n South African Law Journal - Paradise claimed : disputed sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago

Volume 128, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 0258-2503
  • E-ISSN: 1996-2177



At the very centre of the trade routes between Southern Africa and India, between Madagascar in the south west and the Maldives in the north east, south of the Arabian and Somali Basins and north of the Madagascar Basin, a constellation of islands are strewn across the Indian Ocean having their origin in volcanic activities that occurred between sixty and two-and-a-half million years ago. The giants of the constellation are the islands of Mauritius and Réunion; to their north, from west to east, white dwarfs, globular stars and multiple clusters of various shapes and sizes are scattered. Outside of the constellation, in the east, lie the islands of the Comores and those of the Mozambique Channel. Within, in the far north lie the 115 islands of the Seychelles, including the large granitic islands and their smaller neighbours arranged in the Amirantes and Farquhar Groups; in the near north lie Tomelin, Agalega, Cargados Carajos and Rodrigues; in the far north east lies the Chagos Archipelago.

Since their discovery, interest in the islands has been variously motivated. Apart from being an important source for fresh water and vegetables, the islands have also been exploited for a variety of other products. They also represent markers in the assertion of geopolitical hegemony. The strategic importance of the islands in the rivalry between Britain and France for control of the south west Indian Ocean in the eighteenth century has, until fairly recently, been mirrored by cold war antagonisms between the West and the Soviet Union. For most, though, the islands conjure up a perfect idyll of palm-fringed white sandy beaches and azure blue waters. Indeed, for Jacques-Henri Bernadin de Saint-Pierre the island of Mauritius, in certain of its aspects, represented a Rousseauesque state of nature, while Mark Twain suggested that Mauritius was created first and, thereafter, heaven itself was copied on this template.

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