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  • Writer's pictureBanaban Voice

Far-Reaching Effect Moving British Govt. Residency to Ocean Island

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

In 1900 with the establishment of the phosphate industry (1) at Ocean Island (Banaba) the British government made claim to the island and annexed the island into the Gilbert and Ellice Island Protectorate, for the purposes of administration, within the territorial limits of the Protectorate.

In 1905, Im Thurn (the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific and Governor of Fiji 1904-1911) agreed with Telfer-Campbell (Resident Commissioner of G&EI 1895-1909), that a permanent official was required at Ocean Island (Banaba). He also believed that if Campbell was to remain he should have his headquarters at Ocean Island (Banaba).

Finally, after three years of discussion, and further criticism in the Britain's House of Commons, the Colonial Office accepted Im Thurn's suggestion that Protectorate headquarters should be moved to Ocean Island so that the phosphate industry could be more closely supervised and to allow the Resident Commissioner more contact with other Europeans.


Accordingly, Mahaffy, as Acting Resident Commissioner from January to March 1909, and John Quayle Dickson as substantive Resident Commissioner from that time were given the task of organising the transfer.


The decision to remove the Resident Commissioner's headquarters from the Gilbert group to Ocean Island was to have far-reaching effects on the development of the territory.

At Ocean Island successive Resident Commissioners became embroiled in land litigation over phosphate-bearing land and the problems of administering an island with a heterogeneous population composed of the indigenous Banabans, Europeans employed by the Pacific Phosphate Company (and its successor the British Phosphate Commissioners), as well as several hundred Gilbertese, Ellice and Asian labourers. The inevitable result of such preoccupations, when combined with inadequate transport, was a break in communication between the Resident Commissioner and his subordinate staff in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, and a lack of awareness from the Resident Commissioner upwards of the particular problems of local administration in the territory.

Resident Commissioner E.C. Eliot and wife Ocean Island
Resident Commissioner E.C. Eliot and wife Ocean Island (Banaba) 1916-17

From 1908 until the Second World War the Gilbert and Ellice Islands became, even more than previously, a neglected backwater of the Empire.

Extract Thesis: "Policy and Practice in an Atoll Territory: British Rule in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, 1892-1970" Barrie Macdonald , Australian National University, Canberra, May 1971.



By the late 1930s it was decided that the Government Residency and surrounding sports and parade grounds were to be mined as part of the Western Mining Area and needed to be relocated. A new residency building was constructed and completed just prior to the commencement of World War II. These photos were taken nearing completion on 4 Sept 1937.


As Japan entered the War bombing Pearl Harbour, Hawaii on 7 December, on the 8 December 1941 (the same day due to the date line), three Japanese planes flew over Ocean Island (Banaba) and bombed the new Residency and the wireless station. Within months the European and Chinese staff would be evacuated from the island (2).

By 29 August the island was invaded by Japanese forces. (3)

The new Residency was never rebuild post war and the Government Residency was relocated to Tarawa Island, first on Betio islet and subsequently on Bairiki islet.


(1) In 1899 Albert Ellis, an employee of the Pacific Islands Company, deduced from a rock sample that extensive deposits of phosphate ores existed at both Ocean Island and its neighbour, Nauru.

Ellis, Ocean Island and Nauru. While Ellis' account of the phosphate industry from 1900 to 1934 offers many valuable insights into day to day operations, his material on negotiations with the Banabans and the Government is meagre and apt to be misleading. On occasions his version departs somewhat from that revealed in correspondence among the various parties.

Significantly, Ellis does not mention the terms of the agreement which he signed with the Banabans in 1900.

(2) Escaping War on Ocean Island (Banaba) Blog:

(3) Banaba Under Japanese Occupation World War II:



Co-author: The Phosphateers

Author: Cinderellas of the Empire

Professor Barrie Macdonald is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and the Australian National University with a long-established interest in the history and politics of the Pacific Islands region and the international affairs of the Asia-Pacific region. He has published extensively in these areas and, more recently, on issues of "good governance", democratisation and development in the Pacific Islands region, issues on which he has served as a consultant on projects conducted by British Aid and the World Bank.

Professor Macdonald has also published on New Zealand rural history, the management of farm debt in New Zealand, and New Zealand's international affairs and domestic politics.

He is a Professor of History at Massey University, and has held Visiting Fellowships at the Australian National University, Canberra, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, and the Centre for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai'i. He has also held a Claude McCarthy Fellowship and a Fulbright Senior Scholarship.

Professor Macdonald is Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

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