Republic of Kiribati
Banaba is a tiny dot two miles long in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Until 1900, a few thousand Banabans lived there, following their age long practices of fishing and living as a peaceful community. Then it was discovered that they were sitting on the richest deposit of phosphate in the world. For countless millennia accessible only to sea birds whose droppings gradually piled up to 40, 60, and 80 feet deep, Banaba for some infinitely remote period was plunged into the depths of the Ocean by a volcanic upheaval and then, after a long time, thrown above the water in a second convulsion. During this long immersion, the bird-droppings of Banaba suffered a sea-change. The deep layers of guano changed into phosphate of lime.
Canoe shed, Banaba (From: "Kiribati - Aspects of History")
Ocean Islanders' huts
Early phosphate workings, Banaba
The Banaba story is not just one of big business driving out the innocent locals. It is not the story of big governments (Australian, New Zealand and British) against a few helpless individual. It is a very long and complex story and one in which history will judge that the people of Banaba were treated most unfairly.
On the 3rd May, 1900, Albert Ellis prepared a contract of very dubious legal authenticity and had it signed by the Banaban leaders neither of whom had any authority to sign nor understood what they were signing. The agreement between the Banabans and the Pacific Islands Company Limited set in part that the natives conceded to the company the sole right to raid and ship all the rock and alluvial phosphate on the then Ocean Island.
Albert Ellis at work in his office on Banaba (Ocean Island)
That the Company agrees not to remove any alluvial phosphate from where coconut or other trees or plants cultivated by the said natives are growing and that the company agrees to keep a store or stores on the island where the said natives may buy goods at prices current in the Gilbert Group. In consideration of this, the Company agreed to pay the natives at the rate of fifty (50) pounds per annum or trade to that value as prices current in the Gilbert Group.
The annexation of Ocean Island (Banaba)
At about the same time, Telfer Campbell, then Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert Islands said that the advantages to be found in including Ocean Island in the Gilbert Group would be that such inclusion would prevent some foreign power from annexing it or proclaiming a Protectorate over it, and the island could not be looked upon or made a place of refuge by criminals from the Gilbert Group as were formerly the case.
Admiral Sir Reginald Tupper of the Royal Navy had been prevailed upon to add his authority. Tupper was ordered to hoist the British flag on Ocean Island and perform the ceremony on the 28th September, 1901. He also had to concoct a Proclamation of which no copy was made.
A report prepared in 1909 and submitted to the British Parliament, had stated:
"The Banabans had had no idea that the mining was going to destroy their whole island. They had no idea what mining was. Were all the phosphate removed, it is no exaggeration to say that the island would become perfectly uninhabitable for men and a mere desert of pointed coral rocks".
Subsequent to the war, the Banaban people conducted the longest legal case history against the British Phosphate Commission (BPC). Having been relocated to Rabi, they had a difficult task in adapting to the different climatic region as Rabi was much wetter and much colder than Ocean Island. The small community on Rabi endeavoured to bring together their Banaban identity. They were now racially mixed, had lost their original Banaban tongue and spoke Gilbertese. An effort was made to revise traditional Banaban dancing and singing which had been tabu at the insistence of the original missionaries on Banaba. Within months, the Banaban dancers, dressed in traditional Banaban costumes, were giving their first performances of Banaban authentic pre-missionary dances and songs of Ocean Island.
This revival, has been enormously successful. The Banabans have experienced the pleasure of sending their Banaban dancers to the great Pacific festivals where they have walked off with the laurels. These laurels had been won not by imitating white men but by reverting to their traditional culture. These dance groups have provided the avenue by which our Banaban people had discovered their own identity which they have lost. Clearly, they now know who they are and this is a very powerful weapon in the hands of dispossessed people.
Many of the older Banaban people are living simultaneously in different places at the same time. While living on Rabi, they are in spirit always on Banaba some sixteen hundred miles away. The council of elders had sent volunteers to live on Banaba and to maintain a presence on the island.
It is apparent that history will judge the BPC as the greatest exploiters of the Banaban people. The Banabans who had been deprived of their language, their religion and their culture mainly by the missionaries and their homeland by the BPC have managed to survive. They nearly died out during the first desperate winter on Rabi in 1946.
Through all this, we simply cannot afford to ignore the mined-out island of Banaba. Although it does not seem to be nor probably will be on the agenda of the exploiters of Banaba the case to rehabilitate the island is a strong one.
There is one final aspect of the Banaban story that we cannot overlook. Since the first white castaway landed on Banaba, our Banaban people have no reason to trust white people. If the issues of Banaba are not fully addressed by the exploiters of Banaba, our distrust of white people will be confirmed forever.
Phosphate workings, Banaba
Welcome everybody to Micronesia Music Anthology which is available on
The anthology can be accessed by clicking on the 'Broadcast Schedule' after logging in to Micronesia Music Radio. This should allow you to determine when the anthology is available in your part of the world. For example, in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, Australia, the anthology is available at 12 noon each Saturday. In Kiribati, the anthology is available each Saturday afternoon at 2 pm; California at 7 pm each Friday evening; New York at 10 pm each Friday evening, along with Florida and Boston, Massachusetts, USA, etc.
The anthology runs for 90 minutes in which the traditional chants are introduced with many from Kiribati, including Banaba and Rabi, followed by the beautiful songs of Micronesia. Thank you!
The schedule can also be accessed here