At the Blue Penny Museum on Monday 20 June, there was an unusual and moving book launch. Chagossian leader, Fernand Mandarin, wrote the book entitled “Retour aux Chagos!” (with the exclamation mark). He wrote it in collaboration with museum curator, Emmanuel Richon.
Present there were no Ministers or Ambassadors. This made for a relaxed event. Both speakers were fluent and precise and dignified, in their Mauritian Kreol. There was an air of excitement, what with the Prime Minister’s ultimatum expiring in just 10 days. If the British do not act on sovereignty, he has said in Parliament, he will put a case against the UK in the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
Present at this lively event were Chagossians and people with relatives who had lived on Chagos, Chagos Refugees Group leader, Olivier Bancoult, as well as people loyal to the struggle for the decolonization and demilitarization of Chagos like the former President of the Republic Cassam Uteem. Also present, former pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Mauritius, Vinesh Hookoomsing, who now works with the CRG and writer/critic Robert Furlong, who had encouraged the book. Barrister Hervé Lasemillante, who is in the leadership of the Social Committee of Chagossians was also present. Two LALIT members were present, and together prepared this report. Mr. Mandarin signed copies of the book after the two speeches.
Mr. Richon began by saying that it could be proven that the author was Mr Mandarin, and not him, because while the book could have been written with himself being replaced, it could not possibly have been written with Fernand Mandarin being replaced. He argued cogently on the importance of a people who have suffered the kind of trauma that forcible replacement brings, affirming the culture they had, and have, from before the injury they, as a people, suffered. He also spoke of the importance of books; though often referred to as the author’s “child”, they are in a way beyond even a child; they end up going to places completely unchartered, and cover time that is unforeseeable. Mr. Richon spoke of his first book, in a moving recollection of how, as a painting restorer, he was amongst the manual workers at his first job at a museum in Paris. And that books had previously only been written by the director of the Museum, himself.
Fernand Mandarin in his plaited threads of the story-telling mode began with the accusation by the Administrator one day that a worker had not, as they were required to do, returned one of the tools of the coconut Estate. An axe. Each tool had two letters burnt into its handle. Those used on Peros Banos, had PB inscribed. Those on Diego Garcia, DG. Anyway, rumour had it that a particular worker had the Estate’s axe in his possession. He denied it. “That axe is my axe,” he said. Eventually, as the stakes got higher and higher, he produced his axe. On it were burnt the letters TL. That stands for Tromelin. His father’s father, that is to say, his grandfather, had worked in the squaring of logs for lodgings in Tromelin, he said, and the axe had been handed down to him. “Did you or I ever hear that Tromelin had been inhabited?” Mr. Mandarin asked. “Do we know, even now?” He said that history had wiped out all trace of habitation there. And he warned that, had it not been for the struggle, and if we do not continue to struggle, that is what will happen with Chagos. His story came to a neat ending with a clear triple message: Chagossians are the people of Chagos and must struggle for the right to return, Chagossians are Mauritians and the British colonizers must be kicked out and the Mauritian State take over, and the US must close its base down.