Silence of the Chagos

Written by Shenaz Patel
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1967 nearly 2,000 Creole inhabit the idyllic islands of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Descendants of 18-century French (later British) colonists’ slaves, they spend their days happily, working in the coconut plantations and in other industries, fishing, and at night dancing and drinking homemade wines and raising families. Then, mysteriously, people start leaving mostly for nearby Mauritius on the pretext of visiting family or friends, or to seek medical attention. Charlesia’s family is among the initial group, and finally, in 1973, all including Raymonde, who is pregnant, are forcibly removed to Mauritius. The Chagossians are relegated to survive, much like refugees, in Mauritian ghettos. They wish desperately to return to Diego Garcia, only to be told that the island is “closed.” Raymonde’s son, Désiré, is unable to keep a steady job. The confused teenager wanders on the seashore and meets Charlesia. She enlightens him about their past and how they were “sold” to the superpowers.

Shenaz Patel, a Mauritian, has penned this historical novel, bringing to light the plight of the displaced Chagossians. Their forceful evacuation, and life thereafter in Mauritius, and their appeals are revealed in some detail. Patel’s intensive research (including Wikileaks) and interviews of the displaced shows in the narrative. The quotes from some historical documents, such as the handwritten note by a British official referring to the Chagossians as, “Tarzans or Men Fridays,” is most shameful.

This is a timely novel, in support of the Chagossians’ long struggle for repatriation. Following several earlier resolutions, the UN’s International Court of Justice ruled, in February 2019, for the UK to hand back the Chagos Islands to Mauritius, and the General Assembly vote, in May 2019, condemned the British occupation of the Indian Ocean Territory. It remains to be seen whether the UK will comply with the resolution. The novel’s nonlinear structure holds our interest. Highly recommended.