Associate Professor Katerina Teaiwa at the Project Banaba exhibition at Carriageworks. Photo by Zan Wimberle
Australia’s shameful chapter
The truth about the tiny island of Banaba needs to be told to a wider audience, as Kate Prestt reports.
It’s a reprehensible story of rampant exploitation and imperialism, with no happy ending – but can we learn from the story of Banaba?
The impact of its inhabitants being removed to Fiji is still being felt by the Banabans today.
Whereas the Pacific island of Nauru is well known for phosphate and immigration detention, Banaba Island, 300 kilometres to the east, is not a household name, despite also once being rich in phosphate.
However, the land has been scrapped away and the island is now at risk from rising sea levels due to climate change, so the population may have to be relocated. Sadly, that has already happened once.
Banaba, formerly known as Ocean Island, is part of Kiribati. High-grade phosphate was discovered in the island’s coral-based rock in 1900.
The Pacific Phosphate Company mined the phosphate from 1900 to 1919, with royalties to be paid to the Banabans. In 1919 the governments of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand took over the company’s operations.
In 1945, most of the population was relocated to Rabi Island in Fiji, and mining continued until 1979. Decades of phosphate mining left Banaba uninhabitable, with 90 per cent of the island’s surface stripped away.
While Nauru has 10,000 inhabitants, only about 300 people live on Banaba, but there are an estimated 6,000 people of Banaban descent in Fiji and other countries.
ANU Associate Professor Katerina Teaiwa is hoping the little-known history of Banaba will serve as a cautionary tale of what might happen elsewhere if mass movements are the only option due to climate change.
She has been researching Banaba for the past 15 years and says this will be a lifelong passion because of the effects on her family. “The impact of its inhabitants being removed to Fiji is still being felt by the Banabans today,” she says.
“Australia mined the island from 1900 to 1980, turning phosphate into superphosphate fertiliser which enriched agricultural land across Australia. Banaba was ravaged while Australia reaped the rewards of its phosphate empire in meat, wheat and dairy.”
The mining operations reduced Banaba from 80 metres above sea level to about 50 metres, Teaiwa says.
“As long as people keep destroying islands and natural resources and overconsuming resources, Banaba is never not going to be relevant,” she says.
“This is a model of en masse relocation across borders of people from one island to another and I feel there are huge policy research lessons to learn from that. People often don’t look at history to see what worked and what didn’t to see what lessons we could learn and I think this is a flaw in the process.“Studies of displaced peoples in the past are relevant to policy on those potentially displaced in the future, for example, from climate change. These histories need to be converted into more accessible forms for policy, public, popular and educational audiences.”
This tells the story of imperial and political injustice experienced by generations of Banabans, including my family.
Teaiwa was born in Fiji and is of Banaban, I-Kiribati and African American descent.
She staged a multimedia exhibition, interweaving rare historical photographs and archival film, at Carriageworks in Sydney to coincide with the 72nd anniversary of the forced removal of an estimated 1,000 people from Banaba in December 1945.
“This tells the story of imperial and political injustice experienced by generations of Banabans, including my family,” she says.
“In the exhibition I printed images of our ancestors onto transparent fabric alongside a timeline screened on hessian sacks that resembled those used to transport the superphosphate fertiliser across Australian farms.
“The exhibition is creative, visible, tangible and accessible so more people will learn about Australia’s part in this human and ecological nightmare that unfolded over 80 years.
“Many researchers who don’t have an arts background might be hesitant to do a project like this.”
In 2018, she would like to see the exhibition displayed in Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide. Melbourne was a major port where the phosphate arrived and the headquarters for the operation. The fertiliser was manufactured in Geelong and Adelaide was also a phosphate port.