Skip to content

Bikini, Maralinga, Moruroa, Chagos: pawns in a game


To most people today, the word ‘bikini’ refers to scanty women’s beachwear – but this was not always so.

Just over 70 years ago, with Eastern Europe falling under Soviet control and the Cold War looming, the United States began conducting a series of nuclear weapons tests on, above and under one of the 29 atolls (ring-shaped coral reefs) that make up the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The atoll was known in the local language as Pikinni, which apparently translates as ‘coconut place’; but such coconuts as once grew there have long since gone, or are no longer fit for human consumption. In English, the name was simplified to Bikini.

Although the Marshall Islands would officially become independent in 1979, they had been classic playthings of colonialism ever since being ‘discovered’ by the Spaniards in the early 16th century. Many immediately died of imported diseases to which they had no immunity. As the Spanish empire, and its ability to govern its far-flung territories, steadily withered, it eventually allowed the newly emerging power (and latecomer in the European scramble for colonies) Germany to take over some of its Pacific possessions; and for 35 years, from 1884 to 1919, the Marshall Islands were officially German. Then, having lost the First World War, Germany was stripped by the victorious Allies of all its overseas territories, from Africa to the Pacific; and the islands were now transferred to Japanese rule (ironically, Japan would be Germany’s ally in the next world war, but this was not foreseen at the time).

In 1945 it was Japan’s turn to be stripped of its overseas territories by the victorious Allies; and now it was the United States that took over. Having seen the horrifying effects of the newly developed nuclear weapons on its own territory (at the remote town of Los Alamos in the largely arid state of New Mexico) and later in Japan (when nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki), the US desperately needed somewhere to continue testing them without prying eyes and vociferous local protest, not to mention severe and conspicuous long-term damage to health. Despite having posed as an opponent of colonialism in all its forms (in the next few years it was to exert strong pressure on Holland, France and Britain to grant their overseas colonies independence), the American government had no compunction about using the Marshall Islands – now effectively a US colony – for its own purposes, one of which was nuclear testing. The choice fell on Bikini Atoll, whose 167 inhabitants were asked to leave their homeland ‘temporarily, for the good of mankind and to end all world wars’. We cannot know what would have happened if they had refused, for their chiefs unanimously agreed to go; but it’s a safe bet that they would have been expelled regardless. After all, they were few in number, they had no political or financial clout, and they were not white – this at a time when racial segregation and discrimination were still the norm in America’s southern states.

They were subsequently moved to a succession of places which all proved incapable of sustaining them, and they soon faced starvation. Seventy years later their original home is still too radioactive for human habitation, and their descendants, who now largely depend on government welfare payments, understandably have no intention of returning there. The promise that their departure would be ‘temporary’ was a barefaced lie, for the long-term effects of exposure to radiation were no secret; in her ignorance, the illustrious Polish-French physicist Marie Curie had carried radioactive substances around on her person, and in 1934 she died of a disease that was by then known to have been caused by this.

But in the context of the Cold War no-one in the West was about to ‘rock the boat’ with indignant protests about the fate of a handful of powerless and deliberately misinformed Pacific islanders; and in July 1946, just four days after the first detonation, a Frenchman designed a revealing new line of women’s beachwear that he called the ‘bikini’ – supposedly because of its ‘explosive’ commercial and cultural potential (one female reviewer even called the garment the ‘atom bomb of fashion’).

Business as usual.

But this was just the beginning. Fast-forward to the early 1950s, by which time the USSR also had nuclear weapons, all of Eastern Europe was firmly under Soviet control, Mao Zedong’s communist forces had defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s pro-Western Nationalists and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, war had broken out in Korea between the communist North and the capitalist South, and the French were fast losing the battle with communist insurgents in their Indochinese colonies Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Anti-communist paranoia (the ‘reds under the bed’ scare, coupled with the old ‘yellow peril’ fear of Asia’s masses) gripped Western governments; and three months after I was born, Britain produced a nuclear weapon of its own. But where to test it?

The answer must have been only too obvious. The British empire was only just starting to disintegrate, notably with the ‘loss’ of India (and Muslim Pakistan) in 1947; and although Australia was now nominally an independent country, it was still very much in the Western camp, and perfectly willing to let the Brits explode their highly radioactive devices in remote parts of the outback. Not that these were uninhabited; but, just like the Marshall Islanders, the inhabitants were few in number, had no political or financial clout, and were not white. They were Aboriginals – members of Australia’s dwindling indigenous population, who had always been treated as outcasts. A ‘white Australia policy’ that excluded immigrants with the ‘wrong’ skin colour was still very much in force at the time; and many Australian whites would happily have seen the ‘Abos’ die out (it was not for want of trying).

Three sites were selected for Britain’s nuclear weapons tests: one in the far north-west of the country, and two near the south coast, 800 km from Adelaide. One of the latter sites was called Maralinga. It was part of a ‘prohibited’ defence area known as Woomera – ironically named after an Aboriginal spear-throwing tool (on a par in its effectiveness with that iconic Aboriginal hunting implement, the boomerang), since the site was also used for missile launches. This may have seemed a nice cross-cultural mix of the ancient and the modern; but I expect the Aboriginals were not amused.

Here the native population was simply shipped out from what to them was a deeply sacred place; but some nevertheless suffered from radiation sickness and died, if only because hazardous waste was simply dumped in the ground, untreated. Today’s neo-liberal cost-cutters would surely have approved. The British and Australian governments also took good care to keep the whole thing secret – and above all to ensure that white people weren’t affected.

Business as usual.

Eight years after Britain, in 1960, France joined the still select ‘nuclear club’ (China’s first nuclear test was four years away); and since it still had some remnants of its empire left, it likewise looked around for convenient test sites well away from metropolitan France, so that its native white population would not be inconvenienced. Moruroa, an outlying atoll in the Pacific colony of French Polynesia, seemed to fit the bill, with plenty of fresh seawater to wash away the mess – environmental awareness was minimal at the time.

It is not to France’s credit that it did even less than the Americans and Brits to protect the local population – if only by evacuating them against their will. Moruroa (and nearby Fangataufa, which was also used for testing) were themselves uninhabited, but as recently as 2002 there were some 800 people living within 400 km of the two atolls. The pattern was a familiar one: the islanders were few in number, had no political or financial clout, and were not white. In 1995 France’s president Jacques Chirac even decided to resume the tests – precisely a year before a worldwide ban on such testing was due to take effect. French products were boycotted worldwide as a result.

Which brings us to the Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean – and, once again, the Brits.

As the British empire disintegrated throughout the 1960s, the island state of Mauritius also sought independence; and its territory included the Chagos islands, off the south coast of India. Perhaps, given the 2000-km distance, Mauritius had no particular entitlement to them; but Britain, of course, had still less.

Then the Cold War intervened. The United States needed a military base in the Indian Ocean, and only Britain could provide the necessary territory: Diego Garcia (named for a Spanish explorer) in the Chagos islands.

Unfortunately, Mauritius was about to become independent; but Britain neatly circumvented this problem by enacting a law that detached the islands from Mauritius in 1965, three years before it broke away, so that the US base could be set up on what would then still be British territory.

The Americans had wanted somewhere uninhabited, precisely to avoid conflicts with newly independent countries. Unfortunately the Chagos islands were inhabited; but the British government acted swiftly to remedy this.

The local population were not ‘native’ in the sense of being descended from people who had lived there since time immemorial; instead, they mainly worked on coconut plantations established by European settlers, and had been brought in from elsewhere (Africa, India and Malaya). But this had been their only home for a century and a half; and by the mid-1960s they numbered over 1,000 (whereas Britain had told the US there were only a few hundred of them – as if this made any difference).

A deliberate depopulation policy was now pursued. ‘Chagossians’ who left the islands for any reason (including medical care) were not permitted to return; and those who remained had only restricted access to food and medicines, in the hope they would be persuaded to leave ‘voluntarily’. When even this failed to have the desired effect, it seems far nastier measures were adopted. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, family pets were killed in front of their owners; and people were forced onto passing ships that carried them off to Mauritius and the Seychelles. When newly independent Mauritius refused to resettle them without monetary compensation, the UK government forked out £650,000 to get the Chagossians off their hands. By the mid-1970s the whole ugly operation had been completed: a small number of people who were not white and had no political or financial clout had again been cleared out of the way. This time there was no nuclear hazard to deter them from returning home; but Britain and the US were determined not to let them do so. With luck, cynical civil servants in London and Washington must have thought, their descendants would settle down elsewhere and forget all about their former homeland.

Only they didn’t. They have continued to protest; and as late as 2016, half a century after the expulsions began, the UK government has made yet another nauseating statement denying the Chagossians’ right to return: ‘The government has decided against resettlement of the Chagossian people to the British Indian Ocean Territory on the grounds of feasibility, defence and security interests, and cost to the British taxpayer.’ Weasel words: their return is only ‘unfeasible’ because Britain and the US governments don’t want it to happen. As for cost to the British taxpayer, this surely pales into insignificance compared with the financial and emotional cost to the uprooted population; and the government’s spokeswoman should have been ashamed to even mention this. She continued by saying that the difficulties of re-establishing ‘a small remote community on low-lying islands’ (a perhaps injudicious admission that climate change is real – although evidently not serious enough for the US to close down its Diego Garcia base) and developing modern public services for them were too great. There would be ‘limited healthcare and education’ and a lack of jobs and economic opportunities – all simply because Britain is unwilling to provide anything more in a territory for which it remains politically, and above all morally, responsible. The bottom line is that it doesn’t want those people to be there.

And then the hypocritical clincher: ‘The manner in which the Chagossian community was removed from the territory in the 1960s and 1970s, and the way they were treated, was wrong and we look back with deep regret.’ Deep regret? Give us a break – this was quite deliberate policy, and no-one but the Chagossians ever shed a tear. Note the maudlin phrase ‘we look back’ – there’s no looking forward to a possible solution, for the British government is as determined as ever to prevent one from being found.

Once again, it would have done the spokeswoman rather more credit if she had omitted this manifestly untruthful part of her statement, instead of rubbing salt into the victims’ wounds by pretending to sympathise with them. She clearly couldn’t give a damn about what happens to the people whose lives were so wilfully wrecked all those years ago. They were – and are – just pawns in a game.


Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: