Mysteries of Ocean Island

May 7, 2009

Recently I learned that man is predisposed to imagine islands, to conjure small pieces of land that do not exist.  In the nineteenth century, maps of the sea drawn by the British Navy included more than 200 non-existent islands.  As the article I learned this in poetically described: “It’s easy to imagine how the mistakes were made. A dark band of sea fog is mistaken for an atoll. A distant alto-cumulus seen through heat is taken for a sea cliff, towering over a bronze sea. A hydrographer jots down the discovery, before the ship gets veered away by weather. The data is returned to Greenwich’s cartographers – and so the geological and the chimerical get mingled.”

Thanks to a family friend visiting London from the US via Fiji, I also recently learned about a very small equatorial island, moored in the South Pacific, 300km from the tiny country of Nauru, which itself is hundreds of kilometers from anything.  It’s history and present seem imagined as well: too complex to fit its tiny size – just 6.5 square kilometers.  The island has two names: Banaba and Ocean Island, the first meaning “stony” in the local language and the second (and contrasting) name given by the British.   Its remote location didn’t protect it or its people from the violent and material tendencies of the 20th century: the British discovered that it was rich in phosphate in the early 1900s and by 1980, 90% of its land surface stripped away through mining.  The Japanese colonised it during World War II, killing off a massive proportion of its population.  Those that survived were forcibly moved to a small island in Fiji, called Rabi, by the British at the end of the war.

So while the island is part of the nation of Kiribati (which my friend taught me is actually pronounced “Kiripas”), its people  live in Northern islands of Fiji, as an ethnic minority who enjoy limited political and economic rights.   Ocean Island sits there in the South Pacific, all but deserted, and with mountains of old mining equipment rusting on it.  The Banaban descendants in Rabi administer the island, and send money to support a population of about 200 people who still live there.  They spend an out-sized proportion of their limited income on Banaba because if they and their people leave the island completely, the government of Kiribati is likely to claim it as their own.

The question is why would Kiribati want a tiny, uninhabited, rocky island far from everything with no natural resources left to exploit? The answer is a side-effect of globalisation: climate change.  At 266ft above sea level, it is the highest island in the Gilbert Chain which forms Kiribati, a country which is at risk of being gobbled up by the Pacific if sea levels rise much more.  That makes Ocean Island an attractive place to imagine a Kiribati future, a place that is not at risk of becoming imaginary once again like the nation’s other atolls, dispersed over more than a million square miles of the South Pacific.


4 Responses to “Mysteries of Ocean Island”

  1. Nicky said

    I wish to answer your question on why Kiribati wants a tiny uninhabited rocky island far from everything..such as Ocean Island.

    Kiribati is comprised of a chain of 33 islands, one of them is Banaba/Ocean Island. The Banabans speak Gilbertese, the local dialect but with a different accent, which is different for each island in the Kiribati Islands. Banaba before colonial era had always been a part of the Kiribati Islands. Its language, its myths, its culture and its people are native I-Kiribati. During colonialism it became part of what was known as the Gilberts and Ellice Islands. Banaba then was rich in phosphate and at the beginning of WWII, the island was purchased by the British Government. The Banabans during WWII were moved to Rabi in the Fiji Islands not before the war or during the war but at the end of the war, some could say “to get them out of the way of the mining”.

    Kiribati was granted independence by the British Government in 1979 at the end of the Phosphate mining. The group of islands is now called the Kiribati Islands and Banaba is never an exception.

    The Kiribati Government is surely worried of its islands being gobbled up by the rising sea-level. The Kiribati people do not wish to go somewhere else where they would miss their beautiful lagoons, sunsets or the warm breezy weather all year round. They certainly would not wish to lose their culture, language and identity.

    But is Ocean Island an attractive place to imagine a Kiribati future? The population of Kiribati is approx 120,000 now and still counting..imagine fitting that on a devastated, exploited 6.5 sq km with no fresh water lens and scarce rainfall? Highly impossible!

    So why does Kiribati want a tiny uninhabited rocky island far from everything? To me, Kiribati wants Ocean Island the same way as a mother loves her child regardless of their flaws or weaknesses. Ocean Island is definitely not the answer but asking the world community for reduction of green-house gases is not so easy!

  2. Stacey said

    Sorry but both articles here are not correct. The photo of Banaba is wrong and a photo can be sourced easily on Google Earth. Banaba looks nothing like the photo you have posted bu has similar geological formation as Nauru.

    There are still phosphate reserves on Banaba and the Banabans had to take the UK government to court to end the mining on their island. They also went to United Nations while the court case was on to fight for their independence from Kiribati and unfortunatelly UK government handed this critical decision back to the merging independent nation of Kiribati at the time.

    Yes you are correct that Banaba is the highest island in all of the Kiribati Group, but Nicky is totally incorrect in her statement that the Banabans have always been part of Kiribati.

    Obviously her history of the Banabans and the Kiribati people must only start at the beginning of the discovery of phosphate on Banaba in 1900. Banaba was never part of the Gilbert Islands Group (as it was known in those days). It was only annexed into the Gilbert group until after phosphate was discovered and did not become part of the Gilbert & Ellice Colony until 1913.

    Nicky is correct in saying that there is no surface water on the island but it is interesting that before the discovery of phosphate the indigenous population of Banaba was in the thousands and during the mining years supported thousands of workers including many coming from the Gilbert and Ellice islands as labourers.

    While it is correct that the Banabans were exiled to Rabi in Fiji they still hold sovereignty over Banaba and hold special provisions in Chapter IX of the Kiribati Constitution.

    Since mining ceased in November 1979 previous Kiribati governments have tried to remine the island. The Banabans have vehemently opposed this move. Today the Banabans have already started plans to rehabilitate their homeland. The Kiribati government is now supporting their efforts. More information on this can be found at Banaban Vision (see website link)

    The Banabans now believe they have reached a critical turning point in their history and the dawn of a new era. For the first time in history the Banabans will take control over their own destiny and future with the rehabilitation of their homeland being the long held dream of every Banaban.

    So I would like to suggest that when you post articles about Banaba that you remember that there are people who have suffered greatly over more than a century from the exploitation of their homeland. For the Banabans their Island (which you may think is a devastated rocky outcrop) is their culture and identity – the essence of their very being!

  3. Lauren said

    Thanks to both for your comments. I am aware of the fact that the photo is incorrect, it was of an unnamed island in the South Pacific. I was drawing attention to the case of Banaba precisely for the reasons “Stacey” says: to bring attention to a long history of suffering.

  4. Kaky said

    I think Nicky is right and Stacey is totally incorrect, Banaba was part of Kiribati before colonial periods and even before phosphate mining in Banaba. Why??? Because the Banabans speak the Kiribati language only with a slight difference in their accent. Speaking the same language highlights the strong connection and relationship of both the Kiribati and Banaban people as they are one group of ethnicity.

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