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Banabans and Their Story

Banabans and Their Story
Coir Belt (detail), Banaba, Kiribti. 
Finton Mahony 
photographer: Oliver Perkins
 
Ocean Island, the small island of about 6 square kilometres is located near the equator, between the Gilbert Islands of Kiribati and Nauru. Discovered by Europeans in the early 1800s and named Ocean Island it was annexed by Great Britain in 1900. Since then its original name Banaba has replaced its European name. In 1979 Banaba became part of the Republic of Kiribati. The island and its people are a tragic example of conflict between the interests of Western powers and the rights of indigenous communities.

80 years of phosphate mining commenced on Banaba in 1900. In the complex web of political and commercial reasons, as well as the upheavals of the Second World War, Banabans were moved out of their island. After the war many people were resettled to Rabi Island in Fiji, where they form a significant part of Banaban diaspora.

Although commonly called phosphate, the deposit was actually guano. This deposit of birds' droppings, rich with chemicals such as phosphorus and nitrogen, was used as an agricultural fertiliser. Australia's poor soils were always hungry for fertilisers. When the mining ended in 1979, ninety percent of Banaba had had the topsoil removed together with several metres of guano. As a result, the island that was once home for over two thousand indigenous people became deserted.

Mining was carried out primarily by the British Phosphate Commission, jointly owned by companies based in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. During this time Banabans were practically ruled by the mining corporation. The wellbeing of the indigenous people, their rights and environmental concerns were subjected to the commercial imperative.

Maintaining identity and uprooted culture in exile is hard. Yet Banabans are doing it with commitment and flair via networking, publications and their presence on the Web: http://www.banaban.com/

The Australian Museum has a small collection of about 100 artefacts from Banaba. Nearly half this collection was donated to the Museum by Frederic Danvers Power and John Stephens. Power (1861-1955), who travelled extensively through the Pacific, probably collected these artefacts and kept them jointly with Stephens (1829-1890) at the University of Sydney with which both men were associated. John Stephens was also a Trustee of the Australian Museum.

It is interesting that the donation of Banaban artefacts in 1901 took place eleven years after Stephens' death. Probably the artefacts were collected before Stephens died and both men considered themselves equal custodians of the collection. In any case, the Power and Stephens' collection originated in the 19th century, when the Banaban culture was essentially intact. So, this small collection is part of the Banaban heritage that may contribute, if only in a small way, to fostering their identity and some aspects of traditional culture.

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