This tiny island of 21 square km is an independent country, the smallest in the world, lying some 25 miles south of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. Its nearest neighbour is 300kms to the East, is the island of Banaba which is part of the Republic of Kiribati and Sydney Australia lies some 4750+ km to the southwest with the Solomon Islands lying approximately halfway between Nauru and Australia.
Year round weather – The temperatures on the island reach as high as 90°F and heavy tropical rain in excess of 2050mm falls throughout the year.
Short History of Nauru
The history of Nauru is a sad one, as today the island, despite its tropical climate, is an island denuded of vegetation and unable to grow its own food resources as a result of the phosphate mining that has covered most of the interior of the island since 1900.
When the island was first discovered it was named ‘Pleasant Island’ as the people were friendly and the island was covered in lush vegetation. The islanders subsisted on coconut pandanus fruit and seafood. The men caught young ibija fish off the reefs surrounding the island and then raised them in Buada Lagoon in basic fish farms thus guaranteeing a ready supply of fish for the island’s inhabitants. There were 12 tribes on Nauru: the Deiboe, Eamwidamit, Eamwidara, Eamwit, Eamgum, Eano, Emeo, Eoraru, Irutsi, Iruwa, Iwi and Ranibok.
The first Europeans discovered the island in 1798 when the whaling ship Hunter sailed past, although no-one came ashore, the island was identified, charted and named by the British. By 1830 British whaling ships and traders anchored off the island and used the island as a replenishment centre for fresh water and food. Sadly this contact with Europeans led to the islanders bartering food for alcohol and firearms. Alcohol took its toll on the people and the introduction of firearms led to wars between the 12 island tribes, which up until then had lived a life of peaceful co-existence. These internal wars decimated the population and the estimated number of inhabitants had dropped from 1,400 to 900 by 1888, by which time the island had become a German protectorate.
Germany and Nauru
In 1888 Germany annexed the island and incorporated it into its New Guinea Protectorate. The Germans renamed the island Nawodo or Onawero and with their arrival the intertribal warfare ended, as guns were confiscated and alcohol banned. The Germans then instated a king to rule the island population.
Phosphate was discovered in 1900 and The Pacific Phosphate Company, under an agreement with Germany, began the exploitation of the island’s natural reserves. The first export shipment of phosphate was in 1907.
The First World War
In 1914 the island was captured by Australian troops and passed on into British hands with the signing of the Nauru Island Agreement in 1919. Thereafter a commission to manage the island’s phosphate mining was set up taking full control of all phosphate mining operations in the interior. The additional traffic that mining brought to the island brought with it the dreaded influenza and in 1921 an epidemic among the local islanders resulted in the deaths of 230 Nauruans.
The Second World War
With the Pacific war came the German, Japanese and Allied forces and much damage was inflicted on this tiny outpost. Phosphate mining areas and oil storage depots were shelled and many merchant ships were sunk off its shores.
The Japanese occupied Nauru in August of 1942 and the islanders suffered greatly under their new rulers. The Japanese airstrip was bombed in 1943 causing more damage and preventing food supplies from reaching the island. In 1943 the Japanese transferred 1,200 Nauruans to the Chuuk Islands where they were used as slave labour.
The Island finally surrendered to the Royal Australian Armed forces in September 1945 and the surviving 737 Nauruans on Chuuk Island were repatriated in 1946. From 1947 to 1966 Australia, New Zealand and Britain were the trustees of the island appointed by the United Nations with trusteeship administered by Australia.
Nauru and Self-Government
Nauru achieved self-determination in 1966 and in 1968 became an independent republic the world’s smallest country. In 1967 the Nauru people bought out the British Phosphate Commission and finally the people of Nauru had full control over their phosphate reserves and set up the Nauru Phosphate Corporation. With this move came the short lived affluence of the island with a Per Capita GDP that provided the highest living standards of the Third World.
Finally the islanders realised the effects of phosphate mining. It was clear that all the arable land of the previously lush interior of the island and all that it offered in the way of food had virtually disappeared. In 1993 the island took legal action against its pre-independence trustees, appealing to the International Court of Justice for compensation. An out-of-court settlement was agreed and Nauru received 2.5million Australian dollars annually for 20 years while New Zealand and the UK paid out a single settlement of $12million each.
However, by this time the phosphate deposits on the island were running out and by 2006 reserves were almost completely exhausted. Not only did this undermine the economy of the island but it has left the island with vast areas of such horrific environmental devastation that the island was no longer able to sustain itself and financial mismanagement by the government added to the woes of the island which today is virtually bankrupt.
Population: The native Nauruan population was devastated first by the influenza epidemic of 1921 and again during WWII by the Japanese, but by 1950 had recovered somewhat to number 1,500. Today the Nauruan population on the island stands at approximately 6,000 and a further number of 3,000 is made up of nationals from other Pacific islands as well as Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Australians and New Zealanders. There seems to be harmony between the ethnic groupings with each living its own particular Nauruan lifestyle.
The Language: It seems that Nauruan is a standalone language with little in common with other Austronesian languages but only now is work in hand to construct a Nauruan dictionary. While English is the lingua franca of the island all ethnic Nauruans speak English as well as their own unique tongue.
National Identity: To be considered a true Nauruan you must have been born to a Nauruan mother and registered under your mother’s clan. If your family should fail to register you in this way then your claim to being a Nauruan falls away and you have no claim to shares in phosphate revenues or land. If a child is born to a non-ethnic Nauruan mother but has a Nauruan father then the family must seek special permission for the child to be registered as a Nauruan. No others may lay claim to be a true Nauruan.
Agriculture and Living Space: As a result of the devastation caused by phosphate mining much of the interior of the island is a wasteland and still awaits full rehabilitation. Because of the lack of arable land on the island the 9,000 inhabitants are sustained by imported goods as there is little or no agriculture on the island. Living space is limited to the coastal areas and people live around the perimeter of the phosphate mines and along the narrow coastal strip.
Food and Drink: Cultivation of crops on the island is virtually impossible and there are no longer any local fruits or vegetables, most foodstuffs have to be imported. Fresh food is limited to fish although beef is available at odd intervals but even then is very limited. Nonetheless, there are a number of restaurants on the island with the most favoured being Chinese. The few rather down-at-heel hotels sometimes offer Western food but again not often. International brands of alcohol are available at the hotels, restaurants and supermarkets.
Nightlife on Nauru is provided by a single bar and the Menen Hotel’s restaurant plus a few independent Chinese restaurants.
Status and the elite: Flaunting of wealth is not the Nauruan way, so status symbols are limited to the ownership of motorbikes or trucks, and the size of one’s house. Those who are wealthy with off-shore bank accounts are only known by reputation and not by the flaunting of status.
Crime and Punishment: There is very little crime on the island most breaches of law and order are due to drunkenness which for the most part results in some drunken driving, but as there is not much in the way of traffic and there are no highways this never amounts to very much. There is no prison on the island so should a serious crime occur then an arrangement is made with Australia for the incarceration of the criminal.
Modern Culture: Children are precious in Nauru and as a result are, by western standards, spoilt. Children are never left uncared for and adoptions are common in cases when parents are no longer living or are unable to care for their offspring. Women rule the household and mothers are particularly venerated. It is an expectation of each clan that elders are respected and that children despite being spoilt honour both parents and elders.
Religion: Christianity is practised by most Nauruans today, but in the past the islanders believed in the creation of the island by two spirits manifest in two rocks on either side of Topside (the Central Plateau). Sadly, during mining operations on the island these rocks have disappeared. However, Buada lagoon is still a site of spiritual strength for some.