A rocky land of hidden treasure
by Anthony G. Flude ©2002.
Until a three year drought began in 1873, the island had a native population of around 2000 Banaban people who lived peaceful lives, fishing, tilling the land, sowing coconuts, pandanus and wild almonds. At night, in the glow of the fires, they performed their pagan rites, rituals and dances.
There was always a shortage of fresh water on the rocky island and every rain shower was collected in coconut shells. As rain clouds approached the island they would often be driven away by the hot winds and the sun scrorched rocks which made up the landscape of the interior. At the height of the drought, a few of the desperate natives would take to their canoes and paddle frantically out to sea to try to catch the last drops of the fast disappearing downpour of rain.
Naturally, they knew the whereabouts of the rain pools among the rocks but gradually these also dried up. Some were accessible only through narrow gaps and the entrances to these were strictly controlled by the women. The pools of water were called 'Banga-bangas' and were often warm and high in mineral content. There were much deeper pools down at a greater depth but these were not accessible until the arrival of European miners in the year 1900.
By the end of the three year drought many of the old men and women as well as young children and babies, had died of Beri-beri and Yaws and the population of the island was soon no more than some 400 souls.
Earlier, in 1868, a white missionary had settled on the island. He was an American Methodist minister named Captain Walkup. The local Banaban chief was not at all impressed with his promises and talk of salvation, however, the new minister was gradually able to introduce some bibles which had been translated into Gilbertese, a similar dialect, giving the Banaban natives their first written language.
Many of the tiny islands in the Pacific region had been worked by British and French traders over several years, recovering the small amounts of phosphate fertilizer, known as ''guano'', which had been deposited by the thousands of birds during their ocean migrations over the years. The treated phosphate chemical, when mixed with poor quality soils, even sand, produced a rich mixture in which plants and vegetables flourished and produced wonderful crops.
In Melbourne, Australia, a combined British-Australian company called the Pacific Island Company had been set up and was run by a John Arundel. They had a small steamship called the Archer which had been collecting and mining about 10,000 tons of guano in sacks from the smaller Pacific islands each year. Slowly the deposits were being mined out.
New Zealander, Albert Ellis, worked for the company and was a son of one of the directors. Knowing the company was desperate for more sources of guano, he decided to take a good hard look at a large stone which had propped open the door of the company laboratory for several years.
To his amazement, the findings of this survey found that the rock contained a high proportion of phosphate which was of the purest quality.Excited over the information and report, the company directors suddenly realised that the rock had been picked up on the island of Nauru, which was in German territory. Ellis had never been to the island of Nauru or Ocean Island himself, but he reasoned that since the two islands were barely 150 miles apart that they must have similar or almost identical rock formations. What was far more important, was that Ocean Island, if phosphate was to be found there, was annexed to Great Britain! The company steamer was made ready to leave with all speed.
Ellis wrote in his journal:- "Early in 1900, I left Sydney in the Company's S.S. Archer (Captain Henry) bound for Ocean Island and Nauru. The program was that Ocean island should be the first to be prospected and that if the deposit proved valuable, arrangements were to be made with the natives for the Company to work them."
The steamer arrived off Ocean Island on the 3rd May, 1900. Native canoes came out to greet them through the surf and soon the deck of the Archer was crowded with excited natives in brown short skirts made of coconut leaves. They brought with them a number of sharks fins and also shark's teeth swords, vegetables and fruit to trade and barter with. The people of this isolated island had little else, their only wealth lay in the tiny plot of land that each family owned and farmed.
The company had to move quickly to safeguard its interests and closely guard the fact that enormous quantities of phosphate were out there waiting to be mined. If this news leaked out, then they could expect many countries agents to descend on the island and stake their claims for mining concessions.
The chiefs of the island were gathered together and invited aboard the Pacific Island's Company steamer, the Archer where they were given food, drinks and presents. A paper was obtained from some of these guests, giving the company rights to raise and export phosphate from the island for a period of 999 years for the payment of £50 a year, or trade goods to that amount from the company store. The document was signed on behalf of the company by Albert Ellis.
Ellis soon discovered that this signed paper meant nothing to the natives. Those who had signed, had no rights or authority to lease the whole island on behalf of others, as each family independently owned its own land. He would have to obtain a contract or lease from each and every landowner to work the land.
Local native labour was offered the sum of 8 shilling a ton for the phosphate rock, collected, bagged and delivered into the ships on arrival. Meanwhile the phosphate was to stored in 'houses' near the shore, within easy acces of the landing.
Ellis wrote: "A little flagstaff was erected in front of the tent and there the first British flag to fly over 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."
The British Government in London were urged to make the annexation of Ocean Island official. Admiral Tupper of the Royal Navy ship H.M.S. Pylades was finally assigned this commission. He hoisted the British Flag on Ocean Island to the sound of a twenty-one gun salute on the 28th September, 1901, and read the Proclamation, much to the amusement of the Banaban natives, probably watching and wondering what all the noise and fuss was about.
By the year 1902 the Pacific islands Company had become the Pacific Phosphate Company. It had a share capital of £250,000 and dividends over the period of 1903 to 1907 reached 27%. Such was the huge demand for phosphate from Australia, New Zealand and Britain that the company was able to equip the island with the latest mooring and shipping machinery as well as lay out tramways to convey the phosphate from the islands interior. The large number of foreign workers gradually increased and law and order had to be enforced on the island by a band of imported Gilbertese policemen, who kept the worst offenders in 'jail' for a day for even minor offences.
The company ordered the steamer Pacific Queen to be built specifically for their phosphate trading operations on Ocean Island. Small 'lighters', seen moored alongside the vessel, each piled high with the sacks of phosphate rock, plied between the shore and the anchored vessel until the new wharves were built.
As the mining operations progressed further into the island landscape, leaving behind great crevices and high pinnacles of coral rock, the Banaban native landowners started to become a nuisance to the company.
By the year 1909, over two hundred and forty acres of land on Ocean Island had been stripped by mining the phosphate, including the food trees the company had pledged to leave untouched. Some three hundred acres of land was nothing more than coral pinnacles, leaving just nine-hundred and sixty acres of land to support the food for the population of the Banaban people remaining on the island. Despite threats from the company they steadfastly refused to lease any more land to be mined.
To break the dedlock, a new resident commisioner named E. Carlvon Eliot was appointed in 1913 to investigate the concerns of the Banaban people on Ocean Island. He respected the Banaban peopleand learned some of their language.The beginnings of the First World War was looming up in Europe by the year 1914 and the British Government had much more important matters on hand.
During the war mining continued but after the war, in July, 1920, the London Times reported that the Pacific Phosphate Company was to be liquidated and wound up. A Board of Commissioners was to be appointed called the British Phosphate Comission which bought the company for £A3,500,000. The BPC, as it became known, with Sir Albert Ellis on the board as New Zealand Commissioner, decided to give farmers in New Zealand and Australia the benifit of vastly reduced prices for their guano fertilizer. Large scale mining of Ocean Island continued over the interim years until 1940.
Using money from commission funds held in trust for the surviving 280 Banaban people, the Commissioner's approved the purchase from the Fiji Government of the small fertile island of Rambi, situated in the Fiji Group, which was chosen as a place to re-settle them. Although they had never seen the island, the Banaban survivors, about sixty families, when they were told that their own island was now totally uninhabitable, agreed to give Rambi island a trial period of two years. They were collected from both Kusaie and Banaba and taken by the BPC steamer to their new home.
The Banaban Council of Elders decided that they must make their grievances over the loss of their land known in London, in order to gain any compensation from the BPC and/or the Crown and they must now consider the prospect of going to law. Pastor Tito, now 76 years of age and Pastor Tebuke, who spoke good English, were given the task of representing the Banaban people. They went to Australia and then New Zealand to put their case to the governments but they were greeted with deaf ears.
The first case before the court concerned the failure of the BPC to replant food-trees destroyed by the phosphate mining on Ocean island. The Banaban people claimed a sum of £6 million compensation and wanted the trees re-planted also. The second case was one of breach of trust in the handling of royalties due to the Banabans from the phosphate.They claimed the sum of £21 million due to the fact that they were owed eighty-five percent of the royalties that had not been paid and also that the phosphate had been sold to NZ and Australia at far below the proper market value.
The judge took four months to reach his decision and verdict. The trial ended with no judgement or award being made by the court in the Banaban favour, the matter being placed in the hands of the British Government. Whilst sympathetic to their cause, the judge found the 1913 Pacific Phosphate Company agreement, written and signed by each and every landowner giving permission for his land to be mined, contained within its text the company's get out phrase "where possible'' This clever wording by the company lawyers in those early contracts, applied specifically to the restoration of the land after mining operations were finished.
Suddenly help came from another source. The television program viewers and other members of the British public had other thoughts!
The Banaban's had at last secured some security and justice for their people in exchange for their lost land. Gradually they settled into their new island of Rambi, using their compensation monies for education and schooling of their children and young people in Suva and Australia and for the benifit of their old.
Many more chapters would be needed to explain the full story of Ocean Island's Banaban people, its 'guano' phosphate history and the events of the London trial. The above is a brief, carefully researched outline of the main events.