The origins of the Chagossian people date back as far as 1776 when a fishing company was granted rights in return for accepting lepers in exile from Mauritius. At this time the islands were under French jurisdiction, being a dependency of the Mauritian territory.
Coconut plantations were then developed, to exploit the naturally growing fruits of the islands. As these became more substantial, they were manned by slave labour largely from Madagascar and East Africa.
In 1814 the Archipelago was ceded to the British by the Treaty of Paris.
By the beginning of the 20th Century there was a population of 426 families on the islands, of which 60% were of African and Malagasy origin and 40% were of Indian origin, especially Tamil.
More than three quarters of the Islanders considered themselves permanently settled. The copra (coconut) company provided living quarters, but the residents – the Ilois people as they were then known – generally preferred to build their own thatched cottages, usually consisting of three rooms and a veranda. These homes were their property, and were transmitted from one generation to the next.
The men who harvested coconuts received a small monetary wage but this was kept in a bank account and when large enough enabled the workers to travel to Mauritius to buy things such as beds, new kitchen utensils, sewing materials and textiles.
Each Ilois male worker received 10.5 lbs of rice a week, a bottle of oil and some milk. Copra workers also fished in their off-duty hours with lobster being a frequent catch. Most Ilois families had small kitchen gardens in which they cultivated pumpkins, tomatoes, chillis and aubergines. They also reared chickens, ducks and pigs for their own consumption. Their diet, therefore, was healthy, plentiful and diverse.
By the 1960’s there were medical clinics and schools on the main islands.
The Chagossians had a distinct culture and identity as a people, and lived peaceably as one big extended family.
Little were they to know that a false perception of their residence status was being developed 6,000 miles away in Whitehall, by men who cared little for their rights or way of life…