Banaba (west of the Phoenix Islands)
Banaba is west of the Gilbert Group and just south of the equator. The island has been almost entirely destroyed by phosphate mining, which has left a weird landscape of stark coral pinnacles protruding from burning white rock, littered with rusted mining equipment. The population of about 280 lives in a fringe of vegetation that hasn't been mined, hanging on in their homeland despite most of the former population having been settled on Rabi Island in Fiji (where they had to buy their plots of land) at the end of WWII. Islanders still cling fervently to their culture and maintain links with their kinsfolk on Rabi. Banaba is an ecological curiosity - see how mining has trashed a unique island and traditional culture - but because facilities are limited you will need to get approval from the island council before you arrive. While there is no regular passenger service to the island, you may be able to negotiate passage on a yacht.

Location & Geography


Rabi Islands location in Fiji

Banaba is 600km (372mi) south-west of Tarawa. An extremely remote isolated island several hundred kilometres to the west of the Gilberts Group. It is a raised atoll, rising several tens of metres above sea level. Extensive phosphate deposits were mined from the turn of the century until 1979. These deposits, destined for processing into fertiliser, were sold at below world market prices to Australia and New Zealand and helped 'kick start' these major agricultural economies. It is indeed curious that 1979 should also have been the year of Kiribati independence.

From the original 1,500 lush tropical acres that was the original Ocean Island, there is now only 150 viable acres left unmined, where the Banaban inhabitants reside today. As of October, 1996  the population on Banaba had reached 500 people which also included some Kiribati civil servants and their families. The latest news in 2001 was that due to droughts and some resettlement for people back to Rabi island there was approximately just over 200 Banabans currently living on the homeland.

The Rabi Council of Leaders back in Fiji administer Banaba at a cost of approximately $12,000 a month. The Banabans have two members sitting in the Kiribati Government Assembly and representing the Banaban people. The Banabans have often spoken of their wish to one day see Banaba as an independent nation. While ever the Banabans only have community status split between two different Pacific nations they have no real control over what happens to their land and their future. Even aid projects have to be approved by the governments concerned.  Areas such as community health and education are other important areas that are affected. One very good example of this is the desire of the Kiribati government to remine Banaba.

Second World War

World War 2 activity commenced in 1940 with German raider attacks on phosphate ships on Ocean Island and Nauru. The first Japanese attack also occurred on Ocean Island. Within hours on the surprise attack on the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbour on 8th December 1941, a Japanese flying boat arrived over Ocean Island and dropped five or six bombs.

There were no casualties and no damage to buildings but the next day three flying boats bombed the island and destroyed the new Residency building, the machine shop and the B.P.C Manager's house. The Radio Station on Ocean Island was the parent station for the Gilbert Islands Coastwatching station and it was believed that the main purpose of the attack had been to silence this Radio Station. However, the Station was undamaged and remained in operation until Japanese forces landed and captured the Island.

The Australian and New Zealand Government had evacuated all wives and children working for the BPC on Ocean Island in July 1941, in anticipation of a coming war with Japan. At Ocean Island, the Australian merchant ships Vito and Kenilworth protected by the armed merchant cruiser H.M.A.S. Westralia had arrived and collected the refugees without incidents. Then after the attacks in December it was decided to proceed with the evacuation of all other Europeans. The Central Pacific Islanders, Banabans, Gilbertese, and Tuvaluans were left behind as it was believed that they would not suffer seriously if the Island was captured by the Japanese. At the end of February 1942, the Free French destroyer La Triomphant evacuated the Europeans from Ocean Island and Nauru.

On 24th August, Admiral Yamamoto, Commander-In-Chief of the combined Japanese fleet, ordered the fourth fleet to capture Abemama, Ocean Island and Nauru. Nine land-based attacked planes and one flying boat of the 24th Air Flotilla, bombed Ocean Island on the 24th and during the night, two destroyers, Ariake and Yugure shelled Ocean Island. The Yugure landed her land-combat unit on Ocean Island on the 26th August. On 1st September, a detachment from the 63rd Naval garrison unit replaced the Yugure force as the Ocean Island ococupation unit with approximately 500 troops and 50 labourers.

With the arrival with these occupation troops, life for the islanders changed for the worse. A harsh rain of fear and force began as the Japanese commenced a programme of fortifying the islands using slave labour. A Gilbert Islander, Tikaouti Bonabati, comments on life on Ocean Island, under Japanese rule:

"It would be better to be a soldier than a civilian prisoner. Soldiers have weapons and have a chance. We had no chance, we were slaves. We were the same as pigs: we had no human rights."

The Japanese had occupied Ocean Island so as to deny it to the Allies. The phosphate mining plant had been sabotaged by the B.P.C staff and there was no attempt to recommence mining. The sole purpose of the Japanese occupation appeared to be strategic. They quickly fortified the island, installing gun emplacement and traps to oppose any landing. There was no harbour at Ocean Island and no attempt was made to construct an airfield so the island became an isolated fortress of little practical use to the Japanese.

To relieve the food shortage, Islanders were shipped out even though there was grave danger that the ships might be attacked. The ships travelled mostly during the night taking Banabans, Gilbertese and Tuvaluans to other islands under Japanese control. Some, went to Nauru, others to Tarawa or to Kusaie in the Caroline Islands. All women and children were removed from the Island and the Japanese retained only approximately 150 of the young men to work for them in gardening, toddy cutting and fishing. But in August 1945, after the Japanese surrender, all Islanders were split into nine groups, marched to the cliffs over the sea, blindfolded and shot.

It was not possible to provide the names or exact number of all those killed. One of the two names was a Gilbertese, Ueanteiti, the other a Tuvaluan, *Falailiva. The only witness to the execution, Kabunare, related in his statement:

"Falailiva was the first man to be tied and was on my left. He said to me "Are you ready?" and I replied "Yes, I am ready to die." Then Falailiva asked "You remember God?" and I replied "Yes I remember"."

Soon after this Falailiva and the others were shot and Kabunare very fortunately fell over the cliff unarmed.

When the Allies arrived at Ocean Island, they found the Japanese to be the only occupants of the island and they were told that the Islanders had all been evacuated. The truth was revealed when the sole survivor of the massacre, Kabunare, a 28 year old Gilbertese man of Nikunau Island came out of hiding. Untouched by the bullets he feigned death, then hid in a cave in the bush. For three months he hid, venturing out under cover of darkness to search for food.

At first the Japanese were accused of murdering the people of the island simply so that they could use all the scarce food and water resources for themselves. As it became known that the execution had taken place after the declaration of peace, it seemed more likely that it was the means of eliminating all witnesses to other atrocities committed on the island.

The Commanding Officer, Lt. Commander Suzuki Naoomi faced trial when war crimes trial were convened by the Australian military in Rabaul, New Guinea, in April 1946. Suzuki, and a Junior Officer, Lt. Nara Yoshio, were charged with the murder of two natives named, and certain natives unknown on Ocean Island on or about 20th August 1945.

The Japanese Officers pleaded not guilty to the murder charge, but both were found guilty and were sentenced to death by hanging. In a petition, Suzuki accepted full responsibility for the killing and made a plea for leniency for Nara, who he claimed had only been carrying out orders. Nara had his sentence commuted to twenty-five years imprisonment; Suzuki's sentence was upheld and he was hanged.

Effects of the Phosphate Trade

The inhabitants, the Banabans, never quite saw the justice of shipping their homeland to Australia in bulk carriers in return for an inadequate number of small pieces of paper termed "Royalties" and were a constant thorn in the side of the British Phosphate Commissioners. When there was insufficient of their homeland left (ie the village areas were to be mined) they were resettled on Rambi Island in Fiji in about 1947 (which they had to buy with their own money!) where the community resides to this day. Some have returned to Banaba. In retrospect their treatment seems rather shabby, but I suspect that they would have fared worse under many other possible colonial regimes. [PS Does anyone know how the Nauruans were treated by the Germans prior to 1914? It would make an interesting comparison.]

The Gilbert Islands Government also received royalty payments. These were built up over the years into the Revenue Equalization Reserve Fund, the income of which was destined to support the recurrent expenses of government in the post-phosphate years. Little of this money (none?) was spent in Banaba (since there was no-one to spend it on other than BPC employees), and naturally it drove a wedge between the Banabans attempts to claim justice and the pre-independence Gilberts government who had little interest in disturbing the status quo.

The culture and language of Banaba is basically that of the I-Kiribati, albeit with some significant differences (for example a preference for exogenous adoption).

Briefly asserted claims to national sovereignty for Banaba has resulted in the island becoming a designated (and highly desirable) area for the radio hams'

Banaban Dance
Dancing is one of the most important aspects of Banaban Culture. Banaban history has been passed down over the generations in an oral form by Banaban Elders. The other form of recording major events in Banaban history is through Dance. The Cultural dances are clever snippets of these events displayed in a combination of singing, dancing and mime and are constantly updated to include more contemporary issues which effect the community today.

The tradition of the dance is strictly enforced, with costumes similar to those used over 100 years ago. A good example of this aspect of such detail is a dance called the - 'te Karanga' Stick Dance. Not only are the costumes kept similar, but the dance steps together with the old traditional Banaban language used in the dance are still used. Even though the meaning of the words are now lost the preservation of the dance in its original form is very exciting.

The Banabans have long been considered one of the best dancing groups in the Pacific. Unfortunately in recent years due to the lack of finances they have been unable to compete or perform at other Pacific Dance competitions and events. The quality of these wonderful performers was not lost on the Australian Government when they were invited to perform at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Opera House in the 1970's.

In 1975, 25 dances accompanied the group on the 'HOMECOMING TRIP and performed throughout Tarawa. At the same time another 10 dances went on a Dance tour of Japan.

The Loss of Banaban Language

The Banabans often lament the loss of their traditional language. Leading up to the discovery of Phosphate in 1900, was the first arrival of the Missionaries to the island. Captain Walkup from the American Mission Society travelled the Pacific in his small yacht and arrived on Banaba in the late 1890's. The Banaban's folklore had foretold the arrival of such a man or prophet, and the community eagerly adopted this new religion.

Captain Walkup had translated the Bible into the Gilbertese language, and encouraged the community to adopt the language so the Banabans would be able to hear the word of God. Over the years this was promoted, and today the Banaban Elders are unable to talk or understand their old language.

This copy of an old 'lullaby' that was part of the Dalton Family's Collection from the island in 1921 has been thoroughly researched by various Gilbertese language experts and the Banaban Elders themselves. The language experts have drawn a complete blank, while the Elders are sure this is a lullaby from the old language. Due to the fact that the old language has never been recorded, there are no known written facts on the subject. However, one of the Banaban traditional dances called the - 'te Karanga' or Stick-dance is sung in words that the Banabans do not understand. The tradition of this dance is still strictly carried out today on Rabi Island, and the old words are still used. Even though they are not understood, this precious part of the traditional dialect is still preserved for future generations.

The words used in the lullaby were phonetically spelt by the Dalton Family, and over the years the actual pronunciation has probably been altered by the English translation. One day we hope that more pieces of the puzzle will fall into place and the mystery of the - LOST LANGUAGE OF THE BANABANS, will be discovered.

Visiting Banaba

You have to go to Tarawa and catch a Kiribati Shipping Corporation vessel. These don't go too often, perhaps 4 time a year would be my guess. When I was last in Kiribati in the early 1980's, Banaba was designated a closed district. This was a result of political agitation by the Banabans some years previously. In practise it meant that you required government permission to go there. I don't know if this still applies. Ask at the Ministry of Home Affairs in Bairiki. I would also suggest that before visiting Banaba you contact the Rambi Island Council in Fiji. The Banabans own the land, and history has made them sensitive about it.