Programme transcript


Coming Home to BanabaImages and quotesTranscriptThe Making of …

“Coming Home to Banaba”

©The Open University 1998


This is the second of three boatloads of travellers who, in July, 1997, visited the remote South Pacific Island of Banaba.

(Secretary, Banaban Heritage Society)

It’s such a journey to get here you’re very physically tired, you’re emotionally completely drained. You get off that boat and you see this island and you see the wreckage out in Home Bay – Oh, and your heart just breaks.

(From Rabi, born Banaba, left during World War Two)

I rangi n nanokawaki bwa e aki raoiroi tarana.
I was deeply saddened by what I saw.

bwa e a rangi n uruaki – te uruaki ae e abwabwaki.
The island is really ruined.

Ai aron ti a roko ngkai – ti kakaei mwiin ara auti – akea;
We searched for remains of our houses – nothing!

ti kakaei ara mwanibwa n ran – akea;
We searched for our wells – nothing!

Ti kakaea riki tera … i buki … abara akeke ti tataneiai n nakonako iaona – akea.
We searched for our lands where we used to walk -nothing!

Ai bon akea te bwae ti ataia
We have come back here,

ngkai ti a roko iaon ikai.
There is nothing left of what we knew.


Banaba Island lies just south of the Equator. From 1900 to 1979 it was better known as Ocean Island: it’s four square miles provided the richest source of phosphate in the British Empire.

Ships arrived daily to carry away the precious raw material to Australia where it was turned into fertiliser. In the process, the island was devastated.

The only way to get to Banaba now is to charter a boat from Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. This crossing became 48 hours of choppy cruising with no land and no ships in sight.

Banaba was once the home of the Banaban people.

Most Banabans now live sixteen hundred miles to the south on a Fijian island called Rabi [pronounced Rambi] to which they were exiled by the British Government in 1945 to get them out of the way of the phosphate mining. This trip was a rare opportunity for Banabans from Rabi to visit their ancestral homeland and the few hundred of their people who have gone back there to live.

Others are returning to the island where they or their parents worked for the British Phosphate Commission and enjoyed the colonial way of life. These are people whose relationships with a tiny Pacific Island, and therefore with each other, have been shaped by huge global forces – by international commerce, by the politics of empire, and by world war.

All of them were in one way or another, coming home to Banaba. What brought Stacey King here is a strong sense of the injustice done to the Banaban people.


I’m the sixth generation of descendants of the miners who actually mined Banaba. And all of us Australians, we grew rich during those years in our wheatfields, in our production of sheep and wool, through Banaban phosphate.

(from Rabi, born Banaba, left during World War Two)

Aa kateaki auti aika a nangi ni bubura, aika a nangi n raoiroi,
Magnificent mansions have been built,

Iao ngai, au auti, e a tewenakoaki
but my house has been thrown away

– E a kaakaki, ao e a tiku – ti – ti te atibu.
– it’s been cast aside.

Ao antai ae nang – bwa te aomata are e anaa tanon abau, ni kamwengaraoia iai.
People have taken the phosphate off my land and made themselves comfortable.

Ngai naba, I tangira naba te mwengaraoi arei. Ao aio ngkanne aron au taratara ibukin abau.
I, too, would love to have that comfort.


And that’s the saddest part about it, you know, there’s such a moral issue in a physical sense. Forget the money issue – it’s a physical issue of actually putting that soil in Australia


The phosphate industry transformed the physical landscape of Banaba.

(worked on Banaba during 1960s)

… We used to have to come up here and thump the size out of it – all the hammer marks behind there – because it, the phosphate would get damp and stick. We used to come up with a big hammer and clamp on the right one, and swing that up there, like that there.

Phosphate production was clearing the jungle off – with the bulldozer usually, grabbing the soil out with a, a grab into trucks, or the phosphate into trucks. Bringing the trucks up to the crusher up there. Crushing it. Putting it into storage bins. From the storage bins onto conveyor belts into these, one of these driers or this particular one drier behind us.

There’s, there’s a burner for the diesel – you’d just have to unscrew that and clean the thing off. That would go in there like that.

Dropped out the other end, along cantle, along conveyor belts into the storage bin. Into storage bins to the ships – and then ships to Melbourne.


In theory it would be possible to remove the ruins left by the phosphate miners.

But the other great change to the landscape is almost certainly irreversible.

These coral pinnacles once provided an isolated perching place for seabirds. For millions of years they dropped their birdlime and filled in the spaces between the pinnacles with guano.

The island sunk beneath the ocean several times in geological history, and the guano was converted to phosphate of lime.

It took just 80 years to mine away the phosphate and reveal the pinnacles again.

Before mining began, the surface of the island was above the top of the pinnacles.

Just above here was the village of Buakonikai where Ken Sigrah’s clan lived.

(born and lives on Rabi, Te Aka clan spokesman)

As you can see now easily, we should talk in the village. But now we’re talking fifty metres under the village – you can see by the pinnacles: these pinnacles might be twenty, thirty metres under, underground – now we’re sitting at the very root of the pinnacles, well, which means that the village is gone.

So when the land goes and that’s it when the sacred land goes and all our waterholes gone, the spirit of peoples seem to be lost too.


Mining transformed the social landscape of Banaba too.

Before 1900 the Banabans had had very little contact with the rest of the world. But a sample of Banaban phosphate found its way to Australia where Albert Ellis was on the lookout for new sources of the highly profitable raw material.

He persuaded the Banabans to grant the Pacific Phosphate Company exclusive mining rights for 999 years. In return they would receive £50 per annum.

The flag followed trade, and in 1901 Banaba, with its 450 natives and four villages, was annexed to the British Colony of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands.

Banaban families leased their land to the miners and soon slipped into the role of a rentier class, using the royalties they earned from the mining, and buying the white man’s imported food. Gilbert and Ellice Islanders, Japanese and Chinese were brought in to do the work the Banabans didn’t want

It soon became clear to the Banabans that their island was being devastated.

In 1920 the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Britain bought out the phosphate company and formed the BPC, the British Phosphate Commission.

With every new demand for their lands the Banabans argued for better royalty payments and began to be seen by the BPC as a nuisance.

The British Government helped the BPC out by passing a Law permitting the compulsory purchase of Banaban land.

That was how Ken Sigrah’s ancestral village came to be destroyed.


After what I’ve seen I just feel sorry for what happened to my people – sorry for them, even for myself. These kind of feelings it’s pretty hard to reveal, you know. And this is where our ancestors were born. Even though we were born in Fiji our hearts and our spirits are still in this place. We’ll never forget Ocean Island. That’s it.


Life for the colonial community on Ocean Island was pleasant enough. Stacey King’s mother lived here in the 1930s as a young child, and remembers the Banabans well.

(lived on Banaba during 1930s)

We came with our parents – my brother and I – and we had the most wonderful time with them.

We were the only white children – all our playmates were Banabans. We had, we had such times playing with them, swimming with them.


Before the Second World War, Japan had been the third biggest buyer of Banaban phosphate.

(lived on Banaba 1965-75)(looking at a gravestone)

First name was Lindsey William Henry Cole Born on 25th February, 1912 Died in September, 1943, during the Japanese Occupation of Ocean Island.

He was one of the three men, three European men that died at the hands of the Japanese.


In 1941, the Japanese invaded Banaba to guarantee its phosphate supplies. The Banabans were deported to labour camps on other islands. One third of the Banaban people died.

Makin Corrie’s father was beheaded here on Banaba. She was made to watch.


It’s still in my mind, I can’t forget it.

So when I first came, when I first saw Banaba and it came to my mind – I saw my father.

Everytime when I talk about this island and my family, I have to cry.


After liberation, the Royal Navy gathered the dispersed Banabans in Tarawa.

But instead of going home to Ocean Island, the Banabans found themselves shipped off to exile on the island of Rabi in Fiji, two thousand kilometres away.


Rabi was bought for them with their own phosphate money during World War Two, at the start of World War Two. And the Banabans were all shipped off there because the excuse was: the Japanese had destroyed all the buildings – there was no place for Banabans back here.

So that, you can say that the Japanese actually played into the British Government’s hands by getting rid of the ‘Banaba problem’, as they were known then.


Eng, ana taeka te tua nakoira. Ana ota ae ti naki kaokaki nako Banaba bwa ti na kaokaki – bwa ti na uotaki nako abara are ti kabooa


They were told by the Government that they will be sent to Rabi instead of Banaba.


And what did people think?


Ao tera aia kantaninga aomata ake a tuangaki arei? Kam kukurei n nako ke kam aki?


Ao ngke ti aki kukurei, ti na kangaa? Ao are e a roko bwanaan te tua ni matoatoa nakoira bwa ti na nako,


She said that whether they like it or not to come back to Banaba – they didn’t have any say because the Government have got the power,


ao bon nanora bwa ti aki kan nako.


and the Government send them there, but truly they didn’t want to go to Rabi they wanted to come back.


The Banabans arrived on Rabi in December, 1945, still weak from their wartime ordeal.

It was the middle of the hurricane season.


Ti roko i Rabi, ara auti te ooning. Anne man te tautaeka. Ara auti te ooning.
When we arrived in Rabi, the Government gave us tents for houses.

Ti maeka ma te naani kao. Ti maeka ma te kao ao ti bwauna
We lived with the cows and we were rationed

ao kanga e aki naba tau bwaunara nakoira.
but our rations were not enough.

Are imwain nakora, ëKam na nako; ami auti aa tauraoi; kam mwengaraoi’, ao ngke ti a roko,
They said ‘Your houses are ready – you will be comfortable’,

ti maeka iaan te ooning ao raora ni maeka te naani kao.
but when we got there, we lived under an awning.


The rations lasted for only two months. Forty of the oldest Banabans died.

Back on Banaba, the post-war colonial community picked up life where it had been interrupted in 1941.


We arrived here thinking it was going to be very primitive and it wasn’t – it was just wonderful right from the start.


When did Dad build this wall, Mum?


Only about the first term – in our first term, yes. … No, no, no.

No, no. … Oh look.


It must be somebody’s house.


Yes, it is someone else’s house now.


The children grew up here. I had another third son that was born here in 1967, Scott; and, all in all, they were the most ten wonderful years of my life.


I wonder where the owners are, the people are – who live here.


It was a carefree life. There was no television so we really had to make our own fun and entertainment.

(lived on Banaba 1960s)

It’s very emotional. I think we’re coming to terms that perhaps the buildings really aren’t the heart and soul of the island.

(lived on Banaba 1960s)

It’s the magic of the atmosphere isn’t it?


And the sea and the reef and the places that we had so much time playing together as kids, haven’t changed.


No – our houses aren’t there and that was very sad – but we remember everything vividly. The only thing that’s different is that it’s dilapidated, and that’s it.


The bus used to come along here and drop us off. You know, I used to come here after school and play the piano – it was the only piano on the island. So I used to come up here and play the piano upstairs and go for my swim, come back, catch the bus.


I only played it once and that was when I was at boarding school when Mum and Dad had paid for a whole year of piano lessons – I hated it.


Did you?


And then they wanted to see the finished product and I played them ‘Chopsticks’. (LAUGHTER) And then ten minutes after that they left.


Very good.


Life was good. My wife and I thought life was very good: tropical life, plenty of social life, yeah, it’s good, good life. – we thoroughly enjoyed it.


But among these people living on Banaba there were hardly any Banabans.


We were not aware of a great Banaban presence here when we were here. We were mainly aware of just being the Gilbert & Ellice Islanders, as they were called in those days, yes.


I guess by the end of the time that I was here we, I started to be conscious of what was happening – that the island was being mined away and, and where were the people?


Banaba, Banabans I don’t remember hearing a lot about as a child, and their plight. I’ve had a lot of thoughts about what has happened, and what the BPC have actually done with, in hindsight, very little consideration for the future. And I guess it gets back to greed, which is the downfall of so many things in the world.


We were mining somebody else’s land basically – I was aware of that. But we weren’t aware of the actual plight they were in until we got took back to Melbourne and started to read up about them – and then we realised how bad they’d been done by.


It was a little bit like, I suppose, mining everywhere all over the world people just didn’t think of the consequences.


I feel very sorry for them. (He weeps)


In 1975 the Banabans sued the BPC and the British Government for compensation for the loss of their island.

The case turned into the longest and most expensive Civil action of its day. The Court even visited Banaba.

The Judge agreed that over the years, the British Government had failed in the moral duty it owed the Banabans, and that the Banabans had had a raw deal. But he was powerless to impose any remedy.

He found the BPC had failed to keep a promise made in 1913 to replant the Banaban’s land with food- bearing trees. He ordered that moderate compensation be paid, but he would not specify an amount.

After the court case, the British Government offered the Banabans £10million in final settlement of their claims. The offer was eventually accepted and the money invested.

In 1979, the phosphate reserves were exhausted. The mining stopped and so did the royalties paid to the Banabans. Their main source of income since then has been the interest earned on their £10 million investment.

Since 1979 about 400 Banabans have moved back to live on Banaba. The population of the island now is about the same as it was in 1900.

These are the lucky few, chosen from among the many who wished to return.

They have few material possessions.

They live like squatters in the derelict and asbestos-ridden accommodation left by the BPC.

Most employment is provided by maintenance work paid for by the Council of Leaders that administers Rabi.


The same Council of Leaders administers the island here. Every month twelve thousand dollars is sent here for the Administration, here. That twelve thousand dollars is actually, it’s not given to the island just to support them – they earn it here, they have to work for their wages.

The biggest fears the Banaban has that if he doesn’t keep a presence here on Banaba that someone else will walk in.

(Clan Elder and Member of Rabi Council of Leaders)

Kanakomaiakakin te mwane nako ikai, nakoia kaain – ti nangi ni kawakina Banaba ibukin maeuiia ara koraki
We send money here, to support Banaba

aika a mena ikai, bwa akea kanaia ae e kona n reke.
to provide a living for our kinfolk here.

Bwa aon te aba – e mate ngkana tain te riringa ae e korakora. Akea teuana te bwai ae e kona n riki, ao aaki kona n amarake man te aba.
Nothing cultivated can grow or survive and the people can’t live off the land.

Ma ngaia are te mwane are e nako mai ikoa, ibukin te cargo man te titoa, ao a kammakuraki iai –
So the money we send here is for the goods in the shop –

a kamakuraki n reke booia iai ao a kabooi kanaia man te titoa.
they work for pay and that enables them to buy their food from the shop.


The imported food in the shop is the mainstay of life on Banaba, alongside the fish caught locally. There is little land fit for cultivation: only the thin coastal strip of the island remains un-mined. Water supply is a problem too. But since the last drought broke, a few crops have been grown

(moved to Banaba 1984)

We do call it a tapioca in our language.


Does that also need a lot of water?


Yes, it does. And the tallest one is the Banana.


Life on Banaba is easy, ‘cos the, the main point of the business of life is the fishing grounds. Fishing grounds are very easy, they surrounding the island, surround the island, fishing ground surrounding the island you caught many fish – there’s no problem with fishing. Here, your only problem is water.


Water supply has always been a problem on Banaba. There are frequent droughts and no surface water. Before 1900 the only sources of water during a drought were the narrow holy caves which only the women were allowed to enter.

The memory of those hard times is preserved in dance.

When it does rain, the land quickly turns deceptively green. But much rain water is wasted. There isn’t enough money to pay for repairs. The BPC shipped water here from Australia. Nowadays, the storage tanks they left are seldom more than half full and the distribution of water depends on one old tanker.


All we need is water, stability of water. You can see what was done here in eighty years of colonial rule – the technology here was the finest technology in the world so now let’s bring that technology back and let’s do something positive. Let’s use this as a showplace for the rest of the world. Let’s show the world what can be done to rehabilitate a place.


One partner in any rehabilitation would be the Republic of Kiribati of which Banaba is a part.

The Kiribati Government maintains a presence on the island.

It provides the school with equipment and staff, but children wanting secondary education have to leave Banaba. Once educated though, there is precious little for them to do on the island.

With all the difficulties of life here, what makes people want to return to Banaba?


Ma moan te aomata aika a nangi kan nako mai nako ikai, bon te koraki ake a ikawai ikai.
The people who were brought up here really wanted to return to Banaba.

Ao n te roro ae e rikirake aio, ngke aa manga ongo raoi rongorongon Banaba bwa bon abaia,
Then today’s generation found out the truth – that Banaba belongs to them,

ao te aba ae a taku bwa e reke kaubwaia iai are aa kona ni kabooi abaia iai akee i Rabi,
it’s the land that provided the wealth that pays for life on Rabi.

Ngaia ae te roro aio, e rangi ni kan nako mai ikoa naba n noora raoi naba te aba aio, n ataia bwa bon abaia.
Now this generation also wishes to come here and to know this island as their own.


If it’s possible to rehabilitate Banaba, rehabilitate Banaba and make it suitable for settlement again – definitely we’ll come back.

It’s awkward to teach our, our Banaban custom on a different land – that’s Fiji.

But I think it best that we come back and we teach our children on our own land, our custom – because this is where our ancestors were born.


But Banaba produces nothing for export nowadays and has no way of attracting foreign investment.

So rehabilitation will depend crucially on aid from abroad.


Banabans have been pushed into the modern world – we cannot walk away and leave them. We must give them technical advice, assistance, and that’s where the money would come through. The money: rehabilitation programmes, projects, development projects, infrastructure, desalination plants.


But there are precious few signs of the large-scale aid needed if dreams of a mass return to the island are to become reality.

The history of Banaba is in many ways typical of the Pacific Islands. It is a story of encounters between the old world, and the new, between the and the modern.

Each successive historical wave of visitors to Banaba has brought new problems for some, new opportunities for others, and new inter-relationships for all.

And running alongside the story of injustice etched in the very landscape of Banaba, is the romantic vision of the South Sea Island.


They can mine this place, they can do whatever they want to do to it, they can run a bulldozer through it all it’s still Banaba.

Well, Buakonikai, yesterday – sitting on that rock above the place is just magic.

And the breeze looking out over the sea and the beach at Uma – that’s magic.

The whole place for me is magic.


It’s just another Pacific island, isn’t it?


No, no, it’s not – and you try and argue that with any of these people that are here today, you know – that have come here on this trip.

You wait until you try and leave this place – that’s when it hits you.


Ngke arona bwa ko anganaki te rinerine,
If you were given the choice,

ao e ngaa nnem ae ko tangiria – Rabi ke Banaba?
Where would you prefer to be – Rabi or Banaba?


I bon tangira Banaba.


She want to stay here. Given a choice like that, she prefer to stay here – die and buried here. Ibukin tera?


Bukina bwa I boni bungiaki iaona.


Because she was born on this island

CAPTION: Teburerai died and was buried in Tarawa on her return journey from Banaba. This programme is dedicated to her memory.