Banaba today overlooking Home Bay
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- THE BANABANS -
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 indigenous race called the 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 throughout the western world. It had always been considered too 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 today's society 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.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
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 too 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 595 hectares, 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 or what would eventually be the stepping stones on the path to annihilation.
After years of dissension between the Banabans, the British government and the lucrative phosphate fertiliser industry the Banabans found themselves being forced into so-called 'Agreements' enacting new British laws that would see the compulsory acquisition of their land. By 1920 the original British owned Pacific Islands Phosphate Company was sold at great profit to a joint venture consortium made up of the British, Australian and New Zealand governments. This new company was called the British Phosphate Commission.
THE EXILE FROM THE HOMELAND
At the beginning of 1942 another tragedy would strike the Banaban community 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. 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. Army tents provided no protection against Fiji's annual cyclone season and they lost many of their aged and young people to pneumonia.
THE HOMELAND TODAY
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 lay rotting under the hot equatorial sun, while a small Banaban community of around 500 people live a traditional lifestyle 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.
For the Banaban people, their homeland will always be BEAUTIFUL!
Banaba Sunset overlooking Home Bay
THE BANABANS TODAY
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 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.