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.

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