Essay: Mandy Treaguson Banaba

The Flight of the Frigate Bird

The end of the world has already happened in Banaba. But we should consider how it was before, in order to understand what has been lost.

Banaba is an island in the western Pacific. It is six square kilometres, raised from the ocean, isolated. Nauru is 300 kilometres away, its nearest neighbour. Banaban peoples lived on the island for at least two millennia, having come from the south west. Because of its isolation, there are few different plants, animals or birds. The people ate tree crops – coconut, mango, almond and pandanus – together with fish, seafoods and seaweeds. There are no rivers on the island. Water came from underground caves in the limestone and was gathered in coconut shells and brought to the surface to be used sparingly. Rainfall is unpredictable, and sometimes there was drought. Women owned certain caves, and could usually find water, though sometimes severe drought caused deaths. The land is te aba, and the law was based upon it. Individuals owned portions of it, women and children as well as men. The people lived on the land in four villages, and the winds blew off the sea.

Eitei, frigate birds, were caught and tamed in an elaborate process undertaken only by men. Bringing down a frigate bird on the wing without hurting it requires great skill. Keeping a tethered frigate bird while it was becoming tame took several weeks and required feeding it a continual supply of small fish. When a village ran out of tamed birds they requested some from another village in order to lure others in. The birds were taken ceremonially, the men carrying and accompanying them oiled and garlanded with flowers. Speeches and feasting followed their arrival and the attachment of birds to their new perches. Nauruans also tamed frigate birds, and the people of both islands sent them back and forth, originally carrying fish hooks, and later with literacy, written notes: a frigate bird could take a message from Banaba to Nauru in four to six hours. They could also be trained to fish.

Life was not easy on Banaba, but there was the sea and the land and dancing in movements taken from the birds.

Throughout the nineteenth century Banabans had increasing contact with outsiders beyond their traditional links with Nauru and the islands of Kiribati. Ships sometimes called, including one named the Ocean. Its captain renamed the island after the ship and left. This name entered the charts and Europeans called the land Ocean Island, but the island maintained its sovereignty.

This changed on 3 May 1900, when Albert Ellis came to the island from Sydney to prospect for phosphate rock. Without any irony, Ellis wrote of his arrival that ‘a scene of impressive pristine beauty rapidly spread out before us’. Unfortunately, the unblemished view was to be short lived. Everywhere he dug, Ellis found phosphate rock. There was typical colonial chicanery in extracting permission to begin mining, despite Ellis claiming that ‘There was no difficulty in the matter, as [the islanders] were eager to come into closer touch with civilization’. The ‘agreement’ was to last for 999 years, and it promised to pay the ‘said natives at a rate of fifty pounds (£50) per annum or trade to that value at prices current in the Gilbert Group, payable half-yearly’. The Gilberts are now known as Kiribati. The agreement did not permit the removal of cultivated crops of fruit trees, but did allow unlimited access to build infrastructure, including jetties and tram lines. Finally, it allowed the company to import labour to work the mining operation. The Banabans can have had little idea of what was to come. Once the destruction of their island was fully under way, Banaban resistance was ongoing.

The Company was initially a British one, later run by commissioners from the UK, Australia and New Zealand. This is in part an Australian story, about how agriculture was transformed and expanded, bringing national prosperity and increasing food production during the twentieth century. That’s not what was happening on Banaba though. The minimal royalties being paid to the Banabans were going into a fund they had no access to, and at every expansion of the mining area they lost more of their precious trees. They also had to contend with large numbers of foreign labourers and company staff.

During the next four decades, more and more of the island’s soil was removed, and with it the trees. The company pushed for ever-expanding operations, and the Banabans, now fully aware that what was at stake was life on the island, resisted. This deadlock was broken when in 1928 the British Government approved compulsory acquisition of land, including that on which villages stood. As the new destruction began, Banaban women, who had been most resistant to mining, clung to their trees. The events of WWII brought things to a head. During the Japanese occupation many Banabans were removed to camps on other islands, while hundreds of the remaining men were massacred after the Japanese surrender. When the war ended, the British Government was able to convince the remaining Banabans that life was not possible on their island at that time. Instead, they were offered an island in the British colony of Fiji.

The island of Rabi has its own colonial story of exchange and dispossession, characterised by the shenanigans of men with capital. When over a thousand Banabans arrived in 1945 they experienced their new island as cataclysmic change. Rabi has been described as ‘nine times as large, six times as high, and five times as wet’, as Banaba and it is over 2000 kilometres distant. Almost all the potential food sources were different, right down to the varieties of fish, including ones that looked familiar but were actually poisonous. There were supplies enough for a few weeks, but previously unknown crops had to be planted immediately for survival by people who had no knowledge of them. Eventually they made a new life, establishing four villages named for those they had left on Banaba. Frigate birds could not be kept in the different conditions of Rabi, but the birds lived on in the choreography of their dances.

This tale of the relocation of climate refugees has been hailed by scholars such as John Connell and Gil Marvel P. Tabucanon, Julia B. Edwards, and Jane McAdam as an example of what might be done when people are forced to leave places that become uninhabitable, consultation being named as a key feature. In many ways, this story is one of success, but it also involves deep loss, especially because cultural identity is inherently part of profound intimacy with land and sea. Banabans sought compensation and restoration of their island in an infamous case brought against the British Government and the Company in the early 1970s, but while their claims were validated, very little flowed from this other than some monies which ended up in the hands of the new Kiribati government. Certainly there was no land restoration, making return almost impossible, though several hundred did return and still live marginally on a ruined island.

Katerina Teaiwa, Project Banaba 2017 (installation view). Photo: Zan Wimberley. Used with permission.

What would spatial justice look like now in the Banaban case? How can 90 per cent of an island’s soil, including the bones of the ancestors, ever be returned, restored and replanted? The nigh impossibility of this ever happening is an ongoing grief to Banabans. I first learnt of Banaba from my friend and colleague, the late Teresia Teaiwa, who was of Banaban descent. Images you see here are from her sister Katerina Teaiwa’s art installation, Project Banaba, which features film, archival and contemporary images, and textile works to depict this history of dispossession, loss and anguish.

Like their precious and sacred frigate bird, the Banaban people ‘flew’ to another island, and live, like the bird of their imaginings, between islands: they are ocean peoples, who are now spread not only between Banaba and Rabi, but right across the globe through the remains of their ancestors, spread through fertilizers on farms and in gardens.

The story of abuse and exploitation by a British firm of a small group of people from a little-known Pacific island may seem like an unremarkable one in the history of the colonial project, but it exemplifies in microcosm the fast-approaching condition of the whole world. To quote the sticker on my office door, there is no planet B. The Banabans were moved to Rabi, but for us, there is no other island. And while everyone will ultimately suffer from this, for a while at least, the impact of the destruction of our planet falls most heavily on those with the least power. The end of the world has already happened on Banaba. If we don’t act now, it is not long for the rest of us.

Katerina Teaiwa, Project Banaba 2017 (installation view). Photo: Zan Wimberley. Used with permission.

This paper was delivered as part of the Provocation #3 symposium, The End of The World Has Already Happened, on 17 September 2021. See the full program of the symposium, hosted by the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide.

Works Cited

John Connell and Gil Marvel Tabucanon, ‘From Banaba to Rabi: A Pacific model for resettlement?’ Global Implications of Development, Disasters and Climate Change : Responses to Displacement from Asia Pacific, edited by Susanna Price and Jane Singer, (New York, Routledge, 2015). 91-107.

Julia B. Edwards, ‘Phosphate mining and the relocation of the Banabans to northern Fiji in 1945: Lessons for climate change-forced displacement,’ Journal de la Société des Océanistes (2014), 121-136.

Albert F. Ellis, Ocean Island and Nauru: Their Story (Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1936).

Wolfgang Kempf and Elfieda Hermann, ‘Reconfigurations of Place and Identity: Positionings, Performances and Politics of Relocated Banabans in Fiji,’ Oceania Vol. 75. No. 4 (2005), 268-386.

Barrie Macdonald, Cinderellas of Empire: Towards a History of Kiribati and Tuvalu (Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1982).

Barrie Macdonald, ‘Grimble of the Gilbert Islands: Myth and Man,’ More Pacific Island Portraits, Ed. Deryck Scarr (Australian National University Press Canberra 1978)

Jane McAdam, ‘Historical Cross-Border Relocations in the Pacific: Lessons for Planned Relocations in the Context of Climate Change,’ The Journal of Pacific History, Vol 49 no.3 (2014), 301-327.

H.S. & H.E. Maude, The Book of Banaba: From the Maude and Grimble Papers; and Published Works (University of the South Pacific, Suva, 1994).

HS Maude and HE Maude, ‘The Social Organization of Banaba or Ocean Island, Central Pacific,’ The Journal of the Polynesian Society Vol. 41 No. 4 (1932) 2620301. 288-92

Katerina Martina Teaiwa, Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 2015).

Katerina Teaiwa, ‘Project Banaba,’ Tautai: Guiding Pacific Arts, Accessed 28 July, 2019.

Karoro Tekenimatang, ‘Te Kabwane Eitei – Catching a Frigate Bird,’ One and a Half Pacific Islands: Stories the Banaban People Tell of Themselves, edited by Jennifer Shennan and Makin Corrie Tekenimatang, (Wellington, Victoria University Press, 2005). 49-52.

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Published November 9, 2021
Part of Provocations: Selected proceedings from the Provocations Symposium hosted by the J.M Coetzee Centre at the University of Adelaide. All Provocations essays →
Mandy Treagus

Mandy Treagus is of Welsh, Scottish and Cornish descent, and lives on the unceded...

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