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Aspects of History

Ocean Island is a tiny dot, two miles long, in the middle of the Pacific. Until 1900, a few thousand Banabans lived there, a peaceful community following their fishing, their tilling and their pagan rites under the tropic sun. Then it was discovered that they were sitting on the richest deposits of phosphate in the world. Now, there are just a few barren coral pinnacles of mined-out wasteland.

By the end of the nineteenth century the growth of the population in the British Empire demanded larger and cheaper food supplies, and the expanding colonial agriculture needed fertilisers. The hunt was on to discover new sources of phosphate, Islands throughout the Pacific were being combed for this valuable fertiliser. Where the islands were uninhabited the phosphate deposit was simply removed. Where the islands were inhabited the natives bartered, on terms favourable to the prospectors. There were some islands whose inhabitants were too fierce to allow prospectors to set foot there.

Amongst the many phosphate hunters was a British Melbourne-based firm run by a man named John Arundel. He was convinced that there must be, from his knowledge of geology and from working copra in the Gilberts and guano in the Line Islands since the 1870s, large deposits of phosphate somewhere on these islands. He formed his own company, The Pacific Islands Company, in 1890, but it was not really successful either in coconuts or phosphate. The firm could only afford one small ship The Archer and their total objective was no more than 10,000 tons of phosphate per annum. In the late 1890s, however, even this modest tonnage was impossible for them to attain, as each small phosphate find was quickly mined out. To avoid going out of business altogether, Arundel decided to amalgamate his company with another and to diversify their interests to include pearl-shell.

The chairman of the new company was Lord Stanmore, retired from his former office of High Commissioner of the Western Pacific, Lord Stanmore was then seventy-one, much experienced in business, diplomacy and colonial affairs. As Sir Arthur Gordon he had served as Private Secretary to a British Prime Minister and later as Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick and Governor of Mauritius, Trinidad, Fiji, New Zealand and Ceylon. Her was British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific from 1877 to 1883 and afterwards chairman of the Bank of Mauritius, besides being chairman of the Pacific Islands Company. His domain, when he was appointed in 1875 (as Sir Arthur Gordon) High Commissioner of the Western Pacific, had included Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Marshalls, the Carolines, New Britain, anew Ireland, the Louisiades and Eastern New Guinea. His annual budget, to administer this vast stretch of the world's surface, was 5000 pound sterling, reduced in 1876 by a Treasury misunderstanding to less than half this amount. 

Sir Arthur was allowed no transport or power to enforce the new laws he had to make. The whole area was then rife with blackbirding. The Treasury was particularly reluctant to spend any money on this remote area, mere dots on the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, especially for coal to fuel Royal Navy vessels.

Sir Arthur did whatever he felt expedient, and on his retirement duly became the first Baron Stanmore. Freed from his impossible Governmental administrative task, he had now engaged in business, determined to develop profitability in the territories he had formerly governed. John Arundel had astutely enlisted as chairman the new Lord Stanmore for the new Pacific Islands Company which was further strengthened by the acquisition of William Lever (later the 1st Viscount Leverhulme) as a major shareholder. Lever had been buying up coconut plantations all over the Pacific to supply copra for his soap and margarine empire.

The new amalgamated Pacific Islands Company began at once to tray to extend its business. It was difficult. The meagre low-grade phosphate deposits on Baker Island and How Island were already mined out and so were those on the islands forming the Phoenix Group. The Pacific Islands Company now proceeded to move its equipment to the Queensland coast of Australia, in order to try some of the islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria. But here too their efforts proved unsuccessful. Soon the company was in financial difficulties. Even their two impressive names on the Board did not help. John Arundel's new company was far from thriving, and by 1899 bankruptcy seemed inevitable.

Albert Ellis, son of one of the directors of the Pacific Islands Company, now entered history. He had a modest job as Islands Manager in the Australian office of the Pacific Islands Company as Analyst and Prospector. He did a variety of dogsbody jobs and the pay was poor. But even this small financial outlay was too much for the foundering company, which was unable to locate phosphate, unsuccessful with copra, and incapable of finding any pearl-shells.

One day Ellis took a second look at a rough lump of putty-coloured stone which was used to prop open the door of the laboratory in his office. It was a piece of stone which John Arundel had picked up years before, and no good for anything except a doorstop. When Ellis examined the stone he recalled a similar formation amongst the phosphate rocks of Baker Island. He was assured, however, that the rock had already been examined and classified as phosphate wood, Ellis let it go.

But three months later, when the company was just about to go bankrupt, he examined the stone again. This time he decided, though it meant paying for it himself, to have it properly assayed. The finding of the assay was that the doorstop rock contained a very high proportion of phosphate of the purest quality.

The doorstop had been picked up on Nauru Island. Nauru then belonged to Germany by right of the Spheres of Influence Agreement between Great Britain and Germany in 1880. The agreed line dividing German territory in the west from British territory in the east happened to pass between Nauru and Ocean Island. Nauru being in the west was therefore allotted to Germany. Taking no chances, Germany had sent the gunboat Aber on 1 October 1888, to make Nauru a German Protectorate. Although they were eager to exploit Nauru, the German scientists, however, had failed to recognise the massive deposits of rich phosphate on Nauru, and traders were only using Nauru as a modest source of copra.   

Ellis had never been to Nauru, but he remembered being told by a sea-captain that Oceasn Island, 150 miles away, was of similar formation. It appeared that Britain was disenchanted with the protectorate she had been manoeuvred by Bismarck into declaring (in 1892) over the infertile Gilbert and Ellice Islands. Too small, too dry, and harbourless, they thought. Why waste the coal to send a British naval ship so far to plant the Union Jack and declare a Protectorate over those few useless rocky acres? So Ocean Island had not been included in the protectorate of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. Ocean Island was independent because nobody wanted it. Ellis decided to go and have a look for himself. He recorded what happened in his diary:

"Early in 1900 I left Sydney in the Company's S.S. Archer (Captain Henry), bound for Ocean Island and Nauru. The programme was that Ocean Island should first be prospected and if the deposit proved valuable arrangements were to be made with the natives for the Company to work them."

There have been so many contradictory accounts of what happened next (Ellis' own accounts being at variance at different times) that this seems a good moment to examine the personality of Albert Ellis himself, key figure in the initial exploitation of Ocean Island.

Albert Ellis, a New Zealander, whose primary value to the company was his expertise in phosphate, was touch ambitious young man. He became, although his beginning were modest, a stalwart empire-builder not above manipulating history and telling lies for the advantage of his company. He was clearly likeable and had an understanding of the Pacific Islanders based on years of bartering with them. In his paternalistic way he was, or meant to be, their friend. There were two sides to all his dealings with natives, however, the company coming first. Ellis had the qualities necessary to follow up the initial stroke of luck; shrewdness, persistence, optimism, ability to get on with and have his way with many different kinds of people, and a certain snobbery about titles and social position (always worse where it exists at all in the colonies). 

Ellis obviously enjoyed dazzling the Polynesians* with his superior material white-man's wealth especially as Ellis was then quite poor himself, by his standards. Nor did he see any reason why the natives should share to any extent in this wealth, even when it came from their own land. Ellis often made promises to the Banabans that he did not keep and perhaps never intended to keep, and typically slid out of obligations by specious explanations and half-truths. He was a churchgoer.

Ellis knew exactly how to talk to Polynesians. He was courteous, soft-tongued, smiling and friendly. He distributed sweets to the children. He always appeared to be on the natives' side in his dealings with them. Always dwelling on the advantages to them of his proposals, particularly when he was cheating them. He avoided the cold official "company attitude" and the equally cold "Governmental authoritarian" attitude. The Banabans always liked him personally, and it was Ellis whom the company always used to win them over in subsequent confrontations.

Of Ellis' devotion to his job there is no question. He spent his whole life in the service of the phosphate industry in the West Pacific, and on Ocean Island he buried his young wife, Florence Christina, who died there at the early age of thirty-four.

The chairman (Rotan Tito) of the Council of Banaban Elders, remembers Ellis on Ocean Island very well. As a child Rotan's father took him for a ceremonial visit to Ellis one Christmas. He was then a little boy of five. Rotan Tito never forgot the big comfortable Edwardian house where Ellis lived as company manger. He remembers Ellis as an affable figure, scattering sweetmeats on the carpet for him to scramble for.

In 1900 the advice of the then company manager to Ellis as he left for his momentous voyage was specific: "Those Ocean Islanders are hard cases. You take your rifle and revolver with you and as soon as you get on the beach you show the natives you can use them." 

Nauru was to be included in Ellis' itinerary, but, this being a German protectorate, Ellis' instructions were to rospect there without disclosing his great discovery: "See everything and say nothing, something after the style of Brer Rabbit."

Accompanied by a New Zealand assistant named Naylor, The Archer arrived off Ocean Island on 3 May 1900. Ellis recorded his first impressions:

"A line of surf breaking on the reef, behind which was a thirty-foot rampart of rough coral limestone cliffs crowned with groves of coconuts and other dense bright foliage on sloping ground rising to a moderate height. The whole constituted a picturesque scene soon enlivened by numerous shapely canoes dashing through the surf and in a short time The Archer's decks were crowded with strapping excited natives clad in a short skirt made of coconut leaves tanned brown. They brought aboard numbers of shark fins and shark swords, some fruit and vegetables for bartering purposes."

These products were all the Banabans had to trade. The only ships from the white man's world they had known were the rare whalers and the less rare blackbirders. The only white man they knew were the few dissolute beachcombers cast up on their shore.

By 1900, it should be noted, there was considerable depopulation in many of the Pacific Islands, as Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Mahaffy, and other experienced observers reported. Christianity and white men's diseases had already undermined the natives. The missionaries would not permit their songs and dances, considering them pagan and indecent, and Pacific Islanders died like flies from measles, smallpox and even a common European cold, to none of which they had any immunity. They also died because they had nothing left to live for. The Solomon Islanders nearly died out altogether.

But Ocean Island was different, being off the beaten track till 1900. Christianity had made its appearance barely eleven years before and at least half the population was sticking stubbornly to its pagan beliefs. Though the converted Banabans were learning Methodist abhorrence of Banaban pagan traditions, and the "Kiritians" regarded themselves as superior, the basic Banaban social fabric held together.

Ownership was still absolute and sacred, reinforced by the traditional Banaban horror of theft, which still merited the severest punishment. In extreme cases of theft the culprit would be declared outcast, put into a canoe with coconuts and water to drift to extinction on the vast Pacific or try to find himself ano9ther island where, if the natives permitted, he might survive as a landless beachcomber.

As Arthur Mahaffy reported to the British Government in 19-9:

"These 'lands' although of the most varied shape and apparently inextricably involved amongst other holdings, are perfectly well-known and can be described with the most wonderful accuracy by their owners. I fear I may be considered as guilty of exaggeration when I state what is a well-known fact and one which has been proved over and over again, namely, that the natives not only know the complicated limits of their land thus perfectly, also that, in the case where the land bears coconuts they are able to identify the nuts from the trees growing on the land. I have myself seen this done on more than one occasion - the owner having picked out his own from a heap at a trader's station, and the native who had stolen them having confessed to the theft. Because he knew that the owner was perfectly correct in his recognition of the stolen property. It follows that the smallest encroachment is jealously noted and clamorously complained of."

Their wealth was their land which grew their food trees, and parts of the reef whose value depended on the tides and fishing access. The Banabans understood barter. Their economy and way of life revolved round their elaborate system of services, gifts, and duties continually given and continually received. All these customs they punctiliously observed. They had their prescribed etiquette and their own rules for bartering. They had a special official whose duty it was to receive visitors from other islands and carry out the etiquette of barter. In 1900 the official receiver of visitors was a man whose name was Temati. It was Temati who welcomed Albert Ellis on his arrival in Ocean Island in 1900.

What did Ellis see in his mind's eye on that first voyage of discovery? He writes of "a scene of impressive pristine beauty....The objective of our visit however was of too pressing a nature to have permitted much attention being paid to the scenery." If, as he hardly dared hope, there should be substantial phosphate deposits on this lovely unspoilt island, then success and wealth beckoned. As to the natives, they presented no problem and were regarded as a secondary consideration.

Ellis recorded later in his memoirs:

"The prospecting trip which followed was probably a record one for shortness and decisiveness: also in regard to the quality of the phosphate discovered. We passed through the native village and a hole was sunk in the rising ground just beyond. The result was a gratifying surprise. For not only was rock phosphate thrown up but all the fine alluvial mixed with it appeared to be phosphate also. Several tests by means of the portable laboratory proved this to be the case, and the quality of both rock and alluvial was of very high grade. Proceeding inland about half a mile we sank several more holes at intervals, and in each instance nothing but alluvial phosphate was turned up. A further gratifying feature was that in no case did we reach the bottom of the deposit. The formation of the surrounding country was noted and the decision arrived at forthwith that the island contained extensive deposits of outstanding importance. At last we had 'struck oil' and there never was a gusher more welcome or more opportune.

"Investigations proved that the phosphate deposit existed over the whole island, the area of which comprised about 1500 acres. It was certain that the tableland interior of the island contained a wonderful deposit. 'Some idea of the depth could be obtained from one or two big pits, dug by the natives previously, in search of water, and holes sunk by us in various localities, proving that there were or least ten million tons and probably three times that quantity (thirty million tons). A few more tests with the portable laboratory demonstrated that no low grade was to be found anywhere. A notable feature of the island was that the soil in the ordinary sense of the term did not exist. All the vegetation was growing in the phosphate."

So the Banabans were unwillingly eking out a modest living on poor "soil" which, chemically treated with sulphuric acid, would have provided them (as for the next half-century it provided millions of Britons) with an abundance of food. Ellis calculated that the Banaban phosphate deposits would necessitate the mining out of the entire island, and that this process would take eighty years to accomplish.

Ellis's diary for the period is worth quoting:
8 May 1900  Tuesday
Went over the proposed site for settlement with the King and natives; found that the land is divided up into very small lots, each man owning a plot. The men said they had only small pieces, and the coconut trees thereon meant their livelihood - therefore they could not sell but we were quite at liberty to build houses, lay tram-lines or do any work on their land provided the coconuts and gardens were not interfered with.
9 May 1900  Wednesday
Saw the King again about the purchase of land for settlement; found that his land is too far from beach to be of service; in evening he brought along two men who were willing to sell their land close to the settlement; arranged to see it in the morning.

Decided to offer the natives 8s. per ton for rock, bagged and delivered into the boats; they to start getting it ready in heaps, or in houses, so that it will dry, close to the shipping places; then when the steamer comes, or is expected, sacks will be handed to them, which they fill and carry down to the boats, we having scales by to take the weight. (Probably take the average only.) As the natives would be paid in trade the actual coast per ton would be very small, compared to what it has been hitherto on Guano Islands.

We are treated most liberally here; fish, coconuts, fruits, etc., are brought to the camp every morning sometimes for trade, but if from the King's village the men refused to take anything for them. Every evening our water demijohns are taken away empty and brought back full. The island is particularly fertile and provided there is rain it seems as though anything would grow here. At present on the island there are grown: coconuts, bread-fruit, limes, bananas (a few), paw-paw apples (in abundance), pandanus, sugar cane, mangos, a few trees, pumpkins ad lib, and no doubt many other fruit and vegetables would flourish if introduced. No danger of scurvy here. Fish seems to be plentiful enough, particularly flying fish and in the interior of the island there are plenty of wildfowls which the natives say we may shoot. Yesterday by special request of the King and Elders I took out the gun and shot a tame one so that they could see how the gun worked.

10 May 1900  Thursday
Papiamont reserves the right to take coconuts from his trees whenever he wants them ... there are over fifty trees on this piece of land.

The Chief at Ooma, Ery by name, signed a contract for one year to collect phosphate at 8s. per ton. ... As far as I can see there is nothing to prevent our loading rock phosphate at the rate of hundreds of tons per day and shipping to two or three vessels at once, if sufficient moorings are laid down.

Saw the chief of the village, Pulalang, who seems an intelligent fellow, advised him to make a house from the rock so that he can keep dry phosphate, also place coconut mats underneath keeping clear of the coral, which he said he would do. told him we would probably make a shipping place and lay tram-lines at the place I had just seen; he said it was good and seemed very glad at the idea of our working close to his village. He said there had been no white men living on the island for many years, on account of the bad water supply, and that many of the natives had perished for the same reason. They would be out fishing all day, and come home to find no water and lay down and die. Told him that we would bring plenty of tanks and make plenty of cisterns, and that when there was no rain we would condense. He and his people were much amazed at hearing we would make fresh water from sea water by machinery. Told him that we would see that none of the people died for want of water when we worked the island, providing they supply us with firewood for the boiler. ... Drew out deeds for land purchase and same were duly signed. Tenaurua and Terakaputa being paid by cash order on Archer, Nanneea wishing to have his amount placed to his credit, to be taken out subsequently in passages for steamer to the Gilbert Group. ... Recommended them not to let any other white man live on the island except our party as it would probably cause friction and they agreed.

Heavy rain last night off and on during day. Wind moderate and variable from NNE to NW. Reef very smooth. Went to the native service in the morning.

Ellis took no chances. The very day he arrived, 3 May 1900, he prepared a contract (of dubious legal authenticity) had it signed by Temati and Kariatabewa, neither of whom had any authority to sign, not understanding of what they were signing, with what must have seemed to them to have been a Kiribati cross.

Typically, Ellis was already renaming different parts of the island. He named "Home Bay" after his Auckland home harbour, "Sydney Point" after the Australian capital city, and "Lilian Point" after the wife of his deputy-chairman, John Arundel.

Here is a copy of the agreement:

Ocean Island
May, 3rd, 1900.
AN AGREEMENT made this day between THE PACIFIC ISLANDS COMPANY LIMITED of London England and of Sydney hereinafter called "the said Company" of the one part and the undersigned King and Natives of Ocean Island (Paanopa) for and on behalf of the entire population of Ocean Island hereinafter called "the said Natives" of the other part.
1. The said Natives concede to the said Company the sole right to raise and ship all the rock and alluvial Phosphate on Ocean Island for and on account of the said Company.
2. The said Natives agree that the said Company shall have the right to erect buildings lay tram lines make roads build jetties and shipping places or make any other arrangements necessary for the working of the Phosphate deposits also to bring labourers from other countries for the purpose of carrying on the aforesaid work.
3. The said Company agrees not to remove any alluvial Phosphate from where cocoanut or other trees or palms cultivated by the said Natives are growing but to have the right to remove any non-fruit bearing trees which may interfere with the working of the Phosphate deposits.
4. The said Company agrees to keep a store or stores on Ocean Island where the said Natives may buy goods at prices current in the Gilbert Group and shall purchase from the said Natives cocoanuts fruits vegetables fish &c. at prices current in the Gilbert Group the said Company shall have the sole right to keep stores or trading stations on Ocean Island.
5. In consideration of the foregoing privileges the said Company agrees to pay to the said Natives at the rate of Fifty (50) pounds per annum or trade to that value at prices current in the Gilbert Group - payable half-yearly.
6. This Agreement to be in force for a term of Nine hundred and ninety-nine (999) years).
TEMATI king of Ocean Island
His X mark.  Witness E. RIAKIM.
His X mark.  Witness R. RIAKIM
Witness to all signatures

Temati, whom Ellis wrongly described as King (the Banabans had no such conception) responded with customary Banaban politeness to Ellis' overtures. All Banaban landowners being absolutely independent Temati had no authority whatever to bargain or dispose in any way of any land except his own individual holding. there was an interpreter of sorts - a Banaban sailor who had learned a smattering of English on a whaler and spoke a little pidgin.

Ellis knew that he was introducing to Ocean Island a totally alien concept of trading, which the Banabans could not possibly have understood. It is impossible to believe that Ellis, a shrewd and experienced negotiator, was unaware of the enormity of the deal he was proposing, or that he believed the Banabans understood what he was proposing. Ellis knew very well how vital land was in every Pacific island.

But he had never dreamed of chancing on a treasure trove such as this. He had to think fast and he did not hesitate. Since all Pacific islands had the same preoccupation with landholdings, Ellis understood just what he was undertaking. He knew their land was their all and he was going to destroy it.

Ellis' later account of his staggeringly successful mission is devious and omits vital passages. Since what he was doing, and hoped to do, was for the good of his company and a patriotic exercise in empire-expansion, what was good for the shareholders must be right. Later, when his methods came under scrutiny, and questions were asked in Parliament, Ellis was evasive. But by that time the company was big and powerful enough to override criticism and bully the Colonial Office, and rich enough to employ the cleverest lawyers to change the very structure of the company so as to make it unassailable.

How could the Banabans possible have understood what Ellis' "civilisation" was going to mean to their little island? Even if Ellis had been able to use a good interpreter (and as we know the two Banabans who acted as his interpreters had but a smattering of American-English) there were no concepts in their Banaban language for the information Ellis gave them. And Ellis did not wish to tell the Banabans too much; he only wanted to push them a little at a time. The Banabans were easy, friendly people. they would do everything he wanted. Ellis' main worry was that Ocean Island was unattached. It needed a British gunboat and a national flag, because once the news got out other commercial companies would be after Ocean Island phosphate, not to speak of the Germans.

As it was later suggested in the House of commons that this document was obtained by false pretences, it is worth noting here what E. C. Eliot, Resident Commissioner on Ocean Island from 1913 to 1920, said about it in his autobiography Broken Atoms:

"The chiefs of the island wer feted (in the Pacific Islands Company's ship Archer) and a paper was obtained from them giving the company rights to raise and export phosphate from the island for 999 years for the payment of the ludicrous sum of 50 pound sterling a year, or trade goods to that amount (at the company's prices, of course). About 1916, when I started to unearth this story, which is now broadcast for the first time, I took statements from three of the chiefs who were feted in the SS Archer in 1900. The company had tried to make out that the chiefs were the representatives for all island land held 'in common', and could therefore lease the whole island on behalf of their subjects. Not only in Ocean Island, but throughout Polynesia, every family owns its own land. A chief has no power over any land beyond that of his own family. When it became known on the island that the company's representatives had made some 'paper' which was said to be4ar the marks of their chiefs, the islanders repudiated the document, but the Government gave them no assistance. At that time there was no Government representative on the island."

Ellis, meanwhile, wrote:

"After the contract was signed we held a number of meetings with the Banabans with the view of preparing to start operations. Through the interpreter Temori they were told details of how the phosphate deposits would be worked and how labourers from other islands would be brought for the purpose. They pondered the matter and then asked that Solomon Islanders should not be brought as they did not want men living amongst them who might have eaten some of their ancestors. One  old chief gravely asked what the labvourers would drink, there being no permanent water on the island.

"On being told that we would bring machines that would make fresh water out of sea water they looked at one another as much as to say 'If the white man can do that he can do anything'. Another of their requests was that we should not sell guns to them.

"Lands for sites were measured off and purchased. Areas for beginning work on the phosphate were selected. It was a novel way of starting business as a land and estate agent!"   

It should be noted here that Lord Stanmore himself, at this time President of Ellis' company, had introduced an act which forbade the sale of native land to any Europeans when he had been High Commissioner for the Western Pacific. The act was still in force.

The pay for the Banabans' land was to be plug tobacco, beads and a little pig iron. Ellis, in his memoirs, later paid tribute in his paternalist prose to the Banabans' charactger:

"Through not possessed of the stamina characteristic of the white races, their degree of intelligence is quite high and they are of kindly disposition. We soon saw that the Banabans, as a result of their hard and strenuous life, were most expert fishermen, even going shark-fishing in their small rafts, little larger in area than an ordinary door. They seemed to develop unusual lines of thought and frequently displayed much originality and resource in contending with the adverse conditions under which their life is passed. The Banabans are good examples of this type of development, particularly as I found them in 1900 before they had come in touch with civilisation."

Ellis soon made havoc of their normal Banaban life.

"The natives of the island were to collect the surface rock and stack it in huts close to certain points on the coast where shipping would be possible. On arrival of the vessel they were to deliver it to the surf-boats and then he paid. This plan appealed to them and they began collecting rock with great energy, men, women and children. It seemed as if a magic wand had been waved, transforming an idle community into an industrious one."

Ellis envisaged the Banabans becoming labourers for the company. When the mining got properly under way, Ellis rightly foresaw that thousands of imported labourers would be needed. With no articles to trade other than sharks' fins, sharks' teeth, swords, and occasional small quantities of fruit, the Banabans of Ocean Island had been about the "poorest" people in the Pacific. Ellis promised them that with the signing of the contract their poverty would end. So Ellis and his assistant Naylor pitched their tent and hoisted their Union Jack on Ocean Island (without permission from the British Government, whom they had not yet asked).

"A little flagstaff was erected in front of the tent and there the first British flag to fly on Ocean Island was hoisted daily with its neverfailing message of cheer. The natives soon began to realise its significance and it was pleasing to hear them referring to themselves as Kain Engram* (English people)."

Here is a letter from Ellis' company from the archives of the colonial Office.

Attached to 24567

No. 48
to Mr. H. E. DALE (Colonial Office)
(Received August 3 1901)


120-123 Fenchurch Street,
London E.C. August 2nd 1901.

Dear Sir,

In reply to your private letter of 31st July, I find that the British flag was first hoisted by my Company's representative on Saturday, May 5th 1900. I think this may fairly be taken as the exact date on which the Company first occupied the Island. Whether this can be called "occupation under the licence" is another question. In point of fact, the Company occupied the Island under a lease from natives some months before the licence from the Crown was obtained.
Trusting this information is satisfactory to you.
I am &c.

Ellis claimed in Ocean Island and Nauru that his visit to Ocean Island had been officially authorised, and that if phosphate was found, he had authority to "treat with the natives" and "display the British flag". This was not so. The Colonial Office did not know of his visit until afterwards, as official documents, now available, make clear.

"Those early days on Ocean Island," wrote Ellis thirty-five years later, "have left pleasant recollections of the natural dignity and innate courtesy of the older Banabans in particular. They were fine examples of nature's gentlemen, and though the struggle for existence on that frequency drought-stricken island with its exposed and dangerous coastline, had left is mark on their rugged features, there was much to admire in them - were they Kiritian or Began. No discordant elements occurred in our negotiations at the meetings. As the various points were agreed they always gave a hearty 'Ea tau' which may be interpreted as 'We agree. It is finished'. And they never went back on it."

From the beginning, whatever happened to the adjacent phosphate island of Nauru has been of the deepest interest and consequence to the Banabans. Nauruan history before, during and after the two World Wars has greatly affected Banaban thinking, as we shall see.

* "Engram" should read: "Engiran"
* "Polynesians" should read: "Micronesians" as the Banabans are Micronesians

Extract from the following book:

The Trials of the Banabans

Angus & Robertson, Australia 1978

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