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The moving, inspiring David-and-Goliath true story of freedom and justice involving one tiny nation in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, and the extraordinary woman, a descendant of slaves, who dared to take on the Crown and the United Kingdom—and win a historic victory
In 1973, on the Chagos Islands off the coast of Africa, Liseby Elyse—twenty years old, newly married and four months pregnant—was, rounded up, along with the entire population of Chagos, and ordered to pack her belongings and leave her beloved homeland by ship or slowly starve; the British had cut off all food supplies.
Some two thousand people who had lived on the islands of Chagos for generations, many the direct descendants of enslaved people brought there from Mozambique and Madagascar in the 18th century by the French and British, were deported overnight from their island paradise as the result of a secret decision by the British government to provide the United States with land to construct a military base in the Indian Ocean.
For four decades the government of Mauritius fought for the return of Chagos. Three decades into the battle, Philippe Sands became the lead lawyer in the case, designing its legal strategy and assembling a team of lawyers from Mauritius, Belgium, India, Ukraine, and the U.S.
When the case finally reached the World Court in the Hague, Sands chose as the star witness the diminutive Liseby Elyse, now sixty-five years old, and instructed her to appear before the court, speaking in Kreol, to tell the fourteen international judges her story of forced exile. The fate of Chagos rested on her testimony.
The judges faced a landmark decision: Would they rule that Britain illegally detached Chagos from Mauritius? Would Liseby Elyse sway the judges and open the door, allowing her and her fellow Chagossians to return home—or would they remain exiled forever?
Philippe Sands writes of his own journey into international law and that of the World Court in the Hague, and of the extraordinary decades-long quest of Liseby Elyse, and the people of Chagos, in their fight for justice and a free and fair return to the idyllic land of their birth.
About the Author
PHILIPPE SANDS is professor of law at the University of London, the Samuel Pisar Visiting professor at Harvard Law School, and the author of East West Street. He is a frequent commentator on CNN and the BBC World Service, and a litigator before international courts. He is the former president of English PEN. In 2003 Sands was appointed a Queen’s Counsel. He lives in London, England.
“Compelling . . . Impressive . . . With the deftness of marquetry, Sands lays down the groundwork of international law and its evolution during the Cold War . . . One of the many merits of this intriguing account of how the case against Britain was finally brought to The Hague is its human focus . . . [Sands] has done the islanders proud.” —David Profumo, The Spectator
“A moving story of human tragedy and injustice with the complexities of international law to great effect. A neat work of detailed legal points and history, and a deeply felt narrative about the injustice of deportation and the dwindling number of Chagossians with strong ties to their homeland. Madame Elysé is an impressive, courageous figure and emblem, putting a human face on colonialism’s continuing wrongs, both for the International Court and this book. There is much to appreciate about this little-known story in Sands’s sensitive telling. A complex case of international law and a stirring tale of injustice and homecoming.” —Julia Kastner, Shelf Awareness
“A piercing account . . . Sands efficiently combines history, memoir, and astute legal analysis. A powerful testament to the lasting damage of imperialism.” —Publishers Weekly
“Sands relates the wider tragedy of the scandal with nerve and precision . . . A steely and forensic case, laced with human empathy . . . Important and welcome corrective.” —Tim Adams, The Observer
“A resounding history, thrilling as any novel.” —Amanda Hopkinson, The Jewish Chronicle
“A powerful and persuasive account . . . superb.” —Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature
“[S]urprisingly gripping narrative . . . [An] elegant, moving and profoundly informative book.” —Joyce McMillan, The Scotsman
“A powerful and poignant book that should be read by anyone who cares about justice, humanity and human rights. Rarely does a book combine erudition and empathy so eloquently—it is stellar in every sense of the word.” —Elif Shafak, author of How to Stay Sane in the Age of Division
“Sands is a humane and generous presence . . . illuminating the experiences of ‘real people, real lives’ behind the bureaucracy of international law. Sands’ book is an urgent reminder that Britain’s colonial rule isn’t our past. It’s our present.” —Hannah Rose Woods, The New Statesman
“Powerful and elegantly written . . . Sands uses the story of one Chagossian woman to tell a broader story about colonialism and international human rights from the 20th century to today. An essential account of a continuing and little-known area of injustice.” —Tomiwa Owolade, The Sunday Times (London)