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The Island of Yearning Has Sunken Below The Horizon - by Kalle Dixelius

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The Island of Yearning Has Sunken Below The Horizon

(Translated into English)

by Kalle Dixelius


Published on 1 September 2001 by Swedish newspaper called 'Dagens Nyheter', which is the biggest morning-daily in Sweden, with a circulation of circa 400 000 copies 


Rabi is more beautiful than the most polished post-card. White beaches, coconut-trees, coral-reefs and lush green forests. Bare feet walk along the only road of the island, white smiles and bananas. Rabi, one of the circa hundred inhabited islands of the Republic of Fiji, is the traditional cliché of the South Pacific paradise.

But the surface is, as always, untrue.

On Rabi live the Banabans. A small and by history cruelly treated people, that had, and has one weakness. Their kindness.

Once upon a time, the Banabans lived on their own island, Banaba. Or Ocean Island, as the white intruders, ”te I-Matang”, named it. Banaba is located almost directly on the equator and was once, according to all sources, amazingly beautiful.

Up until the late 1800s, nobody actually cared for Banaba. The odd missionary went there, sometimes a deflected sailor. Banaba was a peaceful corner of the world, where the Banabans lived from fishing, coconuts and fruit.

Today, in the year 2001, Banaba is as desolate as the moon. Only a tenth of its surface is inhabitable. The Banabans has been tricked, betrayed, deported and murdered. Without anyone in rest of the world as much as lifting a finger.

And everything can be blamed on the stone.

For several years the stone from Banaba had only been used as a door-stopper at the problem-stricken Pacific Islands Company in Sydney. But when the manager, Albert Ellis, took a closer look at it, he realised how he would make his company successful again. The stone was made out of almost pure phosphate, fossilised bird-dropping used for making fertilizer.

Albert Ellis didn’t hesitate many months. On the 28 of August 1900 he arrived on Ocean Island with a small crew and was, naturally, very kindly met by the Banabans. He quickly called the first Banaban that met him ”the king of Ocean island”. After that, he, the ”king” and some ”chiefs” wrote a contract, in which Pacific Islands Company, was given the right to mine phosphate on Ocean Island for 999 years for the cost of 50 pounds a year.

All the present Banabans put their ”x” on the contract. That no one of them had a clue what they were signing, that no one of them could read and that it according to Banaban traditions is very rude to argue with a guest, Albert Ellis didn’t care about. Nor did he care about the fact that the Banaban culture doesn’t include kings or chiefs.

The Banabans were put to work. The phosphate of Ocean Island showed to be of top-class quality and Albert Ellis was satisfied. This was the salvation for his company and a blessing for the farmers in Australia and New Zealand. In 1902 the company Pacific Phosphate Company was formed and given the exclusive right of phosphate mining on Ocean Island. Just before that had Ocean Island, Banaba, been annexed by Great Britain – according to Albert Ellis ”by the expressed will of the natives”.

One contract and the shaky x's of four elders were all that was needed.

The company shuffled all the soil from the area where the phosphate was to be mined and broke loose all the phosphate. Left was only up to 25 meter high pinnacles of coral. Between them only stone.

For a start, the Banabans didn’t care very much. Hostility against strangers and competitive thinking was almost unknown when Albert Ellis arrived. Besides that, they still had their villages, and they made some money. Except for the 50 pounds a year, every landowner that provided with land got 20 pound per acre. For the first time, they could buy things for their money, since the PPC started a small store with tinned fish and corned beef.

But as the years went by, the Banabans started to realize that something wasn’t right. Their land was destroyed, and the te I-Matang just wanted more and more. When new negotiations started in 1909, the Banabans demanded the replanting of all coconut-trees and complete rehabilitation of all land. The British agreed to some extent and when the deal was written some years later, they promised to ”return all mined areas to its original owners, replant these areas – where possible – with coconut-trees and other fruit-bearing plants”.

What the British didn’t write, was that their intention was only to throw some coconuts in the stony pits that were left. Up until today, no land has been rehabilitated on Banaba.

When the Banabans realised what the deal from 1913 really meant, the protests were violent. Men and women had to be torn from their coconut-trees. Sporadic fights occurred. Eventually, the British government gave the British Phosphate Commission, BPC, permission to acquire land from the Banabans. In return, they founded the Banaban Provident Fund, that would ensure that the Banabans got their fair share of the mining.

The Banabans didn’t stand a chance. Acre after acre of the lush, tropical island was transformed into a barren moon-landscape. The Banabans had to stop getting their water from the traditional water-caves since they were destroyed by the mining. Instead, they had to buy water from the BPC, that shipped it to the island from Australia.

The British weren’t stupid. They realized what was to come: if they continued the mining, the island would eventually be destroyed. This had been discussed in the boardroom of the BPC for decades, which is proven in documents and correspondence.

But the Banabans didn’t get to know anything until 1940. They couldn’t imagine that the ”great king George”, whom they respected very much, would let the BPC destroy their entire island. But that was the case. BPC suggested that the Banabans should search for a new island.

But history took another turn. The 22nd of August 1942, the Japanese invaded Banaba. The Banabans who didn’t die at the invasion was deported to nearby islands, except for the circa 350 men that were kept as slaves on the island. Half of them were Banaban, the other half was miners from present-day Kiribati and Tuvalu. Almost all of the Europeans had been rescued long before that.

Two days before the end of the war, all of the survivors were executed (with one exception, a man who played dead and managed to hide in a cave. His testimony later convicted the Japanese commander on Banaba).

In a rare moment of pity, the BPC finally decided to buy a new island for the surviving, deported Banabans. The Banabans were told that the Japanese had destroyed all the villages and that there was no food on Banaba. They were shown pictures of their new island, Rabi, that the BPC had bought for 25 000 pound, taken from their own Banaba Provident Fund. They decided to go there, see what it was like, and return to Banaba within two years if they wanted to.

According to later testimony, the Japanese hadn’t destroyed any villages, and there was plenty of food since the first miners arrived just ten days after the allies arrival of Banaba.

In December 1945, 703 worn out and tired Banabans arrived on the Fijian island of Rabi. But there were no houses. The pictures that the BPC had shown them were pictures of the former capitol of Fiji, Levuka. All that was present on Rabi were a few army-tents and about two months of food-rasions.

And here, on Rabi, they Banabans still live, many of them in worn-down houses of and shackles. Some still keep their belongings in suitcases from the 1940’s, as if they were still on the move. Most of them live from farming and fishing.

With a kind, teeth-less smile and eyes that haven’t seen for a long time, Reverend Kaitangare Kaburoro, former chairman of the council, sits on a sofa. He is one of the few on Rabi who was born on Banaba, one of the few who remember the arrival on Rabi.

”Many of the elders died the first time. We had never seen so much rain and so much wind since we came in the middle of the hurricane season. And there were no houses, although they had shown us houses”

The four villages from Banaban were re-created on Rabi. Eventually, Rabi became a partly independent part of Fiji. Bur during the ’60s, the anger over what had happened grew. A national conscience began to bloom and in the early ’70s, the Banabans decided to send one of their own, Tebuke Rotan, to London in order to appeal to the king of England.

Tebuke Rotan went from one official to another. They all gave him the same answer: “I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do”. Eventually, he found a lawyer, and the Banabans managed to take the BPC to court. After a three year-long trial, then the longest ever in England, the judge concluded that the British government, the biggest owner of the BPC, had acted immorally but not illegally. No compensation could be given legally. But the BPC and the British government did agree to give the Banabans 10 million Australian dollars, less than half of their original demand.

The Banabans, who lacked economical education and had no traditional knowledge of handling money, couldn’t handle the millions. Today the population has grown from 703 to over 5 000, but the income from the interest has decreased.

“There is less and less money for each year. We live in worn-down houses, we are crowded and poor. We can no longer pay for our own hospital, it has been given to us from Fiji, and there is only one doctor for a population of five thousand. Many can’t afford to send their children to school. We have to get more compensation. What we need is a good lawyer. An honest and capable lawyer that can sue the British government one more time. We trust in God”, says Reverend Kaburoro.

In 1979, the mining stopped. The Banabans saw their chance and sent a small troop to the island to fight for independence with rocks and fists. But the policemen they met were armed. One Banaban died, and the dream of independence remained a dream. Banaba was incorporated in the country of Kiribati. And at the same time, all the money from mining became the property of the Kiribati government.

Teabo Rangabo sits with folded legs on the ever-present pandanus-mat. The home-made “toddy”, made from the sap of the coconut-tree, flows down her throat. For every sip, she becomes more bitter.

“My family had a pond, where we could pick the fish with our bare hands during low tide. But on that very spot, the te I-Matang built a jetty of cement. And we haven’t been paid a cent for that. Nothing. Life on Banaba was easy – no sweat!”

She was on Banaba once, in 1966. Her feelings were mixed. First the joy of seeing one’s homeland, then the sorrow of what it looked like, and the anger over how her people have been treated. But she wants to return.

“Oh, yes. I want to die on Banaba. It is my country”

That is what it sounds like all over Rabi. In almost every house there are old, yellow pictures of Banaba. In the few houses that have a video, people gather to watch films from Banaba. And around the bowls of kava, the favourite-drink of all the pacific – a greyish liquid with a mild narcotic effect – it is spoken about Banaba. And the last few years the demands for independence has started again. Freedom. Justice. Compensation and – independence.

Far away and in a different world, in a suburban area outside Surfers Paradise in Australia, sits Raobeia Ken Sigrah, spokesperson of the clan of Te Aka. In his sarong, tepe, and with tattoos and glasses, he is hardly the average suburban. But hardly the average Banaban either. He is one of the few who has managed to break out of poverty and gotten a job outside Fiji.

“When I sit outside my parent's house on Rabi and see how the women pick clams that are too small to eat, in order to make the coconut milk taste more, I get tears in my eyes”

Ken Sigrah will soon publish the book “Te Rii Ni Banaba” or “The Backbone of Banaba”. It will be the first book about Banaban culture and history, written by a Banaban. On Rabi the tension is big. Some feel threatened by the book, which claims to has the correct information of all the family- and clan-relations. Since the arrival of the te I-matang there are two versions of everything.

“To reveal everything about your clan and your knowledge about our history is in our culture like saying ‘here you go, here is my arm, and here is my heart’. To keep these things secret has been our security. But now, everything runs the risk of being forgotten, since the elders are starting to die. And the young, who has gotten an education, don’t think they need the traditional knowledge. That is why I have written this book, with the good will of the elders.

But there is another struggle for the rights of the indigenous: on Fiji. Several Fijian chiefs want to retake land that was once theirs. Rabi for example. The island was bought when Fiji still was a British colony, without the expressed permission of the Fijians. Sure, it was uninhabited, but it traditionally belongs to a Fijian tribe on the island of Taveuni. Therefore, not even Rabi is secure for the Banabans. And therefore it is more and more spoken about independence around the kava-bowls.

“The only reason for the Kiribati government to let go of Banaba would be if they considered the island to be worthless. But as long as they can access our money, that will never happen. Personally, I don’t think it is possible. Firstly, we must get compensation to get a country going” says Kaiea Bakanebo, commander of the police force on Rabi and one of the veterans from the fights on Banaba in the 1970s.

Among the Banabans who live in Fiji’s capital Suva, the hope of help from the EU or the UN, is nourished.

But in the meantime, life goes slowly by on Rabi. The boys play rugby and harpoon fish in the moonlight. The church-choir practice their crystal-clear harmonies. The kava-bowls are filled to the traditional hand claps and the surface, the postcard, is as beautiful as ever.

Kalle Dixelius



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