The Forgotten People of the Pacific' by Stacey King

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The Forgotten People of the Pacific


by Stacey King - Founder & Secretary - The Banaban Heritage Society Inc


A non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of Banaban Culture and bettering the lives of the

 Banaban people 


As we move towards the Year 2000 and the dawning of a new millennium our younger generations have taken it upon themselves to right the wrongs of the past. In a world that has seen so much change during the past 100 years it is fitting and appropriate to educate our children about historical events that still have lasting and tragic implications in today's modern world. The story of the forgotten Banaban people from the Central Pacific is such a case, where at the turn of this century man's greed was put above all else in the name of so called 'progress'. The year 1900 was just beginning when this small unique indigenous race - known as Banabans who had lived peacefully on their tiny central Pacific island suddenly found themselves thrust onto the World stage. The richest deposits of Phosphate of Lime had just been discovered by Albert Ellis a New Zealander working for a London based company. Up until this discovery no one had wanted Banaba or Ocean Island as it was then known through out the western world. It had always been considered to remote to be worthy of settlement by the Colonial Governments of the day. But all this was soon to change, and so was the status of the Banaban people. They had just become expendable...

The forgotten story of the Banabans is a very special tale. One which in our modern society today would cause a world outcry and would never have been allowed to happen. It's a lesson we should tell our future generations to ensure that these tragic events in history are never repeated. It's also a wonderful story of courage, determination and hope as the Banabans come back from the very brink of extinction.


With the discovery of phosphate, Albert Ellis quickly began negotiations with the Banabans to buy or lease land for his company. The ignorant and trusting Banabans were only to happy to welcome new visitors and not understanding the language placed crosses on lengthy legal documents signing their island away for 50 pounds per annum for the next 999 years.

With the influx of European settlers to this remote outcrop with a total area of only 4sq. miles the Banabans soon began to realise that their beloved homeland was disappearing before their very eyes. And so began an era of constant strife and haggling over the Banaban's disputed Land Issues. Stepping stones on the path to annihilation: an Agreement was finally arrived at in 1913 after years of dissension; in 1931 the Resident Commissioner of the day, Arthur Grimble intervened by enacting the Mining Ordinance No. 4 of 1928, which was the compulsory acquisition of land on Ocean Island from the native Banaban community. In 1940 a further 230 acres was taken, again under compulsory acquisition, and leased to the new company owners - The British Phosphate Commission. The Commission had been formed in 1920 when the old company had been sold at great profit to a joint venture by the British, Australian and New Zealand Governments.


At the beginning of 1942 another tragedy would strike the Community when the Japanese forces invaded the island and went about destroying their villages. After this devastating blow, the Banabans were exiled to other islands in the Pacific: Kosrae, Nauru and Tarawa. 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. 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. To make matters worse they had arrived on the island in the middle of the cyclone season, and the Banabans began to experience cold and wet weather for the first time. Their homeland was situated right on the Equator and they had never experienced such cold weather before. The general health of the people was at a very low ebb after surviving years of deprivation in Japanese Work camps. The Banabans were mainly used to grow crops such as pumpkins for the Japanese forces in the Pacific. Army tents provided no protection against Fiji's annual cyclone season, and they lost many of their aged and young people to pneumonia.


Today on Banaba out of the original 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. Banaba today has a current population of around 500 people who live a traditional life-style amongst the ruins of the old company buildings on the rim of the island. These 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. Unfortunately the island is so denuded of its natural habitat and top soil, that the surface temperatures have increased and droughts are becoming more frequent. The leeching of cadmium and heavy metals down into the water system and surrounding reefs is of growing concern.


Life for the Banabans today is still an on-going struggle, as they come to terms with life without the influence of the dominating Phosphate Company, and the loss back in 1980 of their small income derived from phosphate royalties. For all the wealth that was gained from Banaban phosphate, the Banabans have been left with virtually nothing.

Today the people on both Rabi and Banaba islands have returned to the basic way of life, living a very traditional lifestyle and relying on the strong family ties and cultural roots from the past. The Banabans dream of moving towards a brighter and happier future in a World that has changed so greatly since the first discovery of phosphate on their homeland. No development or proper infrastructure was set up on Rabi when the Banabans were dropped there. The people had spent the past 45 years of European occupation on Banaba learning to eat expensive white man's tinned food which they traded against their small royalty pittance back to the Company through the Trade Store. Yes, life for the Banabans has never been easy, as their trusting nature has set them up for such terrible exploitation. The resilient and loving nature of the Banabans and their attitude of caring for each other must make the Banaban people one of the World's great survivors.


The Society was formed over the past twelve months to offer the Banaban people long term assistance and support into the future. My own involvement with the community began back in 1992 when I visited Rabi Island on a mission to research my own family's involvement with the community. Four generations of my family had been involved in the phosphate mining industry over a period of thirty years from 1901-1931. Their days living on Ocean Island, as they lovingly referred to the homeland in those days, had been the highlight of their lives. Through my research I was to find out that my great grand father had actually been one of the men in charge of blasting operations and responsible for the virtual destruction of the island. While on Rabi I met with local Banaban man, Kaiea Bakanebo, who told me of his own great grand father's dark deed of being one of the Banaba men who signed the notorious contract with Albert Ellis to mine the island for the next 999 years at 50 pounds per annum.

From that moment, Kaiea and I felt compelled to work together in preserving Banaban history. This work was soon to take on other responsibilities as work began on educating the Australian public about the plight of the Banabans and Australia's active involvement in not only raping the island of its phosphate, but also scattering 80% of the islands phosphate back on Australian soil. Australia gained great wealth from the benefits of cheap subsidised Banaban phosphate, and our production in wheat and wool reaped great financial benefits for the entire Australian economy.

Now five years later the Banaban Heritage Society Inc. is up and running, with over 300 members world-wide. Aid shipments into Rabi island have become annual events, while other major projects such as the installation of an Emergency & Communications Network have just been implemented. One of the Society's highlights was the opening of Rabi Island's first Community Library. Now the Banabans tell me they will be well read and will have more understanding of the world around them. So many more projects are on the drawing board with Health and Agriculture, taking first priority. We recently just published the HEALTH SURVEY that was conducted by our good friends in Japan, who are also keen to educate the Japanese public about Japan's involvement in Banaban history. Prior to WW2, Japan was the major purchaser outside the Commission countries of Banaban phosphate.

Next year, the Society is planning the 'HOMECOMING TRIP 1997' where we will take 225 people back to visit the beloved Banaban homeland - Banaba. This historic trip will be the realisation of a dream by not only Society members, but also those Banabans now living on Rabi island. With the support of a growing number of friends scattered World-wide the Banaban Heritage Society has shown the Banabans that they have not been forgotten. Our Society's agenda is not only to preserve Banaban Culture and history but to also improve the living standards of the Banaban people. We also will assist the Banabans in their endeavors to rehabilitate their homeland, and work on the development of Rabi to its full potential. Through the endeavors of the Society we will ensure that the story of the Banabans IS NEVER FORGOTTEN.


Written: S. King 11th. October, 1996


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