling ships routinely whaled in the warm waters of the Chagos, perhaps as an antidote to their time in the richer grounds in the Antarctic south. For example, the whaler Harrison out of New Bedford, Connecticut, stopped in Diego Garcia during a three-year whaling voyage beginning in 1854.  Over time, however, the whale population in the central Indian Ocean would become depleted just as one of the worlds largest oil consumers, the United States, discovered oil on its own territory in Pennsylvania. Like sea lions and seals, whales would become a rarity near the island.

The year 1859 found the United States on the verge of civil war. Though the island of Diego Garcia had ended slavery decades before, a less violent kind of war was being waged: A war for souls.  As stated earlier, the island of Mauritius (and therefore Diego Garcia) was largely of the Roman Catholic faith in accordance with its French heritage. When the British had taken sovereignty over Mauritius from the French, however, they had bought with them the Anglican Church. Vincent W. Ryan, D.D., the Bishop of Mauritius, visited Diego Garcia and other remote islands in 1859 in an effort to counter the baleful influence of the “romans.”  He left Mauritius aboard Her Majesty’s despatch gunboat Lynx and on June 15 he went ashore at the Minni-Minni plantation on Diego Garcia, where the manager (appropriately named Mr. Mainguy) greeted him with the gift of “a fine pig” and a basket of oranges and lemons. The Managers of Point Maria Ann (Mr. Barry) and South East Point (Mr. Regnaud) were also there.

Bishop Ryan uttered a lament that would be repeated by future missionaries when he said “Several causes tend to produce a bad state of morals among the labourers, though as far as physical comfort and supply went, they seemed to be remarkably well off.” The next day, while on a 3-mile walk to the South East Point Estate, he met an “old Bombay Malabar” who had spent 13 years in Mauritius as palefrenier (stable boy) and knew of the Bishop. He asked that the Bishop send someone who could show them “the right way,” this repeated phrase apparently being the means by which the Anglicans distinguished their religion from the Catholics. The Bishop then spent some time at the “spacious house” of Monsieur and Madame Regnaud and their four children, which was located near the plantation’s busy coconut mills. He noted that the island had many “Malabars” (descendants from the Indian Subcontinent) and wrote “I spoke to several in Creole, chiefly Madrassess,” expounding on the folly of idolatry. After baptizing a child he gave some literature to a local woman named Eugenic.

On his last day on the island, the Bishop visited Point Maria Anna. He asked an “old Negro” on the beach if anyone there know “the right way” to heaven. The man pointed the Bishop to 12-year-old Pelagie Figaro. She had until recently been living on Mauritius under Anglican tutelage and was apparently a very good reader and student. Finally, the day was ended with a ceremony that involved much singing, blowing on shells, and recitation from the gospel about Lake Tiberias.


Diego Garcia continued to exist in relative obscurity.  The island’s plantations main export was coconut oil, though whole coconuts were shipped out as well.  The island also produced small amounts of various products for export: dried and salted fish, turtles and turtle shells, coconut fiber and cordage coir, etc.  All products were exported to Mauritius via routine visits from supply vessels. Table 2 lists government statistics on some exports from Diego Garcia in the middle 1850s.

Table 2.
Selected exports from Diego Garcia, 1850s
Item                 1854            1855            1856 (partial)
coconuts             10,000          45,000          8,000
oil of coconut        1,619 casks     1,579 casks      634 casks
Source: British Public Records Office FO 167/288, 1859

A decade later, in 1864, the output of coconut oil from the three plantations on Diego Garcia was 34,000 veltes for East Point, twenty thousand for Marianne, and twelve thousand for Mini-Mini.

The work of harvesting and processing coconuts did not change much until the end of the plantations almost 100 years later. First, coconuts would be collected and stacked, with a worker expected to collect 1,500 per day. Then each pair of huskers would husk 4,500 coconuts per day. Finally, those who sorted the nuts from the husks would be expected to collect 1, 500 nuts per person per day. The nuts, having been husked and separated, would be broken and laid flesh-up in blocks 24 feet square, each one holding about 3,000 nuts. After about three days in the sun the flesh would curl from the shell, and women used knives to extract the flesh. It would then be fed into the mills, which were essentially large pestle-and-mortar arrangements driven by harnessed mules circling the mill (though in slavery days slaves may have done it). On a typical day, with about 6-8 hours of milling, 404 pounds of copra could be turned into 17 veltes of coconut oil, or about 28 gallons.

The advent of the steam ship was to have a significant impact on Diego Garcia. On December 10, 1825, the steamer Enterprise left Falmouth in England for a 115-day passage to India. In 1830 Captain John Wilson led the first Bombay-Suez steamer trip aboard the Hugh Lindsay.  As noted, surveyors such as Moresby were laying the groundwork for new shipping routes into the Red Sea and up to the Suez Isthmus. Unlike sailing vessels, steamships were not at the mercy of the various prevailing winds and monsoons of the region. Ships would no longer travel in sweeping arcs as they attempted to harness the wind on their long voyages. Instead, shipping would become more directly point-to-point.  In addition, steam power normally meant more maneuverable vessels, and the constant advances in the arts of navigation and hydrography were making travel in and near the Chagos less dangerous.  The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to even more marked changes in Indian Ocean navigation.

Finally, some 350 years after having been discovered, the geographic centrality of Diego Garcia would be a factor. Ships sailing back and forth between Europe and rapidly growing Australia, for example,  no longer had to sail far to the South of Diego Garcia and around the Horn of Africa. Instead, they could travel through the Suez canal, and Diego Garcia was near the direct route between the entrance of the Red Sea and Cape Leeuwin, Australia.  In addition, these ships would need coal to fire their steam engines. This would lead to a brief period that could be called Diego Garcia’s “coal boom.”

The Royal Navy assisted in surveying Diego Garcia for steam navigation with a visit from the HMS Eclipse in 1881 under the command of Captain Garforth.  The same year the Orient Steam Navigation Company closed its coaling station in Aden.  Following an inspection by one Captain Slader it opened up a coaling station on Diego Garcia in 1882.  At the time the Orient Company had 12 ships running the England-Australia route via the Suez Canal, including the transports Austral and Lusitania.  In addition, the London-based firm of Lund and Company set up its own coaling business on Diego Garcia. Lund only operated two ships on runs that would utilize Diego Garcia, but they contracted with another 50 ships to provide coal on a contingency basis.

With this business boom came attendant problems. At first the Orient Company imported 40 Somali workers for their coaling station, as coaling in that day required a great deal of manual labor. The Somalis proved to be very troublesome, however, and they were replaced with Mauritian workers. They suffered from very poor morale, however, and consideration was being given to importing Chinese laborers before events overtook the stations. The Lund company, which was coaling fewer ships, hired local labor on an “as needed” basis for its coaling operations. Normally the imported workers lived separately from the natives on the plantations. They had worse conditions, and generally were not allowed to bring their families to Diego Garcia. This, combined with poor pay and alternating periods of idleness and backbreaking labor, made for much trouble.

The lives of the coaling stations were to be short lived, but their existence helped highlight a problem for the British authorities on Mauritius. The problems with coal laborers, as well as a general rise in the island’s population, led the British authorities to establish a police post on the island. The cost of maintaining empire was a constant concern, however, and in 1888 a report from the Auditor General recommended a paring of the island’s police force, which consisted of one officer, six constables, and a laborer. The report stated that law and order needed to be maintained, even if the Orient Steam Navigation Company was closing its operation. It also noted that in accordance with Ordinance 13 of 1884 the police on Diego Garcia were “temporary” and could be called back by the governor of Mauritius. It suggested these specific manpower changes, along with their attendant costs in Indian Rupees, the common currency of the island.

Table 3.
Costs of policing Diego Garcia circa 1888
Present                 Proposed
1 Police Officer 3,400  1 Sergeant        720
1 Constable        480  1 Constable       480
2 @ 420            840  2 @ 420           840
3 @ 320            960  Accommodations    318
1 Laborer          240  Supplies/Stores 1,000
Accommodations     449
Supplies/Stores  2,400
                 -----                  -----
Totals       Rs. 8,469             Rs.  3,358
note: Rs = Indian Rupees
Source: British Public Records Office CO 167/638, 1888

Even with the proposed savings, the authorities on Mauritius were not happy to be spending money on policing Diego Garcia.  The island, in their opinions, should be able to pay for its own policing. One suggestion was taxing coal sold on Diego Garcia 1 rupee per ton, which given the contemporary sales levels would have raised about 6,000 rupees. The auditor warned, however, that such a tax would “practically stop the industry,” but that a tax of 1/4 rupee per ton might be feasible. Another suggestion was a tax of one rupee per hectoliter of coconut oil. Diego Garcia, having exported 3,630 hectoliters to Mauritius in 1886, could thereby pay for its own police.

The report which requested the new plan from the auditor general made clear the pressures Mauritian authorities were under to economize. Its author wrote that “enemies” of the colony wanted it to balance receipts and expenditures. It then forwarded the argument that Diego Garcia should be an “imperial” instead of a “colonial” burden. This was a key distinction. Colonies were expected to more or less pay for themselves as if they were businesses. But imperial assets (such as strategic military bases) were paid for by the British Empire as a whole. Diego Garcia was economically insignificant, even to the small colony of Mauritius. “The only advantage which the dependency offers is a coaling-station in time of necessity for Her Majesty’s ships-of-war.” The island, the Mauritian authorities claimed, was a military asset that they should not be expected to pay for.

A tax on oil would be strongly opposed by the council on Mauritius, as the owners of the Diego Garcia plantations had friends there. There was no point in taxing miscellaneous items unless a customs launch was purchased, and at 4,000 rupees that did not seem likely. And, as the auditor would note, a tax on coal would be moot as it appeared that the coaling operations would be shutting down even before an added tax made them even more uneconomical.   This assessment raises an interesting question: Why was the Diego Garcia “coal boom” so short lived?

There would appear to be several reasons.  In the first place, increases in the size of ships, combined with improved technology, were allowing steam vessels to sail very long distances without re-coaling.  Stops in mid-ocean would not be necessary. Since ships did not have to stop in mid-ocean to coal, the question then became “why should they?”  It was expensive to haul coal to remote Diego Garcia, unload and store it, and then transfer it back onto ships. This made coal sold on the island more expensive. In addition, coal transfer relied on manual labor and there was more (and cheaper) manpower at major ports where ships could save time by re-coaling and loading cargo at the same time. Finally, while more shipping was traveling near Diego Garcia, it was still far from a “major” route. Seen in retrospect coal was to be supplanted by fuel oil anyway.


Since Diego Garcia was the only inhabited land for almost a thousand miles, it sometimes served as destination of desperation. In October, 1881, the Dutch steamer Koning der Nederlanden was headed from Batavia to Amsterdam when it broke a shaft and foundered while several hundred miles from Diego Garcia. One hundred seventy five crew and passengers, in six boats, attempted to make it to the island. As the boats straggled along passing steamships picked up a few of them. One boat made it all the way to Ceylon with twenty nine survivors aboard. But none ever reached Diego Garcia and 90 passengers and crew were never to be heard from again. The island was a small speck indeed in a very large ocean.

On August 27, 1883, Diego Garcia had its breakfast interrupted by the sound of explosions, low but powerful. Thinking that the sounds were from a vessel in distress, islanders were dispatched to various points on the island to scan the horizon, but could find nothing.  The steamer Eva Joshua was moving from Point de l’Est to anchor near Point Marianne when its crew heard the ominous noises. Men were sent aloft, but like the islanders could not see any cause for the sounds. Only later would the islanders find that the alarming noises had come from the explosion of the volcano at Krakatoa, Indonesia, more than 2,200 miles distant.

In 1888 the Orient Steam Navigation Company ceased its operations on Diego Garcia after offering the British government an opportunity to take over. The land the company leased reverted to the government. In short order, Lund and Company was shut down as well.   During this time, in 1885, the British government had sent yet another survey team to the island. This may have been an indication that the Admiralty at least considered taking a more active role in the island’s future.  The H.M.S. Rambler, under the command of the Honorable F.C.P. Vereker, made the most accurate charts of the island to date.  The island would once again retreat to its raison de etre, coconuts, but by the end of the century there was an omen of events to come. An 1898 German expedition to do deep sea research left Hamburg for a 9-month voyage aboard the Valdivia and operated near the Chagos.  The residents of the island were surprised in 1899 by the visit of a warship from this strange nation. The Furst Bismarck, a German armored cruiser, and the Marie, were showing the German flag in a hitherto British ocean.   It would be almost 15 years before the islanders would see another German ship.

The Chagos would gain a small measure of world attention a few years later during the Russo-Japanese War.  The Russians, in an effort to counter Japan’s naval supremacy in the far East, sent parts of the their Baltic fleet on an epic voyage to the Pacific. The hastily assembled Russian 2nd Pacific Squadron split up and headed towards the Indian Ocean on two routes, one across the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, the other around the Horn of Africa.  There was speculation that the two Russian groups would merge in or near the Chagos. The British had declared neutrality, so the use of Diego Garcia itself seemed ruled out. The Russians, however, might attempt to use some of the smaller, unpopulated, islands for re-coaling and repairs. In addition, there was the possibility that the Japanese would send ships into the region to meet the Russians. In the end, however, the Russians fused their fleets near Madagascar, and although they then sailed Northeast and near the Chagos, there were no Japanese ships waiting for them as they sailed on to their fate at the battle of the Tsushima Straits.   The Russian cruiser Aurora would survive the trip, going on to a famous role during the later Russian Revolution and is today a museum ship in St. Petersburg.

That same year, 1905, Diego Garcia and the other Chagos islands were again visited by a scientific expedition. This one, sponsored by the Percy Sladen Trust, was undertaken aboard the HMS Sealark, a survey vessel on loan from the Royal Navy. The ship visited various islands in the Chagos, anchoring at Diego Garcia July 7 to the 13. The expedition gathered much interesting scientific information about the region and its findings were widely reported.

In the early morning hours of October 9, 1914, two ships sailed into the lagoon at Diego Garcia. Upon anchoring an assistant manager from one of the island’s plantations climbed aboard and was surprised to see a portrait of the Kaiser hanging. He had simply assumed the ships were British. The Captain of the ship quickly explained that it was the German Emden, sailing with the British collier Buresk.  When the plantation manager, Mr. Spender, came aboard, the Captain explained that the ships had been participating in joint maneuvers and damaged in a storm. He asked if the islanders would help with some needed maintenance. A bout of heavy drinking may have eased any doubts Mr. Spender had about the new guests. It turned out that the island was only visited by a supply schooner every three months and hadn’t heard from the outside world since July. The German Captain, Muller, told the manager that Pope Pius X had died, but failed to mention one other very significant piece of world news.

The next day Mr. Spender provided the Emden with the gift of a live pig as well as boatload of fruit and fish. Captain Muller gave cigars and whiskey in return, and cordial relations were cemented. The Germans fixed the motor on a launch for the islanders. In return, islanders helped the Germans with the task of scraping their hull.  The hull of the Emden was encrusted with barnacles.  In order to clean them off the ship was careened afloat by alternatively flooding either port or starboard storage tanks, heeling the ship and giving cleaners access. In addition the ship was repainted in grey. After a busy day and night of work and trading the Emden and the Buresk sailed out of the lagoon at 11 A.M..  The islanders watched the ships head Northwest into the Indian Ocean.

Five days later Diego Garcia was visited by two more ships. This time one stayed at sea just outside the lagoon while another entered. The ship pulling into the harbor was the HMS Hampshire and its mate was the Empress of Russia.  These were indeed British ships, and Captain Grant of the Hampshire informed the surprised islanders that the world was at war and that he was looking for a German raider that was loose in the Indian Ocean terrorizing British shipping. The islanders, unaware that a war had started, had unwittingly given aid and comfort to the enemy. The British Buresk, which had been accompanying the Emden, had been captured by the Germans while hauling coal to the British fleet in Hong Kong.  It may have been just as well that  the islanders did not know about the war, for they had no defenses at all and the Emden could have easily shelled the island and taken what it wanted with shore parties. The success of the German raiders was embarrassing to the Royal Navy, and this particular episode would make British headlines as “High Comedy on the High Seas.”

During her three months of operations the Emden steamed 33,000 miles and sank or captured 23 merchant ships, one cruiser, and one destroyer. More than 80 allied ships were involved in running her to ground, which was accomplished at Keeling Island in the Cocos group when she was intentionally run aground after being crippled by the HMAS Sydney.   The HMS Hampshire, which had come to Diego Garcia seeking the Emden, sank in 1916 after hitting a mine while on a mission to Russia. More than 640 sailors lost their lives in that disaster, as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, Lord Kitchener, who was headed to Russia for negotiations. The HMS Empress of Russia would survive the war and be returned to civil use, only to be recalled and used as a troopship during World War II.  Her navigator during her trip to Diego Garcia, Geoffrey Miles, would eventually lead the British military mission to Moscow during World War II..

Diego Garcia’s involvement in World War I, as fleeting and humorous as it might have been, was a sign of the potential importance of the island. Wars between major powers were now being fought in even the most obscure and faraway places, as the naval engagement of the Falkland Islands would further demonstrate. Diego Garcia’s central location may not have yielded an economic bonanza (as related, the coaling business had not thrived), but from its central location one could strike out against shipping lanes in many directions. It was a great spot for raiders, much the same way it may have been for pirates in earlier centuries, and would therefore have to be watched by the British if only to ensure its enemies did not utilize it.  Within 25 years the island would be heavily utilized in an even more intensive battle against not only the Germans but also the Japanese and Italians.


The period between the world wars would pass relatively uneventfully for Diego Garcia. The coconut plantations continued to be the pillars of the island’s economy. Table 4, with data recovered from a variety of visiting magistrates reports,  will give some idea of the typical volume of exports from the island.

Table 4.
Sample exports from Diego Garcia in the inter war period.
Item                     Sep ‘26 - June ‘27       1929      May ‘31 - May ‘32
coconut oil veltes            10,739             4,094               7,361
copra tons                       250               150                 711
coconuts                     272,778           169,500             225,087
tortoise shells kilos             60               124                 158
Source: British Public Records Office CO 167/879/4, CO 167/861/10, CO 167/869/13

One note of excitement would be the assignment of a new manager in the mid 1920s. Soon there were complaints that “labourers are being roughly handled and ill treated by the new manager Mr. Edouard D’Argent” and that the islanders were living in a state of fear.  In May 1926, Mr. Henry Bigara died shortly after a person named Fidelia had committed suicide. Police sergeant LeMeme quickly figured out that an islander variously called Besage or Catawon had murdered Bigara at the instigation of the manager D’Argent. They were both sent to Mauritius to stand trial for the death of Bigara (Fidelia’s death could not be pinned on them). Catawon was quickly convicted but the jury hung on D’Argent’s guilt. He had many friends in Mauritius and the local press supported him. In addition there were rumors of jury tampering. A second trial convicted D’Argent, however, and he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in “penal servitude” on Mauritius. He died shortly thereafter.

British authorities on Mauritius noted the difficulties of policing the remote Chagos islands, as well as the fact that sometimes the people sent to manage the plantations were less than ideal for the task.  D’Argent, for example, was called a “brute and a bully” who was unfit to manage. Conditions on the islands would not “give rise to a public scandal if they were fully investigated,” but nonetheless a close watch would be kept.   One continuing problem was that the owners of the plantation resided on Mauritius and they saw Diego Garcia and the other Chagos Islands as little more than some easy income. There was a perennial shortage of capital for investment and many ambitious plans for development were wrecked on the shoals of fiscal austerity. Mauritian colonial authorities felt that the owners should pay for needed services and upkeep while the owners in turn felt that such costs were the obligation of the colonial authorities. Compounding the geographic isolation of Diego Garcia was the complex social hierarchy of Mauritius. Not only were the native Diego Garcian’s largely uneducated laborers, but they were also of “dark” mixed-race descent.

One example of the lack of investment was the failure to provide the island with even a radio. In 1930, for example, a visiting magistrate argued that a wireless transmitter/receiver should be installed.  In 1936 a different visiting magistrate would make the same suggestion, pointing out that a wireless would allow the islanders to hear “emergency broadcasts” from Nairobi, Bombay, and Colombo. As he correctly predicted, however, the owners would not pay for the wireless set and neither would the colonial authorities.   The island would not get a radio until 1941, when the RAF began using the island as a base. Suggestions for more significant reforms were shelved as well.  For example, in one message to the Colonial Office it was suggested that the Chagos should be administered not from Mauritius but from the Seychelles islands, and that goods for the islands should be shipped to Colombo instead of Mauritius. The author noted, however, that Diego Garcia and the Chagos were a Mauritian “family business” and that any attempt to change the status quo would be opposed.

Table 5 gives an idea of the population of Diego Garcia through this time.

Table 5.
Diego Garcia population in the inter war period
year              Men               Women            Children
1927              151               124              136
1930              150               135              150
1935              103               169              198
1937              166               164              185
Source: British Public Records Office CO 167/861/10, 167/867/13, 167/893/4, 167/896/16

The figures should be taken with a grain of salt. The visiting magistrates sometimes broke down the population by plantation and sometimes didn’t and occasionally a wild variation in population was reported with no explanatory comment. For example, a 1928 report listed only 18 “lads and lasses” as the apparent child population, and there was no reason given for the fluctuation of about 50 men listed in 1935.   During this time some of the other Chagos Islands were also inhabited. Peros Banhos, for example, typically had about 100 men, 80 women, and 100 children living on it. A few other islands had even smaller and more transient populations.

In 1933 yet another scientific expedition would find its way to the Chagos. The John Murray Expedition was undertaken on the smallish vessel Mahabiss. The primary goal of the expedition was to investigate the possibility that a continent once connected Africa to India. One of the members was Lieut.-Commander Farquharson, R.N.  He not only made magnetic observations but also kept the echo-sounder running continuously for more than 22,000 miles of sailing.

During these decades the Chagos Islands were only intermittently visited. Perhaps three or four times a year a large steamer from Mauritius would make a visit to Diego Garcia, dropping off supplies for the island and picking up its exports, mainly coconut related. In 1929, for example, a visiting magistrate would visit the island aboard the SS Surcouf.   In the mid 1930s these supply runs were made by the SS Zambezia. The islands would also be visited on a regular if infrequent basis by smaller vessels, often delivering limited supplies as well as mail and people. One ship used in the early 1930s was the S.V. Diego, a barque of approximately 150 feet length, 380 tons, and built about a half-century earlier in England. The loss of the Diego, wrecked on the shoals of Eagle Island in the Chagos while on a supply run, was nearly a disaster for it passengers, one of whom was a missionary priest.

Roger Dussercle was a French priest with a missionary bent. He had served earlier as a chaplain to the French army in Morocco and then eventually been assigned to by the Catholic Church to work on Mauritius. Mauritius was already predominately Catholic, and well served with churches and priest. The outlying islands however, the “lesser dependencies” including Diego Garcia and the Chagos, had no assigned priests and often went years without religious guidance. Dussercle not only made it a point to visit the islands, but he also wrote books about his adventures. On June 20, 1935, he would have an adventure indeed.

Eagle Island was being abandoned, and the Diego was shuttling workers and stores to other islands in the Chagos (such as Diego Garcia). The 19th of June finds it near Eagle Island when a surprise storm begins and the winds shift, indicating a very early monsoon season and startling the crew. The ship was in danger of being run aground and dropped two anchors, but they simply dragged. The third anchor was dropped and briefly held before the line parted. The crew and passenger donned life vests as the situation worsened. The crew raised the anchors and tried to maneuver out of danger, but the rudder didn’t respond to commands. The captain walked off the bridge and calmly informed his second mate of the situation.

There were confusion and terror as the ship went up on the rocks amidst the storm. The ship was lying on its port side at a 60-degree list on the rocks. Three of the four lifeboats were swept away empty. The crew could not launch the last. Father Dussercle found his services as a priest in high demand as the entire crew and passengers crowded on the bridge for what appeared to be certain death. The ship’s distress had been noted ashore, however, and an island resident named Arthur Tallant came to the rescue. He was a ploughman by trade, but apparently could handle a small boat as well. He made at least thirty trips to the ship, saving everyone  at only a few people per trip. Everyone was saved, but the Island didn’t have enough supplies to feed everyone and it might take months for anyone on Mauritius to notice the loss of the Diego. There was only one seaworthy boat on the Island, and it was eventually taken by Second Mate Berenger to Peros Banhos to alert authorities of the shipwreck, despite continued bad weather.   In 1939 the island of Diego Garcia received what appears to be its first visit by an aircraft. The British had been considering a trans-Indian Ocean air route to improve communications with the far East, particularly in view of the tense world situation. A PBY-2 flying boat, nicknamed the “Guba 2", was piloted from Australia to Mombasa by Capt. P.G. Taylor. The aircraft surveyed one possible route and took aerial photographs of stops including Diego Garcia. It is possible the flight was coordinated with a visit to the island by the HMS Liverpool.  The flight was an example of the ever greater reach of aircraft, and the PBY-2 would be the basic design of the “Catalina” flying boat that would be heavily used by the allies during World War II.  Diego Garcia would see many more such aircraft in the near future.


World War II was indeed a “world” war, and the Indian Ocean would play a secondary but nonetheless an important role even though the region is largely overlooked.  The Indian Ocean was an important area for the British. With the Germans and Italians in North Africa and ravaging shipping across the Mediterranean the British position in Egypt and the Middle East depended largely on supplies coming from the East. In addition, the British homelands needed supplies from India and Australia, and especially fuel from the Middle East and Southeast Asia (prior to the Japanese entry into the war). The huge British refinery at Abadan, Iran, for example, became a key source of vital 100 octane aviation fuel for the allies.

During the war 385 British, Allied, and Neutral ships would be sunk in the Indian Ocean, 250 of those by submarines. This amounted to 1,789,870 tons of shipping, with the worst months being March and April of 1942.  Beginning in 1939 German surface raiders were the primary threat. Then it was Italian ships and submarines that had been caught in Ethiopia. With the Japanese entry into the war there was the danger of major enemy fleets raiding into the ocean, which the Japanese did. Even as the raider threat subsided and the Japanese were forced to turn from the Indian Ocean toward the encroaching U.S., submarine forces began taking an ever heavier toll. Both German submarines, notably the “Monsoon” group operating out of Penang, and Japanese submarines were a danger in the Indian Ocean.

Diego Garcia would find itself involved in the war from early on.  Even prior to the war, as tensions in Europe mounted, the HMS Liverpool called on Diego Garcia to show the flag in May of 1939.  The British, recalling their experience with the Emden in World War I, kept a much closer watch on the islands once the war began. No German raiders would attempt to pull into Diego Garcia. Indeed, mindful of the possibility that the British would use the island as a forward anchorage or seaplane base, the German raiders studiously avoided coming too close.  During an operation to prevent Vichy French shipping from crossing the Indian Ocean, for example, the British made aerial reconnaissances of the Chagos islands. The HMS Hermes, Enterprise, and Mauritius searched around the island, and two Catalina flying boats used the island to fly 12 hour missions in support.
In late 1940 the German raiders Atlantis and Pinguin were both operating in the Indian Ocean. The Atlantis and the accompanying Speybank met up with the Vichy ship Lot and the Japanese African Maru in the general vicinity of the Chagos . Indeed, the Axis had a rendezvous point Viechen (Violet) at 14 degrees South by 73 degrees East, several hundred miles south of Diego Garcia, which was the nearest inhabited land. The potential utility of Diego Garcia as a central base of operation was highlighted on May 17, 1941, when the British got a good radio direction-finding fix on the German raider Kormoran only 200 miles from the island. The nearest ships were the HMS Cornwall and Glasgow in distant Mauritius, which were sent in pursuit. By the time they arrived, however, the raider had slipped away.

In January of 1941 an MNBDO (Marine Naval Base Defense Organization) force was sent from Port ‘T’ (Addu, Maldives) to Diego Garcia, escorted by the HMS Glasgow. At the same time, the steamer Zambezia was sent to Diego Garcia from Mauritius with supplies. The British were stretched thin, and plans were made for an Indian infantry company to garrison the island while artillerymen from Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery regiments manned the coastal defense batteries.
One of those traveling to Diego Garcia was a British Marine named James Alan Thompson aboard the Clan Forbes.  Thompson would later write several books in which he would discuss his time spent on the island, most notably “Only the Sun Remembers.”  Thompson had originally been in charge of an anti-aircraft detachment during the ill-fated British defense of Norway. He escaped Norway as a straggler aboard one of the last British ships out and was sent to the Middle East and ultimately to help with the construction of a secret naval base (base ‘T’) at Addu Atoll in the Maldive Islands north of the Chagos island chain.   When initial construction was finished at Addu his unit was sent south to Diego Garcia.

Thompson’s experience in Diego Garcia was far from enjoyable. The islands had always been hot, isolated, and relatively primitive. Now, under the pressures of wartime, ill-fed troops and workers would struggle to build the military facilities to fight off a potential Japanese attack.  Particularly damaging to morale was the lack of contact with the outside world. Thompson writes about getting a pre-Christmas letter from his wife in late March. He put it:

I was never so near the sun, so near the elemental, so fearful or so overwhelmed; East or West along the Equator Line, degrees North or South, the sun burned nearer to the earth in Chagos..... Trapped, imprisoned by thousands of miles of ocean to every point on the polished brass compass, by-passed by ship trail and sky path; feebly fastened to life by the haphazard supply ship coming from Mauritius, once, twice, three time each long year. Until the temporary installation of a RAF wireless station at East Point, completely devoid of contact with the distant world; at one time unaware of the world’s new war.

The troops and laborers were at the distant end of a long and tenuous supply chain. The island did not produce enough vegetables and fruit for the new population and many of the troops began to suffer maladies of malnutrition like scurvy and even beriberi.  Even without combat the work could be dangerous. A young sergeant died a “lingering death” after falling overboard and striking his head on an adjacent landing craft.  While moving one of the old 6 inch guns out of the Clan Forbes the teeth in a winch slipped and the barrel fell 8 feet. The winch handle spun off and hit a man square in the forehead. He survived, albeit with a “terrible dented scar on his brow.” Thompson explained:
But the anchorage had to be given the surface defence of two old six-inch guns,  ultimately manned by a wretched, ill-disciplined, spiritless battery raised in Mauritius, transported to Diego Garcia, and literally flung ashore without semblance of tentage, equipment, proper rations and devoid of the knowledge or will to provide in any way for their own future existence.

The island did have one redeeming feature, however:  Diego Garcia is the fisherman’s paradise; the incredible Valhalla where all lies come true, where two exaggerating arms cannot span the fish caught; where there is neither doubt nor hope but only the certainty of catching fish until his arm is tired or the line snaps. Until there is no longer room to move in the boat, until there are sufficient fish to feed a ship full of hungry men. Fishing in paradise, in the kind waters of greedy and ignorant fish; dream fish, fish weighing ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred pounds. The one sport of Chagos; in which to indulge our small excitement until the sun burned our bodies and the revolting stench of the dead sharks became unbearable.

In July of 1941 the British were facing the prospect of fighting the Japanese in the East in addition to the Germans. There was disagreement over the precise course the British should take, but clearly defenses in the Indian Ocean needed to be shored up. A British planning estimate forecast that the Japanese would attack the Soviet Union and take its Maritime Provinces in the far East before turning Southwards to attack British interests.  This would give the British a “breathing space” in which to prepare.  The role envisioned for Diego Garcia was as a cruiser fueling base with some gun and boom (anti-torpedo) defenses.

The same month, the Navy’s Director of Plans had made a slightly more pessimistic assessment. This report considered the possibility that Singapore might not be useable as a fleet base due to Japanese air attack, and emphasized that in this case the British could not ensure that Japanese surface forces would not enter the Indian Ocean. With Singapore out of the picture, it envisioned  the British falling back on a “line” running from Durban to Mauritius to Diego Garcia to the Nicobar Islands. This would protect the most vital Northwest Indian Ocean sea lanes. It further noted that Port ‘T’ was centrally located behind this line and was a logical choice as the main fleet base. Port ‘T’ was the secret British port in the Maldive Islands, being hurriedly built.  In addition, while Diego Garcia was centrally located and forward, Port ‘T’ was already surveyed, had a better harbor, and was closer to vital specialist building resources.   As is often the case in war, a “strategic” choice (Diego Garcia) was beat out by real limitations in vital resources such as survey, construction, and engineering unit locations.

By August the British navy realized that it did not have enough information about Diego Garcia. In particular, the surveys on file were not up to modern standards. If necessary, could Diego Garcia be used by deep draft capital ships like battleships?  After a flurry of messages highlighting the shortage of specialist vessels, the HMIS Clive, of the Indian Navy, was tasked with conducting a survey. Ultimately, it was decided that Diego Garcia was indeed suitable for aircraft carriers and cruisers, but ships with deeper drafts (battleships and very large merchant vessels) could not use the anchorage.

In October of 1941, following a reconnaissance by the Indian Army, the Commander in Chief of the East Indies commented on the development of the Diego Garcia base. Only two guns were allotted for the shore battery, a symptom of just how far stretched British resources in the Indian Ocean were. They would both be sited near Eclipse Point, where they could cover the main channel into the lagoon. In addition, there would be a battery observation post and a port war signal station located on Eclipse Point. The base would also get W/T (wireless telegraphy, British for radio) and a Mauritian garrison expected to be ready by February of 1942.

In October of 1942, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and US entry into the War, the British War Cabinet issued top level plans for Diego Garcia. The first plan, ‘A’, was to be started immediately and foresaw three major tasks for Diego Garcia: As a fueling and minor operational base, an advanced flying boat base, and an aerodrome (i.e., an airfield). The backup plan, ‘B’, was in case there was a need for Diego Garcia to become a major operation base and called for a much larger logistical and support presence as well as added defenses. When it was later decided that Diego Garcia was not suitable for large draft vessels plan ‘B’ was dropped.

The plans foresaw the island suffering possible day and night torpedo and bomb attacks from up to 100 carrier-based aircraft. In addition, bombardment from 12" cruiser guns was a possibility, as well as attacks by motor torpedo boats and submarines (outside the lagoon). As a worst case scenario, there was the possibility of the Japanese landing up to one brigade of troops. On the bright side, none of the attacks was likely to be sustained. The Japanese were expected to hit and leave, not try and take the island permanently.

An aerodrome was to be built on the land Southwest of Eclipse Point. If the Japanese severed communications from Australia to the US West coast it might be necessary to ferry aircraft “the long way around,” via Africa and Diego Garcia.  The island was also to get a fighter squadron and a combined ground reconnaissance and torpedo bomber squadron. For air defense the island would get 16 heavy and 16 light anti-aircraft guns. In addition, controlled minefields and indicator nets would protect the channel into the lagoon. A small garrison of troops would serve as a last ditch defense. According to British projections, at least 54 officers and 404 ratings would be needed by the navy alone to man the base and the underwater defenses, including many “afloat” in local defense and harbor craft.   If plan ‘B’ had been fully implemented, there could have been as many as 4,000 troops and auxiliaries on the island. As a further indicator of British shortages, the island was to get one radio transmitter and power supply from the UK, but a second medium-power set would have to be taken from a pool being gathered in the region. The radio station was initially to be manned by a leading signalman, three signalmen, and three coders. Looking to the future, however, possible sites for HF/DF (high frequency direction finding) and radar antennas were considered near East Point and near Eclipse Point.

The military bureaucracy shifted into high gear, but the plans for the island were never fulfilled. In the earlier parts of the war there was a serious lack of resources, and by the later periods the perceived need for the base diminished. In particular, the US victory at Midway Island in mid 1942 helped ensure that the Japanese could never again muster a major threat to the Indian Ocean. Ultimately, the aerodrome and most of the other planned facilities were never built. The main military activity that did take place was the establishment of Advanced Flying Boat Base No. 29, which flew Catalina flying-boats on reconnaissance and antisubmarine warfare patrol. Additionally, the two 6" guns were placed and the island housed a small garrison and some weather and communications personnel.

The two guns were placed at Kerry Point, which is today known as Cannon Point, and they remain as reminders of the war along with the concrete bunkers and ammo boxes of the “fort.” The two guns were already more than 40 years old when they were put on Diego Garcia, yet another indication of how strapped the British were for equipment at the time. They were installed by the MNBDO in December of 1941 and manned by Royal Marines until relieved by X Mauritian Battery in January of 1942.  They, in turn, were relieved by the 12th Indian Coast Battery of the Indian Army in September of 1942. It was not until October of 1942 that construction of the shelters and magazines began.

The guns themselves were 6" Mark VII guns, one (piece 1264) manufactured by Vickers and the other (piece 1417) by the Royal Gun Factory. The former was installed on cradle 798 and pedestal 1067, while the later was installed on cradle 1067 and pedestal 798, the cradle/pedestal sets apparently getting switched during installation. The guns had a range of approximately 14,000 yards with a nominal muzzle velocity of 2,500 feet per second.  There were 99 feet and a 276.5 degree bearing from gun number one to number two. A 2-meter Barr & Stroud F.T.29 rangefinder (number 22119) was used on a Type M.T. 1454 modified mount (number 2219). A Vickers clock and naval Dumaresq were used for fire control.

While the aerodrome was never built, the island did, as noted, serve as a flying boat base. The facility was rather small and quite Spartan, with normally at most three flying boats present at any time. Though small in numbers, these aircraft played an important role in the surveillance of the central Indian Ocean. While they did not sink any enemy submarines, their presence complicated enemy operations and they also carried out the less glamorous task of reporting on general shipping. The air operations were centered in the lagoon adjacent to the East Point plantation, and they left a landmark that exists to this day: the remains of the Catalina flying boat named “Katie.”

On September 16, 1944, RAF Officer Pilot James Park took off from Madras, India, in a Catalina named “Katie” after the squadron letter ‘K’. The aircraft flew more than eight hours to Kelai in the Maldive Islands where it was supposed to refuel, but a storm prevented this. So it continued to Diego Garcia which was over another 10 hours away. The Catalina was a very slow aircraft, but it could fly very long distances. Even so, the aircraft was running almost literally on fumes when it landed in the lagoon at Diego Garcia. Refueling was a grueling task. Four gallon Gerry cans would be filled with fuel ashore and wheeled to the pier, where they would be loaded onto rowboats. The rowboats would then be rowed out to the aircraft and the fuel cans would be hoisted up and poured into the aircraft.

Since another aircraft already at Diego Garcia took precedence for refueling, the pilot Park went to bed with ‘Katie’ bobbing lightly on the water with a crewman on board. An unusually strong storm soon blew up and tore the “Katie” from its mooring. Normally the crewman aboard would have started the engines and taxied to keep the aircraft from blowing ashore but it was out of fuel. The aircraft ended up on the beach, wrecked.  Useful parts were salvaged, leaving a hulk that remains an island landmark to this day.

 The British had no plans to utilize the native plantation workers. One report stated that the 450 or so natives were used to “easy living” and “will be of no use whatsoever.”   Another said that “people less likely to be able to do work of any kind can scarcely be imagined.”  The British government arranged to compensate the Diego Garcia company for any loss of plantation revenues caused by the military buildup. Though most of the natives did not need to be relocated, the presence of the military was distorting the economy. The managers felt the workers would be “spoilt” by the occupation. Workers would find it easier to catch and sell fish or do odd labor for the troops rather than harvest coconuts. An additional symptom was rapid inflation as the natives sold food to hungry troops that were suffering from a substandard diet out of tin cans.

While Diego Garcia was never the sight of any major battles like Midway or Guadalcanal, the area was still dangerous for sailors right up until the end of the war. Two cases in particular stand out. On September 19, 1943, the Fort Longueuil was torpedoed and sank Southwest of Diego Garcia.  Victims of the German submarine U-532, two Indian crewmen survived the ordeal. First they survived four and ½ months at sea on a life raft. And then, upon finally reaching shore (in Indonesia) they were captured by the Japanese and imprisoned for 18 months.   On July 2, 1944, the Liberty ship Jean Nicolet was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-8.  The blazing ship was abandoned, and the Japanese submarine picked up approximately 100 survivors. A few were taken below, then for the next three hours the rest were subject to shootings, beatings, and stabbing. Many were forced to run a gauntlet of Japanese crewmen with pipes and knives. The ordeal only stopped when the I-8 detected an aircraft, submerging while leaving more than 30 bound men on deck. Amazingly, some of them managed to swim back to the still burning Jean Nicolet and launch rafts . It is quite possible that the aircraft in question was a Catalina flying boat from Diego Garcia.

The island holds the graves of 9 World War II service members, aside from those who were buried at sea.  They were either members of the Mauritius Regiment or the Royal Indian Artillery, and are all buried at the Pt. Marianne Cemetery as per Table 6.

Table 6.
Allied WWII casualties buried on Diego Garcia
Name               Rank     Service #  Unit               Date of Death   Age
Appado, G.D.       Private  MR/1298    Mauritius Reg.     20/07/1942      ??
Atchia, AHM        Corporal MR/368     Mauritius Reg.     28/02/1942      ??
Buta Kahn          Gunner   44606      Royal Indian Arty. 26/02/1943      20
Hardy, LP          Private  MR/284     Mauritius Reg.     17/07/1942      ??
Mehdi Kan          Gunner   AAA/25239  Royal Indian Arty. 08/04/1943      28
Montocchio,F       Gunner   MR/1038    Mauritius Reg.     12/07/1942      ??
Muhammad Latif Sha Gunner   25214      Royal Indian Arty. 08/04/1943      ??
Pierre-Louise, I   Private  R/MTF/61   Mauritius Reg.     05/07/1942      ??
Samundar Kham      Cook     CA/1541    Royal Indian Arty. 16/06/1943      32
Source: British Commonwealth War Graves Commission


The end of the war saw Diego Garcia once again left to its own devices. Although there were some changes, such as the installation of a permanent radio set and the opening of a school for the children, life returned to the normalcy of coconut harvesting and fishing.  The military simply packed up and left, taking whatever could be carried. The military might have been gone, but the island was not forgotten.  In 1953, as the British considered the increasingly tenuous position of their empire, they decided to investigate the possibility of maintaining control of the Indian Ocean from bases on remote and isolated islands, instead of from large nations like India.  The Far East Air Forces conducted Operation Concubine, which included a survey of various Indian Ocean islands for potential use as air bases.  One of those surveyed was Diego Garcia.  A few years later a new Mauritian governor, Sir Robert Scott, would take an interest in the isolated atoll and pay it a visit.  He traveled aboard the H.M.S. Loch Killisport instead the usual inter-island steamer, the old, slow, steamship M.V. Jules.  His report of that trip paints a portrait of the island before it suffered from yet another intrusion of history.

Scott reported that the island’s population was “markedly African with few signs of mixed ancestry.” In addition he “was surprised to find that a relatively high proportion of the residents regard the islands as their permanent home and they have their characteristic way of life.” He estimated that 80% of the population were “natives” with most of the rest being Seychellois who were indeed only temporarily living on the island.   It is telling that the Governor of Mauritius (and by extension the “lesser dependencies” including Diego Garcia) was surprised by the existence of a native population with its own culture. Since basically the only employment on the island was the plantations, and they hired workers on a contract basis, the island’s residents were often referred to as “contract laborers.” This gave readers of government reports the idea that the island’s residents were a transient and temporary population whose true home was elsewhere. This oversight would lead to controversy and complications that endure to the present day.

As far as culture, Scott noted that Diego Garcia had “a society which is notably partial to alcoholic refreshment and broad minded with regards to marriage.”  Attempts to replace the notorious Sega dances failed, and on other islands attempts at changing local mores had proven less than successful. On Agalega island, for example, records were played on a grammaphone instead but “Satan found much mischief still.” Likewise, on Salomon the introduction of volleyball failed because the fishermen found the nets “too great a temptation.”

There were other changes for the better, however. One of the islands longstanding health menaces, ankylostomiasis , had been almost eliminated but even improved sanitation could not stop flies from being a nuisance. The islander’s workload was considered “fair,” and spare time was often spent fishing. The school at East Point had 33 students though there were attendance problems. Many parents apparently considered school a “newfangled superfluity.” There were 258 men, 198 women, 107 boys, and 93 girls, largely split between the two main settlements of Pointe de l’Est (East Point) and Pointe Marianne.

Governor Scott had hopes for continued development of the island. One of the companies operating a plantation on the island, Diego Ltd., had ambitious plans.  One of the economic problems was that the traditional product, coconut oil, was facing keen competition from new methods of processing vegetable oils. A Mauritian company, Inova Ltd., was considering the construction of new plants to produce a much higher quality of coconut oil that could compete on world markets. The age-old method of pressing with donkey-driven mills would come to an end.  In addition, another 1,500 acres of Diego Garcia would be added to coconut cultivation, with another 80 Seychellois workers imported to increase the workforce. The cost of clearing land for plantations led to consideration of mechanization to assist traditional manual and animal labor. Diego Ltd.  estimated selling 1,300 tons of guano per year as fertilizer.

Diego Ltd. also planned on hiring better managers and supervisors by offering better pay and benefits. More fruit tress, particularly citrus and breadfruit, would be planted to enhance the local diet. And while commercial pork production was not feasible more “free range” pigs would be raised to likewise improve the sustenance of workers. These plans were not without difficulties, however. It was noted that the slow and infrequent steamship communications between Diego Garcia and Mauritius hampered economic development. In addition, Diego Ltd. foresaw the need for acquiring an estimated 750,000 rupees in capital for the improvements. Governor Scott predicted that the company would seek government assistance and had doubts they could raise it.

As the British slowly withdrew from their empire, other nations were expanding into it. In particular the United States was taking an increasing interest in the Indian Ocean. The growing importance of Persian Gulf oil being shipped through the Indian Ocean was recognized by US strategists. In addition, the U.S. was increasingly taking the lead in regional political issues under the mantle of anti communism.  In 1954 the US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Robert B. Carney, established what would become the Long Range Objectives Group in the office of the CNO. The group was designed to provide the Navy with strategic guidance, a sort of “grand strategy” by which operational leaders could steer. One of the staffers, Stuart Barber, originated what would become the “strategic islands” strategy.

The basic idea of a naval power operating from isolated bases was hardly new.  As related in this thesis the idea had been a recurring one in the history of Diego Garcia.  Now, however, the idea was dusted off and modern exigencies were taken into account. Barber foresaw a need for a ring of strategic island bases (mainly in the Southern hemisphere) circling the globe. Such islands would be relatively cheap and easy to acquire in both monetary and political terms, and would be immune from the trend toward greater third world independence that threatened established bases.  Barber scoured maps and atlases looking for candidate islands. Diego Garcia headed his list as having the potential to be such a base.   In 1957 Admiral Jerauld Wright, Commander in Chief of the US Atlantic Fleet, “inspected” Diego Garcia from a U.S. ship.

In May of 1960 Admiral Horacio Rivero, the director of the Long Range Objectives Group, proposed that the British be asked to “detach” Diego Garcia from Mauritius when that colony was given independence.  The new Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, agreed and informal contacts with the British were stepped up.   In early 1959 Fred Hadsel, who was liaison for African Affairs at the US embassy in London, had contacted the British with a proposal. The US Navy, he indicated, was studying the possibility of a U.S. naval task force operating in the Western Indian Ocean. In order to further planning, he proposed that a  team visit and survey British ports that might function as logistics bases. The team would be small and travel in civilian clothes, and he suggested Mombasa and Mauritius as two possible places to investigate.

The British Foreign Office welcomed the US interest. They noted the importance of protecting the oil routes as well as the potential benefits of having the US dependant on the British. The political situation in Kenya was “complicated,” however, and therefore Mombasa was not an ideal choice. Similarly, Mauritius was likely to get self-government in the near future and the British could not make a long-term commitment there. It was suggested that the US team visit the Seychelles on their tour.   Governor Scott of Mauritius added his apprehension at the possibility of the US Navy establishing itself on Mauritius. “While paying due tribute to our debt to the Americans, the prospect of opening up Mauritius to the ‘American Way of Life’ fills me with misgiving.”  He cited the bad experiences of Pacific Islands and said there were “too many opportunities for tactlessness in the political and social fields.”  Governor Scott did not absolutely rule out any US presence, however, noting that money was an effective salve and that something of a “limited scope” might be arranged.

The British may have been concerned that the US would turn to France for support in such a venture. The French maintained a strong presence in the Red Sea port of Djibouti, and the British noted growing US interest in that port as well. A large dry dock was being constructed as a joint French-Ethiopian venture, the Ethiopian portion of funding being US foreign aid to Ethiopia. In addition, a large tanker dock was planned and NATO funding (via France) was also being used to upgrade the port. According to the Egyptians the US wanted a base in Djibouti in part to help support Israel.

Following a flurry of telegraphs and reports, London sent a  message  emphasizing that the U.S. was looking merely for a depot for use in case of an emergency that called for the deployment of a task force.  There was no truth, according to London, to rumors that the U.S. was going to station an aircraft carrier permanently in the Indian Ocean.  London was also trying to ensure that it kept the colonies and remote officers from overstepping their authority in the quest for possibly lucrative US development money.  In particular it was noted that Sir. E. Baring was “most anxious to involve the Americans in East Africa,” but that all officials should be noncommittal to US proposals.  Talks were in the exploratory stages, and London reserved the final say on any agreement.

June 12, 1959, the Admiralty sent out a message announcing that Her Majesty’s Government had given permission for the US CINCNELM to send a small, low profile, survey team in civilian clothes. The team members would be Captain H.K. Rock, Cdr. E. Hook, Jr.,and Cdr. LR Larson, C.E.C.  Their itinerary would have them leaving Nairobi for a couple of days visiting in Mombasa and Mauritius before returning to London on Air France flight 288 on July 3. The Admiralty emphasized that it was uncommitted and that local officials should likewise remain noncommittal.

Meanwhile, the Air Ministry was expressing its concern over numerous U.S. requests to use facilities in British territories around the world. The British were uncertain as to U.S. intentions. Were these requests all part of a coordinated effort?  While the British naturally wanted to be helpful, the Air Ministry pointed out, great care was needed to ensure that the Americans did not take advantage of British kindness. In particular, the “awkward” arrangements concerning Ascension Island in the Atlantic were cited as demonstrations for the need for “careful coordination” within the British government and caution about the terms of any arrangements.

Almost on cue, the U.S. CinCPacFlt (Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet) invited the Chief of Staff of the British Far East Fleet and four other officers to visit Pearl Harbor.  Among the subjects to be discussed was a general concept of operations for the Indian Ocean and the problems the Pacific Fleet faced in staging forces into the ocean. In light of the need for US bases information was requested on the possible use of the R.A.F. base on Gan (in the Maldives) to support U.S. Indian Ocean forces.

The survey team led by Captain Rock made its inspections. In discussions with British officials, they noted the various difficulties with the sites being surveyed.  They also surprised their British hosts by bringing up several more possible locations for support facilities. One of these was the remote island of Diego Garcia. The British were not able to arrange for the team to visit Diego Garcia given the time constraints and the limited communications to the island. They were, however, pleased that the U.S. was considering new options. The British felt that it was best if the US did not get involved in Mombasa, and spent some time carefully explaining the potential problems of the U.S. use of facilities on Mauritius.

In late July of 1959 the Admiralty released a comprehensive report on “U.S. Navy Interests in the Indian Ocean.”  Marked “for UK eyes only,” it outlined the Admiralty’s appreciation of the situation. The report noted that the US embassy in London had initiated discussions about the possibility of the U.S. operating a fleet in the Western Indian Ocean. The U.S. “might wish to say” that such a deployment would only be made in an emergency, and that it did not want “bases” but only a “depot.” Indeed, the stated U.S. preference was for a civilian manned supply depot somewhere on British territory.   The Seychelles, Diego Garcia, and Gan in the Maldives were all possibilities being investigated. In addition, the US wanted oil storage in Singapore and the use of a W/T (i.e., radio) station in Mauritius, if necessary building an American extension onto the British building.   U.S. requirements for fuel storage in the Western Indian Ocean were along the lines of fifty-eight thousand tons of fuel oil, forty-five hundred tons of diesel oil, and over two thousand tons of aviation gas.

The British emphasized that the US did not want a permanent Indian Ocean presence but was only preparing for emergency deployments of 15 to 35 ships. The US also wanted to minimize capital investment in procurement or refurbishment needed for the facilities. In addition, the US had made clear that it wanted to minimize any political opposition to the U.S. facilities.  The “political opposition” the US Navy had in mind may well have been domestic as well as foreign, and minimizing costs would help to avoid involving the US Congress in any decision.

The British were particularly eager to assist the U.S. since they were considering shutting down their own operations at Aden. They remained leery of involving the U.S. in Kenya, but Mombasa looked like it was the best candidate to fulfil U.S. needs. The British felt that Mauritius and Gan would lead to too many political problems. Diego Garcia was remote and undeveloped, and would “entail heavy capital investment” which the U.S. was trying to avoid. On the other hand, the British felt that there would be “no appreciable political repercussions” to allowing the U.S. to use Diego Garcia. The report, apparently operating under the same assumptions as Governor Scott before his visit, said the island was “undeveloped and populated very thinly by imported estate labor.”  At this very early point officials did not seem to know (or to care) that the island had a “native” population with a distinct culture.

The British sent word that they were confused by the numerous U.S. enquiries, and later in the year the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Arleigh Burke, sent a message to the British First Sea Lord. He stated that he understood British concerns and that the U.S. was grappling with its potential role in the Indian Ocean. He said that a “small but flexible force” for emergency operations in the Indian Ocean was being considered, but pointed out the difficult logistics problems such operations would pose. In order to simplify planning and negotiation he established CINCNELM as the single point of contact on potential Indian Ocean facilities.   The British Ministry of Defense then circulated a clarifying message that U.S. explanations “enable us to dismiss, once and for all, the idea that the Americans might be intending to deploy a task force permanently in the Indian Ocean.”   The U.S. only wanted “facilities” and not “bases,” and would only operate in the region during emergencies.

It appears that the British took these intentions at face value, but at certain points one can sense some British feeling that these “facilities” would only be the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. Governor Scott in Mauritius, for example, asked openly if the U.S. would be replacing the British in the Indian Ocean. In the short term, however, progress on U.S. plans was predicted to be stymied by the fact that the developed facilities (such as at Addu and Singapore) came with political complications. Developing new facilities (at Diego Garcia, for example) would take “substantial expenditure.”

In the spring of 1961 the British First Sea Lord prepared to table a paper for the Chiefs of Staff on the subject of U.S. facilities in the Indian Ocean. The Admiralty noted that the U.S. continued to be interested in using British facilities at Gan and Aden as well as possibly adding on U.S. sections to existing British facilities. In addition, the U.S. was also continuing to consider undeveloped places like Diego Garcia, Socotra, Ile de Roches, and St. Annes Island. It was stressed that the talks with the U.S. navy were “informal and confidential in nature” and warned of “the importance of not mentioning it to American officials.”   The talks were sensitive to both parties for domestic as well as international political reasons. The British were grappling with the end of the empire and the question of pulling out “East of the Suez.” The U.S. was beginning to get drawn into Vietnam, and military expansion into the Indian Ocean would raise the specter of increased costs as well as overstretch. The executive branches of both governments were intent on coming to terms with one another with minimal interference from legislators and the general public.

By the fall of 1961 the U.S. was ready to make another overture. The U.S. Naval Attache in London, Rear-Admiral Gayler, asked that an official from the Colonial Office meet with Professor Reitzel, who was on the staff of the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations. During World War II Reitzel had been a liaison officer to British Admiral Cunningham in the Mediterranean theater.  Professor Reitzel was an early practitioner of what would become known as “area studies,” using a multi-disciplinary approach to provide regional commanders with advice.

Reitzel informed his host that he had been personally appointed by the CNO, Admiral Arleigh Burke, to carry out “special evaluation studies.”  He was using his experience in Mediterranean studies to analyze the political, military, and logistical considerations for stationing U.S. forces in the Indian Ocean. He then pointedly asked what the British were going to do as they lost their main Indian Ocean bases, and suggested that it was a situation the British and Americans should study together. He was advised that the CNO should contact Admiral Crawford before writing the First Sea Lord.

Meanwhile, the US Navy was formulating a formal proposal that was set before the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1962. The JCS agreed in principle with the tentative navy plan, and soon planning picked up steam.  Following communications problems during the Cuban Missile Crisis the U.S. military had implemented a large scale study of its global communications system. It noted that there were huge “blackout” areas in the Indian Ocean where U.S. Navy ships were out of contact with higher command. The Missile Crisis had reinforced the need to maintain close contact with (and control over) tactical units in distant regions. Therefore, a need was felt for a new communications station to keep contact with ships in the Indian Ocean. Project KATHY considered Diego Garcia as a candidate.

In late 1963 President John F. Kennedy was asking about the possibility of the U.S. 7th Fleet operating in the Indian Ocean as a countermeasure to perceived communist Chinese expansionism.  In January of 1964 Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze declared that there was a “power vacuum” in the Indian Ocean.  In April of 1964 a U.S. aircraft carrier task group ventured into the Indian Ocean.    In July of that year, as talks with the British intensified, yet another survey team was sent to Diego Garcia.  The team, led by Commander Harry Hart of the office of the Chief of Naval Operations, flew from the U.S. to England where it picked up more members, including British representatives. Ultimately, it flew to Gan in the Maldive islands and transferred to the HMS Dampier for the final leg to Diego Garcia.

It might be significant that one of the members of the survey team was Mr. Vance Vaughn, who was from the U.S. Navy Communications Annex at Nebraska Avenue in Washington, D.C.  Nebraska Avenue was the headquarters of Naval Security Group, the arm of the navy tasked with signals intelligence.  More overtly, the team included two enlisted men who were tasked with setting up a radio unit for tests. Master Chief Electronics Technician Richard M. Young and Radioman Chief M.J. Meriji used a 25-watt skid-mounted generator to power their radio, and  a 20-foot dipole antenna to transmit. Using the call sign WOLF WOMAN they tested the islands “hearability” by contacting various other radio stations, particularly ships at sea.

During a subsequent meeting CNO Admiral Rivero would state “I want this island.” He was not alone. The USAF, alerted to Navy plans, expressed an interest in using Diego Garcia as a base for B-52 bombers. The Navy was leery, however.  In the first place, the Navy had only envisioned a short and crude airstrip. The planned runway would have to be significantly lengthened and thickened to handle the big bombers, and this would cost money. Secondly, the Navy and State Department had been insisting that the “facility” on Diego Garcia would be very small and limited.  Adding a base for nuclear bombers (the mission envisioned at the time) could stiffen political opposition to the base.  Plans for bombers were shelved, at least publicly, for several years.

The Central Intelligence Agency was also interested in Diego Garcia.  In particular, it was thought that the People’s Republic of China would test its ICBMs by firing them into the Indian Ocean.  There was also a growing awareness in the intelligence community that a number of established intelligence posts were being endangered by the evolving world situation.  The U.S. Army had a significant facility at Kagnew, Ethiopia, which was threatened by political instability. Likewise, overt U.S. facilities in Pakistan might not be welcome for long.  The 1964 Military Construction Bill originally contained funding for a “classified communications project” in the Indian Ocean.  This was to be on Diego Garcia, but the funding was cut. Before funding was in place, the U.S. wanted to ensure that it could indeed have the island, free of interference, for a long time.


By this time the British government was deeply involved in negotiations over Mauritian independence. Arguments over the terms of independence were highly charged amongst the various Mauritian political factions.  The British used this to their advantage. As a later Mauritian government report stated, the British handling of the Chagos issue were “part of a definite and long term strategy on the part of the UK government.”   Few Mauritians knew much about Diego Garcia or the rest of the Chagos Archipelago and the Mauritians negotiating their independence apparently did not think them of great importance. This may have been a political miscalculation on their part, as the “excision” of the island (as the Mauritians termed it) became a controversial subject. There is still some uncertainty over certain details of the negotiations, and subsequent political wrangling has not cleared up this cloudy subject.  Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the chief Mauritian negotiator, has said that negotiators had to choose between Mauritian independence or giving up the Chagos.  Yet, he refused to term the British demands for excision of the islands as “blackmail.”

On November 8, 1965, the British issued the first BIOT order. This order established for the first time a political entity known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), comprising of Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos as well as a few other Indian Ocean Islands.  The BIOT order was issued by the Queen of England as an “Order in Council” under the authority of the Colonial Boundaries Act of 1895.  Parliament was not consulted. Such use of what British law terms “Royal Prerogative” is a demonstration that the Monarchy continues to be more than just a ceremonial post. Two days later, on November 10, 1965, the British publicly announced the creation of the BIOT.  The announcement was intentionally low key, as the British were trying to avoid political and legal complications, particularly from the United Nations.

Close on the heels of the creation of the BIOT came an exchange of notes with the United States regarding joint use of “Indian Ocean Islands” for defense purposes.   An “exchange of notes” is technically not a treaty.  Therefore, the U.S. president does not have to have it ratified by the U.S. Senate. Indeed, congress (like the parliament) was kept very much in the dark about plans for Diego Garcia. In addition, a secret attachment to the agreement would be even more controversial. The United States agreed to pay the British for detaching Diego Garcia, with the sum not to exceed 14 million dollars. United States law requires that spending be approved by the Congress, but in this case no congressional scrutiny was wanted so a new method of payment was created.

The British were buying the Polaris missile to arm their strategic missile submarines, and were paying various fees in accordance with prior agreements. Secretary of Defense McNamara  agreed to waive a 5 percent research and development surcharge on the project in order to pay the British. This was carried out with a series of accounting measures that, arguably, were legal since the executive branch didn’t “spend” money but rather simply didn’t collect money owed. This methodology generated much criticism when it was later discovered.  The General Accounting Office found that without an actual judicial ruling (i.e. a lawsuit) it could not say with certainty that the transfer was illegal, but it “was clearly a circumvention of the congressional oversight role.”

The question of funding was central to controversy over the arrangements to use Diego Garcia as a base. To begin with, the executive branches in both Britain and the U.S. were trying to establish the base with a minimum of legislative involvement (or even notification). This meant that costs had to be kept low to keep the project under the radar of budgeting authorities. In addition, even within the governments different agencies and bureaus were engaged in the age old practice of maximizing their own gain while shifting costs onto others. In the public announcement made by the British with the establishment of the BIOT, they had stated that they would pay three million British pounds to Mauritius, one million pounds to the plantation company, and would assist with “resettlement.”   In general, the British were planning on paying out about as much money as they were secretly getting from the United States, when related compensation to the Seychelles was taken into account. This plan ran into problems immediately. In the first place, the Mauritians considered the three million pounds to be compensation for “loss of sovereignty” or in effect payment for real estate. Resettlement assistance had not been specified, but the Mauritians were clearly thinking that additional considerable funds would be coming. The British, on the other hand, interpreted “assistance” to mean things like providing advice.

To make matters worse, part of the British agreement with the Seychelles involved upgrading the airport at Mahe and the project was going way over budget. In a classic bureaucratic sleight of hand the British Ministry of Defense had gotten the Treasury to agree to pay excess costs for the establishment of the BIOT. The Treasury thought that it was simply going to apply the US money to the Indian Ocean projects and that everything would balance.  When it became apparent that the budget would not be met the Ministry of Defense refused to transfer money to Treasury.  Treasury was now faced with an escalating bill for a project that was for another department. Clearly, additional money for resettlement would not be forthcoming. It appears that the British may have hinted that further U.S. funds would be appreciated. In a joint State-Defense message to the U.S. embassy in London in late 1970, for example, it was stated that the U.S. position was that “we recognize the British problem” but that the costs were “clearly envisioned to be the United Kingdoms responsibility.”

During all of this there was a notable lack of consultation, by any party, with the people living on the island of Diego Garcia or the other Chagos islands.  The people on the island had coexisted with military facilities before, and no one told them that they were all to be evicted from the Chagos in its entirety.  The British government was intent on satisfying U.S. demands for an unpopulated island, however, and it was not going to be deterred.  The British began a quiet policy to reduce the population on the islands. As the Chagos were remote and primitive, many people who lived there would travel to Mauritius and the Seychelles for healthcare, schooling, visiting relatives, marriage, and other sundry reasons. The British began to simply deny people who left the island passage back, often leaving them stranded away from what they considered their home. The British kept this practice as secret as possible, and would later carry out the final mass expulsion by surprise.

The British had caught themselves in a legal and political trap, and hoped that secrecy could keep it from being sprung on them.  The British had detached the BIOT from Mauritius and then given Mauritius its independence.  This meant that the British were not simply “resettling” the Ilois.  They were exiling them.  As citizens of a British Colony there was no legal means to force them to move to what was now another nation.  In theory, if they could not remain on the islands then they should have been allowed to settle elsewhere in Britain. The British government clearly did not want that, for political as well as fiscal reasons.  Fortunately for the officials of the day, it would take years for the legal issues to come to court.

In 1966 the plans for project KATHY, an “austere communications facility,” were replaced with REST STOP, plans for a more significant support facility.   In 1967 yet another survey team visited Diego Garcia, this time on the HMS Vidal.   The late 1960s also saw a series of British withdrawals from “East of the Suez.”  As the British were closing bases and ports like Aden, Yemen, the Soviet Union was now beginning to take an active interest in the Indian Ocean. Now that significant sums were required to start construction the Congress could no longer be left out. The 1970 Appropriations Act however, did not ultimately contain any funding for Diego Garcia. As expected there was intense congressional scrutiny over plans to expand the U.S. role in the Indian Ocean. In the midst of trying to extricate the U.S. from Vietnam many congressmen were leery of this expansion. Ultimately, it was suggested that the military drop plans for a support facility and go back to original plans for an “austere communications facility” to replace Kagnew Station as the Ethiopian situation was rapidly deteriorating.

On 15 Dec, 1970, the Nixon administration announced its intent to go ahead and construct a joint military facility on Diego Garcia. The planned communications station was now called Project REINDEER, and an intelligence collection role was added. An additional 50 people would be stationed on the island to meet these “Project Charlie” requirements.   Meanwhile, plans for an expanded base and mission were underway. The military considered using Diego Garcia if the use of facilities in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, were denied. In addition, the U.S. was preparing contingency plans for the possible operation of Polaris strategic missile submarines in the Indian Ocean.  All of this was undertaken against a backdrop of general international opposition. For example, a U.N. resolution called for the Indian Ocean to be a “zone of peace.”   Despite the desires of the regional nations, however, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were escalating the Cold War in the Indian Ocean.

In 1971 the first major contingent of U.S. Navy “sea bees” arrived to begin construction of the facility. It had been decided that the U.S. military (with contractor support) would carry out the task. The BIOT was legally run by a commissioner, who was appointed by the Queen in accordance with the original BIOT Order. He issued the Immigration Ordinance of 1971, which in effect allowed the expulsion of any person from the island and only allowed entry with the commissioner’s permission. Forced expulsions could now be carried out under the force of law.

In September of 1971 the island’s normal supply ship, the MV Nordvaer, arrived at Diego Garcia from Mauritius. The remaining Ilois and other plantation workers were told that the ship was not going to resupply the island, but rather would be carrying them off the island. On September 28 the last 35 people carried their own baggage aboard the overcrowded vessel, forced to leave behind their most valuable possessions: their animals,  or at least those animals that had not been killed. For example, by order of the British more than 1,000 pets (mainly dogs) had been slaughtered in an ad hoc gas chamber with exhaust fumes.   The evicted islanders were dumped in Mauritius, most of them headed for life in urban slums.

Construction now began in earnest. By Christmas time of 1972 a runway long enough to accommodate the C-141 aircraft was built. This allowed for a visit to the military workers by entertainer Bob Hope.  A small flotilla of U.S. amphibious and supply ships carried personnel and supplies to the island during this time. Some of the vessels included the tank landing ship Vernon County (LST-1161), the attack cargo ship Charleston (LKA-113), the dock landing ships Monticello (LSD-35) and Anchorage (LSD-36), as well as the chartered American Champion.  Trees were felled and the initial airstrip was made of compacted coral which was blasted from the island’s reef at low tide.

Meanwhile, pressure was building to expand the “facilities” beyond a mere communications and intelligence station into a more sizeable support facility. For example, ships moving into the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic fleet had traditionally used ports in South Africa for logistics as well as rest and relaxation. South Africa demanded strict adherence to its apartheid laws, however, and the US Navy was grappling with racial problems within the ranks. The Navy could not abide by apartheid while working to better integrate itself, so South African ports became off limits. This greatly lengthened the supply chain from the Atlantic. In addition, the U.S. Navy saw signs of an impending Soviet takeover everywhere. The CIA believed that the Navy was overstating the maritime threat from the USSR in the Indian Ocean, but as during much of the Cold War the more alarming predictions were the most believed.   Regional conflicts such as those between India and Pakistan simply underscored the volatility of the region.

During the early 1970s Diego Garcia would serve as a starting point for disagreements over the US role in the Indian Ocean, which were closely tied to growing Soviet naval and political activity in the region. In the aftermath of Vietnam many in congress were leery of expanding the U.S. military presence into the Indian Ocean. At the same time, however, others were more convinced than ever that the Soviets posed a major threat and that the U.S. needed to demonstrate resolve. There was pressure from congress to examine the possibility of reaching some sort of agreement with the Soviets regarding the Indian Ocean region, but once again there was a countervailing view that negotiations would be futile and be perceived as a sign of weakness. In addition, the U.S. military was making extraordinary claims about Soviet strength in the Indian Ocean. While the CIA projections were much more modest, they were also muted by secrecy.

On August 28, 1974, President Ford said during a press conference that “The Soviet Union already has three major naval operating bases in the Indian Ocean.” This statement surprised many analysts, and when pressed the Department of Defense said that the President had been referring to Berbera, Somalia, Umm Qasr, Iraq, and Aden, Yemen. During subsequent testimony before congress the CIA Director, Colby, contradicted the president by emphasizing how small and limited these facilities were. When pressed by a senator during hearings over Diego Garcia one administration spokesman issued a classic defense: “I think the discrepancy is apparent rather than real. It is a question of how one defines a base.”   Defenders of an expanded Indian Ocean presence also indicated that the U.S. had its own growing interests in the region even without a Soviet stimulus. The Arab Oil Embargo and subsequent U.S. contingency plans for seizing control of Saudi Arabia were also fueling the desire for a more sizeable presence in the region. During congressional testimony administration officials scoffed at the very notion that the U.S. might intervene militarily in the Middle East, yet it is now known that the U.S. approached the British about just such a plan.

Work continued on Diego Garcia. In October of 1972 the U.S. and Britain signed a formal agreement to establish a joint “limited communication facility” on the island. By March of 1973 the Naval Communications Station opened for business with about 200 assigned personnel. The Navy established that assigned service members would serve a 12-month tour on the island unaccompanied by dependents. While the base was officially a “joint” endeavor with the British, there were only a few British assigned to the island. It was almost entirely American.   The 1973 Arab-Israeli war and subsequent oil embargo had a major impact on U.S. policy and strategy. In addition, the Navy feared that the reopening of the Suez Canal would allow for more Soviet ships to stage from the Black Sea and Mediterranean fleets. Plans for an expanded facility, which had always been around but on the back burner, were moved front and center.

Meanwhile, the resettled Ilois were languishing on Mauritius. The government of Mauritius had a resettlement plan, but as of 1972 it had not yet been put into effect. Much of the problem was local politics. The Ilois were an unpopular minority and the government feared that giving them assistance would upset other Mauritians for whom aid was not funded. Cyclone Gervaise had left more than 90,000 Mauritians homeless and unemployment during the period was running at about 20%, leading to political instability. Meanwhile, those few remaining Ilois on islands other than Diego Garcia (which had been depopulated in 1971) were shipped to Mauritius by the end of 1973. Now no islands of the Chagos Archipelago would be peopled with a native population.  In 1973 the British government agreed to give Mauritius an additional 650,000 British Pounds for a “full and final” settlement of resettlement costs.  Many of the Ilois were induced to sign waivers of further legal action under questionable circumstances. Some, however, refused, and soon the Ilois were investigating legal action.

In 1974 the Ilois signed a petition decrying their expulsion and impoverished standard of living, delivering copies to Mauritian Prime Minister Ramgoolam and the British and U.S. embassies in Mauritius. They wrote “Our ancestors were slaves on those islands [ Chagos ], but we know that we are the heirs of those islands. Although we were poor there, we were not dying of hunger. We were living free.”   Naturally, the British told the petitioners that they should take their problems to the Mauritian government. The U.S. position would later be enunciated by a State Department official: “these people originally were a British responsibility and are now a Mauritian responsibility.”   The petition and subsequent public revelations about the horrible conditions of the Ilois created a stir in the U.S. congress. Up until this time, administration officials had told congress that the islands were unpopulated. The administration defended its earlier testimony in part by explaining that it had relied on British reports, implying that it was unaware of the problems.  In response, senator John Culver led an effort to delay funding for the expansion of the island’s facilities and a number of congressionally stimulated investigations were begun.


By 1974 the plans for the expansion of Diego Garcia beyond an austere communications facility were set. The lagoon was to be dredged to provide an anchorage capable of handling a 6-ship carrier task force. Petroleum storage was increased tenfold and facilities for loading a 180,000 ton tanker within 24 hours were planned. The runway would be lengthened from 8,000 to 12,000 feet and additional apron space and facilities would be built for aircraft including P-3 Orion antisubmarine warfare aircraft. Finally, personnel facilities would be added for more than 600 people.  These plans were controversial, however, and held up by opposition to the base and revelations of the eviction of the Ilois. By 1976 the opposition had been overcome and the Navy was ready to begin construction of the expanded facilities. On February 25 the British Indian Ocean Territory Agreement of 1976 was signed, formally permitting the U.S. to upgrade its communications facility to a support facility.

A less publicized part of the upgrade was to be the establishment of a ground station for a new generation of intelligence gathering satellites. The United States navy had built and operated such spacecraft since 1961 under conditions of extreme secrecy. Many of the navy’s early “SolRad” satellites, which had the publicized mission of studying solar radiation, carried a secondary payload called GRAB (Galactic RAdiation Background experiment). Its mission was to covertly monitor electronic emissions (such as radar).   By the early 1970s these systems had evolved into Project SISS ZULU, which had ground stations around the world operated by all three military services and the CIA. In 1976 the Navy was to begin operation of a new generation system under the codename CLASSIC WIZARD. The station on Diego Garcia would effectively replace a SISS ZULU facility that had been located near Peshawar, Pakistan, before that nation had refused to renew a base agreement.

Events in 1979 and 1980 would cement the role of Diego Garcia in U.S. military strategy and lead to yet further expansion. A series of shocks in the Middle East and Southwest Asia including the fall of the Shah of Iran, the Hostage Crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, would lead President Carter to enunciate the “Carter Doctrine.” Basically, it publicly announced that the United States would fight to maintain security over Middle East oil supplies. The policy was primarily a warning to the Soviet Union, but it set the stage for large scale U.S. intervention following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait a decade later. Diego Garcia would become the home for a small fleet of ships carrying pre positioned equipment for the newly formed Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force.   The Diego Garcia lagoon would be home to about a dozen large merchant ships packed with the equipment and supplies to support an expeditionary force whose personnel would be flown to meet their gear.

 In effect, Diego Garcia’s mission expanded as presidential doctrines evolved. The Nixon Doctrine emphasized limited direct U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, and the base was originally created by emphasizing its limited role as a communications facility and that it was not the signal of a permanent, major, U.S. presence.  The Ford administration began publicly exploring the idea of expanding the U.S. naval mission in the Indian Ocean.   With the Carter Doctrine, Diego Garcia would not only be a significant support facility for a nearly continuous major U.S. naval presence, it would also be a “jumping off point” for direct intervention into regional wars.

It is interesting to note, however, that plans for these various Diego Garcia expansions were made prior to presidential doctrines or foreign policy announcements. This could lead one to speculate about cause and effect in terms of U.S. foreign policy. Public acknowledgment, and debate, about mission expansion seemed to take place only after the executive bureaucracy had already formulated the plans which would inevitably (if messily) be carried out. Both the U.S. and British executive branches took action to ensure that legislative oversight became instead legislative hindsight, looking into actions already carried out instead of debating and helping to formulate future actions.

The Reagan administration continued the policy of developing Diego Garcia. One of the most notable changes was the upgrading of the runway and airfield facilities to permit B-52 bombers to operate from the island. The United States kept this capability low key for international political reasons, but during the Gulf War of 1991 a provisional bomb wing would operate from the island, bombing targets in Iraq. An antisubmarine warfare operations center (ASWOC) was established on the island. A USAF optical space tracking facility  was built as well as a space operations facility. Logistics facilities were upgraded. At the end of the Gulf War of 1991, Diego Garcia was firmly established as a major U.S. base of operations. Its importance has grown in inverse proportion to the permanent U.S. presence in several regional nations. In particular, the U.S. military withdrawal from the Philippines has greatly increased reliance on Diego Garcia. In this sense Diego Garcia is a vindication for the “Strategic Islands” strategy adopted so long ago. The U.S. might leave or be evicted from some nations (Iran, the Philippines). Some facilities might be vulnerable to attack (Yemen to boat bombs and Bahrain to SCUD missiles). But Diego Garcia is safe and isolated, both physically and politically.

Today Diego Garcia is a major U.S. base supporting military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time of the establishment of the base few could have predicted the tumultuous path of history. The Soviet Union, the bases’ raison de etre, no longer exists. The advent of communications satellites has ended the Indian Ocean communications “dead zone” that worried Kennedy era strategists. Iran has gone from ally to enemy and the U.S. has ended up invading not Saudi Arabia but Iraq. Twice. The island has become even more important as its original, limited, missions recede into the past. Diego Garcia is still geographically remote, but the expanding reach of technology has allowed it to serve not only as a “support” facility but as a combat base. B-52 bombers, many older than the base itself, fly round-trip bombing missions over Iraq. During the last invasion of Iraq B-2 bombers taking off from Missouri landed on the island in order to swap crews for the return flight home. It took the aircraft more than 40 hours to reach Diego Garcia via their bombing points after take off, and the return flight from Diego Garcia was 30 hours.

The U.S. military is more firmly entrenched on the island than ever, and it vigorously opposes resettlement of any of the Chagos islands. Years of legal wrangling have ended in further disappointment for the Chagossians, as they now call themselves since ‘Ilois’ has taken on pejorative overtones in Mauritius. In November of 2000 two British judges handed down a stunning decision which declared that the British government had “no sources of lawful authority” to justify the removal of the natives, and instructed that they be allowed to move back to at least some of the islands. The British government stalled, calling for the inevitable studies of the situation. The British government argued, among other things, that the islands may eventually be submerged by global warming and that therefore they should not be resettled. It then resorted to yet another “Orders in Council” to effectively overrule the court’s orders with the Queen’s prerogative. Regardless, no one would be allowed to return to the islands.

The Chagossians’ hopes for monetary compensation were dashed in October of 2003 when a judge at the High Court in London threw out their case. He ruled that their claims were “stale and time-barred,” a vindication of the stalling tactics of the British government. The judge ruled that even though some of the Chagossians had been subject to “shameful” treatment, they had no prospect of success since exile as a legal wrong was “not arguable.” He also accused some of the Plaintiffs of lying and failing to address past litigation (such as a 1982 agreement signed by many Chagossians). Likewise, a longshot suit filed in the United States against a plethora of defendants was summarily dismissed.


Diego Garcia has long been at the center of maps of the Indian Ocean but on the periphery of the regions history. As time goes on, however, its role in the region is beginning to match the centrality of its location. Ignored by the first “western” superpower in the Indian Ocean, the island is now the key base of operations for the latest superpower in the region. The islands of the Chagos were first chronicled by Portuguese sailors who stumbled across them while sailing for other destination. For centuries they were little known and served as little more than a navigation hazard. As sailing technology and knowledge improved the islands became more accessible. While the islands of the Chagos were not suitable as military bases during the Napoleonic era, colonial entrepreneurs would permanently settle the islands and begin the industry that would be at the center of the islands economy for over a century: coconut harvesting and processing. The introduction of steam power in ships would further erode Diego Garcia’s isolation and at the beginning of the 20th century formerly alien powers, like Germany, would show an interest in the area. The two world wars would make even the remote Chagos into a battle zone, and the introduction of aircraft would allow the island to dominate the central Indian Ocean as it never had before.

If the French and British conflict around 1800 helped lead to the island’s settlement, the U.S. and Soviet conflict in the 1960s helped lead to the island’s depopulation. Unfortunately, many of the island’s residents, whose ancestors were slaves, had become attached to what they thought was their island. Unprepared for the termination of their primitive island lifestyle, they found themselves an impoverished and unwanted minority in Mauritius. As in so many cases, the necessity of the powerful becomes the destiny of the weak. Despite the evaporation of its original justifications, the island base has expanded and is considered more important than ever by the United States. The seemingly inevitable expansion of U.S. power in the Indian Ocean in the face of claims to not want such power brings to mind many historical parallels.   Hegemonic patterns, however, are beyond the scope of this thesis.

If the importance of Diego Garcia to its “owners” was marked on a graph, it would grow rapidly as the modern day is approached. Inversely, if one were to graph the nominal isolation of the island (physical, cultural, etc.) a rapidly decreasing line would be seen. As distance means less and less the islands physical centrality becomes ever more important. The ocean buffers Diego Garcia from enemies both physical and political, but the United States has the means to strike out over this “defensive” barrier into adjoining regions. The island may be entering an era of unprecedented utility as air power, fast sea lift, and modern communications allow facilities and units on the island to directly intervene over the entire Indian Ocean littoral. As other nations gain capabilities for striking effectively over distance, however, the need for increased defensive measures could sap the island’s offensive utility. As an example, India is on the verge of being able to field tactical ballistic missiles that could threaten Diego Garcia from Southern India, and is  upgrading its aircraft to longer range models.

As the importance of the base on Diego Garcia  increases it is likely that the U.S. presence will become increasingly controversial in the political arena. It is conceivable that some day Diego Garcia may become not just an adjunct to wars but the central issue of one, like the Falklands. Diego Garcia itself may soon be making history instead of just enduring it.

Only the Sun Remembers: James Alan Thompson and Diego Garcia
by Steven J Forsberg

       As most island residents know, they are not the first to get their arses sent to Diego Garcia.  As early as 1786 military people were being sent to the island, despite their protestations that the place was 1) Remote 2) Hot 3) Useless. And yet, as we approach the 219th anniversary of the first official settlement of the island by the British (a settlement which was quickly abandoned) , it may be time to reflect on the blessings of our modern age. As recently as World War II the island was a very different place for the people stationed on it.  While some themes remain constant, there is little doubt that Diego Garcia has come a long way from the place described by British marine James Alan Thompson.  He did time on DG during World War II and even lived to write about it.  His most apropos book was “Only the Sun Remembers”, which I will quote extensively in a bit.  While it was more a work of literary exposition than a historical text, it still provides some food for thought for those who think that modern day Dodge is a “hardship” post.  James Alan Thompson didn’t think too highly of Diego Garcia, but he had his reasons.

       Thompson was newly married when he joined the Royal Marines during the first days of World War II.  His first adventure was being assigned as an officer overseeing a detachment of an anti-aircraft regiment. The guns were obsolescent antiques saved from a scrap heap, “Mark God-has-forgotten 1916 single barrel 2 inch naval pom poms”.  They were not mobile, it took hours to move them. They only had contact fuse shells. The crews were poorly trained.  So naturally, when the Germans invaded Norway these guys were on their way.  They landed at a small port and set up their guns. Things went fine. Until the German planes showed up. After several days of getting the snot bombed out of them they finally managed to shoot down an airplane. It just happened to be a British aircraft.  As the front lines collapsed back onto the port the unit “lost cohesion.”  That’s staff speak for “Every man for himself.”  After a couple days lingering near town (to avoid bombing and shelling) Thompson found himself amidst a crowd of cold, tired, hungry, desperate soldiers elbowing their ways onto the last ships out. So much for the glory of war!

         After a little bit of rest and relaxation the military saw fit to forward Thompson to the middle east. He spent some time in Palestine, where the British were fighting a guerilla war against the Zionists. While there, he was thick in the British attempt to organize a defense of the island of Crete. For those who don’t recall, the Germans invaded Crete and made the British look as bad as they had at Norway. Apparently deciding that Thompson’s morale was still too high, the military then forwarded him to the Indian Ocean where certainly the Brits would do better against the Japs. He was assigned to a ship named the “Clan Forbes” (more on her in a minute), which served for a while as a sort of mobile base construction ship.  He spent time on the Maldives Islands, helping to build a secret naval base where the British hoped they could hide their fleet.

       Just as they were getting the base up and running, they got a morale boosting visit from two visiting ships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse.  After much partying with the crew they sent the ships off to punish the Japs.  For those who don’t recall, the two ships were quickly sunk by Japanese aircraft, and the Japanese imitated the Germans by unceremoniously kicking the British out of several places in Asia and the Indian Ocean.  After the “great naval fortress” of Singapore fell the British would indeed use the secret base in the Maldives to hide from a raiding Japanese carrier force.  It just wasn’t the Brit’s decade.  Finishing up in the Maldives, the Clan Forbes was sent to build up the British presence at Diego Garcia, and Thompson sailed along.

      The Clan Forbes was a sizeable ship, but she was built for cargo and not passengers. Relatively new (1938) she was 7,500 tons and over 463 feet long. She had been bombed by the Germans while in port in England, but was quickly patched and sent on an emergency supply mission to Malta, which was being pounded by the Germans and Italians (surprise, surprise).  She eventually found herself in the Indian Ocean.  Incidentally, this was the 3rd Clan Forbes. Her namesake, the second Clan Forbes, had been sunk by a torpedo during World War I.

       "I was never so near the sun, so near the soul of the elemental, so fearful or so overwhelmed; East or West along the Equator Line, degrees North or South, the sun burned nearer to the earth in Chagos.
       Trapped, imprisoned by thousands of miles of ocean to every point on the polished brass compass, by-passed by ship trail and sky path; feebly fastened to life by the haphazard mail and supply ship coming from Mauritius, once, twice or three times each long year. Until the temporary installation of a RAF wireless station at East Point, completely devoid of contact with the distant world; at one time unaware of the world’s new war. [editor's note: Recall that during World War I the islanders had welcomed the German raider Emden, not knowing that a war had broken out ]
       Diego Garcia, Chagos; a name unheard, disregarded, useless, unremarked from my schoolboy’s bleak geography or avid, quick-eyed reading of traveler’s tales.
       Only those who have really known can appreciate the emotions of loneliness; the lonely and the lost, who have once stared into unknown skies at the earth’s ends. And have marvalled at their own ignorance, wondered at the labours of their little fates; and seen again with frightened eyes the deathless, ever-present spectre of the no-return, the ghost of the no-go-home. Never again to see, to hold or to touch; to approach the loveliness in the warm, sweet splendour of the touch of flesh....."
      Yeah, he was missing his wife alright. Something about being on the opposite side of the planet can do things to people. And recall this was well before the internet, or even Cable and Wireless, or for that matter scheduled mail service.
"Cables and bent cards for Christmas, birthday, and wedding anniversary; formal memories in the rough, sore heart.  I cursed and yearned for the real, the warm, white flesh behind the ink scrawl, wept for the lips behind the comforting, senseless lipstick imprints. Paper and ink; life from a Stephen’s bottle and a Parker pen; paper emotion, posted joy.  Under an invisible avalanche of heat; as I read in sun sick March in the Chagos, of my wife and home in a bitter December, as she anticipated a Christmas which I had nearly forgotten, on the other side of the earth."

       This guy seriously needed to get drunk, or something. Imagine yourself living on DG, but without a few comforts. Like air conditioning or ice. Ouch!  Amidst the confusion and disorganization of early 1942, many of the military actually began to come down with scurvy and even beri-beri because of the poor diet. Working in the heat and humidity they suffered from various blisters and skin maladies that I will do the reader a favor and not describe in detail.  Even far from enemy fire death took its toll with a variety of mishaps that any modern sailor could understand. A “young sergeant” died a lingering death after falling over the side and hitting his head on an adjacent landing craft. Thompson got to censor his last letter home. Another marine was much luckier, however. While winching one of the decrepit old 6 inch guns out of the Clan Forbes (still mounted at ‘Cannon Point’) the teeth in a winch gear slipped and the barrel fell 8 feet. The winch handle spun off and hit a man square on the forehead. He would ultimately live, albeit with a “terrible dented scar on his brow.”

       "But the anchorage had to be given the surface defence of two old six-inch guns, ultimately manned by a wretched, ill-disciplined, spiritless battery raised in Mauritius, transported to Diego Garcia, and literally flung ashore without semblance of tentage, equipment, proper rations and devoid of the knowledge or will to provide in any way for their own future existence."
      Gee whiz, was there *anything* good about DG back then? Well, actually...
       "Diego Garcia is the fisherman’s paradise; the incredible Valhalla where all lies come true, where two exaggerating arms cannot span the fish he caught; where there is neither doubt nor hope but only the certainty of catching fish until his arm is tired or the line snaps. Until there is no longer room to move in the boat, until there are sufficient fish to feed a ship full of hungry men. Fishing in paradise, in the kind waters of greedy and ignorant fish; dream fish, fish weighing ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred pounds. The one sport of Chagos; in which to indulge our small excitement until the sun burned our bodies and the revolting stench of the dead sharks became unbearable."
What about the natives?  Thompson wasn’t too impressed. He even got a firsthand look at the infamous “Sega” dance, which sounds an awful lot like a modern day rave. Chemicals (in this case rum), drums, orgy-like sex.  But of course Thompson is too gentlemanly to describe it in great detail, damn him!  Bertillon, a manager, is described like a character out of a Dickens novel.  While saying his goodbyes, Thompson bluntly said “I hope I never see this place again.”

       "Forever gone; never to return. In the coming years never the words, one day I will go back; only a curse for the buried months. With fading pity for the lost humans; Bertillon and his hatred, the unseen Malbois in the house near the great trees, the Creoles in laughter and passion.  For I was apart; I had no love, I could not care. I longed to escape from Chagos, away from the lifeless islands.
I turned from the rail, and the new breeze from the open sea freshened in my face."

Do YOU know any REAL historical facts about our favorite island?
If you do, send them to me, and I'll get them on the site!

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Text Copyright 2006 by Stephen J. Forsberg