By Anna Woudstra Pardoen
Scattered across the planet are the last vestiges of the famed former British Empire. Some of those have recently reached the news due to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union: Gibraltar, a small promontory off the coast of Spain and a cause of constant contention between Spain and the UK, has seen a lot of coverage, and some, who have been following the more niche EU news sources, will have read up on Akrotiri and Dhekelia, the so-called “Sovereign Base Areas” of the UK on Cyprus.
But the UK has territories even further afield than that, with much more controversial, yet lesser-covered histories. One is the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT, an archipelago of atolls between Mauritius and the Maldives. Due to its central position in the Indian Ocean, lying almost equidistantly between the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia, the BIOT is an important geopolitical asset. It is thus no surprise that it is home to a joint UK-US military base.
The establishment of the military base was not without controversy, not in the least because it required the forced expulsion of the Chagossians in the 1960s and 1970s. Descended from slaves brought to the islands in the 1700s, they considered themselves native to the territory – the UK government, however, disagreed. Upon request from the United States, the Chagossians were relocated to Mauritius and the UK, and the military base was constructed, much to their dismay.
Furthermore, the islands remain subject to a sovereignty dispute with Mauritius, of which the present-day BIOT were part prior to official decolonisation. In 2019, the International Court of Justice found that Mauritius, though having been granted its independence and sovereignty, was not fully decolonised due to the fact the UK maintained its claim of sovereignty over the BIOT, despite those islands being part of the unitary Colony of Mauritius. This led to the adoption by the UN General Assembly of a resolution calling for Mauritius’ “complete decolonisation”. In other words, the UK unlawfully maintained control over part of another state. In 2021, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea reached the same conclusion: the BIOT’s atolls are part of Mauritius.
What this will mean for the future of the BIOT remains to be seen. The UK, for its part, has rejected both the ICJ and the ITLS rulings, and has extended the lease for the presence of a military base on Diego Garcia, the BIOT’s main island, to 2036. It seems that, for now, the displaced Chagossians will have to do with planned out “Heritage Visits” to their former home islands.
But the BIOT is not the only far-flung remnant of the British Empire with a painful past that the UK still holds control over. Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands are a small island group of which only Pitcairn is inhabited. Around 50 individuals permanently inhabit this self-governing territory, placing it amongst the smallest self-governing democracies in the world. With its territory bathing in sun and covered with palm-trees, and its inhabitants the descendants of mutineers and Tahitian captives, one would not be amiss to think of it as a peaceful paradise. Yet it came to light in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the men of the island had systematically abused young girls and women for at least three (and likely even more) generations.
This culminated in the sexual assault trials of 2004, where seven men were put on trial and six of them, including the mayor of the island, were convicted and imprisoned – half of the able-bodied male inhabitants of the island. Their defences included the assertion that on Pitcairn it was “normal” for girls as young as twelve to be “sexually mature” – though witness statements from victims indicated that sexual activity was simply forced upon them by the perpetrators.
Nowadays, more people of Pitcairn ancestry live off than on the island. A 2014 survey on the Pitcairn diaspora, carried out by the government of Pitcairn, only reached a limited number of individuals who had left, and noted that those that it did reach were not always willing to cooperate, especially if those respondents had children. Victims of the abuse have also permanently moved off the island without a desire to return. With islanders, especially women, leaving in droves and with none too keen to return, the island is now faced with the serious prospect of permanent extinction.
Two tropical archipelagos, both under the control of the UK, both with dark pasts and presents. What will become of either of them remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: it will take a lot of time for the Chagossians and Pitcairn Islanders to heal after their patchy pasts.