Banabans and Their Story

What's happened to Banaba? 

Ocean Island, the small island of about 6 square kilometres is located near the equator, between the Gilbert Islands of Kiribati and Nauru. Discovered by Europeans in the early 1800s and named Ocean Island it was annexed by Great Britain in 1900. Since then its original name Banaba has replaced its European name. In 1979 Banaba became part of the Republic of Kiribati. The island and its people are a tragic example of conflict between the interests of Western powers and the rights of indigenous communities.

80 years of phosphate mining commenced on Banaba in 1900. In the complex web of political and commercial reasons, as well as the upheavals of the Second World War, Banabans were moved out of their island. After the war many people were resettled to Rabi Island in Fiji, where they form a significant part of Banaban diaspora.

Although commonly called phosphate, the deposit was actually guano. This deposit of birds’ droppings, rich with chemicals such as phosphorus and nitrogen, was used as an agricultural fertiliser. Australia’s poor soils were always hungry for fertilisers. When the mining ended in 1979, ninety percent of Banaba had had the topsoil removed together with several metres of guano. As a result, the island that was once home for over two thousand indigenous people became deserted.

Mining was carried out primarily by the British Phosphate Commission, jointly owned by companies based in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. During this time Banabans were practically ruled by the mining corporation. The wellbeing of the indigenous people, their rights and environmental concerns were subjected to the commercial imperative.

Maintaining identity and uprooted culture in exile is hard. Yet Banabans are doing it with commitment and flair via networking, publications and their presence on the Web:

The Australian Museum has a small collection of about 100 artefacts from Banaba. One third of this collection was donated to the Museum the Pacific Islands Company in 1901. Artefacts were collected by Frederic Danvers Power (1861-1955) and A. E. Stephens, both associated with the company. Power and Stephens’ collection originated in the 19th century, when the Banaban culture was essentially intact. So, this small collection is part of the Banaban heritage that may contribute, if only in a small way, to fostering their identity and some aspects of traditional culture.

Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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