The Forbidden Archipelago

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Members of the leisured classes
(Click on any photo or map for a blow up)

The recent history of Chagos, starting from around the 1960's is not a pretty one. It is a grim example of the way the big powers of the world, in this case the United Kingdom and the United States, re-writes the maps and resettle populations by force, with no respect for native rights.

The Chagos archipelago is located roughly halfway between South Africa and Indonesia with a centre at around 5°S and 72°E. It comprises six atolls with 55 islands, but with a total land area of only 60 km2. In the 18th century the islands were claimed by France as a possession of Mauritius, at the time a French colony, for the exploitation of copra. Some of the atolls, Diego Garcia, Salomon Islands and Peros Banhos, were then settled by African slaves and Indian labourers brought in by the French to work the coconut plantations.

Under the treaty of Paris in 1814 Mauritius, including Chagos, became a possession of Britain. In 1966 the British government purchased the privately owned copra plantations and closed them down. They then forcibly and stealthily evicted the entire population of 2,000 Chagossians from their lands. Chagos was detached from Mauritius and the area is now a British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), set aside for defence purposes of the British and the Americans. Diego Garcia, the largest island is leased to the USA as a military base.

Mauritius has later cited the separation illegal under international law and the islanders and their descendants have continually fought for their right to return to their homeland, winning important legal victories in the British High Court.

According to a Wiki Leaks disclosure document, in a calculated move in 2009, to prevent re-settlement by native Chagossians, the UK proposed that the BIOT become a "marine reserve" with the aim of thus preventing the former inhabitants from returning to their lands (source: Wikipedia).

Boddam island anchorage, looking west from Ile Poule
All the atolls, with the exception of certain parts of the Salomon Islands and Peros Banhos are today off limits for the public. It is possible for cruisers to visit those two atolls provided that they have applied for and been granted permission in advance. The maximum length of a visit is 4 weeks and there is a charge of 50 GBP per week. A permit is granted only if the yacht has an insurance covering wreck salvage and the crews have medical insurances covering evacuation.
cross cemetery
Boddam island landing A Chagossian memorial The cemetary at Boddam island
This year there had been less than 20 permits issued by the time we arrived. Many of these yachts happened to be at Boddam island in the Salomon atoll at the same time as Scorpio, as this is the time of the year (dictated by weather considerations) when yachts are making their way from Asia to Africa. We again had an opportunity to meet cruising friends, whom we had befriended in previous anchorages during the past years.

Walking around on Boddam Island is a sobering experience. The jungle is quickly reclaiming its own and most of the buildings are only ruins anymore. Some buildings are still standing, like the church, the school and the bakery, although usually the roofs, which had been made of palm branches are gone. It was sad to imagine that this island only a few decades ago was inhabited by several hundred people, who then were removed from their homes by force.

This place reminded us of Royal Island in northern Eleuthera, The Bahamas, in 2002, where the jungle was taking back what once was a resort.

anniversary party
Scorpio's 20th anniversary Washerwomen Cruisers' party
Kathy and Richard - s/y Mr. Curly Silvio and Liliane - s/y Matajusi Malla with Nick and Gertrud - s/y Tartufo
We spent our days fishing, snorkelling, hiking and partying. One of the highlights must have been washing clothes at the old well. My luck wasn't very good; our alternators and regulators broke down and it took me the best part of seven days to get one fixed by combining parts from two units and making a device for manually controlling the field current. For those technically interested I will post a separate story about this project in due course. Between my sessions in the engine room we found time for several games of petanque with our friends on s/y Elaine.
Burning our trash (above), hermit crab community (upper right) Coconut picking

We didn't think picking a few coconuts
would be forbidden. There must be
millions of them. After all, these
islands have been copra plantations.

Far left: There was always fish around
the yacht waiting for food scrap

The Coconut crabs are protected and we
had to leave them alone. This is a big one.

We spent almost three weeks in the Salomon Islands, but even before our permit expired we decided it was time to start on our last leg for the season. On May 9 we thought we had a good weather window and left the islands for the trip to Mauritius, 1,300 nm to the southwest.

Did we choose a good weather window? Come back soon and find out.

In the meantime - this story describes what took place the day after our departure from Chagos:
Cyclone Alert - Executive Decisions Between Chagos and Mauritius.