In the mid-20th century, as much of the rest of the world was undergoing a process of decolonisation, Britain was creating a new colony in Africa.
The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice and Britain’s Colonial Legacy by Philippe Sands, focuses on the story of Chagos — an archipelago in the Indian Ocean — and the ongoing attempts made by Mauritius to reclaim the territory.
Sands is well known for his recent books about the legacy of the Nazis and the birth of international human rights law, including East West Street and The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive. In his latest, short book, he is not impartial: he was hired to act on behalf of the government of Mauritius, an island nation with a population of about 1.3 million considered part of the African continent. But the history he recounts, and the suffering of the impoverished people affected, makes it clear that a wrong has been done.
The story largely begins in 1963, when Britain started secret talks with the US, which wanted to set up a military base on the Chagos island of Diego Garcia. The concurrent wrangling over possible independence between Britain and Mauritius will sound familiar to those who have studied Irish history. The British use strong-arm tactics, including what a briefing paper describes as “frighten[ing ... the premier of Mauritius] with hope ... that he might get independence; fright lest he might not unless he sensible about the detachment” to maintain control of Chagos, even as Mauritius gets its freedom.
But did Britain act acceptably according to international law?
Running through this book is the story of Liseby Elisé. She was born in 1953 in Peros Banhos, a tiny Chagos island that she calls “paradise”. In 1973 Elisé was taken away from it. She had no notice before British authorities forced her, and about 1,500 others, on to boats that brought them 1,000 miles away. Elisé was four months pregnant, and her baby died after birth, which she attributed to trauma. Some fellow passengers never even made it: they jumped in the sea or died during the journey.
Elisé is illiterate. She has no photos from her time on Peros Banhos, but her memories seem sharp. The book opens with her delivering an address to the International Court of Justice in 2018 with no notes, eventually weeping in what Sands called an “open and unusual” expression of emotion “in so venerable a place”.
Her small island and its inhabitants had become players in much larger geopolitical situations, including the Iraq war. Many planes that launched the initial attack on Iraq, Sands writes, were B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers flown from Diego Garcia.
The book includes details of more strategies employed by Britain. These include misleading the UN, and changing the UK’s acceptance of the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction to stop a complaint from being brought directly there. Conservation and the environment are also utilised: the potential creation of a “marine protected area” is touted by a Foreign Office official as having the advantage of eliminating former residents’ claims. In various situations, public statements are shown to have contradicted what the British government privately knew at the time.
Late in the book, Boris Johnson makes an appearance as British foreign secretary, “characteristically ill-prepared” as he goes off script and threatens Mauritius with “economic and other consequences”, while asking them to call off a UN General Assembly vote.
This is a brief history of decolonisation. We return to the Atlantic Charter and the “principle of self-determination”; the work and campaigning of Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche; and the creation of the UN. There is a mention of the role of Irish diplomat Frederick Boland, and the negotiations that took place to ensure a situation such as the lack of Irish unity did not take place again as other territories won freedom.
As the UK’s leadership has become increasingly bombastic and vocal about what they seemingly see as their exceptionalism in the wake of Brexit over the past six years, there has also been a growing disquiet about gaps in the British education system
This is also a book about Sands, and his relationship — as a lawyer — with the world of international law. He writes how verdicts can be dependent on which judges are presiding at any particular time and how he “must consider with care ... their country’s views on matters that may touch on the case”. He repeatedly references how overwhelmingly male or white the decision-makers and other lawyers can be. There are also a few intriguing details on the more practical experience of taking cases, including how lawyers and arbitrators can end up staying in hotels together, sharing breakfast rooms and gyms.
As the UK’s leadership has become increasingly bombastic and vocal about what they seemingly see as their exceptionalism in the wake of Brexit over the past six years, there has also been a growing disquiet about gaps in the British education system, including how little is included about the damaging impacts of empire and the wrongs Britain has carried out globally. At the same time, there has been a series of great books on this topic.
In March, Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Elkins released Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, about the abuses utilised by Britain in colonies across a quarter of the world’s land mass, along with the deliberate destruction of records and evidence when they began to withdraw (Elkin’s previous work focused on the brutal suppression of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion against the British, and the incarceration and torture of Kenyans in detention camps).
In May, Sathnam Sanghera, author of Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, won Book of the Year at the British Book Awards for his examination of how the legacy of the British empire shaped the UK today. And in July, Ghanaian-British law professor Kojo Koram’s Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire, which looked at the looting of former colonies by Britain, was a finalist for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing.
Sands’s fascinating and considered book adds to this ever-growing and essential body of literature — but will it have an impact? Chagos’s former residents are still waiting to find out.