Aspects of History
Ocean Island is a tiny
dot, two miles long, in the middle of the Pacific. Until 1900, a few
thousand Banabans lived there, a peaceful community following their
fishing, their tilling and their pagan rites under the tropic sun.
Then it was discovered that they were sitting on the richest deposits
of phosphate in the world. Now, there are just a few barren coral
pinnacles of mined-out wasteland.
By the end of the nineteenth
century the growth of the population in the British Empire demanded larger
and cheaper food supplies, and the expanding colonial agriculture needed
fertilisers. The hunt was on to discover new sources of phosphate, Islands
throughout the Pacific were being combed for this valuable fertiliser. Where
the islands were uninhabited the phosphate deposit was simply removed. Where
the islands were inhabited the natives bartered, on terms favourable to the
prospectors. There were some islands whose inhabitants were too fierce to
allow prospectors to set foot there.
Amongst the many phosphate
hunters was a British Melbourne-based firm run by a man named John Arundel.
He was convinced that there must be, from his knowledge of geology and from
working copra in the Gilberts and guano in the Line Islands since the 1870s,
large deposits of phosphate somewhere on these islands. He formed his own
company, The Pacific Islands Company, in 1890, but it was not really
successful either in coconuts or phosphate. The firm could only afford one
small ship The Archer and their total objective was no more than
10,000 tons of phosphate per annum. In the late 1890s, however, even this
modest tonnage was impossible for them to attain, as each small phosphate
find was quickly mined out. To avoid going out of business altogether,
Arundel decided to amalgamate his company with another and to diversify
their interests to include pearl-shell.
The chairman of the new company
was Lord Stanmore, retired from his former office of High Commissioner of
the Western Pacific, Lord Stanmore was then seventy-one, much experienced in
business, diplomacy and colonial affairs. As Sir Arthur Gordon he had served
as Private Secretary to a British Prime Minister and later as
Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick and Governor of Mauritius, Trinidad,
Fiji, New Zealand and Ceylon. Her was British High Commissioner for the
Western Pacific from 1877 to 1883 and afterwards chairman of the Bank of
Mauritius, besides being chairman of the Pacific Islands Company. His
domain, when he was appointed in 1875 (as Sir Arthur Gordon) High
Commissioner of the Western Pacific, had included Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the
Marshalls, the Carolines, New Britain, anew Ireland, the Louisiades and
Eastern New Guinea. His annual budget, to administer this vast stretch of
the world's surface, was 5000 pound sterling, reduced in 1876 by a Treasury
misunderstanding to less than half this amount.
Sir Arthur was allowed no
transport or power to enforce the new laws he had to make. The whole area
was then rife with blackbirding. The Treasury was particularly reluctant to
spend any money on this remote area, mere dots on the immensity of the
Pacific Ocean, especially for coal to fuel Royal Navy vessels.
Sir Arthur did whatever he felt
expedient, and on his retirement duly became the first Baron Stanmore. Freed
from his impossible Governmental administrative task, he had now engaged in
business, determined to develop profitability in the territories he had
formerly governed. John Arundel had astutely enlisted as chairman the new
Lord Stanmore for the new Pacific Islands Company which was further
strengthened by the acquisition of William Lever (later the 1st Viscount
Leverhulme) as a major shareholder. Lever had been buying up coconut
plantations all over the Pacific to supply copra for his soap and margarine
The new amalgamated Pacific
Islands Company began at once to tray to extend its business. It was
difficult. The meagre low-grade phosphate deposits on Baker Island and How
Island were already mined out and so were those on the islands forming the
Phoenix Group. The Pacific Islands Company now proceeded to move its
equipment to the Queensland coast of Australia, in order to try some of the
islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria. But here too their efforts proved
unsuccessful. Soon the company was in financial difficulties. Even their two
impressive names on the Board did not help. John Arundel's new company was
far from thriving, and by 1899 bankruptcy seemed inevitable.
Albert Ellis, son of one of the
directors of the Pacific Islands Company, now entered history. He had a
modest job as Islands Manager in the Australian office of the Pacific
Islands Company as Analyst and Prospector. He did a variety of dogsbody jobs
and the pay was poor. But even this small financial outlay was too much for
the foundering company, which was unable to locate phosphate, unsuccessful
with copra, and incapable of finding any pearl-shells.
One day Ellis took a second look
at a rough lump of putty-coloured stone which was used to prop open the door
of the laboratory in his office. It was a piece of stone which John Arundel
had picked up years before, and no good for anything except a doorstop. When
Ellis examined the stone he recalled a similar formation amongst the
phosphate rocks of Baker Island. He was assured, however, that the rock had
already been examined and classified as phosphate wood, Ellis let it go.
But three months later, when the
company was just about to go bankrupt, he examined the stone again. This
time he decided, though it meant paying for it himself, to have it properly
assayed. The finding of the assay was that the doorstop rock contained a
very high proportion of phosphate of the purest quality.
The doorstop had been picked up
on Nauru Island. Nauru then belonged to Germany by right of the Spheres of
Influence Agreement between Great Britain and Germany in 1880. The agreed
line dividing German territory in the west from British territory in the
east happened to pass between Nauru and Ocean Island. Nauru being in the
west was therefore allotted to Germany. Taking no chances, Germany had sent
the gunboat Aber on 1 October 1888, to make Nauru a German
Protectorate. Although they were eager to exploit Nauru, the German
scientists, however, had failed to recognise the massive deposits of rich
phosphate on Nauru, and traders were only using Nauru as a modest source of
Ellis had never been to Nauru,
but he remembered being told by a sea-captain that Oceasn Island, 150 miles
away, was of similar formation. It appeared that Britain was disenchanted
with the protectorate she had been manoeuvred by Bismarck into declaring (in
1892) over the infertile Gilbert and Ellice Islands. Too small, too dry, and
harbourless, they thought. Why waste the coal to send a British naval ship
so far to plant the Union Jack and declare a Protectorate over those few
useless rocky acres? So Ocean Island had not been included in the
protectorate of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. Ocean Island was independent
because nobody wanted it. Ellis decided to go and have a look for himself.
He recorded what happened in his diary:
"Early in 1900 I left
Sydney in the Company's S.S. Archer (Captain Henry), bound for Ocean
Island and Nauru. The programme was that Ocean Island should first be
prospected and if the deposit proved valuable arrangements were to be
made with the natives for the Company to work them."
There have been so many
contradictory accounts of what happened next (Ellis' own accounts being at
variance at different times) that this seems a good moment to examine the
personality of Albert Ellis himself, key figure in the initial exploitation
of Ocean Island.
Albert Ellis, a New Zealander,
whose primary value to the company was his expertise in phosphate, was touch
ambitious young man. He became, although his beginning were modest, a
stalwart empire-builder not above manipulating history and telling lies for
the advantage of his company. He was clearly likeable and had an
understanding of the Pacific Islanders based on years of bartering with
them. In his paternalistic way he was, or meant to be, their friend. There
were two sides to all his dealings with natives, however, the company coming
first. Ellis had the qualities necessary to follow up the initial stroke of
luck; shrewdness, persistence, optimism, ability to get on with and have his
way with many different kinds of people, and a certain snobbery about titles
and social position (always worse where it exists at all in the colonies).
Ellis obviously enjoyed dazzling
the Polynesians* with his superior material white-man's wealth especially as
Ellis was then quite poor himself, by his standards. Nor did he see any
reason why the natives should share to any extent in this wealth, even when
it came from their own land. Ellis often made promises to the Banabans that
he did not keep and perhaps never intended to keep, and typically slid out
of obligations by specious explanations and half-truths. He was a
Ellis knew exactly how to talk
to Polynesians. He was courteous, soft-tongued, smiling and friendly. He
distributed sweets to the children. He always appeared to be on the natives'
side in his dealings with them. Always dwelling on the advantages to them of
his proposals, particularly when he was cheating them. He avoided the cold
official "company attitude" and the equally cold "Governmental
authoritarian" attitude. The Banabans always liked him personally, and it
was Ellis whom the company always used to win them over in subsequent
Of Ellis' devotion to his job
there is no question. He spent his whole life in the service of the
phosphate industry in the West Pacific, and on Ocean Island he buried his
young wife, Florence Christina, who died there at the early age of
The chairman (Rotan Tito) of the
Council of Banaban Elders, remembers Ellis on Ocean Island very well. As a
child Rotan's father took him for a ceremonial visit to Ellis one Christmas.
He was then a little boy of five. Rotan Tito never forgot the big
comfortable Edwardian house where Ellis lived as company manger. He
remembers Ellis as an affable figure, scattering sweetmeats on the carpet
for him to scramble for.
In 1900 the advice of the then
company manager to Ellis as he left for his momentous voyage was specific:
"Those Ocean Islanders are hard cases. You take your rifle and revolver with
you and as soon as you get on the beach you show the natives you can use
Nauru was to be included in
Ellis' itinerary, but, this being a German protectorate, Ellis' instructions
were to rospect there without disclosing his great discovery: "See
everything and say nothing, something after the style of Brer Rabbit."
Accompanied by a New Zealand
assistant named Naylor, The Archer arrived off Ocean Island on 3 May 1900.
Ellis recorded his first impressions:
"A line of surf breaking
on the reef, behind which was a thirty-foot rampart of rough coral
limestone cliffs crowned with groves of coconuts and other dense
bright foliage on sloping ground rising to a moderate height. The
whole constituted a picturesque scene soon enlivened by numerous
shapely canoes dashing through the surf and in a short time The
Archer's decks were crowded with strapping excited natives clad
in a short skirt made of coconut leaves tanned brown. They brought
aboard numbers of shark fins and shark swords, some fruit and
vegetables for bartering purposes."
These products were all the
Banabans had to trade. The only ships from the white man's world they had
known were the rare whalers and the less rare blackbirders. The only white
man they knew were the few dissolute beachcombers cast up on their shore.
By 1900, it should be noted,
there was considerable depopulation in many of the Pacific Islands, as
Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Mahaffy, and other experienced observers
reported. Christianity and white men's diseases had already undermined the
natives. The missionaries would not permit their songs and dances,
considering them pagan and indecent, and Pacific Islanders died like flies
from measles, smallpox and even a common European cold, to none of which
they had any immunity. They also died because they had nothing left to live
for. The Solomon Islanders nearly died out altogether.
But Ocean Island was different,
being off the beaten track till 1900. Christianity had made its appearance
barely eleven years before and at least half the population was sticking
stubbornly to its pagan beliefs. Though the converted Banabans were learning
Methodist abhorrence of Banaban pagan traditions, and the "Kiritians"
regarded themselves as superior, the basic Banaban social fabric held
Ownership was still absolute and
sacred, reinforced by the traditional Banaban horror of theft, which still
merited the severest punishment. In extreme cases of theft the culprit would
be declared outcast, put into a canoe with coconuts and water to drift to
extinction on the vast Pacific or try to find himself ano9ther island where,
if the natives permitted, he might survive as a landless beachcomber.
As Arthur Mahaffy reported to
the British Government in 19-9:
"These 'lands' although of
the most varied shape and apparently inextricably involved amongst
other holdings, are perfectly well-known and can be described with the
most wonderful accuracy by their owners. I fear I may be considered as
guilty of exaggeration when I state what is a well-known fact and one
which has been proved over and over again, namely, that the natives
not only know the complicated limits of their land thus perfectly,
also that, in the case where the land bears coconuts they are able to
identify the nuts from the trees growing on the land. I have myself
seen this done on more than one occasion - the owner having picked out
his own from a heap at a trader's station, and the native who had
stolen them having confessed to the theft. Because he knew that the
owner was perfectly correct in his recognition of the stolen property.
It follows that the smallest encroachment is jealously noted and
clamorously complained of."
Their wealth was their land
which grew their food trees, and parts of the reef whose value depended on
the tides and fishing access. The Banabans understood barter. Their economy
and way of life revolved round their elaborate system of services, gifts,
and duties continually given and continually received. All these customs
they punctiliously observed. They had their prescribed etiquette and their
own rules for bartering. They had a special official whose duty it was to
receive visitors from other islands and carry out the etiquette of barter.
In 1900 the official receiver of visitors was a man whose name was Temati.
It was Temati who welcomed Albert Ellis on his arrival in Ocean Island in
What did Ellis see in his mind's
eye on that first voyage of discovery? He writes of "a scene of impressive
pristine beauty....The objective of our visit however was of too pressing a
nature to have permitted much attention being paid to the scenery." If, as
he hardly dared hope, there should be substantial phosphate deposits on this
lovely unspoilt island, then success and wealth beckoned. As to the natives,
they presented no problem and were regarded as a secondary consideration.
Ellis recorded later in his memoirs:
"The prospecting trip
which followed was probably a record one for shortness and
decisiveness: also in regard to the quality of the phosphate
discovered. We passed through the native village and a hole was sunk
in the rising ground just beyond. The result was a gratifying
surprise. For not only was rock phosphate thrown up but all the fine
alluvial mixed with it appeared to be phosphate also. Several tests by
means of the portable laboratory proved this to be the case, and the
quality of both rock and alluvial was of very high grade. Proceeding
inland about half a mile we sank several more holes at intervals, and
in each instance nothing but alluvial phosphate was turned up. A
further gratifying feature was that in no case did we reach the bottom
of the deposit. The formation of the surrounding country was noted and
the decision arrived at forthwith that the island contained extensive
deposits of outstanding importance. At last we had 'struck oil' and
there never was a gusher more welcome or more opportune.
that the phosphate deposit existed over the whole island, the area of
which comprised about 1500 acres. It was certain that the tableland
interior of the island contained a wonderful deposit. 'Some idea of
the depth could be obtained from one or two big pits, dug by the
natives previously, in search of water, and holes sunk by us in
various localities, proving that there were or least ten million tons
and probably three times that quantity (thirty million tons). A few
more tests with the portable laboratory demonstrated that no low grade
was to be found anywhere. A notable feature of the island was that the
soil in the ordinary sense of the term did not exist. All the
vegetation was growing in the phosphate."
So the Banabans were unwillingly
eking out a modest living on poor "soil" which, chemically treated with
sulphuric acid, would have provided them (as for the next half-century it
provided millions of Britons) with an abundance of food. Ellis calculated
that the Banaban phosphate deposits would necessitate the mining out of the
entire island, and that this process would take eighty years to accomplish.
Decided to offer the natives 8s.
per ton for rock, bagged and delivered into the boats; they to start getting
it ready in heaps, or in houses, so that it will dry, close to the shipping
places; then when the steamer comes, or is expected, sacks will be handed to
them, which they fill and carry down to the boats, we having scales by to
take the weight. (Probably take the average only.) As the natives would be
paid in trade the actual coast per ton would be very small, compared to what
it has been hitherto on Guano Islands.
We are treated most liberally here; fish, coconuts,
fruits, etc., are brought to the camp every morning sometimes for trade, but
if from the King's village the men refused to take anything for them. Every
evening our water demijohns are taken away empty and brought back full. The
island is particularly fertile and provided there is rain it seems as though
anything would grow here. At present on the island there are grown:
coconuts, bread-fruit, limes, bananas (a few), paw-paw apples (in
abundance), pandanus, sugar cane, mangos, a few trees, pumpkins ad lib, and
no doubt many other fruit and vegetables would flourish if introduced. No
danger of scurvy here. Fish seems to be plentiful enough, particularly
flying fish and in the interior of the island there are plenty of wildfowls
which the natives say we may shoot. Yesterday by special request of the King
and Elders I took out the gun and shot a tame one so that they could see how
the gun worked.
The Chief at Ooma, Ery by name,
signed a contract for one year to collect phosphate at 8s. per ton. ... As
far as I can see there is nothing to prevent our loading rock phosphate at
the rate of hundreds of tons per day and shipping to two or three vessels at
once, if sufficient moorings are laid down.
Saw the chief of the village, Pulalang, who seems
an intelligent fellow, advised him to make a house from the rock so that he
can keep dry phosphate, also place coconut mats underneath keeping clear of
the coral, which he said he would do. told him we would probably make a
shipping place and lay tram-lines at the place I had just seen; he said it
was good and seemed very glad at the idea of our working close to his
village. He said there had been no white men living on the island for many
years, on account of the bad water supply, and that many of the natives had
perished for the same reason. They would be out fishing all day, and come
home to find no water and lay down and die. Told him that we would bring
plenty of tanks and make plenty of cisterns, and that when there was no rain
we would condense. He and his people were much amazed at hearing we would
make fresh water from sea water by machinery. Told him that we would see
that none of the people died for want of water when we worked the island,
providing they supply us with firewood for the boiler. ... Drew out deeds
for land purchase and same were duly signed. Tenaurua and Terakaputa being
paid by cash order on Archer, Nanneea wishing to have his amount placed to
his credit, to be taken out subsequently in passages for steamer to the
Gilbert Group. ... Recommended them not to let any other white man live on
the island except our party as it would probably cause friction and they
Heavy rain last night off and on during day. Wind
moderate and variable from NNE to NW. Reef very smooth. Went to the native
service in the morning.
Ellis took no chances. The very day he arrived, 3
May 1900, he prepared a contract (of dubious legal authenticity) had it
signed by Temati and Kariatabewa, neither of whom had any authority to sign,
not understanding of what they were signing, with what must have seemed to
them to have been a Kiribati cross.
Typically, Ellis was already renaming different
parts of the island. He named "Home Bay" after his Auckland home harbour,
"Sydney Point" after the Australian capital city, and "Lilian Point" after
the wife of his deputy-chairman, John Arundel.
Here is a copy of the agreement:
Temati, whom Ellis wrongly
described as King (the Banabans had no such conception) responded with
customary Banaban politeness to Ellis' overtures. All Banaban landowners
being absolutely independent Temati had no authority whatever to bargain or
dispose in any way of any land except his own individual holding. there was
an interpreter of sorts - a Banaban sailor who had learned a smattering of
English on a whaler and spoke a little pidgin.
Ellis knew that he was
introducing to Ocean Island a totally alien concept of trading, which the
Banabans could not possibly have understood. It is impossible to believe
that Ellis, a shrewd and experienced negotiator, was unaware of the enormity
of the deal he was proposing, or that he believed the Banabans understood
what he was proposing. Ellis knew very well how vital land was in every
But he had never dreamed of
chancing on a treasure trove such as this. He had to think fast and he did
not hesitate. Since all Pacific islands had the same preoccupation with
landholdings, Ellis understood just what he was undertaking. He knew their
land was their all and he was going to destroy it.
Ellis' later account of his staggeringly successful
mission is devious and omits vital passages. Since what he was doing, and
hoped to do, was for the good of his company and a patriotic exercise in
empire-expansion, what was good for the shareholders must be right. Later,
when his methods came under scrutiny, and questions were asked in
Parliament, Ellis was evasive. But by that time the company was big and
powerful enough to override criticism and bully the Colonial Office, and
rich enough to employ the cleverest lawyers to change the very structure of
the company so as to make it unassailable.
How could the Banabans possible
have understood what Ellis' "civilisation" was going to mean to their little
island? Even if Ellis had been able to use a good interpreter (and as we
know the two Banabans who acted as his interpreters had but a smattering of
American-English) there were no concepts in their Banaban language for the
information Ellis gave them. And Ellis did not wish to tell the Banabans too
much; he only wanted to push them a little at a time. The Banabans were
easy, friendly people. they would do everything he wanted. Ellis' main worry
was that Ocean Island was unattached. It needed a British gunboat and a
national flag, because once the news got out other commercial companies
would be after Ocean Island phosphate, not to speak of the Germans.
As it was later suggested in the House of commons
that this document was obtained by false pretences, it is worth noting here
what E. C. Eliot, Resident Commissioner on Ocean Island from 1913 to 1920,
said about it in his autobiography Broken Atoms:
"The chiefs of the island
wer feted (in the Pacific Islands Company's ship Archer) and a paper
was obtained from them giving the company rights to raise and export
phosphate from the island for 999 years for the payment of the
ludicrous sum of 50 pound sterling a year, or trade goods to that
amount (at the company's prices, of course). About 1916, when I
started to unearth this story, which is now broadcast for the first
time, I took statements from three of the chiefs who were feted in the
SS Archer in 1900. The company had tried to make out that the chiefs
were the representatives for all island land held 'in common', and
could therefore lease the whole island on behalf of their subjects.
Not only in Ocean Island, but throughout Polynesia, every family owns
its own land. A chief has no power over any land beyond that of his
own family. When it became known on the island that the company's
representatives had made some 'paper' which was said to be4ar the
marks of their chiefs, the islanders repudiated the document, but the
Government gave them no assistance. At that time there was no
Government representative on the island."
Ellis, meanwhile, wrote:
"After the contract was
signed we held a number of meetings with the Banabans with the view of
preparing to start operations. Through the interpreter Temori they
were told details of how the phosphate deposits would be worked and
how labourers from other islands would be brought for the purpose.
They pondered the matter and then asked that Solomon Islanders should
not be brought as they did not want men living amongst them who might
have eaten some of their ancestors. One old chief gravely asked
what the labvourers would drink, there being no permanent water on the
"On being told that we
would bring machines that would make fresh water out of sea water they
looked at one another as much as to say 'If the white man can do that
he can do anything'. Another of their requests was that we should not
sell guns to them.
"Lands for sites were
measured off and purchased. Areas for beginning work on the phosphate
were selected. It was a novel way of starting business as a land and
It should be noted here that
Lord Stanmore himself, at this time President of Ellis' company, had
introduced an act which forbade the sale of native land to any Europeans
when he had been High Commissioner for the Western Pacific. The act was
still in force.
The pay for the Banabans' land
was to be plug tobacco, beads and a little pig iron. Ellis, in his memoirs,
later paid tribute in his paternalist prose to the Banabans' charactger:
"Through not possessed of
the stamina characteristic of the white races, their degree of
intelligence is quite high and they are of kindly disposition. We soon
saw that the Banabans, as a result of their hard and strenuous life,
were most expert fishermen, even going shark-fishing in their small
rafts, little larger in area than an ordinary door. They seemed to
develop unusual lines of thought and frequently displayed much
originality and resource in contending with the adverse conditions
under which their life is passed. The Banabans are good examples of
this type of development, particularly as I found them in 1900 before
they had come in touch with civilisation."
Ellis soon made havoc of
their normal Banaban life.
"The natives of the island
were to collect the surface rock and stack it in huts close to certain
points on the coast where shipping would be possible. On arrival of
the vessel they were to deliver it to the surf-boats and then he paid.
This plan appealed to them and they began collecting rock with great
energy, men, women and children. It seemed as if a magic wand had been
waved, transforming an idle community into an industrious one."
Ellis envisaged the Banabans
becoming labourers for the company. When the mining got properly under way,
Ellis rightly foresaw that thousands of imported labourers would be needed.
With no articles to trade other than sharks' fins, sharks' teeth, swords,
and occasional small quantities of fruit, the Banabans of Ocean Island had
been about the "poorest" people in the Pacific. Ellis promised them that
with the signing of the contract their poverty would end. So Ellis and his
assistant Naylor pitched their tent and hoisted their Union Jack on Ocean
Island (without permission from the British Government, whom they had not
Here is a letter from Ellis'
company from the archives of the colonial Office.
Attached to 24567
Ellis claimed in Ocean Island
and Nauru that his visit to Ocean Island had been officially authorised,
and that if phosphate was found, he had authority to "treat with the
natives" and "display the British flag". This was not so. The Colonial
Office did not know of his visit until afterwards, as official documents,
now available, make clear.
"Those early days on Ocean
Island," wrote Ellis thirty-five years later, "have left pleasant
recollections of the natural dignity and innate courtesy of the older
Banabans in particular. They were fine examples of nature's gentlemen, and
though the struggle for existence on that frequency drought-stricken island
with its exposed and dangerous coastline, had left is mark on their rugged
features, there was much to admire in them - were they Kiritian or Began. No
discordant elements occurred in our negotiations at the meetings. As the
various points were agreed they always gave a hearty 'Ea tau' which
may be interpreted as 'We agree. It is finished'. And they never went back
beginning, whatever happened to the adjacent phosphate island of Nauru has
been of the deepest interest and consequence to the Banabans. Nauruan history
before, during and after the two World Wars has greatly affected Banaban
thinking, as we shall see.
Extract from the
Angus & Robertson,
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