Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean

Still capture of the map of the Republic of Mauritius that plays before each news bulletin

Still capture of the map of the Republic of Mauritius that plays before each news bulletin

As a Geographer, the first thing that struck me when watching the news here in Mauritius on the government run national (and only) broadcaster, MBC (Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation) was of course the map. MBC shows news bulletins in four languages, ‘News’ in English, ‘Le Journal’ in French, ‘Zournal’ in Kreol and ‘Samachar’ in Hindi. The Republic of Mauritius comprises of Mauritius proper, the main island, plus the outer island dependencies of Rodrigues (population 41,000) some 600 km to the east of the main island, Agalega (population 300), 1,100 km to the north and St. Brandon (also known as Cargados Carajos) 470 km to the north which has a transient population of around 60. These outer dependencies are clearly displayed on the map above, and contribute to Mauritius having an Exclusive Economic Zone of just shy of 1.3 million square kilometres. These outer dependencies are crucial to Mauritius’ claim on this sector of the Indian Ocean. What is of interest on the above map, and on other publications in Mauritius is the claim on Tromelin and Chagos, which can clearly be seen above.

Tromelin is currently administered by France and is part of the French Îles éparses de l’océan indien. The island is best known as the site of the wreck of the French slave ship L’Utile which ran aground in 1761 carrying slaves from Madagascar to Mauritius. The crew left the island on a raft and abandoned the sixty surviving slaves. Fifteen years later in 1776, a French ship passed the island and rescued the the remaining survivors, seven women and an eight month old child. Today the island is claimed by both Mauritius and the Seychelles. French claims to the island go back to 1810, but Tromelin was administered by the UK as part of the colony of Mauritius throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century up until the 1950s. Mauritius claims that Tromelin was part of its territory when it gained independence in 1968.

Chagos meanwhile is currently administered by the UK and its official name is British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). It is best known for the United States military base on the island of Diego Garcia. Chagos, formerly known as the Oil Islands (for the copra plantations) is an archipelago of some 60 islands and contains the world’s largest coral atoll, the Great Chagos Bank and formed part of Mauritian territory up until Mauritian independence when it was severed from Mauritius as part of an independence deal. It is one of the darkest periods of modern history, when over 1,000 Chagossiens were forcibly removed from their island homes and dumped on the quay in Port Louis and in the Seychelles with little in the way of compensation. This story remained under wraps to the outside world for decades, as the United States built up its military presence on the strategic archipelago. Today Mauritius claims the Chagos Islands, and its constituent waters as integral to the Republic of Mauritius.

Going back to the map that is beamed into Mauritian households multiple times everyday, it serves to reinforce the image of Mauritius as a major player in the Indian Ocean region, and acts in a similar vein to perhaps the Argentines claiming Las Malvinas on their maps, promoting a Mauritian solidarity and a kind of illustration that the Government (remember MBC is a government-run media outlet) is doing something to claim Tromelin and Chagos back (this surely will never happen).

Traces of Mauritius’ current outer dependencies can be seen throughout the archives – Rodgrigues, Agalega and St. Brandon as well as its former dependencies of Seychelles (severed in 1903), Coëtivy (severed in 1908), Chagos (severed in 1965) and Tromelin. I’ll be writing a piece on these outer dependencies soon.

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