The Search for Banaban Identity

by on Tuesday, 02 July 2013 Comments

The Banaban people live on Rabi Island off the coast of Vanua Levu in the northern part of Fiji. They are originally from Banaba or Ocean Island in what was the former British Colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, and is now the separate states of the Republic of Kiribati and Republic of Tuvalu. The Banabans were moved to Fiji as the result of two major events. The first was the discovery that most of the island was made of phosphate in 1900 by a New Zealander, later knighted, Sir Albert Ellis, and the second, the Japanese occupation of the island during World War II.

The phosphate mining was run by a consortium of British, Australian and New Zealand colonial, business and agricultural interests that operated under the banner of the British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC) from 1920. This was a very successful multinational mining collaboration that provided cheap fertilizer primarily to Australian and New Zealand farmers and at times, especially when there was a surplus, to other nations including Japan.

 The mining operations lasted on Banaba from 1900 till 1979 and in that period significant numbers of Gilbertese (I-Kiribati), Ellice Islander (Tuvaluan), Chinese and Japanese workers contributed to the success of the phosphate venture. The workers were racially segregated on the six-square kilometer island, and the BPC tried to keep a tight grip on inter-cultural tension discouraging fraternization between the groups.

 The economic impact of the mining was problematic. The original contract drawn up by Albert Ellis was not in the Banaban language, was not endorsed by the majority of landowners and gave rights to a foreign company for 999 years of mining at 99 pounds a year. While the contract was adjusted and other agreements put in place later, they ensured the primary benefits of mining were reaped by the British government and settlers of the Antipodes rather than indigenous Banabans. Our people had access to new commodities and entertainment but their social organization and the landscape on which it was mapped, was physically removed, one ton of phosphate rock at a time. New ideas and opportunities entered through the company and the various groups of workers from Asia and other Pacific Islands, but so did ideas about class, status and superiority. Some Banabans, as landowners, at various points, saw themselves as better than others.


The mining operations were only interrupted between 1942 and 1945 when Japanese forces occupied the island dispersing the Banaban population to war camps in Kosrae, Nauru and Tarawa. The BPC had long been seeking a way to remove the indigenous population from the island and World War II provided the perfect opportunity. After the war ended in 1945 the BPC sent the ship Triona to pick up all Banabans and their families, taking them directly to Rabi in Fiji, an island that had been purchased for them from their own income from the mining venture.

Approximately 1000 people landed on the island on December 15, 1945. Initially the Banabans thought they would live in Fiji for two years and then return to Banaba but most of them, save about sixty repatriated to the island as caretakers in the late 1970s, have been in Fiji ever since. There are few obvious similarities between Banaban and Fijian modes of social organization or language and it took Banabans several decades to start to feel “at home” in Fiji. Today the population on Rabi is between four and five thousand while Banaba stands at around three hundred. As a result of the mining, twenty million tons of the six square kilometer island, popularly known as abara, “our homeland,” was spread mainly across Australia and New Zealand fertilizing their agricultural fields. The development of the British Antipodes became the underdevelopment of the Banabans, particularly after the royalties from mining ran out and funds were mismanaged. In the late 1960s the Banabans took their case unsuccessfully to a UN Hearing and in 1970s sued the British government and BPC for breach of trust and failure to replant their home island with food bearing trees and other plants. Despite global publicity and a sympathetic public in the UK, they lost their case and after occupying the island violently in 1979 the Banabans accepted a settlement of A$10 million in 1984.In 2011, they are amongst some of the poorest communities in the Pacific as much of the revenue of the $10 million trust fund established after the British trial, has been siphoned off by a slew of local and foreign conmen posing as business investors. Some Banaban leaders haven’t always made the wisest choices and at times contributed actively to the mismanagement of funds and prevented better distribution of wealth.

Anthropologist Martin Silverman once described the two-island (Banaba-Rabi) theme of Banaban identity as “disconcerting” (Silverman, 1971) but there are more than two islands and indeed several nations implicated in the shaping of Banaban identity, culture and history. In my research I thus try to argue against the expectation of one homeland and one place in which race, culture, language, behaviour and technology are isomorphic, by expanding “history and culture,” and kainga or notions of home, to include several islands, nations, farming landscapes and indeed a couple of foreign cities as well. While some researchers both indigenous and non-indigenous may find multiple identifications “disconcerting”, in everyday Banaban practices, multiplicity is lived and negotiated.


Land, old or new, is crucial to a Banaban sense of belonging and location within a web of relationships. Land and genealogy are intimately tied and both established the code of conduct, protocol and system of rights and privileges that individuals followed. Land was owned at the individual level and was circulated amongst Banabans through marriage, as gifts, in compensation for a crime and so on. Land was constantly circulated through the hands of those who lived on the island and I remember my father describing how our family, which was mostly Tabiteuean by blood, acquired te aba ni kamaiu, or land of life giving, on Banaba. One of our ancestors, Takaia Teangatoa, was a skilled fisherman and through his sharing of knowledge and service during a period of drought acquired rights to land in Tabiang. The four main village districts on Banaba were replicated on Rabi and in the late 1940s my grandfather, Teaiwa, attempted to move from the village of his grandmother, Tabwewa, to Tabiang. The people in Tabiang asked “who are you?” in a most pointed way and so my grandfather sought help from his aunty, Tekaruantake, who knew her genealogy and the events associated with our land rights. It was through the memory of Takaia’s service that Teaiwa could then argue for the right to live in Tabiang and why we now have a small kainga just on the outskirts of the main settlement at Tabona. 

In his introduction to Culture and Sustainable Development in the Pacific, Antony Hooper writes:

Throughout the South Pacific, as in many other places, notions of ‘culture’ and ‘development’ are very much alive, surfacing again and again in a wide variety of contexts—political debate, the news media, sermons and policy reports, as well as in the endless discourses of ‘ordinary life’, everywhere from outlying villages to gatherings of urban élites (Hooper 2005, 1).

He writes about the fraught relationship between culture and development and the manner in which the former can be seen to hinder the latter or the latter destroy the former.  This has been just a short overview of one example of an indigenous Pacific group, displaced from their original homeland to a new island, actively creating new cultural vehicles and forms of expression to aid in their social and political development, while addressing the colonial and industrial legacies of the past.



Edited from the original by Daniel Pagan Murphy 

Katerina Teaiwa

Katerina is Pacific Studies Convener in the School of Culture, History and
Language, Head of the Pacific group of scholars in CHL, Head of the Equity
Project in CHL, and Head of the Pasifika Australia Outreach Program. She was
born and raised in Fiji and is of Banaban, I-Kiribati and African American descent.
Her research focuses on cultural policy and cultural industries in the independent
Pacific; cultural approaches to Pacific regionalism; the Pacific diaspora; and
phosphate mining history and culture on Banaba in Kiribati, Rabi Island, in Fiji
and historically in Australia and New Zealand through the work of the British
Phosphate Commissioners. You can read more about here research at the
ANU Reporter. She is a consultant with UNESCO on intercultural dialogue and
sustainable development, and Austraining International and ANU Enterprises doing cross cultural and development training for the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. She also has a background in contemporary Pacific dance
and was a founding member of the Oceania Dance Theatre at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

澳洲國立大學(Australian National University)文化、歷史與語言學院教授,吉里巴斯Banaba島原住民。

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