About Banaba

"Ocean Island", today known again by its origin name of Banaba, is one of the many interesting islands in the Republic of Kiribati (Micronesia). In the company of the other islands of Kiribati, Banaba has its very own history, as well as its own unique, beautiful and complex culture that has evolved over many generations. Where it stands apart results from its geographical location and the discovery of phosphate.

The year 1900 was just beginning when this small indigenous race called the Banabans who had lived peacefully on their tiny central Pacific island suddenly found themselves thrust onto the world stage.
Up until this date no one had wanted as it had always been considered too remote to be worthy of settlement by the Colonial governments of the day.

Buakonikai village prior to the mining of phosphate.

It was Albert Ellis (later Sir Albert), a supercargo on a ship of the Pacific Island Trading Company who changed the situation rapidly,when he, against the advice of many scoffers, including the Company Directors, took a queer-looking piece of rock to experts in London for analysis. This rock has been used for many years as a door-stop which had been given to him by a friend who had picked it up in Nauru. That piece of rock was made of ‘the purest phosphate of lime yet discovered by man in a natural state’.

Banaba, 1929.

The Pacific Islands Trading Company became the millionaire British Phosphate Commissioners, a Company owned jointly by the Governments of Britain, Australia and New Zealand. B.P.C. really controlled Ocean Island until the phosphate was exhausted in 1979. Relays of workers had been taken every two years to Ocean Island. This source of revenue had dried up and also the royalties that had been paid annually to the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) Government.

At the beginning of 1942 when the Japanese forces invaded the island and in another devastating blow exiled the Banabans to labour camps in other islands in the Pacific: Kosrae, Nauru and Tarawa where the Banabans were mainly used to grow crops such as pumpkins for the Japanese forces in the Pacific.

Immediately after the War in the Pacific was over, the Banabans were gathered up and transported to Rabi Island in the Fiji Group. Rabi had been purchased for them by the British government from the Banaban's own Provident Fund to continue an untroubled excessive phospat mining.

Rabi is considered a beautiful island with plenty of water, and rich volcanic soil. But the Banabans first beginnings on Rabi were a great struggle. They were originally left on the island in quickly erected army tents, with enough rations to only last the community for two months.

After so many years of phosphate mining, the island lays devastated. Today on Banaba out of the original 595 hectares (approx. 1,500 acres) of once lush tropical land, only 150 acres remains unmined, with the whole centre of the island left with horrific towering limestone pinnacles which rise to a height of 80 feet in places making the island’s interior impassable. Masses of rusting mining machinery lays rotting under the hot equatorial sun, while a small Banaban community of around 100 people live a traditional life-style amongst the ruins of the old company buildings on the rim of the island.
The buildings were left abandoned at the cessation of mining back in 1980. At present, the saga of Banaba and its people has been forgotten by the outside world. The Banabans presence on their beloved homeland is to protect their island from ever being taken from them again. Now no ships call on the island except for a supply vessel that drops in a few times a year.

The Banabans now find themselves scattered between their greatly diminished original homeland, today known as Banaba and the faraway Rabi in the remote north-east region of Fiji. To make things more confusing for the Banabans, their original homeland of Banaba is governed by the Republic of Kiribati (originally Gilbert Island Group) and Rabi falls under the Republic of Fiji.

Today, while the people struggle to survive under two separate Pacific island nations, the Banabans believe that nothing is more important than the preservation of their heritage and ethnic identity."

Banaban landscape subsequent to phosphate mining, 1931

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