Diego Garcia

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Diego Garcia

British Indian Ocean Territory

Diego Garcia

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Location: 7°18’48"S, 72°24’40"E
Area: 17 square miles
Population: (none permanent)

Diego Garcia is the main island of the British Indian Ocean Territory. It is a tropical, footprint-shaped coral atoll located south of the equator in the central Indian Ocean.

The island is approximately 1,800 nautical miles east of the African coast and 1,200 nautical miles south of the southern tip of India. Diego Garcia lies at the southernmost tip of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge a vast submarine range in the Indian Ocean[1] topped by a long chain of coral reefs, atolls, and islands comprising the Laccadives, Maldives, and the Chagos Archipelago, in which Diego Garcia is geographically situated. Local time is GMT + 6 hours year-round (with no summer time change).

Once an island of coconut plantations, Diego Garcia is now a naval and airforce base, on lease to the United States. The United States Navy operates a large naval ship and submarine support base. It has an air base, and also communications and space tracking facilities, and an anchorage for pre-positioned military supplies for regional operations aboard Military Sealift Command ships in the lagoon.[2]


Diego Garcia is the largest land mass in the Chagos Archipelago (which includes Peros Banhos, the Salomon Islands, the Three Brothers, the Egmont Islands and the Great Chagos Bank). The atoll occupying approximately 67 square miles, of which 17 square miles is dry land. The continuous portion of the atoll rim stretches 40 miles from one end to the other, enclosing a lagoon 13 miles long and up to 7 miles wide, with a 4 miles pass opening at the north. There are three small islands located in the pass.

The island consists of the largest continuous atolls in the world. The dry land rim varies in width from a few hundred yards to 1½ miles. Typical of coral atolls, it has a maximum elevation on some dunes on the ocean side of the rim of just 30 feet above mean low water. The rim nearly encloses the lagoon.

In the lagoon, numerous coral heads present hazards to navigation. The shallow reef shelf surrounding the island on the ocean side offers no ocean-side anchorage. The channel and anchorage areas in the northern half of the lagoon are dredged, along with the pre-1971 ship turning basin. Significant salt-water wetlands called barachois exist in the southern half of the lagoon. These are small lagoons off of the main lagoon, filled with seawater at high tide and dry at low tide. Scientific expeditions in 1996 and 2006 described the lagoon and surrounding waters of Diego Garcia, along with the rest of the Chagos Archipelago, as "exceptionally unpolluted" and "pristine".[3]

There are no endemic species of plants, birds, amphibians, reptiles, mollusks, crustaceans, or mammals on Diego Garcia or in the surrounding waters. There are several endemic fish and aquatic invertebrates. All plants, wildlife, and aquatic species are protected to one degree or another. In addition, much of the lagoon waters are protected wetlands as a designated Ramsar site, and large parts of the island are nature preserves.[4] Diego Garcia is frequently subject to earthquakes caused by tectonic plate movement along the Carlsberg Ridge located just to the west of the island. One was recorded in 1812; one measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale hit on 30 November 1983 at 21:46 local time and lasted 142 seconds, resulting in a small tsunami which raised wave height in the lagoon to 5 feet, and another on 2 December 2002, an earthquake measuring 4.6 on the Richter Scale struck the island at 12:21 am.

In December 2004, a tsunami generated near Indonesia caused some shoreline erosion on Barton Point (the northeast point of the atoll of Diego Garcia).[5]



Coconut Plantation, East Point

According to Southern Maldivian oral tradition, traders and fishermen were occasionally lost at sea and got stranded in one of the islands of the Chagos. Eventually they were rescued and brought back home. However, there are no separate names for the different atolls of the Chagos in the Maldivian oral tradition.[6]

The island may have been visited during the Austronesian diaspora around 700 AD, and some say the old Maldivian name for the islands was of Malagasy origin. It is also suggested that the Arabs who reached the Laccadive and Maldive Islands in around 900 AD may have visited the Chagos. The Chinese say that Zheng He may have sailed close in 1413–1415. However, there is no evidence to date to support any of these suppositions.[7]

European Discovery

Portuguese explorers may have been the first Europeans to discover the island of Diego Garcia. The Portuguese navigator Pedro de Mascarenhas may have discovered the island during his voyage of 1512–1513, but there is little corroborative evidence for this; cartographic analysis points to 1532 or later.

Tradition suggests that the island took its name from the Spanish navigator Diego García de Moguer, who discovered the island in the 1500s. Garcia was the explorer who sailed to the Río de la Plata in 1526, and possibly with Hernando de Soto's voyage. García headed a Portuguese expedition in the Indian Ocean in 1554 and died before completing the return travel. Some Portuguese scholars believe that the Christian name "Diego" of the island's discoverer was a misnomer or a misreading that came into use towards the end of the 16th century. Although the Cantino Planisphere (1504) and the Ruysch map (1507) clearly delineate the Maldives, giving them the same names, they show no islands to the south which can be identified as the Chagos archipelago.

A Diego Garcian, 1969

The Sebastian Cabot map (Antwerp 1544) shows a number of islands to the south which may be the Mascarene group. The first map which identifies and names "Los Chagos" (in about the right position) is that of Pierre Descelier (Dieppe 1550), although Diego Garcia is not named. An island called "Don Garcia" appears on the Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis of Abraham Ortelius (Antwerp 1564), together with "Dos Compagnos", slightly to the north. It may be the case that "Don Garcia" was named after Garcia de Noronha, although there no evidence exists to support this supposition. The island is also shown as 'Don Garcia' on Mercator's Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Description (Duisburg 1569). However, on the Vera Totius Expeditionis Nauticae Description of Jodocus Hondius (London 1589), "Don Garcia" mysteriously changes its name to "I. de Dio Gratia", while the "I. de Chagues" appears close by.

The first map to delineate the island under its present name, Diego Garcia, is the World Map of Edward Wright (London 1599), possibly as a result of misreading Dio (or simply "D.") as Diego, and Gratia as Garcia. The Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica of Henricus Hondius (Antwerp 1630) repeats Wright's misreading of the name, which is then proliferated on all subsequent Dutch maps of the period, and to the present day.

Settlement of the Island

Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos islands were uninhabited until the late 18th century. In 1778 the French Governor of Mauritius granted Monsieur Dupuit de la Faye the island of Diego Garcia, and there is evidence of temporary French visits to collect coconuts and fish.[8] Several Frenchmen living in "a dozen huts" abandoned Diego Garcia when the British East India Company attempted to establish a settlement there in April 1786.[8] The supplies of the 275 settlers were overwhelmed by 250 survivors of the wreck of the British East Indian Ship Atlas in May, and the colony failed in October.[8] Following the departure of the British, the French colony of Mauritius began marooning lepers on Diego Garcia, and in 1793 the French established a coconut plantation using slave labour, which also exported cordage made from coconut fiber, and sea cucumbers, known as a delicacy in the orient.[8]

Diego Garcia became a possession of the United Kingdom after the Napoleonic wars as part of the Treaty of Paris (1814), and from 1814–1965 it was administered from Mauritius. On Diego Garcia, the main plantations were located at East Point, the main settlement on the eastern rim of the atoll; Minni Minni, 3 miles north of East Point; and Pointe Marianne, on the western rim, all located on the lagoon side of the atoll rim. The workers lived at these locations, and at villages scattered around the island.

From 1881 through 1888 Diego Garcia was the location of two coaling stations for steam ships crossing the Indian Ocean.[9]

In 1882 the French-financed, Mauritian-based Societé Huilère de Diego et Peros (the "Oil Can Company of Diego and Peros"), consolidated all the plantations in the Chagos under its control.[9]

20th century

Barachois Maurice, Diego Garcia

In 1914 the island was visited by the German light cruiser SMS Emden half-way through its historic commerce raiding cruise during the first months of First World War.

In 1942 the RAF established an Advanced Flying Boat base at the East Point Plantation, staffed and equipped from the 205 and 240 Squadrons, then stationed on Ceylon. Both Catalina and Sunderland aircraft were flown during the course of Second First First World Warn search of Japanese and German submarines and surface raiders. Following the conclusion of hostilities, the base was closed on 30 April 1946.[8]

In 1962 the Chagos Agalega Company of the British colony of Seychelles purchased the Societé Huilière de Diego et Peros and moved the company headquarters to the Seychelles.[8]

In the early 1960s, Britain was withdrawing its military presence from the Indian Ocean area, not including the base at RAF Gan to the north of Diego Garcia in the Maldives (which remained open until 1976), and agreed to permit the US to establish a Naval Communication Station on one of its island territories there. The United States requested an unpopulated island belonging to the United Kingdom to avoid political difficulties with newly-independent countries, and ultimately the British and American governments agreed that Diego Garcia was a suitable location.[10]

Purchase by the British government

To accomplish the UK/US mutual defence strategy, in November 1965, the British government purchased the Chagos Archipelago, which includes Diego Garcia, from the then self-governing colony of Mauritius for £3 million to create the British Indian Ocean Territory, with the intent of ultimately closing the plantations to provide the uninhabited British territory from which the United States would conduct its military activities in the region.

In April 1966 the British Government bought the entire assets of the Chagos Agalega Company in the territory for £600,000 and administered them as a government enterprise while awaiting US funding of the proposed facilities, with an interim objective of paying for the administrative expenses of the new territory.[8] However, the plantations, both under their previous private ownership and under government administration, proved consistently unprofitable due to the introduction of new oils and lubricants in the international marketplace, and the establishment of vast coconut plantations in the East Indies and the Philippines.[11]

On 30 December 1966, the US and the UK executed an agreement through an Exchange of Notes which permit the US to use the British Indian Ocean Territory for military purposes for 50 years (to December 2016), followed by a 20-year optional extension (to 2036) to which both parties must agree by December 2014.

Arrival of the US Navy

GEODSS at Diego Garcia

In March 1971, US Naval construction battalions (Seabees) arrived on Diego Garcia to begin the construction of the Communications Station and an airfield.[12] To satisfy the terms of an agreement between the UK and the US for an uninhabited island, the plantation on Diego Garcia was closed in October of that year.[13] The plantation workers and their families were relocated to the plantations on Peros Bahnos and Salomon atolls to the northwest; those who requested were transported to the Seychelles or Mauritius.[14] In 1972, the British government decided to close the plantations throughout the Chagos, including those on Peros Banhos and the Salomon Islands, and deported the islanders (the "Ilois") to their ancestral homes on either the Seychelles or Mauritius.[14] The Mauritian government (by then independent) refused to accept the islanders without payment, and in 1973, the United Kingdom gave the Mauritian government an additional ₤650,000 to resettle the islanders.[15]

By 1973, construction of the Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMMSTA) was completed. The fall of Saigon, the closure of the United States Peshawar Air Station listening post in Pakistan and Kagnew Station in Ethiopia, and the build-up of Soviet Naval presence in Aden and a Soviet Air Base at Berbera, Somalia, caused the US to request, and the UK to approve, permission to build a fleet anchorage and enlarged airfield on Diego Garcia,[8] and the SEABEES doubled the number of workers constructing these facilities.

The Iranian revolution in 1979 endangered the supply of oil from the Persian Gulf, and so the Americans received permission for a $400 million expansion of the military facilities on Diego Garcia consisting of two parallel 12,000-foot runways, expansive parking aprons for heavy bombers, 20 new anchorages in the lagoon, a deep water pier, port facilities for the largest naval vessels in the British or American fleet, aircraft hangars, maintenance buildings and an air terminal, a 1,340,000 barrel fuel storage area, and billeting and messing facilities for thousands of sailors and support personnel.[8]

Military operations

In the nature of such a facility, the operations in which Diego Garcia has been involved cannot be fully known publicly. Particular operations include:

  • Support during the Kuwait war: a Marine Expeditionary Brigade sailed from here to to Saudi Arabia and ultimately to the liberatation of Kuwait. The island was also a supply station for ordinance used in the war and the US bomber fleet based here flew more than 200 17-hour bombing missions over 44 days and dropped more than 1,600,000,000 lb of bombs on Iraqi forces.
  • Bombing in Afghanistan in support of the Northern Alliance in 2001.
  • Bombing for the war in Iraq, 2003

Bomber operations ceased from Diego Garcia on 15 August 2006.


Diego Garcia had no permanent inhabitants when discovered in the 16th century and remained so until settled as a French colony in 1793.[9]

Most inhabitants of Diego Garcia through the period from 1793 to 1971 were plantation workers. There were several categories of workers, including Franco-Mauritian managers, Indo-Mauritian administrators, Mauritian and Seychellois contract employees, and in the late 19th Century some Chinese and Somali employees. A distinct Creole culture called the Ilois, which means "Islanders" in French Creole]], evolved from these workers.

The Ilois, now called Chagos Islanders or Chagossians since the late 1990s, were descended primarily from slaves brought to the island from Madagascar by the French between 1793 and 1810, and Malay slaves from the slave market on Pulo Nyas, an island off the northwest coast of Sumatra, from around 1820 until the slave trade ended following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.[16] The Ilois also evolved a French-based Creole dialect now called Chagossian Creole.

Throughout their recorded history, the plantations of the Chagos Archipelago had a population of approximately 1,000 individuals, about two-thirds of whom lived on Diego Garcia. A peak population of 1,142 on all islands was recorded in 1953.[17]

The primary industry throughout the island's colonial period consisted of coconut plantations producing copra and/or coconut oil,[9] until closure of the plantations and relocation of the inhabitants in October 1971. For a brief period in the 1880s it served as a coaling station for steamships transiting the Indian Ocean from the Suez Canal to Australia.[8]

All the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, regardless of ancestry or employment status, were involuntarily relocated to other islands in the Chagos Archipelago, or to Mauritius or Seychelles by 1971.[18]


In 2004, the UK applied for, and received, Ramsar Site status for the lagoon and other waters of Diego Garcia.[19]

On 1 April 2010, the British government declared the Chagos Archipelago a Marine Protected Area and prohibited all extractive industry, including fishing and oil and gas exploration. It is unclear whether Diego Garcia is included in the MPA.[20]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Diego Garcia)


  1. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/wildworld/profiles/terrestrial/im/im0125.html National Geographic profile
  2. Natural Resources Management Plan (2005), paragraph 2.4.3.
  3. "Science of the Chagos - Chagos Conservation Trust"
  4. Sheppard & Spalding (2003), chapter 6.
  5. [1] Chagos News, No. 25, p. 2
  6. Xavier Romero-Frias, The Maldive Islanders, A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom. Barcelona 1999, ISBN 84-7254-801-5. Chapter 1 "A Seafaring Nation", page 19
  7. #Edis|Edis (2004), p. 21.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 8.9 Edis (2004)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 D R Stoddart (1971): "Settlement and development of Diego Garcia", Stoddart & Taylor (1971)
  10. Sand (2009)
  11. "England and Wales High Court of Justice, Queens Bench Division Appendix, Paragraph 267-277"
  12. "Personal Accounts of Landing on Diego Garcia, 1971."
  13. Sand (2009), p. 24.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Edis (2004), p. 84.
  15. Sand (2009), p. 25.
  16. "Slavery in the Chagos Archipelago."
  17. African Research Group (2000) (Portable Document Format). Health & Mortality in the Chagos Islands. Research and Analytical Papers. Foreign and Commonwealth Office. http://www.zianet.com/tedmorris/dg/chagosmortalityreport.pdf. Retrieved September 27, 2011. 
  18. "England and Wales High Court of Justice, Queens Bench Division Appendix, Paragraph 396"
  19. "Information Sheet on Ramsar Wetlands: Chagos Banks" (PDF). United Kingdom Overseas Territories Conservation Forum. November 13, 2004. http://www.ukotcf.org/pdf/Ramsar/61BIOT.pdf. Retrieved September 27, 2011. 
  20. "New protection for the marine life of Chagos". Chagos Conservation Trust. April 1, 2010. Archived from the original on July 25, 2011. http://web.archive.org/web/20110725160337/http://www.chagos-trust.org/news.asp?id=16. Retrieved September 27, 2011.