Preserving Heritage: Exiled Chagossians’ Struggle to Maintain Their Cultural Identity

Preserving Heritage: Exiled Chagossians’ Struggle to Maintain Their Cultural Identity

In February 2022, a group of Chagossians, including Olivier Bancoult, Liseby Elysé, Suzelle Baptiste, Rosemonde Bertin, and Marcel Humbert, embarked on a journey to the Chagos Islands aboard the Bleu de Nîmes. This voyage was historic, as it was the first time the islanders returned without the presence of UK officials. The trip had dual purposes: it was both a scientific mission to survey Blenheim Reef and a political statement, with the raising of the Mauritian flag.

The Mauritian authorities meticulously planned the visit to emphasize ongoing disputes, including the maritime boundary between Mauritius and the Maldives, the UK’s continued colonial rule over Chagos, and the possibility of the Chagossians’ resettlement. For the Chagossians, it was a deeply emotional journey back to their homeland.

Upon arrival at the Peros Banhos atoll, the returning islanders were seen kneeling in prayer on the island’s sands. They engaged in communal prayers, removed coconuts from the floors of abandoned churches, and moved a stone monument commemorating a past visit, replacing it with a cross to honor their latest return. They celebrated with beachside dances and songs, and upon reaching Mauritius again, they shared a meal of fish brought from the islands.

My two-decade-long research with Chagossian communities in Mauritius and the UK has revealed their resilience in passing down the knowledge of their homeland through music, food, and language, despite forced displacement and fragmentation.

Cultural Disruption

The UK government’s depopulation of the Chagos Islands in the late 1960s and early 1970s, leading to the establishment of the British Indian Ocean Territory, resulted in the forced relocation of around 1,500 people to Mauritius or the Seychelles. With limited belongings, these communities lost access to the physical artifacts, monuments, and sites that typically anchor a people’s connection to their land.

In the absence of such tangible heritage, the intangible cultural heritage becomes even more vital for maintaining this connection. For Chagossians, their coconut-based dishes, Kreol language, and sega tambour music serve as this vital link.

Today, with only about a third of the exiled Islanders still alive, there is a growing concern that their unique cultural knowledge will disappear with them.

Transmitting Cultural Knowledge

Between 2017 and 2018, I led a community engagement project in collaboration with the Chagos Refugees Group and other partners. The goal was to support the displaced Chagossians in preserving and valuing their intangible cultural heritage. Workshops were held where elders shared their expertise in medicinal plants, coconut crafts, and traditional music and dance with younger generations.

The results of these workshops were showcased in exhibitions in Mauritius, Réunion, and the UK, and are also available on our open-access digital archive. Participants reported gaining new skills and a deeper understanding of Chagossian history, identity, and traditions, with most expressing a desire to share this knowledge with others.

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