• Short Summary

    When the missionaries of commerce discovered the South Pacific, and went there to do well, they created some situations that would live on long after the traders and their companies were dead.

  • Description

    When the missionaries of commerce discovered the South Pacific, and went there to do well, they created some situations that would live on long after the traders and their companies were dead.

    There was the South Pacific Bubble; there was blackbirding; there was sugar and copra. And there was also phosphate. There was phosphate on a tiny speck of land its people called Banaba, just south of the Equator, in the central Pacific.

    The British renamed it Ocean Island and set about mining it. The echoes of those original mining contracts are being heard now, in London, in the High Court, where the people of Ocean Island, the Banabans, are asking that the Court put right what they see as an age-old injustice.

    From the Pacific, Jim Downes reports:
    "You have been wronged grievously wronged over many, many years. And one person after another has let you down. I will tell your story to the world, I will tell your story to the judge in London. And let us hope that next time that I am standing here, let us hope there will be a next time, we shall have won."
    Three years ago, the 2 1/2-thousand Banaban people of the Centre Pacific, the owners of Ocean Island, sent off their legal crusader to right an old wrong.

    What they want is simple enough: They want their homeland back, and they want compensation for what they see as three-quarters of a century of exploitation.

    British law, they believe, brought their problem. British law should therefore resolve it, and half the world away from Banaba Island, they're asking for British justice.

    Through the cold streets or Springtime London, the Banaban witnesses make their daily walk to the court; chafed by collar and tie, burdened by suit and overcoat, bewildered by lack of sun and sea.

    "By an indenture dated 31st. December 1902, and made between his late Majesty King Edward the Seventh of the one part, and the Pacific Phosphate Company Limited, his late Majesty granted the company's concession for return of ninety eight years from the First on January, 1902, to remove phosphates from Ocean Island on payment of a royalty of sixpence a ton in respect of all phosphates so removed. Clause Five provided that the company would duly respect the persons and rights of the inhabitants of Ocean Island."
    With the arrogance of power, Britain and Germany divided the Pacific between them late in the nineteenth century. In London and Berlin, lines were drawn on maps, and empires were extended. but neither power wanted Banaba.

    Nauru to the west, was to be German.

    The Gilbert and Ellice Islands, to the east, British. Apart from changing the name, from Banaba, which its people called it, to Ocean Island, the great powers weren't interested.

    Then came to Banaba a man with rocks on his mind.

    Sir Albert Ellis - he started the phosphate business in the Pacific, and they made his a Knight for it. But he wasn't a Knight when the first came here. He was a young man, a very bright young man of about twenty. And about this time of year, seventy -- five years ago, he came ashore here in a ship's boat on to the coral beach down there, climbed up over the rocks, and came to the site of a village here.

    Now young Ellis had two things, he had knowledge that this island was a mass of phosphate, and he had in his pocket a yet unsigned contract which could give him and his masters in London, the right to mine that phosphate. So he found a couple of people here that he felt were chiefs or kings, and he asked them to sign the contract. Now of course, they didn't know what mining was nor phosphate, nor contracts nor anything else, but here was a very personable and presumably pleasant young Englishman, with a piece of paper that he could be made happy by their signatures. So with natural Pacific islands courtesy, they signed. And what they signed, was a contract that gave Ellis and his company the night to mine all the phosphate they wanted from this island for the payment of fifty English pounds a year. The term of the contract was to be 999 years.

    Suddenly, the attitude to Banaba changed: Here was money to be made, and others must be warned off, before the validity of Ellis's contract could be questioned. The British sent a gun boat, and with customary disregard for the natives, they planted the Jack on an island beach, and took possession in the name of Her Britannic Majesty. With the Pacific Islands Company as silent partner.

    So began the mining of phosphate on Ocean Island. Between then and now, to make the grass grow green in Australia and New Zealand, his island would be destroyed.

    The machines would eat up the island in half ton bites, chew it to powder, and spit in into the holds of ships.

    This dirty, brown phosphate rock would become, as super-phosphate, the philosopher's stone of Australian farming, and from it would come the golden grain and the golden fleece.

    There was a set-back, called World War Two. But that became an opportunity to clear the island of its natives. The Japanese did that, and killed many of them in the process. When the war was over the British re-settled the surviving Banabans on an island in the Pacific, and Banaba, Ocean Island, was left clear for mining.

    Amongst the re -- settled people, legends began to transform the homeland into a paradise: The Fijis were too cold, Banaba was always warm.

    The new island was mountainous. Banaba was flat, and old legs could walk it without tiring.

    Fiction became fact, and the urge to return to the homeland became a primitive political force.

    Parallel to their legal challenge to the British, the Banabans made plans to re-settle their island. Early this year in their own little ship, the Ai Sokula, their pioneer party of sixty set out for a homeland few of them had ever seen, where, legend said, life was good, the climate was kind; there was fish and food in plenty.

    Ocean island, seventy-five years ago before they started mining, must have been a very beautiful place. Not an extraordinarily fertile island but fertile enough to grow the tree of life, the coconut: mangoes, pawpaws grow flowers, and trees, things to eat. And of course this is how the island has gone down in the folk lore of Rambi sixteen hundred miles away in the Fijis, where the people from here now live. And those who are coming back here, expect to come back to an island that's like this. But of course it isn't. What they're coming back to is an Ocean Island that looks like this.

    Ocean Island is three miles long, two and a half miles wide. From it, there has been taken 15-million tons of phosphate. The phosphate is the flesh around the coral bones of the island, and when it's mined, only pinnacles of coral are left - monoliths, carved in the nightmares of some demented sculptor.

    A demonic place, appalling by day, menacing by night, a science-fiction landscape, populated by skeletal machinery. Ocean Island shows the ultimate in environmental destruction.

    This is the island paradise the Banabans have come back to.

    Tekose Rotan, a Banaban leader, stands on the land of his family.

    I haven't been to the Moon, but the way they explain it, I think Ocean Island looks like the moon.

    The first feeling is that I'm back on my own land, and this is something that one is proud of. You - you own something. But to look at the state of Ocean Island at the moment, it just makes you cry, you know, you're coming back to what? nothing but pinnacles all over the place. And, whether you can survive on the situation or not; but as something we own, we're very proud of. Even if nothing left on Ocean Island but pinnacles, we still want it.

    The British Phosphate Commissioners, a consortium of the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Britain, are mining Ocean Island phosphate at 600-thousand tons a year. At that rate, the island will be mined out in September, 1978.

    The miners, imported mostly from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, will go home then, as will the supervisors, mostly Australians.

    Jack Topping, who says he's dug most of the holes on Ocean Island in the last twenty years, will go home to Queensland, where he has shares in a gold-mine.

    And the Banabans, the meek Banabans, will inherit this useless earth.

    Our history's a very, a very sad one. And we've been exploited through the period up till, you know last year and even this year. The land owners were not given their - their fair share of the phosphate.

    Fifteen percent, has been the Banabans' share: Fifteen percent of the phosphate royalties agreed upon between the Phosphate Commissioners and the British Government. The other eighty-five percent is the British Lion's share: It's been spent on the administration of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, to which Ocean Island was added, without reference to its people, as soon as the phosphate was found.

    Not un-naturally, the Banabans demand independence now, before the phosphate is gone, so that for the last couple of years of mining, all the royalties will be theirs. That's more than 80-million dollars. but the issue of independence is separate from the London court action.

    In court, the Banabans are seeking an accounting of all the past royalties which have been used to maintain the Gilbert and Ellice Colony, plus compensation for promises made and allegedly broken that this land would be restored and food-growing trees planted as mining moved on.

    The only replanting visible, is an occasional coconut palm, stunted and inaccessible. Most of the old trees have fallen to the bulldozers.

    Maybe we have ill-feelings against those people who make the laws and who make the rules, but not say against the Australian farmers or the New Zealand farmers who are ignorant of what is going on. But the people who are in control of the things, I think yes, we do felt that they should straighten out what the - what the wrongs they have done to our people. And as I said also, not that we are prepared not to look back, but to look forward provided they give us now what is left of Ocean Island, we are prepared to forget the past.

    Do you think when the miners have gone, there'll be any of the Island left at all that your people can live on?
    Yes. There is about a hundred acres of unleased land on Ocean at the moment, and part of its is where the new settlers are settling down. And, so we still have unmined land there for settlement.

    It is good, the old man says, to work the soil of the homeland. But the Banabans have shown little enthusiasm to work the far more fertile soil of their adopted island, Rambi. There, they prefer to buy their needs at a trade store. And it's going to be a long time here, on Banaba before even a few people can be self supporting.

    The coconuts are planted in the old way, to point to the rising sun. That's for fertility. And the trees may need all the magic they can get for it seems nature has been affronted and won't be helping very much.

    If he looks after the pawpaw tree and if the right weather comes, and that means rain he'll start getting fruit off this in six or seven months. This one will take longer. In this case the coconut, six or seven years. Again, if the rain comes.

    One extraordinary effect of mining on this Island has been to change the climate of the Island. What happens is that, day after day here, at the time of year when rain should come, the clouds come across the sea towards Ocean Island, Banaba, they get over the Island and they part. The water falls into the sea on this side, into the sea on this side, and no rain falls on the Island. The reason? the theory is this: This Island has been left by phosphate mining so bare that it provides a constant up-draft of warm air; the clouds striking this warm air are split apart by it. The rain is wasted, and the Island's dry. Mining has changed the climate of this Island.

    First, the miners doze down the trees - this area was once the Island's most productive plantation. Then they rip off the top soil, and when the blade strikes phosphate, the mining starts. In a week, this area will be devastated.

    Now in the direct path of the miners, the Island golf course. Here, too, only coral pinnacles will be left.

    Life's been good, on Ocean Island, for the whites who've worked there. It's had to be made good. The place is constantly hot, generally dry, and the isolation is something you can feel.

    It's been a good life, too, for the families from the Gilbert and Ellice Colony. They make up the labour force, and when they're not working, they're fishing the blue depths off the reef, catching the enormous tuna that feed a hundred feet down.

    Next year, the Gilbert end Ellice Colony will split up, the richer Ellices going off to independence. The Banabans want their independence before them. They fear that their land rights, what remain of them, granted by the British, might not survive a Gilbertese take-over.

    Once, the British ruled their western Pacific colony from this building. It was Government House, on Ocean Island, and had its place in the grand design of empire. The Japanese ended that, when they came calling in aeroplanes one morning in 1942.

    After the war, the administration was re-established or Tarawa, to the east. Now, the pawpaws grow in the reception hall.

    Both the British administration and the emerging local politicians of the Gilbert Islands want to keep Banaba under their wings. So the Banabans have asked the United Nations to support their independence claim. They are different, they say, from the Gilbertese. They didn't ask to be included in the colony, nor were they wanted until their phosphate was found. And after that, Pax Britannica, to the Banabans, meant only a licence for exploitation.

    Five rolling days out of Fiji, the Banaban ship Ai Sokula is back at Ocean Island. Aboard, the second contingent of re-settlers from Rambi Island, and a party of entertainers to re-assure the original settlement group that they've not been forgotten.

    As the settlers come ashore, yet another 15-thousand tons of their island is being loaded on to a phosphate ship.

    The Banaban's right to re-occupy their island is undisputed. But their plans for what to do with it are indefinite, even confused.

    Stripped of its phosphate, it is a poor, water-short island, with no potential to be anything. Its immeasurable value is to its people, an emotional value almost unknown in western minds which see land as a commodity to be bought and sold.

    We are prepared not to look back, but to look forward, provided they give us now what is left of Ocean Island, we are prepared to forget the past. Whether you can survive on the situation or not, it's something we own, we're very proud of, even if nothing left on Ocean island but pinnacles, we still want it.

    Because legal proceedings are before a British court, the British Phosphate Commissioners, headquartered in Melbourne, have declined to discuss the Commissioners' role in the story of Ocean Island.

    That report was prepared by Jim Downes. We'll be back at the same time next week. Till then, from Four Corners, goodnight.

  • Tags

  • Data

    Film ID:
    VLVADM47I5YRS4NWDPQKE6YA3R2YE
    Media URN:
    VLVADM47I5YRS4NWDPQKE6YA3R2YE
    Group:
    Reuters - Source to be Verified
    Archive:
    Reuters
    Issue Date:
    01/01/1975
    Sound:
    Unknown
    HD Format:
    Available on request
    Stock:
    Colour
    Duration:
    00:21:57:00
    Time in/Out:
    /
    Canister:
    N/A

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