Life & Culture

Book review: The Last Colony - A long fight to allow a people to return home

Renowned international barrister Philippe Sands returns with the story of how the entire local population of the Chagos archipelago were uprooted by a 1960s lease deal between Britain and the US


Chagossian families celebrate at the Groupe Refugies Chagos headquarters on February 25, 2019 the news that the United Nations' top court had told Britain to give up control of the Indian Ocean archipelago. - The UN's International Court of Justice in The Hague said in a legal opinion on February 25 that Britain had illegally split the islands from Mauritius before independence in 1968, after which the entire population of islanders was evicted. It is a major development in a decades-old row with Mauritius over an archipelago that is now home to a huge US airbase. The court's opinion is non-binding but carries heavy symbolic and political weight. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

The Last Colony
By Philippe Sands
Weidenfeld and Nicolson £14.99

Philippe Sands is a renowned international barrister, specialising in human-rights cases; a professor of law; and president of English PEN.

He’s the author too of prize-winning, best-selling books including East West Street and The Ratline, accounts of his own family’s persecution by the Nazis and of the birth of international human-rights law in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The former, translated into 20 languages, was also the basis of a film documentary, My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, putting Sands centre stage alongside the sons of two Nazi officers directly involved in his family history.

Yet he has publicly stated: “I want to be treated as Philippe Sands individual, not Philippe Sands Brit, Londoner or Jew”.

The Last Colony is not his first work to champion investigations of 21st century government law-breaking. It follows others involving the US military prison on Guantánamo Bay; the secret collusion between Bush and Blair over the Iraq War; and the trial of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet.

Here he documents another case of private deals and international deceptions. When, in 1965, Britain established a “British Indian Ocean Territory”, a bizarrely late new colony spanning the Chagos archipelago, severing the Chagos islands from Mauritius, it was leased to the United States for 50 years as a military base and required the transportation of the entire local population of 1,500 souls.

Here the personal impact is given through the account of Liseby Elysé. In 1973, married and expecting her first child, she was deported from her native Peros Banhos. She and Sands finally meet in the Grand Hall of the UN International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2018, where she leads the delegation claiming a right of return to the Chagos.

Movingly, she opens the session by addressing the Court thus: “I am telling how I have suffered since I have been uprooted from my paradise island [where] everyone had a job and their culture … One day the administrator told us we had to leave our island, leave our houses and go away… We boarded the ship in the dark so that we could not see our island … conditions in the hull of the ship were bad. We were like animals and slaves… People were dying of sadness in that ship.”

The Mauritian government has fought the Chagossian case for 40 years; Sands for the last ten.

The UN Court in The Hague, presided over by 14 judges, listened first to Elysé’s personal testimony, then to Sands’ closely argued denunciation of the British government’s “shameful” conduct, including a reminder that forced exile is ninth in the UN’s “list of Crimes against Humanity”.

Their words triumphed as Britain’s ignoble defence went down. Since then Britain has simply sat tight in its failure to comply with the Court’s decision, which is not binding but carries considerable weight.

To date that decision is both a landmark ruling for the Chagossians and another blot on our copybook with regard to respect for international human rights. After all, in 2005 Sands published his (now updated) book titled Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rule, charting a lengthy legacy of disgrace.

The Last Colony is vividly illustrated by Martin Rowson.

Starting in 1945 with the Atlantic and UN and the Nuremberg Trial, depicting relevant heads of state, judges and the Nazi defendants, the cast of those cartooned in the World Court alter down the decades, glowering at the reader from courtroom galleries.

In every image we see a rear view of a diminutive figure in black, handbag in hand, ever advancing. In the final illustration she has navigated the obstructions of politicians and their legal henchmen.

It is Liseby Elysé and she is heading for the exit where the bright sunlight of Chagossian freedom beckons. For in February 2022 — together with four fellow exiles, the Mauritian ambassador, Ambassador Koonjul (also Permanent Representative of the Republic of Mauritius to the UN), marine scientists, journalists and lawyers including Sands, all aboard a converted Royal Navy minesweeper, Elysé has finally returned to revisit the land of her birth.
Sands has written a resounding history, thrilling as any novel.

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