Book Summary, The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice and Courage

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The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice and Courage, by Philippe Sands 

Basic Summary

Rights often arise from wrongs. A history of religious wars underlined the need for religious liberty. The horrors of World World II would also result in a modern system of rights.

The coalition of nations against Germany and Japan formed the kernel of a new international institution with the duty to address the world’s problems peacefully. The United Nations was established, including an International Court of Justice, which settled disputes among nations. 

The court is also known as the World Court. It resides in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands. If you read about “The Hague,” it references the location of the International Court of Justice. The Hague is also the location of the International Criminal Court. 

A fundamental belief arose that everyone had certain essential rights, including the ability to govern themselves. Ralph Bunche, an African-American United States Department official, promoted anticolonialism. European colonies had a right to independence.

Great Britain was not very gung-ho about this. Nonetheless, they were compelled to go along, including overseeing the independence of India and British African colonies. 

Mauritius, a West African island nation,  became independent in 1968. The independence process became mixed up in the Cold War. The United States wanted to open a military base on Diego Garcia, an island in the Chagos Archipelago. There lies the core tale of this book.

Great Britain formed its “last colony.” They carved out The British Indian Ocean Territory from an area that would have otherwise been the territory of Mauritius. The British government deported the long-term residents of the islands, who were wrongly labeled transients. Liseby Elyse, then twenty years old, was removed from her lifelong home.

Mauritius and the people of Chagos challenged Great Britain’s power to do this. Philippe Sands, who litigated many cases before international courts, tells the over fifty years battle for justice. Sands eventually argued their case in front of the International Court of Justice.

The Last Colony is a very personal story. Liseby Elyse became the voice of her people, making a televised statement (she cannot read or write) during the court hearing. 

Phillippe Sands is also an important character. He discusses his life and career while summarizing the development of the World Court. Sands previously wrote about his efforts to obtain justice for those suffering torture, including during the U.S. war against terror.  

Liseby Elyse and her people won their case. Nonetheless, The Last Colony warns us that a single victory is often inadequate to obtain justice. Great Britain continued to refuse to admit wrongdoing. Elyse still (as of late 2023) cannot return to her home. 

The battle continues. 

Why You Should Read This Book

Philippe Sands is not only an expert on international law, including being involved in multiple cases, but has written books for general and academic audiences. Sands knows his stuff. He also knows how to translate history and law into a form approachable to the general reader.   

I am familiar with his writings on torture. The book was also tantalizingly on display in my local library. Sands covers a range of topics in under two hundred pages. These days, there is so much material to read and watch. An excellent summary is well appreciated. 

The book is good for the general reader without losing value as an expert’s take on events. Sand includes endnotes and an index. There is a convenient map of the area and some pictures of the people involved. Sands’ liberal sentiments are well known. Full disclosure if that concerns you.  

Personal Stories 

The Last Colony uses personal stories to help explain international law and a specific legal dispute. When done well, this is a helpful approach. Sands does a great job.  

Liseby Elyse is an excellent choice. She is everywoman. The discussion of international law, including the right against deportation, can be very dry. Liseby provides a human face. 

She lived her life blissfully ignorant of the international drama around her. Then, while pregnant, Elyse is uprooted from her home. A powerful (warning animal lovers) touch was the detail that she could not even take her dog. The British government killed all the dogs. 

Justice William Brennan, the great liberal on the Supreme Court, often said it was important to tell stories. We need to know how the “unfortunate” events here affected individual people.  

History Mixed With Advocacy

Philippe Sands is an advocate. He also has strong positions on specific issues. Many disagree with him. Litigation involves two sides with very different views.

Sands wrote this book wearing two hats. He is both an advocate and a historian. He explains how an important legal precedent swung on one vote. Courts interpret the law. But, the law is not some abstraction. Its interpretation often depends on who interprets it.  

Sands explains the development of the World Court and human rights law. He does so with a specific point of view. Sands has a horse in this race. Nonetheless, he plays fair. 

Readers of history will discover that historians often have a point of view. We should keep an eye out for such things. But, it does not mean that the book is useless as history.  


Gratuitous Victims 

Life can be difficult. Various things unavoidable things happen to us. Something that upsets me is when suffering occurs with good reason. Gratuitously.

The deportation of the people from the Chagos Archipelago was largely unnecessary. The United States has military bases throughout the world. It did not require uprooting all the people from the general area. The U.S. did not request the Brits to deport everyone. 

Great Britain repeatedly acted like a racist colonial power that did not care for the basic needs of their people. They did not even follow patronizing “white man’s burden” rules here.

Mauritius offered to lease the U.S. land for the military base. Great Britain could have handled the process much better. Last Colony underlines the lack of respect, including not considering the importance of respect for churches and cemeteries. 

Human Rights 

The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that all persons are created equal. Everyone has certain fundamental rights. We establish governments to protect these rights. 

If governments fail to do so, they are unjust. The hard part is forming a system to protect human rights and punish the violators. The courts serve an essential role.  

The United States has a reputation as a very litigious country. Nonetheless, the courts provide a helpful means to settle disputes. Each side provides arguments and evidence, while a neutral judge oversees the proceedings. Appeals help guard against mistakes and abuse.

Litigation can be a long and messy process. Imagine how it is when governments, not just individual persons, are involved. The Lost Colony provides a guarded optimism that there is a way to protect human rights. We have a long way to go. Philippe Sands honestly addresses this.

A reader might finish this book upset that all the wrongs have not been made right. Great Britain provided limited financial compensation and set up “heritage visits” to the islands. However, even when multiple courts decided against them, they did not admit defeat.

We have a right to be angry. We also should be realistic about the long way home.