Banabans Face Assimilation: Kiribati and Fiji
Updated: May 4
Extract Conference Paper: "Cultural Identity of Banabans"
BANABAN IDENTITY PRIOR TO WORLD WAR II
The question of Banaban identity was never an issue leading up to World War Two, but once Banabans were removed from the island in 1943 (1), by the invading Japanese forces and subsequently relocated to Rabi, Fiji in 1945, the situation for the Banabans became very tenuous. From the post-war period onwards as mining on the island (2) moved back into full production, the island’s European staff had virtually no idea or understanding of the Banabans.
Prior to the War, the island’s mining labour staff made up of hundreds of Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) and Ellice (Tuvaluan) islanders, the legitimacy of Banaba’s indigenous population became obscure. It was during this time that the idea of Banaban assimilation with Kiribati seemed to intensify. With the European Company staff having no direct contact with the Banabans and the influx of such a large number of Kiribati labourers dominating the island’s workforce, the notation of Banabans being ‘troublemakers’ began to grow.
This catch cry had originally generated from the phosphate mining company management instructing their staff ‘not to mix with these Banaban troublemakers’ (Lennon 1992), and grew over the years becoming the status quo with Banabans relocated over 2,100 kilometers away in Rabi, Fiji.
Up until the mid-1970s, the presence of one lone Banaban representative and his family living on the island was the only contact the Banabans and the people living and working on the island would have. The representative’s official role was to represent and protect the interests of the Banaban landowners who had been moved to Rabi. He had the difficult role to liaise with the BPC and the GEIC, which had all the backing of the British government behind it. Over this post-war period from 1945 to 1979, five Banaban men undertook this vital role; their names are listed in order of their engagements:
Kabanti, Kaiekieki, Abitiai, Taungea, and Kirite.
Over this period the Banabans became more dissent and unhappy and decided there was no other option but to begin legal action against the Company and the British government in the UK Court.
BANABANS QUEST FOR INDEPENDENCE AND JUSTICE
In January 1974, the Banabans would also unsuccessfully petition the British Government ‘calling for the separation of Ocean Island from the Gilbert and Ellice Island Colony and the recognition of Ocean Island’s independence’ (Sigrah & King 2001:18). When a Banaban contingent of over 100 young Banabans arrived on the island in 1977 and again in 1979 to stake their claim to the homeland, while their legal proceedings were underway in the British Courts (3), the situation was tense, with Banabans forced to live in a makeshift camp down on the beach behind their old village site of Uma. The Banaban aims were to try and stop mining while their court case was underway, and their protests had turned violent resulting in the death of one of their young men.
The Court case against the British Government and the British Phosphate Commission (BPC) would finally come to an end in 1979 becoming known as one of the longest civil court cases in UK history. It was during this tumultuous period that the argument of Banaban-Kiribati assimilation came to the fore.
THE IMPACT OF MINING ON BANABAN IDENTITY
Another contributing factor to the argument would go back to the removal of the Banabans from their homeland by the Japanese occupation forces in 1943 and their dispersal to Japanese camps in Kosrae, Nauru and Tarawa. By the end of the war in 1945 when the Banabans were gathered together on Tarawa with the aim of relocating them to Fiji, from the 1,003 war survivors brought together, 703 were listed as being Banabans, while 300 were I-Kiribati. This I-Kiribati influx had grown over the war period from their forced relocation to other Pacific islands resulting in the forming of new relationships and inter-marriage over that period. This group would form the nucleus of the new Banaban settlement arriving on Rabi 15 Dec 1945 (4).
Over the years of mining, it is correct that there were a number of inter-marriages between the islanders including the Ellis (Tuvalu) and Fiji contingents, with some of the imported labour staff being adopted into Banaban families, but traditional Banaban customs especially in the area of marriage, sports, dances, claiming of the rights (inherited roles within the community, based on cultural law of ‘te rii ni Banaba’), adoption, elders’ position within the maneaba were all maintained.
The Banaban elders were diligent in upholding their cultural and ethnic identity even after the relocation to Rabi, with certain dances and sports banned from official gatherings to ensure that these important cultural practices were respected and preserved for future generations (Sigrah & King 2001:162-164).
BANABANS TODAY LIVING UNDER TWO GOVERNMENTS - FIJI AND KIRIBATI
The Banabans today, find themselves living under two different Pacific Nations. This process also further complicates their quest to uphold cultural identity while having to observe laws and traditions living in foreign lands. While Pacific islanders uphold great respect for their Island brothers, the customs and traditions that are so essential in everyday life, and more importantly the survival of cultural identity in a rapidly changing world, is very much under threat. Banaban elders had made every effort in the past, especially since their resettlement on Rabi to ensure that Banaban identity would be protected and secured in the years that followed.
However, today with so many of the elders gone, and a new generation facing difficult upheavals, now more than at any other time in history the Banabans are at the greatest threat of being assimilated into mainstream Kiribati and Fiji societies. This concept of assimilation was one that was always assumed by the mining company would provide the best outcome to assist them in the mining of Banaba.
History has shown that past Colonial officials who tried to protect the Banabans interests in the early days of mining would be sent packing. The idea of moving the Banabans to another island was first raised back in 1914 (Maude1946:10), and documentation from the Prime Minister of Australia to the Dominions Office in 1927 would also support these plans (Sigrah & King 2001: 239,323). The Japanese invasion of Banaba would provide the perfect solution in removing Banabans permanently from their homeland.
The Banaban community on the homeland currently numbers around 300 (2021) who live amongst the crumbling asbestos ridden wreckage and decaying buildings left by the mining company. Banaba now comes under the laws and jurisdiction of the Kiribati Constitution with the interpretation of ‘Banaban’ or ‘Banabans’ defined as, ‘the former indigenous inhabitants of Banaba and such other persons one of whose ancestors was born in Kiribati before 1900 as may now or hereafter be accepted as members of the Banaban community in accordance with custom’ (See Chapter IX, section 125). They have two Banaban representatives in the Kiribati Assembly, one representing Banaba, and the other representing Rabi.
BANABANS RABI, FIJI
Between the Banabans arrival on Rabi in 1945 and 1995, the Banaban community on Rabi grew from 1,003 to over 5,000. The Banaban Settlement Ordinance of 1945 (Cap.104) set up the framework for the administration of Rabi Island and provided for Rabi’s administration through a separate island council, although resettled Banabans were otherwise subject to Fiji law. Banabans were quoted as ‘enjoying a unique position in Fiji’ by the Committee who conducted the Inquiry into Rabi Island Council Affairs, April 1994. Their report also stated that:
The Banabans of Rabi are citizens of Fiji with full voting and electoral rights, yet they also have a representative in the Kiribati Assembly representing the Banaban community in Fiji. They have the right to free entry and residence on both Banaban and Rabi. They have been given wide powers to govern themselves on Rabi, they may set their own taxes and rates, they have the sole right to administer their land, they may establish their own police force. In many respects, they have greater autonomy than the Rotumans.
Yet, with all these provisions in place why then are the Banabans today under such threat? In May 2003 a report commissioned by the Commission on Human Rights in regard to the Minority Rights in Fiji and the Solomon Island painted an alarming picture:
Aid dependency and poor financial management have led to deteriorating living standards for the Banaban community of Rabi. After misappropriation of funds in the 1980s and a failure to meet debts in 1992, the Rabi Island Council was briefly dissolved by the Fiji government. Banabans remain one of Fiji’s most disadvantaged and politically marginalized communities. Affirmative action programmes for indigenous Fiji and Rotuman communities in the aftermath of the 1987 and 2000 coups have not been targeted at the Banaban people.
The report would go on to state that the ‘settlers from their once phosphate-rich island of Banaba find themselves trapped in a position of social deprivation, and exclusion from mainstream political processes’.
PRESERVING BANABAN IDENTITY
There are three points that must be addressed to ensure that Banaban ethnic identity is upheld:
Education, Unity and Autonomy.
Over the centuries, the teaching of the old Banaban ways decreed that ‘secrecy is the fortification of identity’, and ensured that Banaban traditional knowledge and values would be well protected and guarded against foreigners. Now as the Banabans face new challenges and assimilation into Fiji and Kiribati societies it is imperative to embrace cultural practices uniquely Banaban. To ensure that Banaban history is kept alive in the very present so that when the future generations walk on their homeland and touch their land, it will tell them who they are and where they belong
To strengthen Banaban claims for autonomy that would provide a voice in the areas of formal recognition, education policies and legal freedoms and rights in today’s world, the Banabans first have to understand the basic principles needed to achieve this goal. While autonomy is generally understood to refer to the capacity to be one’s own person, to live one’s life accordingly and without manipulation by others, there are two necessary components for self-rule.
Before one can govern oneself they first must be in a position to act competently and be able to do so through the desires or values that are in some sense one’s own. Therefore the strength to guide and build a strong future for the Banabans must come from within and be a united movement. A movement based on human kindness and spiritual unity, with respect for the humanity of each and every person that can achieve far greater things than any oppression, persecution or denial of freedom.
The history of the Banabans is one of colonization, in which a colonizing culture was actively promoted to replace their indigenous culture. The term ‘folklore’ is not an acceptable term to the Banabans. Their culture is not ‘folklore’ but the sacred law intertwined with a traditional way of life – the laws that set the legal, moral, and cultural values of Banaban traditional society. They are Banaban cultural identity
1. The Banabans first arrived on Rabi Island, Fiji at the end of World War II, with exaggerated reports from the British government that all of the villages of the island had been destroyed, the Banabans were gathered and taken to Rabi in Fiji, over 3,200 kilometres away. On 15 December 1945, 703 ill-treated and weary Banabans, of whom 318 were children, and 300 Gilbertese arrived at their new home.
2. Britain, Australia and New Zealand role in the phosphate mining and destruction of Ocean Island (Banaba). https://www.banaban.com/post/should-banabans-call-australia-home
3. For more information on the Banaban Court Case
4. For a full list of the First Settlers who arrived on Rabi, 15 Dec 1945
Conference Paper and Powerpoint Presentation: "Cultural Identity of Banabans" written and by: Ken Raobeia Sigrah and Stacey King, and presented by Karutakke Iakoba, Chairman, Rabi Council of Leaders at ISLANDS of the WORLD VIII International Conference “Changing Islands – Changing Worlds” 1-7 November 2004, Kinmen Island (Quemoy), Taiwan
Ebook: Te Rii ni Banaba, backbone of Banaba by Raobeia Ken Sigrah and Stacey M. King
Raobeia (Ken) Sigrah
1956 - 2021
Banaban Historian, Author, Clan Spokesman
A Banaban, born and schooled in Rabi, Fiji. He is a descendant of one of the Banaban elders who signed the original contract in 1900 to mine Banaba. His elders educated him from an early age on Banaban genealogies, myths, legends, and customs and he was given the responsibility to represent and speak for twelve major Banaban clans as clan spokesman.
Stacey M. King
Historian, Businesswoman, Philanthropist
Called Nei Titeiti Naking by the Banabans, is an Australian with four generations of her family involved with phosphate mining on Banaba from 1900. Led by family interest, she conducted her own research, visiting Rabi for the first time in 1991. She began to publish Banaba/Ocean Island News in 1992 and in 1993 formed the Banaban Heritage Society Inc, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of history and bettering of the lives of the Banaban people.
In 1997 they formed a personal and collaborative partnership to seek justice for the Banaban people and to see the rehabilitation of the Banaban homeland left destroyed by mining. They shared the belief that their lives and destiny are intertwined, bringing them together so they could try and right the wrongs of the past. With the establishment of Banaban Vision Publication, they have converted much of their writings and research findings into digital publications for future Banaban generations and for a broader audience keen to learn more about the plight of the indigenous Banaban people in the modern world.