History of Nauru: First People, Outsiders, Phosphates and Independence

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Nauru is world's smallest republic and independent state. It is home to less than 10,000 people and is only 21 square kilometers (8.1 square miles) in size, making it one tenth the size of Washington, D.C. Five smallest political entities (in square kilometers): 1) Vatican City (0.4); 2) Monaco (2); 3) Nauru (21); 4) Tuvalu (26); 5) San Marino (61).

Nauru is an independent republic. At one time, when the money from phosphate mining was rolling in, Nauru had the highest per capita income in the world. The government offered free or low cost everything and nobody paid any taxes.

Nauru is an atoll in the central Pacific, just 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the equator, east of New Guinea, and west of the Gilbert Islands of Kiribati, about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. There is no official capital, but government offices are located in the Yaren District in the southwestern part of the atoll. There is a narrow band of habitable land along the coast; the island's interior is environmentally devastated as a result of phosphate mining that enriched the islanders for decades but is now largely depleted..

Visited first in 1798, Nauru became a German colony and was occupied by the Australians in 1914. After the First World War, it was administered as a mandate by Britain, Australia, and New Zealand and occupied during the Second World War by the Japanese. It became an independent republic in 1968 in the British Commonwealth. The main languages are Nauruan (official) and English. Nauru is one of three phosphate rock islands in the South Pacific (the others are Makatea in French Polynesia and Banaba (Ocean Island) in Kiribati). |~|

Names and Identity of Nauru

Official Name: Republic of Nauru; conventional short form: Nauru; local long form: Republic of Nauru; local short form: Nauru; The island’s name may derive from the Nauruan word "anaoero" meaning "I go to the beach". Other spellings have appeared, such as Naoero on the national crest.[Source: CIA World Factbook 2023

Name of the People and Culture: noun: Nauruan(s); adjective: Nauruan.Nauru has also been known as Navodo, Nawodo and Pleasant Island. Nauru is the The indigenous term for the island. European visitors gave it the name of "Pleasant Island," which was used briefly. This name is to the lush vegetation and friendly inhabitants the first Europeans encountered. Nauruans are attempting to recreate that image after the devastation left by phosphate mining. |~|

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “About the size of Block Island, Nauru sits in the South Pacific, about sixteen hundred miles northeast of Papua New Guinea. For thousands of years, the island’s largest visitors were birds, which used it, in the words of one journalist, as a “glorified rest stop.” Polynesians and Micronesians arrived on the island sometime around 1000 B.C. They seem to have lived harmoniously — even idyllically — until gun-toting Europeans showed up, in the early nineteenth century. At the start of the twentieth century, a New Zealander named Albert Ellis realized that the ancient bird droppings that coated the island were a rich source of phosphate, an important fertilizer. During the next six decades, more than thirty-five million tons of phosphate were dug out of Nauru and shipped off to farms in Europe and Australia. The process stripped much of the island bare, leaving nothing but jagged pillars of limestone sticking out of the ground. A National Geographic photographer who visited Nauru mid-destruction wrote, “A worked-out phosphate field is a dismal, ghastly tract.” [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 14, 2021]

In 1968, Nauru became its own country. The phosphate business was still booming, and, on paper, the island’s ten thousand residents became some of the richest people in the world. The new nation used its sovereign wealth to invest in, among other things, cruise ships, airplanes, overseas office buildings, and a London musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. The musical flopped, as did most of the other ventures. Nauruans “have a long history of being taken to the cleaners by crooks” is how Helen Hughes, an Australian economist, put it. In 2001, in return for various fees and payments, Nauru’s government allowed Australia to set up a detention center for refugees on the island. The center soon became infamous for its grim conditions.

First People on Nauru

Nauru was inhabited by Micronesian and Polynesian settlers. The original settlers are thought to have been castaways who drifted to Nauru from another Pacific island. By around 1000 B.C., and the island was divided into 12 clans.

Little is known of Nauruan prehistory except what is suggested by myth and legend. Tradition holds that Nauru was settled by Tabuarik, who came from Kiribati—as did subsequent boatloads of Kiribati people—and took over the island from a small group living there. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Nauru developed in relative isolation because ocean currents made landfall on the island difficult. As a result, the Nauruan language does not clearly resemble any other in the Pacific region.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, Nauru was inhabited solely by people of Polynesian origin. They lived in relative isolation from outside cultural influences, which gave rise to a distinctive language. Traditional Nauruan society was divided into twelve matrilineal (descent through the female line) clans (groups of families sharing a common maternal ancestor).

First Europeans in Nauru

In 1798, Briton John Fearn, captain of the whaling ship Hunter, became the first European to spot the island. He is the one who named it Pleasant Island. By 1830, European whalers used Nauru as a supply stop, replenishing their ships with fresh water and supplies, trading firearms and liquor for food. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

Nauru also attracted escaped convicts and deserters from Norfolk Island and Australia. The Europeans not only brought weapons and liquor they also brought diseases. Runaway convicts and deserters from whaling ships, and other men who became classed as beachcombers, were the first outsiders to “settle” on the island, and leaving behind many English-sounding surnames, as well as guns and gin that created problems for the local islanders

The beachcombers provided the Nauruans with their first real contact with Western civilization. They acted as a buffer between two cultures but were often a bad influence on the Nauruans. Several times beachcombers and Nauruans attempted to cut off and capture visiting ships, so that eventually Nauru came to be avoided as a watering place by ships whaling in the area. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The introduction of guns exacerbated conflict among the indigenous people and disrupted the balance of power between the 12 tribes on the island. Sporadic tribal warfare culminated in a 10-year civil war from 1878 to 1888 that reduced the native population to 900 from 1,400 in 1843.

Colonization of Nauru by Germany and Australia

Germany forcibly annexed Nauru in 1888 by holding the 12 chiefs under house arrest until they consented to the annexation. The German colonial administration succeeded in putting an end to the clan warfare. In 1899, phosphate deposits were discovered (See Below).

The British and German imperial governments agreed to the partition of the Western Pacific in 1886. Their purely arbitrary line of demarcation left Nauru in the German sphere of influence accidentally. It was not until 1888, on the petition of the beachcombers-turned-traders, that the German government annexed Nauru as a protectorate and disarmed the people.

Nauru became a possession of Germany according to the terms of the Anglo-German Convention of 1886, and two years later, the island was incorporated into Germany’s nearby Marshall Islands protectorate. Germany banned alcohol, confiscated weapons and instituted strict dress codes. Christian missionaries arrived in 1899 and arguably had a bigger impact on the Nauruans than the German administrators.

Following the outbreak of World War I, Australian forces captured the island in 1914. After the war, in 1919, the League of Nations assigned a joint trustee mandate over the island to Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. The three governments established the British Phosphate Commissioners, who exercised the rights to phosphate mining. In 1920, Australia began administration of Nauru on behalf of the three 3 trustees.

Phosphate Discovered in Nauru

Phosphate was discovered in Nauru in 1900. Albert Ellis, a New Zealand geologist, realized that the ancient bird droppings that coated the island were a rich source of phosphates — a key ingredient in the making of fertilizers — after "fossilized rock" from Nauru used to make a doorstep at his house in Sydney was rich in phosphates He found that there were large deposits of phosphate on both Nauru and Banaba (then called Ocean Island) in what is now Kiribati. .

The Pacific Phosphate Company, a British-Australian enterprise, started to exploit the reserves on Nauru in 1906, by agreement with Germany. Laborers from the German Caroline Islands were hired because the Nauruans had no interest in working in the mines. The phosphate were heavily mined for decades with Nauru and Nauruans earning only about one tenth of one percent of the profits from the phosphate deposits. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

The rich calcium phosphates of Nauru are of the highest grade. Used to make superphosphate fertilizer, the phosphates are the product of bird guano and decayed marine organisms. Its production begins in the Norwegian Sea, where currents pick up phosphorus and nitrogen that accumulate years later in the Pacific Ocean. Zooplankton-eating fish pick it up and they are consumed by fish-eating birds who deposited the guano on Nauru’s rocks when they stopped to rest. .

The Pacific Phosphate Company was based in Sydney and founded in 1906 to exploit the phosphates. In 1919, when the governments of Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom agreed to administer the island jointly, they also jointly purchased the Pacific Phosphate Co.'s rights to Nauruan phosphate for uk£3.5 million and began to work the deposits through a three-man board called the British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC). [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]|

Much of the fertilzer that was produced was used to fertilize pastures in Australia and New Zealand. In addition to running the mine through the BPC, Australia was the administering authority of Nauru. The lives of Nauruans were largely tied to Australia and BPC until they achieved independence in 1968. Work in the was largely done by laborers from China and the Pacific islands, particularly Kiribati and Tuvalu, because Nauruans did not want to work in the mine other than as administrators, which they did in the 1950s and 1960s.

The phosphate industry expanded greatly between World War I and World War II. Australian and New Zealand farmers enjoyed substantial savings, for Nauru phosphate was sold at a much lower price than phosphate from other countries. For their contribution Nauruans were paid a small royalty of eightpence a ton in 1939. Many had no involvement and engaged subsistence agriculture and fishing while phosphate mining destroyed their island.

World War II in Nauru

Throughout World War II Nauru was occupied by the Japanese, who invaded in December 1941 and destroyed much of the island’s infrastructure, industrial plants and housing facilities with bombs and used its residents as forced labor elsewhere in the Pacific. Nauru was occupied by Japanese forces until the end of the war in 1945.

War came to Nauru in December 1940, when the island was shelled by a roving German raider, and four phosphate ships were sunk. Japan occupied Nauru in August 1942 and deported 1,200 Nauruans to work as unpaid laborers in the Caroline Islands, where 463 died. Many of them were put to work on the atoll of Truk (modern Chuuk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia), about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles, away, where they helped build Japan’s huge military base and port there. The survivors returned to Nauru in January 1946. |

The Japanese stationed 7,000 men on Nauru and built military installations and three runways there. Two-thirds of the population was deported to Truk, where one-third died of starvation and disease. Those left on Nauru suffered severe privation, including starvation and bombing by the Americans for two years.

Australian forces reoccupied Nauru in September 1945, and the surviving Truk Nauruans, who had been reduced in number to only 737, were repatriated in January 1946. Nauru's population thus fell from 1,848 in 1940 to 1,369 in 1946.

Nauru After World War II

When Australian forces reclaimed Nauru at the end of World War II, the island was a wasteland of military debris, almost totally lacking in food supplies. Nauruans enslaved by the Japanese returned to their homes on January 31, 1946, a date that is now celebrated as Independence Day in Nauru.

In 1946, Nauru became a UN trust territory under Australian administration. The United Nations appointed Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand to head Nauru’s colonial government once again, but Australia was the one that handled the actual administration of the island.

In November 1947, the UN approved an agreement by which the island became a trust territory administered jointly by Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom went into effect. The three nations were to share the responsibility of developing self-government on the island. The Nauruans had a Council of Chiefs to represent them since 1927, but this body had advisory powers only. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Phosphate Mining After World War II

Phosphate continued full tilt on Nauru after World War II. Once called "Pleasant Island," Nauru was literally torn up by bulldozers, earthmovers and powerful shovels used to extract the phosphates. Phosphates were mined from the coral-cloaked flanks of limestone pinnacles. After processing they flow on cantilever conveyor belts into bulk carriers moored beyond the island's fringing reef.

Recognizing the phosphate stocks would eventually be depleted, in 1962, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies offered to resettle all Nauruans on Curtis Island in Queensland, but Nauruans rejected that plan and opted for independence,

In the 1970s, most of the 2,600 workers at the Nauru Phosphate Corporation mine were from Tuvalu, the Gilbert islands and Chinese. They were paid only $80 a month but also received housing, meals, health care and schooling for free. Some foreigners also made money from fishing which Nauruans did only for fun.

Nauru’s Road to Independence and Control Over It Phosphates

Inadequate returns to Nauruans for their phosphates was a contentious issue which Nauruans sought redress. This was one was one of the main forces behind Nauruans seeking independence,

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: Dissatisfied Nauruans made a number of complaints to the administering authority and to the UN Trusteeship Council, with the result that a Nauruan local government council was established by the election of nine council members in December 1951. Since control of the council was exercised by the administrator, however, the Nauruans continued to press for further political power. They asked for positions of importance in the administration and an increase in royalty payments, and expressed concern about the future of the island because the increased rate of phosphate exportation would, it was feared, exhaust the deposits by the end of the century. By constant negotiations, the Nauruans forced the BPC to pay royalties on a rights rather than needs basis, and with the establishment of a world price in 1964, phosphate royalties were raised. The Nauruans achieved control of the industry in 1967 by purchasing the plant and machinery owned by the BPC, and in 1970 they took over the industry completely. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“Meanwhile, in 1964, Australia had attempted to resettle the Nauruans on Curtis Island, off the coast of Queensland. The Nauruans, although in principle not averse to resettlement, refused it because of political considerations. They wanted to own their island and to maintain their identity by political independence. Australia would not agree to this, and the plan collapsed. This failure reinforced the Nauruans' desire for political independence. With the support of the Trusteeship Council, they established an elected Legislative Council in 1966.

On January 31, 1968, the 22nd anniversary of the return of the Nauruan survivors from Truk, Nauru became the smallest independent republic in the world after a two-year constitutional convention. Nauru adopted its own constitution and elected Hammer DeRoburt (1923–1992) as the nation’s first president. Although Australia wanted to maintain control of defense and external affairs, the Nauruans insisted on complete self-determination and since independence has pursued a policy of isolation and nonalignment.. In May 1999, Nauru did become a member of the British Commonwealth, however, and joined the United Nations in September 1999.

In 1970, Nauru purchased the phosphate mining assets, and income from the mines made Nauruans among the richest people in the world. However, Nauru subsequently began a series of unwise investments in buildings, musical theater, and an airline. Nauru sued Australia in 1989 for the damage caused by mining when Australia administered the island. Widespread phosphate mining officially ceased in 2006. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2023

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