by Laura Jeffery (University of Edinburgh)
Half a century ago, between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the UK Government depopulated the entire Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean to make way for a major US military base on the Chagos island of Diego Garcia. Forced onto crowded ships bound for Mauritius and Seychelles, Chagos islanders could take only very few belongings with them. Despite a series of legal battles for the right of return, the UK Government continues to bar Chagossians from resettling Chagos, and return visits have been minimal. As such the community has lost – or has lost access to – material heritage objects, cultural sites, places, and monuments. Chagossians are concerned that knowledge and practices linked to life on Chagos will be lost as the remaining Chagos-born islanders pass away.
For the past two decades I have conducted ethnographic research with the Chagossian communities in Mauritius, Seychelles, and the UK. In such contexts of forced displacement, protracted dislocation, and geographical dispersal, how do chronically marginalised and fractured communities sustain and transmit memories of the homeland, cultural practices, collective identification, and visions of the future? My work explored the significance of cultural forms – particularly coconut-based cuisine, Kreol language, and syncretic sega tambour music – for the community’s struggle for their right of return to Chagos.[i] I highlighted the contradictions inherent in the compulsion to demonstrate cultural continuity and cultural loss simultaneously:[ii]
- On the one hand, to show that they remain a distinctive group, they emphasise the endurance and distinctiveness of their culture vis-à-vis their Mauritian or Seychellois counterparts.
- Yet, on the other hand, to show that they are victims worthy of recompense, they emphasise the cultural losses and fragmentation that they have suffered.
Clearly the actual and potential loss of cultural heritage in this instance is therefore not simply due to change and obsolescence, but rather it is the direct result of historical injustices and ongoing marginalisation. Following my extended ethnographic engagement with the Chagossian community, I was well positioned to lead a community engagement and impact project aiming to address the consequences of this exploitation and injustice by supporting displaced Chagossians to valorise, share, and preserve their intangible cultural heritage.
- At intergenerational heritage transmission workshops in 2017, Chagossian elders shared with the younger generations their knowledge of medicinal plants, coconut preparation, coconut handicrafts, coconut-based cuisine, musical instruments, and song and dance.[iii]
- Photographs, instructive films, and artefacts generated at these workshops have been displayed in exhibitions installed six times in Mauritius and Reunion Island and in the UK.
- In 2018 we produced a new Chagos Tambour Group music album, which was subsequently made available on the Air Mauritius inflight entertainment system.
- Our open access digital archive chagos.online displays photographs, instructive films, downloadable recipes, and the Chagos Tambour Group album.
- We contributed to the Mauritian government’s nomination file for the successful inscription of Chagossian tambour music on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2019.
Recent trends in the heritage sector towards supporting ICH processes are particularly relevant for displaced and migrant groups who have experienced dramatic social and cultural change and the loss of material cultural heritage. Our project focused on the transmission of ICH (rather than on outputs). This enabled space for and recognition of differences in community members’ understandings of and approaches to ICH. It became apparent that what was important for displaced Chagossians was not the ‘authenticity’ of cultural objects, but rather their utility as tools for transmitting valued ICH. Thus they considered their heritage to be neither static nor homogeneous. This gives weight to the argument that practices within the heritage sector should not seek to concretise heritage, particularly when the people whose living heritage is at stake are not themselves troubled by variation over time and place.
In any case, efforts to inscribe heritage do not necessarily prevent changes in practices, not least because there are limits to the extent to which people use a list, an inventory, or a recording as a guide to cultural practice. In other words, we found that inscription of a ‘canonical template’ on a remote UNESCO List may well be ‘inherently paradoxical’, but the process need not necessarily ‘freeze cultural change’ into a ‘static element’ since it might not unduly influence how people actually engage with ‘living practices’.[iv]
Heritage is a resource that can be used by marginalised groups to define themselves and seek validation. This is especially true for displaced people who have been dispossessed of their material heritage, and for whom ICH is perhaps even more important. Formal efforts to safeguard and inscribe ICH offer the possibility of political, social, and financial gains such as increased legitimacy, strengthened collective identification, and funding to enable communities to continue to practice their valued cultural activities. However, safeguarding processes can also pose risks such as loss of control over community knowledge and a compounded sense of disempowerment.
Laura Jeffery is professor of Anthropology of Migration at the University of Edinburgh.
Image by Laura Jeffery
[i] Jeffery, L. 2007. How a plantation became paradise: changing representations of the homeland among displaced Chagos islanders. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13, 4: 951-968.
[ii] Jeffery, L. 2011. Chagos islanders in Mauritius and the UK: Forced displacement and onward migration. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
[iii] Jeffery, L. & R. Rotter. 2016. Sustenance, nourishment, and cultivation: plants as living cultural heritage for dispersed Chagossians in Mauritius, Seychelles, and the UK. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22, 2: 296-313.
[iv] Jeffery, L. & R. Rotter 2018. Safeguarding sega: transmission, inscription, and appropriation of Chagossian intangible cultural heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies 25, 10: 1020-1033.