Rosemonde Bertin was only 17 when the British authorities arrived on the Solomon atoll in 1972. Everyone was ordered to gather at the office of the manager of the coconut grove. She doesn’t remember any prior warning.
The Commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) told them that they had to leave their homes because Americans were coming to the Chagos Archipelago to set up a military base there.
For Bertin, who used to clean the house of plantation manager Mr. Doffay and look after a baby, this is the moment his island life vanished forever. “It’s been wonderful,” she said. “There were around 300 people and we lived like one big family.”
On Wednesday, 50 years later, the 67-year-old was below decks in her pitch cabin reminiscing about her youth and heading back on a chartered vessel from Mauritius to Solomon Atoll. By the weekend, she should be able to set foot in her native country.
In the early 1970s, the islanders survived by fishing and working on the plantation; regular boats to Mauritius had stopped years earlier.
“The authorities pressured people to say we had to leave or we wouldn’t survive,” she said. “The provisions of the store on the island were exhausted. There was only one bag of sugar. I don’t understand how someone who lived freely could be fired by these officials.
All the Solomon Islanders were taken on board a transport ship, the Nordvaer, chartered by the British government. Half of them were taken to Mauritius, the other half to a neighboring island, Peros Banhos. Reports at the time indicated that the islanders’ pets were killed after they left.
“I felt very sad, not knowing where I was going,” Bertin said. “There were no cabins on the boat. They put mattresses on the decks. It was in very poor condition: the ship normally carried animals and guano – fertilizer for the plantations. The conditions were so bad that one woman gave birth prematurely.
Since then, Bertin has lived in Mauritius. She has already been authorized to make “heritage” visits twice, in 2006 and 2009, under the close supervision of British officials. Now she is happy to go home unsupervised. “I can’t agree to be a visitor,” she says. “I am a native.”
Lisbey Elyse was 20 when she was disembarked from Peros Banhos in 1973. Now 68, she is also on board the Bleu De Nîmes, the former British minesweeper chartered by the Mauritian government which is heading to the Chagos Islands for a marine survey.
“Life was good. We ate what we grew. There was fresh fish and fruit,” she said. “We had a garden and grew tomatoes, eggplants, pumpkins and lettuce.”
She worked on the plantation until “two men showed up, the commissioner and a company manager. They said we couldn’t stay and we would all be kicked out of the island and taken to Mauritius. They told us that we would have houses and gardens there like we had in Peros Banhos.
That promise never materialized, she said. “I felt very sad, I was heartbroken. There was no choice but to leave. I’m so proud to be from Chagos. I want to go back and live there again. was paradise. Before, there were 1,200 people on my island.
Ownership of the islands is disputed. A UN tribunal has ruled that the UK should return the archipelago to Mauritius. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) says the decision was only advisory.
Responding to the Mauritian expedition, which will measure the reefs of the Chagos Islands, the FCDO adopted a conciliatory tone by stating: “Mauritius has informed the United Kingdom of its plan to carry out a scientific study near the Chagos Islands. The United Kingdom shares this interest in environmental protection and has assured Mauritius that it will not interrupt the investigation. He did not reiterate the UK’s assertion of sovereignty.
Chagossian Voices, an organization representing part of the exiled Chagossian community living in the UK, was more critical of the Mauritian government’s initiative. “This is an obscenely expensive vanity expedition conducted without proper consultation with the Chagossian community,” read a statement from the group.
“Many Chagossians are appalled that so much money can be spent in times of economic crisis and while Chagossians remain on the margins of Mauritian society. The Chagossians are filled with dread that the islands will be handed over to Mauritius.
Henry Smith, the Conservative MP for Crawley, where most of the UK’s Chagossian community lives, told the Daily Telegraph“This is clearly a political statement by the Mauritian government regarding its claims to the Chagos and nothing to do with conservation.” The Mauritian government has not declared that the trip concerns environmental issues: it was summoned to carry out measurements in relation to claims on the seabed.
During the day, the Mauritian ambassador to the UN, Jagdish Koonjul, also a member of Bleu De Nîmes, hoisted his country’s flag on a yardarm. Amid heavy rain and with a tailwind, the ship was sailing due east towards the Chagos Islands, rolling gently in rough seas.