🇬🇧🇲🇺 British newspaper reports US-UK tension as UK negotiates handover of BIOT to Chinese ally, Mauritius.
Stamp collectors are probably more aware than most of the existence of the British Indian Ocean Territory which is home to the vital US military base on Diego Garcia as well as other islands of the Chagos Archipelago. The territory was established on 8 November 1965 from British islands which had been administered previously from Seychelles and Mauritius.
Postage stamps were first issued for the territory on 17 January 1968 in the form of overprints (B.I.O.T.) on contemporary Seychelles stamps and a set of stamps with bespoke designs based on drawings by Mrs W Veevers Carter depicting local marine life was released later in the year on 23 October.
When the Republic of Seychelles achieved independence in 1976 some BIOT islands including Aldabra, Farquhar, Cosmoledo and Assumption were transferred from BIOT to be included in the newly independent state. Chagos remained part of BIOT under the continuing British sovereignty which had existed since 1814 when the French had ceded the islands to the British Crown. In 1971 work began on the construction of an important United States military base on Diego Garcia and this base took on enormous importance for the Western Alliance with the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1973 and then the rise of Chinese attempts to influence and subjugate to Chinese will the various island states of the Indian Ocean and further away in the Pacific.
In the course of preparing islands for the construction of the base, the British Labour government of Harold Wilson disgracefully forcibly deported all the Chagos Islanders to Mauritius, Seychelles and Britain.
The waters of the region of the Chagos are an important area for fishing which the Mauritian government considered might be a valuable resource for the republic and decided upon getting its hands on it and with that in mind, claims of Mauritian sovereignty over the Chagos Islands were made despite the British Crown’s sovereignty established in 1814 and regardless of the British government having paid the then British colony of Mauritius £3 million at the time of the establishment of BIOT. Eventually the issue was taken to the United Nations which sought the opinion of the International Court of Justice which ruled in favour of the Mauritian government.
Latterly, in August 2021, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) ruled that postage stamps inscribed British Indian Ocean Territory would not be registered, distributed or transmitted by that organisation and that only stamps of the Republic of Mauritius would be valid for use in or from Chagos (although there were no Mauritian post offices there). The British government appears to have acknowledged that announcement as no BIOT stamps have been issued since then.
In December 2022 the British Foreign Secretary talked about ongoing Anglo-Mauritian negotiations on the future sovereignty of Chagos and the UK’s Foreign Office has recently stated, “The UK and Mauritius have held three rounds of constructive negotiations over the sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory/Chagos Archipelago”. Following this a British national newspaper has published an article reporting growing tension between the United States and Britain about the future of the Diego Garcia base and the USA’s concerns about handing Chagos sovereignty over to the Mauritians who have a close relationship with the People’s Republic of China (a relationship proudly celebrated by Mauritius Post on a number of postage stamps issued in recent years). There are fears that if Mauritius takes control of the islands, Diego Garcia may well end up as a Chinese base.
The process of transferring BIOT to Mauritian sovereignty will clearly not be an overnight process but it does seem that the British Foreign Office and the current government are now set on achieving that as a final goal and the territory known as British Indian Ocean Territory will cease to exist. It also seems very likely that no more postage stamps inscribed ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’ will appear - King Charles III will never be featured on a BIOT stamp. Which seems a little sad to me at least.
Of course the Chagossians may find that they at last are allowed to return home to their ancestral islands though they may be wise not to build their hopes up too much. The government of Mauritius has used them as one of its arguments to claim sovereignty over Chagos but they are largely irrelevant to the Mauritian claim and whether or not a US base remains on Diego Garcia or is replaced by a Chinese establishment, neither powers are going to want a lot of troublesome native Chagossians in the near vicinity.
It seems unlikely that there would ever be any postage stamps inscribed ‘Chagos Islands’ since the present Mauritian government wishes to include the territory as an integral part of the Republic Of Mauritius and it has never issued stamps for other distant islands such as Rodrigues or the Agalega Islands and so only stamps inscribed ‘Mauritius’ would be used there even if the Mauritians bothered to establish a postal service for the islands (which seems unlikely as postal services become more and more irrelevant to the functioning of 21st century society).
So, we may already have added the final page to our BIOT collections and the territory has already become another one of those philatelic ‘dead countries’.