History of Diego Garcia

The British in the Indian Ocean were represented largely by two entities: the Royal Navy and the East India Company. The East India Company was far more than simply a business. Indeed it operated a navy of its own. From its foundation circa 1600 (it had sponsored Lancasters voyage in the Red Dragon) to its eventual demise in 1874 the company played a key role in the British presence in the Indian Ocean. At times the Company served as the de facto government of India and held incredible influence over British government policy in the region. Service to the Company promised great opportunity to ambitious young Brits, and for generations the East lured the up and coming as well as those with nowhere else to go. Even before the British settled

Another vessel was the Portuguese Conceicao. The ship sailed from Lisbon on April 1, 1555, and piled up on the rocks of Peros Banhos in the Chagos when the pilot refused to listen to a cartographer who was aboard as well as more experienced seamen. Almost 200 survivors were huddled together on the shore of this remote, relatively barren, atoll. The captain and a few chosen officers told the other survivors that they were going offshore to the wreck to salvage more supplies. They took the best boat and never looked back, sailing off toward Cochin, India on their own. One of the shipwrecked passengers, Dom Alvaro de Castanheda, took charge and gathered the remaining boats, as well as the arms, jewels, and provisions, and sailed off for India with another 40 men .

While historical documentation is lacking, it is interesting to speculate about any ties between the Chagos Islands and one of the more fascinating developments in the Indian Ocean in the late 17th century, the rise not only of piracy but of a pirate nation. Located at the port of Diego-Suarez on the island of Madagascar, from approximately 1685 to 1730 there existed the nation of Libertalia. It existed as a haven for pirates plundering shipping from one end of the Indian Ocean to the other. The roll call of Indian Ocean pirates over the years was long and multinational. There were Englishmen such as Read, Teat, Williams, Avery, and Kidd. Irishmen like Cornelius and Jamaican Plantain plundered alongside Frenchmen like La Vasseur and La Buse (a.k.a. the buzzard). Later on Americans like Tew, Burgess, and Halsey would ply the age-old trade in the region. Pirates did not always sail along normal streams of commerce, indeed their irregular navigation and desire for private places to rest and replenish may have made the Chagos a popular destination.

In December 5, 1604, another Englishman, Sir Edward Michelbourne, would sail across the Indian Ocean in quest of trade and plunder, leaving what is perhaps the earliest useful description of some of the main islands of the Chagos Archipelago. Michelbourne commanded the diminutive Tigre, a ship of 240 tons, and the accompanying pinnasse Tigres Whelp. He also had in his service the famed English navigator John Davis, who had been Lancasters navigator on his earlier trip across the Indian Ocean. On the 15th of June they sighted the Ile Dos Banhos (Peros Banhos). Its location, according to Davis, was sixe degrees and thirtie-seven minutes to the South-ward and one hundred and nine degrees longitude. Davis wrote in his log that the islands were falsely laid in most charts too far to the west. In reality, Davis navigation was off by miles. Thousands of them, in fact. The true longitude of Peros Banhos is about 72 degrees. According to Davis they were more than 2,000 miles further east. If that was the case, they wouldnt be in the Indian Ocean at all but rather somewhere in Indonesia. This error, though rather large even for its day, highlighted how even experienced navigators were vexed by the longitude problem.

Island Name South Latitude East Longitude

Click here to download anMS Word document of this Thesis, complete with footnotes (but no pictures).

At the bottom of this page isSteves paperon Captain James Alan Thompson, Royal Marines,

It is perhaps not coincidental that in Shakespeares Macbeth, written during this time, the witches at the beginning of Act I, scene three, discuss a ship called the Tiger and her fate. In particular, the line a pilots thumb / wrackd, as homeward he did come might be a reference to the death of the famed pilot/navigator John Davis, who died during an epic battle with Japanese pirates during this trip. .

Salomons Islands 5 deg 23 min 72 deg 35 min

Shortly thereafter a visiting Marshall of Portugal, Fernando Coutinho, arrived and appointed his cousin, Afonso De Alboquerque, in place of Almeida. Coutinho had arrived with 15 ships and 3,000 troops and soon led an attack on the important port city of Calicut. During the fighting, however, Coutinho was so intent on prying the ornate gilded doors off a palace that he allowed himself to get cut off from his troops. He was killed and Alboquerqe, himself wounded by an arrow, had to lead a retreat. The manner of Coutinhos death reflected one school of thought amongst the Portuguese. Coutinho has been described as Falstaffian – Strong of arm, great of belly, but weak of brain. His emphasis had been on raiding and plunder, sacking cities and taking ships in order to acquire wealth that could be spent back in Portugal. Upon his death, however, Alboquerqe would be elevated to the de facto Portuguese ruler in the Indian Ocean, and he was of an entirely different mind.

Yet, despite establishing a maritime empire in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese remained uninterested in the Chagos islands. Despite their central location, their remoteness was compounded by the necessity of sailing ships to utilize prevailing winds, which meant that sailing vessels could not sail directly to and from them at will. In addition, the islands were unpopulated and did not have valuable natural resources. While a ship that happened to pass could gather some food or spare wood, there was little else to stop for. The islands also lacked good harbors and anchorages for vessels of the day, a point which will be addressed later on and might surprise modern readers who think of Diego Garcia as a fine port. Indeed, due to navigational uncertainties the large, uncharted, archipelago was a danger to be avoided. This state of affairs would continue until well into the 18th century, when a new conflict over control of the Indian Ocean would make the islands of increasing interest to maritime powers.

Source: British Public Records Office CO 167/38

The French were among the first to actively investigate Diego Garcia and the other islands of the Chagos archipelago. In 1742 the French ships Elisabeth and Charles explored the Chagos region and more accurately fixed their location. April 15, 1744, would find the Elisabeth surveying Peros Banhos in the Chagos with a chart maker/geographer aboard. In 1768 the French ships LHeure du Berger and Vert Galant visited Diego Garcia. Among the passengers was the Abbe de Rochon, astronomer to the Navy. A year later the Vert Galant returned, and her commander Lt. La Fontaine reported a great number of vessels might anchor there in safety; but the principal object is wanting: for though it is covered with woods, it is not provided with fresh water. La Fontaines analysis was flawed. The island is among the wetter places on earth, with an average annual rainfall of more than 87 inches. The island is very flat, however, and because of its shape no point is very far from the ocean. Therefore the rain quickly runs off. There are no rivers nor even streams or creeks on the island. How, then, could a person get fresh water in between periods of rain?

Physically, Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago of which it is part are located near the center of the Indian Ocean. Yet, for much of the oceans modern history the island has played a very peripheral role. Even the physical centrality of the island yields ambiguity. Some geographers consider the Chagos Archipelago to be East African Islands. Others think they are an extension from South Asia, a continuation of the Maldives south of India. Such arguments over the labeling of the island are not merely academic, as controversy over a Nuclear Free Africa demonstrates. Thus, as the title of this thesis indicates, Diego Garcia may be at the center of the Indian Ocean in terms of physical geography, but it has largely been at the edge of everywhere else in terms of its history.

The Portuguese solidified their control over the Indian Ocean. They soon controlled Goa, the main port on the Indian subcontinent, Ormuz, the key to the Persian Gulf, and Malacca, astride the eastern route to the Orient. Fortified settlements and trading posts known as feitorias ringed the Indian Ocean from Sofala in southeast Africa to Ternate in the Moluccas. King Manuel of Portugal could rightly claim his title as Lord of the conquest, navigation, and commerce of Ethiopia, India, Arabia, and Persia. The Portuguese would stretch their reach to Japan, but a series of naval defeats at the hands of the Chinese thwarted their plans in the far east. .

The 17th century passed almost as quietly as the 16th in the Chagos Archipelago. Even well into the 1700s the islands would be largely ignored and avoided. Indeed, as one French geographer would later relate:

The Vert Galant may have visited Diego Garcia once again in 1771 while carrying famed French explorer Kerguelen. The ship would eventually be destroyed by a cyclone while at Mauritius in 1773.

Island at the Edge of Everywhere: A History of Diego Garcia

The Six Islands 6 deg 35 min 71 deg 25 min

By the year 1600 the English were a rising sea power and were eager to challenge the virtual Portuguese monopoly on trade with and through the Indian Ocean.. It was in 1602, while on a pioneering voyage to the East Indies, that captain James Lancaster would forge an English association with the Chagos islands that continues to this day. Lancaster had survived an earlier, disastrous attempt by the English to reach the East Indies in 1591. He had reached Sumatra before losing his last ship, however, and then the Dutch had made their first successful voyage to Java and Bantam in 1595. Lured by the incredible profits offered by the spice trade, the English were intent on trying again. .

The Indian subcontinent was the main prize, and with the victory at Diu the Portuguese had won an agreement with a local ruler to establish a base at Cochin. Cochin was not the most important port in India, however, and its rulers were not among the most powerful. In addition, the port facilities themselves were extremely vulnerable to attack by land armies. The Portuguese could only stay there at the sufferance of a second class ruler. This clearly would not do. In a brilliant move whose details do not concern us, De Alboquerque seized the great port of Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur on November 10, 1510. Goa, nicknamed Golden Goa, was the largest port on the western side of the Indian subcontinent and the Sultan of Bijapur was arguably the subcontinents most powerful ruler. In addition, the port featured a fortified island of land cut off from the mainland by rivers and marshes. It would give the Portuguese security against attempts to eject them from landward. For several years both the Portuguese and the Sultan would battle for control of this key city. These battles would lead directly to the discovery of a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and ultimately to this thesis.

Interestingly, on this trip Lancaster demonstrated a bit of knowledge that was for some reason lost, and would not become known again to the English for 170 years. Sailors spending long times at sea had a very restricted diet, and various maladies associated with malnutrition plagued them. Among the worst was scurvy, caused by a vitamin deficiency that came from a lack of fruit and vegetables in the diet. In 1591, on Lancasters first voyage to the Indian Ocean, several sailors suffering from scurvy had made quick recoveries when the ship stopped at the island of St. Helena and the crew got fresh oranges and lemons. So on this trip Lancaster bought along a store of lemon juice, and every sailor got three spoonfuls for breakfast, otherwise fasting until noon. Using this method he greatly reduced the incidence of scurvy amongst his crew. It was not until over a century and a half later during the expeditions of the famed Captain Cook that the practice of giving fruit juice to crewmen became commonly known and adopted, and the British sailor acquired the nickname Limey.

Afonso De Alboquerque was a proponent of what could be called a forward strategy. Some Portuguese believed that they should establish remote bases at key points located a distance from their main opponents, and use their naval superiority to project force. De Alboquerque, however, was among those who favored a much closer proximity to potential enemies. Only by establishing a permanent presence in target lands and playing a direct role in regional politics could the Portuguese hope to master the huge region. Naval power would be the lynchpin of Portuguese power, but it would enable Portuguese strategy rather become it.

There were five islands in close proximity, and boats were sent ashore. The islands abounded with Fowle, Fish, and Coco Nuts but while there was good food there was no good anchorage. The sea bed dropped off rapidly from the island, and thus it was too deep to anchor very far from shore. If a ship came close in to anchor, however, it risked being pushed onto sharp rocks and shoals by wind and currents. The Tigre sailed on, and on June 19 it sighted the Ile of Diego Graciosa (Diego Garcia). According to Davis, This seemeth to be a very pleasant Iland, and of good refreshing if there be any place to come to an anchor. Alas, a bad wind was forcing the ship toward the shore and it did not stay in the area very long. While passing the island, however, it was noted that it was ten or twelve leagues long and abounded with birds and fish, as well as having a mightie wood of nothing but Coco Trees. .

The French, in their passage from the Isles of France and Bourbon to India, had conceived an insuperable dread of the archipelago which extends from the North to the North-East of Madagascar; nor had any of them attempted to pass through it, though it would have shortened the voyage upwards of three hundred leagues.

Peros Banhos (22 smaller islands) 5 deg 23 min 72 deg 03 min

As an illustration over the uncertainty of geographers and map makers of the time, the main island of the Chagos seems to have gotten its name of Diego Garcia by accident. Originally Mascarenhas had dubbed the island Dom Garcia and early Portuguese maps call it such. Beginning circa 1600, however, English maps called the island Diego Garcia. While speculative, it is possible that British map makers assumed the island was named after the well-known Portuguese geographer and navigator Diego Garcia de Palacios, who in reality had nothing to do with the islands. It also possible that the English had miscopied an abbreviation of I de D Garcia. Some early English maps also call the island Diego Graciosa. or Diego Gracia, and other variations can be found. At any rate, as Portuguese maritime prowess withered away and the English grew in influence, the name Diego Garcia stuck.

Deposited at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.

A small mirror can reflect a large distant object. One example is that of telescope mirrors, which help us observe huge distant suns. Similarly, a historian can illustrate great events by showing how they are reflected in distant places. Few places are as remote as the Chagos Archipelago, a cluster of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Their main island, known today as Diego Garcia, is more than 900 miles from the nearest significant land, the island of Sri Lanka. For more than five hundred years various powers have fought for control over the Indian Ocean, yet for much of this time these islands have played little if any part. In general, however, there has been a trend toward their being increasingly important. For while the physical geography of the island has remained relatively constant, the political and economic geography of the Indian Ocean has undergone tectonic shifts. History has demonstrated other cases of small, obscure islands jumping into the headlines. The Falkland Islands are a more modern example. You may not have heard of Diego Garcia, but you have probably not heard the last of it.

Three Brothers 6 deg 10 min 71 deg 28 min

In early February of 1512 the six ship armada of Dom Garcia de Noronha reached the Portuguese supply station at Mocambique, on the east coast of Africa . It was here that he heard of De Alboquerques struggle to maintain control of Goa. Since it took months for news to reach even this far, Dom Garcia could not be certain how desperately De Alboquerque needed assistance, and clearly a faster route to Indian might prove useful. So Dom Garcia split up his small armada and sent one portion, under the command of the experienced Mascarenhas, to try and reach India via a new route. Instead of sailing north along the coast of Africa (the inner passage), Mascarenhas would sail to the east, south of Madagascar, and then northeastwards toward India.

Locations of the Main Chagos Islands

The Portuguese were not great colonizers, and had little use for the remote, unpopulated, islands. Since their ships could refit and get provisions at Africa on the long trip to India, the Chagos were not very important even as limited supply posts, though some ships may have stopped to gather food there. Indeed, the region was to be avoided. As stated earlier, island chains posed dangers to sailors of the era. The many small islands of the Chagos, combined with reefs and large shallows and poor navigation, were a ready-made burial ground for ships. Even a hundred years later, ships making the great voyage to India would tend to sail northwards into the Indian Ocean either to the west of the Chagos when headed to the west coast of India, or to the east when headed to the east coast of India. Like a net cast across the route to India the Chagos lay ready to snare the unwary ship. In less than three decades at least four Portuguese ships would wreck themselves on the reefs of Peros Banhos. In 1551 it was the Algarvia, in 1577 the Sao Joao, and already again in 1578 the Sao Pedro.

Legour Island 5 deg 39 min 72 deg 32 min

Table 1 lists most of the islands that comprise the Chagos Archipelago. Only the main island of Diego Garcia and the island of Peros Banhos have had significant permanent settlements. Others have been occupied by smaller numbers, for limited times, or are not large enough to support settlement. The Locations and names are given as known in 1857, when their locations were fairly well known.

This left behind 164 desperate souls to survive on the atoll. At the beginning there were more than 10,000 seabirds on the island. Within a month, however, fewer than one fifth remained. The birds quickly adapted to having predators around, and 164 people can eat a lot of birds. Discipline broke down as there were attempts to ration the birds. Many were eaten on the sly and everyone was fierce and quarrelsome. The fifth month on the island, 30 people died of starvation and a last desperate attempt was made to go for help. From the ships wreckage a boat was constructed and 26 men put to sea. For over a month, the last days without food or water, they drifted until reaching some inhabited islands. Their numbers slowly dwindling, the survivors then spent a year sailing from one small island to another before a friendly prince sent the last 12 survivors to Cannanore, India, on his boat. .

Author of Only the Sun Remembers and the man who installed the canons at Canon Point in 1942.

The government of Portugal, in effect King Manuel, wanted to control the Indian Ocean in order to milk its commerce. Simple piracy might make a few rich individuals, but only an organized effort at control and trade would generate the revenues that would sate an entire kingdom. The Indian Ocean and its nations, however, would pose challenges to the Portuguese. Unlike in the new world of the Americas, the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean region often faced technologically advanced and politically sophisticated foes. The Portuguese had proven their naval superiority, but had few ships to patrol vast areas. Unlike the Americas, with its plague wracked and poorly armed natives, many Indian Ocean nations had large armies complete with modern cannons. Unlike in the Americas, in the Indian Ocean the Portuguese could not carry out a straightforward policy of conquest. More sophisticated strategies would have to be employed.

It was during this voyage that Mascarenhas apparently discovered a remote island and named it Dom Garcia after his commander, and then a whole string of small islands, reefs, and shoals, that he dubbed the Chagos archipelago. There are no accounts of the Portuguese actually landing on any of the islands of the Chagos Archipelago on this trip, but clearly their discovery did not rate as a major discovery. The islands were all rather small and unpopulated, and did not have any valuable natural resources (such as gold) to be exploited. They were marked on charts as accurately as the navigators could determine their location and, for the next 200 years, avoided when possible.

As Lancaster related, in divers wayes, wee found flats of rockes round us. In some places the water was 20 or even 50 fathoms deep between the rocks, but threading a course between them taxed the ships crew dearly. For more than two and half days the ship was in extreme danger, creeping along behind its pinnasse which was sounding out a safe passage. Finally, at 6 degrees 43 minutes south, the ship found a channel six fathoms deep and slipped back into deep waters on its way to Nicobar island, which it reached on May 9. James Lancaster had survived an encounter with the Chagos Archipelago. While the Portuguese had lost several ships to the archipelago in the preceding century, the islands locations were still not well charted. In addition, the maritime powers often jealously guarded geographic knowledge. This, combined with the accuracy problems of the navigation technology of the day, helped ensure that knowledge about the Chagos was fragmentary and often wrong.


In 1509 the bay of Diu, in what is modern day India, was the site of one of the most important naval battles in history. On one side was Viceroy Francisco de Almeida, commanding a force of 19 ships and about 1,200 men comprising virtually the entire strength of Portugal in the Indian Ocean. On the other side was a combined Muslim fleet of Egyptian and Indian ships under the command of Amir Hussain. With typical Portuguese audacity, Almeida sailed directly into the narrow and shallow harbor to attack the numerically superior enemy. What followed was a bloody hand-to-hand melee of broadsides, grappling, and boarding. When it was over, however, the Portuguese had destroyed the enemy fleet and become masters of the Indian Ocean. To emphasize this point, Viceroy Almeida had his fleet sail along the coast firing the arms and legs of prisoners out of cannon and onto the roofs and streets of native towns.

The obvious answer would be to dig a deep well. When this was initially tried on Diego Garcia, however, the results were marginal. There was plenty of water, but it was very brackish, with salt and minerals. The problem was twofold. Firstly, the island was made up of coral and water that percolated downward through it picked up minerals. Secondly, once the well reached below sea level (only a few meters at most on the island) then there was also the possibility of seawater seeping in from the ocean or lagoon. The answer, which was apparently not obvious to La Fontaine, was to not dig deep wells but rather shallow ones. On the island, large volumes of good fresh water are contained in lenses in the ground that are shallow but cover wide areas. Currently, with a major military base on the island, all water is provided by means of a fresh water catch system that utilizes these lenses.

On March 30, 1602, while sailing across the Indian Ocean from west to east in the ship Red Dragon, Lancaster was six degrees below the equator when his ship came upon a large ledge of rocks and water only five fathoms deep. This was a surprise to Lancaster, who expected nothing but deep water in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Casting about the ship, he found water eight fathoms deep and carefully continued toward the East. A lookout aloft reported seeing low laying land five or six leagues to the southeast. The charts Lancaster carried noted an island called Cardu, but it was not near his calculated position. After sailing another 14 leagues the ship came upon another flat of rocks, so it turned south, and after traveling 12 leagues in that direction found yet more rocks.

One reason to stay close to the coast was the crude navigation of the day. In particular, in the days before there were accurate chronometers aboard ships, determining the correct longitude of a vessel was a hit or miss proposition. And, as several centuries of shipwrecks and disasters attest, a miss could be deadly. So while the distance of a ship to the north or south of the equator could be determined fairly well by a skilled navigator, the distance of a ship east or west was often little more than guesswork. Thus, Portuguese vessels sailing to India tried to follow the African coast so that landmarks could give them periodic fixes on their location. In addition, located to the west of the Indian subcontinent was a chain atolls that are today known as the Maldive Islands. Without modern navigation or sensors, or even charts, such island chains were a grave danger to be avoided if at all possible.

The Portuguese had learned, however, that there was a wide passage through the Maldive and Laccadive islands at nine degrees north latitude. Thus, they could sail northwards along the African coast and, when they reached the correct latitude they would turn eastward and could sail safely through the Maldives until they reached the coast of India. From there they could once again navigate with the assistance of landmarks. It would seem logical that a faster route to India would travel straight from the southern tip of Africa northeastward to the subcontinent. Caution, however, usually prevailed over trying such a risky new route. In 1505 vessels under the command of Pedro Mascarenhas had ventured into the waters east of Madagascar. They had discovered several islands, dubbing them the Mascarene in honor of their captain. One of the islands, which the Portuguese called Cirne, was home to a strange breed of large, flightless, birds. In 1512 Mascarenhas would be tasked with expanding knowledge of this region in an attempt to reach India faster.

On March 25, 1511, the first vessels of a 6-ship armada sailed from Portugal under the command of Dom Garcia de Noronha . Their destination was India, to reinforce De Alboquerque in his efforts to establish Portuguese control over the Indian Ocean. For a European vessel of that day, the trip round the horn of Africa was far from routine. It would take over a year for the ships of Dom Garcias armada to reach their destination. The normal route for Portuguese ships on the trip would take them along the African east coast once they passed the continents southern tip. They would sail northwards, never too far from land, until they reached the Arabian Sea north of the equator. Only then would they turn and sail eastwards toward the Indian subcontinent. The Portuguese were the greatest seafarers of their day, but the open ocean still held unknown dangers that wise sailors avoided when possible.

The British were forging their way into the Indian Ocean, lured by profits. By 1608, for example, a trip to India yielded a 234% profit for its investors. By 1612, English captain Thomas Best engaged a Portuguese fleet while sailing off Surat, India. The struggle amongst the European nations for control over the Indian Ocean had begun in earnest. Over the course of the 1600s the British generally gained in strength in the Indian Ocean, while the Portuguese and the Dutch were relegated to secondary powers. The French, however, would rise to challenge British hegemony in the region. This British-French rivalry would lead to a greater interest in the Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago by the mid 1700s.

During the 18th century, however, there would be a growing interest in the island chain. Portugal was no longer the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean, and the Dutch were also no longer in contention for the place of preeminence. Instead, the English and the French were both expanding their interests, and their rivalry, into the Indian Ocean. This rivalry led to a renewed interest in once neglected locations like the Chagos Archipelago. The zero sum reasoning of great power competition meant that even if a nation was not interested in owning and exploiting some island, its rival might. Thus, both the French and English would begin to look upon the Chagos, and Diego Garcia in particular, in a new light. In order to carry out strategy, these nations needed information gathered and analyzed.

Diego Garcia 7 deg 15 min 72 deg 32 min


Leave a Comment