Diego Garcia – Indian connections

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Diego Garcia - A remote island, in the middle of nowhere

South of the Maldives, some 1,000 miles below Trivandrum, located at the center of the Indian Ocean, lies the small archipelago comprising the Chagos islands, and among it, the Island cloaked in mystery, Diego Garcia. It is of strategic importance these days and occasionally there is talk about its displaced islanders and the island’s relationship between the US and the British, the US military base there as well as the US long-term lease of the islands. But this is a little article uncovering its medieval history and its relation to India.

Readers would note that I had been working on the history of the islands outlying India, earlier I had written about the Maldives, Laccadives, and finally the Andamans. It would not be appropriate if I did not cover the Diego Garcia Islands, for they did figure in the Estado Da India - Portuguese past and of course, it did come to the fore in the cold war period – the 70’s, when there was an outcry as it became apparent to the public in India that the Americans had established a strategic outpost there.

The Chagos Archipelago with its 50 odd islands is still quite virgin and mostly unspoiled by human occupation and is part of what is known as BIOT or British Indian Ocean Territory, far-flung from the mainland. The Maldives lies about 400 miles to its North, while the Cocos Keelings some 1,500 miles Eastward. Seychelles is some 1,000 miles west and Mauritius is about 1,200 miles South West. In the past, this island was only accessible to adventurous sailors, but these days, there are noncommercial and military air links. Some of the islands namely Eagle, Three brothers, Sea Cow, Danger, Peros Banhos, Egmont, Salomon, and Diego Garcia are the most important landmasses in the Chagos. The Chagos section, which includes the island of Diego Garcia, comprises 5 atolls and 6 banks.

It is mentioned that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to find it. I would not hesitate to add that an odd Marakkar sailor may have known about its existence, but would not have bothered about it and may have preferred the larger and nearer Maldives, which were frequently visited by them.  After the Portuguese placed some dots in a 1502 map signifying these islands, and it became part of their charts for a while, it was managed by the French in the 1790s and eventually transferred to the British after the Napoleonic Wars. Till the Chagos Islands became part of British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 1965, it remained a dependent of Mauritius and, well, as you may know, is leased to America, these days.

Diego Garcia itself is a horseshoe-shaped island and has not really been specifically mentioned by sailors from Malabar, iterant Arab traders, or for that matter, the huge Chinese treasure ship armadas of Cheng Ho. For all practical purposes, it was the caravels of the Portuguese which chanced on these islands in the 16th century and made a record of it. But there is a little confusion on this as well, for there is a discussion as to whether it was the Portuguese sailor Pedro Mascarenhas who had discovered Mauritius (1507-1513) or the Spanish Navigator Diego Garcia who visited it in 1532, the first and the present name was popularized only by the end of the 18th century. The only aspect which cemented the Portuguese discovery theory was the presence of Portuguese roofing tiles which they carried as ballast (I tend to believe they were for roofing in Malabar or Goa where thatched roofs were the norm and tiling was a royal prerogative) near the island.

An early armada piloted by Dom Garcia de Noronha reached Mozambique in 1512 and was notified of Albuquerque’s struggle to wrest control of Goa. Dom Garcia, assuming, due to the delays in transmission of messages in those days, that urgent assistance was needed by Albuquerque, decided to send some of his ships through a different route to India.  He thus ended up splitting his armada and sent the second portion, commanded by Pedro Mascarenhas, to try and reach India via this new route where, instead of sailing north along the African coast and then East, Mascarenhas would sail directly east, south of Madagascar, and then northeast to India. It was during this voyage that Mascarenhas discovered this remote island and apparently named it Dom Garcia after his commander Garcia. The string of small islands, reefs, and shoals, around were called the Chagos archipelago.  Nothing much came out of it, the islands were pretty barren and other than serving as dots on the updated chart, together with these new names, were quickly forgotten.

In 1555 a treasure-laden Portuguese Nau Conceicao was shipwrecked in the Chagos region, and its Captain Francesco Nombre slunk away with 20 or so sailors, on the only boat, headed for Cochin, leaving behind most of the crew. Two rafts later took some 80 more survivors to Cochin and Cannanore while the others perished at another island after eating a few thousand birds that inhabited it. I will retell the story of the Conceicao later after referring to some Portuguese/French texts and with the help of the chronicler of Chagos – Nigel Wenban-Smith, shortly, for it is quite a story.

Anyway, the Portuguese and the other voyagers stayed away from the rocky and shallow areas, as well as the uninteresting islands which were unmanned and home only to many coconut trees, to avoid risking further shipwrecks. Some years later in 1602, a British voyager James Lancaster passed by, got stuck in the maze but managed to find his way out and did not attempt any landing there. We find Dutch and French mentions in 1744 and further on, and it is believed that wandering pirates too found their way to the island. Captain Kydd finds a mention, he probably visited (and but naturally there is a legend that he buried some treasure there!) the island, evidenced by the discovery of an 18th-century cannonball. Not much later, we can see a contest between the French and the British in colonizing these islands scattered around in the region. A proper survey was undertaken by the EIC in 1786 and a map of the area was produced by Lt Archibald Blair. Later an expedition was sent out from Bombay to explore the island, headed by Richard Price with the authority to expel any French who may be found, which he did. Strange is the fact that the first flag which was hoisted on the Island was the EIC flag, the flag on which the American stars and stripes was modeled, the flag you will find at Diego Garcia today!

The settlement had a huge rodent problem, with vegetables and potatoes quickly getting consumed by large numbers of rats on the island! The purpose of the colony was to establish a 'victualing station' for ships plying the route and so, six shiploads of topsoil were imported from India in which to grow food plants. But it was not a great venture, cattle and ducks died, and the settlers were unsure if the island would ever prove to be hospitable on the whole. The French at Mauritius protested and not wanting an international incident, the British quickly withdrew to Bombay. As they left, the French arrived, put in some pillars establishing their sovereignty, and suggested that interested parties in Mauritius may set up their units on the island, collect coconuts or fish in the area, to make it somewhat of a business venture.

Sometime later, the French used this as a leper island, assuming that turtle meat cured Leprosy! It is at this juncture, in 1792, that a British ship anchored off Diego Garcia in 1792. The captain sent two of his Indian lascars to check out the situation there and scout for water. When they came back to report that there had come across a small party of 8-10 lepers (men and women) there, who had directed them to a water well, the alarmed British captain, worried about the spread of leprosy, left the lascars at the island and sailed away. If and how they managed to survive, is not clear, but they were perhaps the first Indian inhabitants in Diego Garcia. A year later the French set up a coconut processing factory there, so they must have found gainful employment.

A Monsieur Lapotaire from Mauritius then set up the first coconut 'factory' concession on Eclipse Point in 1793, using slaves from Mauritius.  He also brought the first black slaves to the island.  The little factory shipped coconuts to Mauritius to be processed into oil and also shipped out salted fish, rope made from coconut fiber. They also exported Sea Turds (Sea Cucumbers) to China, where they were considered a great delicacy. The coconut oil was in great demand, used for lamps, soap, and cooking and pretty soon, these islands were known as the ‘oil islands’.

The British, not very happy with all this French privateering, captured Mauritius and its 'lesser dependencies' (including Diego Garcia), and eventually, in 1810 and in 1814, these islands were ceded to the British, by the French. The first American mention in the islands was in 1819, when an American brig Pickering rescued some 340 crew of a floundering Dutch warship Evertsen. At that point in time, it was a creole settlement, with some 250 people of which over 210 were slaves. The slave-driven economy of the islands continued through the 19th century. American whalers hunted whales around the islands in the meantime.

There were quite a few Indian slaves and later a few lascar deserters in these plantations, coming in from Cochin, Goa, and Bombay. Over years they assimilated with the African population, losing virtually all Indian identity. When sailing ships decreased and coal-fired ships ruled the ocean, the island became a coaling station for the run to Australia. A water distillation plant, a chapel, and a light railway were set up to complete the station. However, cruise ships were not allowed to disembark passengers on the island but this did happen resulting in considerable problems. After some time, oil production was stopped and copra became the main produce.

The next brush with India was when the SMS Emden used Diego Garcia as its coaling station (the coal was carried in its coaling ship Buresk) during WW-I in 1914. You will all remember how Emden bombed the Madras harbor and terrified the inhabitants and the British resident there. After these events, and chased by British cruisers, the ship retired to Diego Garcia for repairs. The confused plantation managers were not in the know and went along with the welcome visitors. The sailors left after two days, and the British soon arrived in hot pursuit. The Emden steamed off to the Maldives, sank many more ships, then wheeled off to the Cocos Islands, where it was eventually sunk by the British.

Not much took place between the wars, and by the 2nd world war, the British fortified the islands with some 6” guns and gave it a code name Port2Y, with a team maintaining a watch for German warships and U boats, as well as maintaining a small army battalion (20th and 34th) and the Ceylon Defense force. Operation Concubine, to determine if an airstrip could be laid there resulted in abandoning the idea of laying one due to the sandy soil. Interestingly, it appears the radio transmission between Goa and the Germans was intercepted at Diego Garcia Island (This resulted in the operation Longshanks - sinking of the Ehrenfels at Goa!)! After the war, the two divisions were withdrawn.

It was in 1956 that Stuart Barber working for the US Navy’s long-range objectives group suggested that the US should acquire strategic bases for the future. In 1963, the idea was blessed by President Kennedy after an OK had been given by Admiral Wright who had surveyed the island in 1957. In 1965, the BIOT was established and in 1966 Britain and America signed a lease agreement for an initial period of 50 years, extendable by 20 years. The BIOT brought out the plantation Chagos-Agalega for £600,000. In 1968, the satellite tracking team arrived and the ’70s saw the construction of the extensive apparatus for communications and tracking. Simultaneously the plantation and its staff were retrenched and the oil island history was brought to a close. All the animals and some 1400 islanders were transported to Agalega, Mauritius, and Seychelles, it was indeed a traumatic end to their years of slavery and emancipation. The British paid the government of Mauritius £650,000 as resettlement costs and later in 1982, a sum of £4,000,000. Another £1,000,000 was put up by the Mauritius government.

I will not get into any further details of how the British and the Americans created the SIGINT station or any more of the 82nd airborne unit’s activities at the island but will veer off into how this had an impact in India. Mauritius parted with the Chagos and the BIOT islands perhaps as a precondition for its independence from Britain in 1968 and a payment of £3M. The US compensation amounted to some 15M$ on account of the Polaris missile systems at UK out of which 12M$ went towards the clearing up of Diego Garcia.

India makes a point when it mentions that this strategic island was conquered by the EIC with Indian arms and Indian money, and remained under the Government of India’s control for several decades. But it was not mentioned in the transfer of power discussions, like the Cocos Island north of Andaman. It thus remained a British property, so from a legal point, is moot in the argument. Now if one questions why major powers looked for a strategic presence in the Indian ocean, the answer lies in the fact that a large number of cheaper oil producers and oil shipping are from countries adjoining the Indian ocean. These countries also produce many other critical raw materials used or needed by the developing world. So, if the free flow of goods through the Indian Ocean is affected due to some reason, the world suffers. Anyway, its acquisition and setup became an important pillar in the US Bluewater strategy. That was how and why the base at Diego Garcia was conceived. By 1975, it became a secretive but full-fledged support base and was no longer a SIGINT station, alarming India. This was also the period when the Soviets set up a secret base at Berbara in Somalia, while Ethiopia hosted one for America at Kagnew. Eventually, the Somalis and Ethiopians were embroiled in the long-drawn Ogden war.

As the cold war years crept by, India found itself aligned with the Soviets due to America’s treaty with Pakistan. In the 1974 Indo-Pak conflict and the creation of Bangladesh, the US 7th fleet which was directed to the Bay of Bengal stopped by at Diego Garcia. Oil from the Gulf was an important commodity in the 60-70’s, and its price swings could affect the development and economies of the West. Any incident in the Indian Ocean or in Asia (Indo-Pak, Arab-Israeli, etc) could be a huge issue and so eyes and ears were needed to provide quick inputs for any interaction from Washington. Yet another reason was the Soviet buildup of an Indian ocean force at Vladivostok, its activity in the gulf, and rumors that it had negotiated a base at India’s Vizagapatam naval station. China was also beefing up its Navy, in the meantime with an aim to deter both the Soviet and the US efforts in the region. And finally, there was a looming prospect of the removal of US facilities from Bahrain.

At that time (70’s), India as a nonaligned country opposed the balance of power network and the sphere of influence concept, stating that these are not of any benefit to the poorer masses of Asia. Strong protests were lodged, and when the US sent out the seventh fleet to support Pakistan in the ‘tilted’ situation, during the Bangladesh liberation, protests became quite strident. The UN meanwhile agreed that the Indian Ocean should be a zone of peace, a move that resulted in US, UK, France, and the Soviets abstaining. Anyway, nothing much came out of all this. In addition to all this, Indian strategists felt that the intention of the base was beyond a listening outpost and that it was actually a support station for US Nuclear ships & submarines.

Mrs Gandhi’s position was echoed by the Indian press and SP Seth explained the Indian argument - First, the U.S. policy will trigger a competitive super- powers' arms race in an otherwise peaceful ocean. Second, the Soviet naval presence is "reactive" and, because of various geographic and military con- straints, does not pose any threat to American interests. Third, the naval competition among superpowers is likely to fuel regional conflicts and might result in local wars by proxy. Fourth, the, U.S. decision on Diego Garcia is a violation of the UN resolution declaring the Indian Ocean a "zone of peace." Finally, the U.S. move is at odds with the detente philosophy of the super- powers.

Indians also saw an element of seaborne colonialism, in these overtures. Mrs Gandhi said - In India we have always rejected what we consider the rather naive theory of political vacuums. The very theory of a power vacuum is thus a continuation of the colonial outlook in another garb.

True, these arguments are all only of historic interest and are outdated considering the present geopolitical outlook what with the Chinese bolstering their naval presence beyond their shores, in Yangon, Pakistan, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka. These days, there are, for this reason, many discussions about the role of this tiny island in matters of global security and it will continue to be key in future debates. With the Chinese close by and attempting to encircle Indian borders, a comforting American presence at Diego Garcia maybe even more important.  Nevertheless, the intention of this article was not to get into such strategic and defense discussions, which are beyond our history studies and my understanding.

But as you can see, the importance of a tiny island, in the middle of nowhere suddenly changed, to make it a very important piece of real estate, today. Its history, replete with tales of colonialism (even though there were no indigenous people in those islands), slavery, wartime intrigue, disease-free society, and whatnot, are hardly known and are today replaced with mighty doses of war and intrigue, and present-day discussions of warships, submarines, stealth aircraft, and missiles.


Chagos: A History: Exploration, Exploitation, Expulsion - Nigel Wenban-Smith, Marina Carter
Peak of Limuria – Richard Edis
Steven J. Forsberg - "Island at the Edge of Everywhere: A History of Diego Garcia"

pics - Wikimedia

The Nair Fish - An interesting side note – It was while reading up on the Chagos islands that I came across the mention of a type of edible fish called the Nair fish. I was intrigued, and upon further investigation found that this was the species called Lates Calcarifer, the Begti (Bengali), the Nuddimeen, Narimeen in Malayalam or Barramundi, the Cock-up, the Asian sea bass, and in the 18th century was also known as the Nair fish! Now, why do you think it was called so? The Nair fish is a very highly esteemed food fish being free from small bones. The frightful appearance of the mouth which gapes after death has acquired for it the Tamil name Koduwa. It was also called the “Nair-fish,” because the Nairs are considered the nobility of Malabar, and this fish was the principal river fish, as Francis Day put it! I would simply say that Narimeen was misunderstood as Nairmeen by the British, that’s about it.


  1. wilsonm51

    I am so glad I read this blog. Please know that I do not disagree with any of your telling of European/US history in Diego Gracia.
    However; your almost cursory dismissal of the possibility that these were 'inhabited' lands long before the Europeans 'discovered' them beggars belief. Sir; the most remote lands anywhere on this planet are the Hawaiian Island, they have been settled by Polynesian people for thousands of years before being 'discovered by Europeans. Similarly the island of Australia, mush to the chagrin of the European settlers hae been the home of many different 'communities' of people for tens of thousands of years.
    Diego Garcia; very much like all the Carribean Islands has been settled by people long before the European nations decided to repay their investors by exploiting the islands.
    You may have included that the British, at the behest of the US killed every dog on the island before they handed it over to the US; the Queen does love her corgis but the Diego dogs may have been of mixed heritage!

  1. Haddock

    Interesting read. Yes, did read earlier about the Emden bombing the Madras harbour.