Nauruans and Banabans

Alternative names: Ocean Islanders (Banabans)
Location: western Pacific, 350 km apart
Population: Nauru, 4,100; Banaba (Kiribati), 3,500
% of population: Nauru, 50% of population; Banaba, 5% of Kiribati population (includes Banabans on Rabi)
Religion: Christian (Protestant)
Language: Indigenous languages, English

Nauru and Banaba (Ocean Island) are two small islands in the Pacific, both of which have possessed rich phosphate deposits and both of which have fought legally and politically for increased economic benefits from phosphate mining and for political independence. Both island communities are from similar ethnic backgrounds, but have different colonial experiences and present political status.

Both Nauru and Banaba are isolated islands and were not “discovered” by Europeans until the early nineteenth century. There was initially little European interest in either island, but the division of the Western Pacific in 1886 between Germany and the UK placed Nauru with Germany and Banaba (Ocean Island) with the UK. Nauru was made part of the German Marshall Islands protectorate in 1888. Ocean Island was ignored, although the Gilbert and Ellice Islands became a UK protectorate in 1892. In 1899, after phosphates were discovered on both islands, Ocean Island was incorporated into the protectorate in 1900 and by 1910 the Pacific Islands Company had mined heavily on both islands. At the end of World War I Germany lost its Pacific possessions and Nauru became a Trust Territory jointly administered by the UK, Australia and New Zealand under a League of Nations mandate. The three governments combined to buy all rights from the phosphate company on the islands and to work them jointly under the title of the British Phosphate Commission.

During the Japanese occupation both communities suffered. Of 1,200 Nauruans deported to Truk in the Carolines, over one third died. Over 150 Banabans were massacred by the Japanese in one incident. Both war and the despoliation of the islands by mining meant that it was difficult to return to live there; nevertheless many of the Nauruans did so while the Banabans were moved to Rabi Island in north eastern Fiji. Both communities received small royalties, but as a result of mining, 80% of Nauru and Banaba is now uninhabitable.

Nauru became independent in 1968 under Chief Hammer DeRoburt, and took over control of the phosphate industry. As one of the world’s smallest states, with a total population of about 7,000, of whom 4,100 are citizens and the remainder Filipinos and other Pacific islanders, it is also the richest state per capita, with an income per head of about US$30,000. Much of the income from phosphates has been invested in Australia and elsewhere. However, the phosphates are expected to run out around 1995 and there are fears for the future, especially as few Nauruans now follow a traditional agricultural lifestyle and almost all goods are imported. At the end of 1988 Nauruannounced that it would ask the UK, Australia and New Zealand to pay US$34 million in compensation after the release of an independent committee of enquiry set up by the Nauruan parliament in 1986 which stated… “Entrusted by the world community… with this ‘sacred trust of civilization’ the three powers failed to act in accordance with that trust and acted for their own benefit”.

Banabans have had two main demands relating to their future; firstly to gain a more equitable share of the mining royalties, and secondly for a different political status. The struggle for compensation started in the mid-1960s with demands for royalties, and continued in the 1970s with proceedings in the UK High Court. Judgment was delivered in December 1976 after a long and involved court case. This ruled in effect that the courts had no power to order monetary damages for actions carried out by the UK colonial authorities even though they may have been in the wrong or against the financial interest of the community. However, it provided a strong moral base for compensation and in May 1977 the UK government offered the islanders US$6.5 million in compensation, on condition that the Banabans would give up legal proceedings against the government. Although the Banabans through their eight-man Council of Elders were unhappy about the decision, they agreed after legal advice to accept the offer.

Banabans were also opposed to their continued incorporation in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and urged instead that they be allowed to become an Associated State in conjunction with Fiji. As a prelude to independence for the Gilbert and Ellice group it was agreed that the two would be separated because of their considerable ethnic and cultural differences. In 1979 the two became independent as Kiribati and Tuvalu respectively. Despite protests, Banaba remained with Kiribati. The Kiribati constitution offers Banaba a parliamentary seat; guarantees Banabans land rights on Banaban; gives Banabans inalienable rights to land and to live on their own island, and guarantees a review of these arrangements three years after independence. Although mining stopped in 1979, Banabans were also concerned that the Kiribati government might wish to restart mining operations. In 1982 there were 400 Banabans living on Banaba and attempting to revive traditional subsistence agriculture, although they were still relying on funds and supplies from Rabi Island.