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I first lived on Banaba when I was still a student and those first lingering impressions still remain. This was an island so vastly different from the coral atolls that I was used to both in Kiribati and Tuvalu. Jutting like a rock from the sea, Banaba had been the home of I-Kiribati (Kiribati people) for generations.

Banaba is very different from the lagoon islands. To start with, it is nearly 300 feet high and three square miles in area - a solid lump of coral limestone with a 60 foot crust of guano on top, which at that time was being mined and crushed at the rate of about 1000 a day by the British Phosphate Company. This company, a joint commission set up earlier in the century by Britain, Australia and New Zealand took over all mining rights from the small private companies that already operated there.

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An aerial war time photograph of Banaba showing the extent of phosphate mining


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There is very little soil on Banaba but a dense jungle of scrub and Calophyllum trees have sent roots seeking down for water through every crevice in the limestone. On its eastern side, the rock had a labyrinth of caves where water could be found in time of drought. These occurred, on average, every seven or eight years, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Being on, what many anthropologists consider to be the migratory path of our ancestors some thousands of years ago from Asia, the Kiribati people of Banaba had a rich and complex culture that was thousands of years old and yet was still fundamentally and uniquely I-Kiribati.

The discovery of phosphate on Banaba resulted in a considerable disruption to the lives of our Kiribati people on Banaba. I have detailed the extent and the processes of phosphate mining on my other Web pages: About Banaba - pertaining to Banaba. Sufficient to say, the phosphate on Banaba was very deep-seated and often required the use of explosives to allow it to be extracted and processed prior to shipping. This resulted in Banaba representing something literally out of this world. It is a devastation that is hard to describe.

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Banaba landscape after phosphate mining - 1931

In World War 2, Banaba was one of the first islands to be invaded by the Japanese army. Prior to this, the phosphate processing equipment had been made unworkable so the Japanese did not extract any phosphate but rather their interest in Banaba was directed towards fortification and the elimination of a vital link in the Allies Coastwatchers' radio network.

The Japanese committed numerous atrocities against the Kiribati and Tuvaluan people remaining on Banaba. In one horrendous incident, when the Japanese army elsewhere had capitulated the remaining indigenous people on the island, were lined up on a cliff, blindfolded with their hands tied behind them and shot in the back. This was an atrocity for which the Japanese Lieutenant Commander Suzuki was later tried for and hanged.

An alternative home for the Kiribati people of Banaba was found in the form of a fertile island called Rabi. This island had an abundance of running water and was considered to be a much more friendly environment than that of Banaba. At this time, the vast majority of Kiribati people on Banaba had been relocated to Rabi although a few chose to remain on Banaba.

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The first Banaban camp on Rabi

The young people have adapted much more quickly to life on Rabi and at this time it is the only home that they have known. Despite losing their homeland to the phosphateers and the Japanese army who destroyed every house on Banaba, the people of Banaba on Rabi have retained their culture, customs and rituals and indeed all those things that make them part of our Kiribati family.

It is only to be hoped that, having suffered at the hands of powerful outside interests, the people of Banaba can now live on Rabi and can be left alone to pursue their traditional lifestyle. Fortunately, they have friends who have endeavoured to assist them in adapting and prospering in their new homeland.

About Banaba
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com --  28th September 2013)