Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Kiwis and`arrogance of Empire'

New Zealand natives were shipped out to make way for phosphate mining


A dark secret behind the agricultural wealth that made Australia and New Zealand first-world nations is being revealed in an exhibition whose creators hope will win recognition for the forgotten people who lost their land as a result.

For decades aircraft "top-dressed" much of the pastoral landscape here and in Australia with "super-phosphate," making it possible to farm thousands of hectares of land that could not have otherwise been used.

What many preferred to overlook was that through a deft piece of colonial trickery the phosphate was the living soil of a unique culture whose people New Zealand robbed.

Their homeland, Kiribatis Banaba, was left a bleak moonscape and the people, initially dragged into Japanese slavery during World War II, now live on Rabi Island in Fiji.

In the first half of the 20th Century, more than 20 million tonnes of phosphate was shipped from Banaba, destroying 432 hectares of the 600-hectare island.

Banaban-African American Katerina Teaiwa of the University of Hawaii and Auckland artist Brett Graham have combined to mount an audio-visual exhibition on Banaba, Kainga Tahi Kainga Rua ("first home, second home").

Graham arranged 10 representations of phosphate-covered baths symbolizing the wagons that carried out the phosphate from the mine against sculptures representing the machinery and aircraft that used the phosphate.

He also has an exhibition on New Zealand indigenous Maori land confiscation and the destruction, by US nuclear testing, of Bikini Atoll.

"Banaba is the arrogance of Empire, the acceptance that the white men could come in and take anything for their own benefit," he said.

In 1900 New Zealander Albert Ellis discovered what the British called Ocean Island, part of its Gilbert Islands colony, was phosphate-rich. In a familiar colonial ploy he found a chief who, without authority of the five clans of the island, signed over the island for ?50 a year for 999 years.

After World War I it came under the control of the Australian, British and New Zealand government-owned British Phosphate Commission (BPC).

Secretly the British government decided they would remove all the Banabans, who numbered around 500 around 1941, and send them to Fiji, allowing BPC to completely destroy the island.

But in August 1942 Japan occupied the island and took all the Banabans to Nauru, and then onto Chuuk [then Truk] where they were enslaved.

After the war the Banabans were loaded into a BPC ship that, rather than take them home, took them to Rabi -- as per the secret British plan -- where they remain.

In 1975 the Banabans sued the BPC and the British government for compensation in what then was the longest civil case in British justice.

The judge agreed that over the years Britain had failed in the moral duty it owed the Banabans but said he was powerless to impose any remedy. Britain paid A$10 million in final settlement of their claims.

"Banaba is definitely one of those big tragic secrets ...," said Teaiwa.

About 300 Banabans have managed to go back.

"It is the most extraordinary place with all the leftover mining equipment, graveyards, buildings and pinnacles all over the landscape," Teaiwa said.

The Rabi-born people are getting on with their lives, creating a lifestyle much more similar to Fijian culture than to anything that existed on Banaba.

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