Treasure Islands

Ocean Island (Banaba in Gilbrtese) and Nauru (Pleasant Island) are not part of any archipelago. They are the tops of two spikes of land whose bases are submerged. Both ocean Island and Nauru lie one degree south of the equator, Ocean island 250 miles west of the Gilberts and Nauru a further 165 miles distant. Both islands form part of the diocese of the Gilbert Islands, but only Ocean Island is part of the colony. Nauru, taken over from the Germans, is a mandate. Ocean island, called after the ship which discovered it in 1804, is a round hill in the middle of the sea, eighty-two metres high and ten kilometres round. The author of Enoch Arden saw her - or one of her sister islands - as 'rich but the loneliest in the lonely sea'. Nowadays you can see her at night lit up with electric light. Engineers, banks, science and progress are so busy gnawing away at her that in a few years there'll be nothing left but her bones. Nauru is undergoing a similar fate. Great deposits of high-quality phosphate have been discovered in the two islands; Ocean Island and Nauru are being actively exploited. 

Round about 1900 a small British company had worked out Baker and Howland islands, as well as some others. they had yielded a small quantity of poor-quality guano. In this area, business was shaky, but the company also sent out its ships. In 1897 Mr Denson, the manager, brought back a curious piece of rock from Nauru. Experts declared that it was petrified wood and it was used in the Sydney office as a door-stopper. the piece of rock then attracted the attention of Mr Albert Ellis who was there as a temporary replacement for his father. It intrigued him by its resemblance to solid phosphate from Howland Island. The experts had, however, given their decision. In 1900 after a three months wait, Ellis chipped off a little piece to analyse it. chemical tests showed that it was phosphate of the highest quality. Immediately the directors were informed and Albert Ellis was sent to look into the matter. Nauru was German territory, but not so far away ocean Island, similar to Nauru, belonged to no one. the island might well contain the same riches. Investigators spent three weeks on Ocean Island and a few days on Nauru. Thee was no doubt - they had come across two rich sources of wealth. They weren't slow to take advantage. Ignored previously, Ocean Island was annexed by Britain and agreements were made with the Germans to form an Anglo-German company to exploit the two islands at the same time. Later the French came into this when phosphate was discovered on Makatea, near Tahiti.

Up to this time Ocean Island had slumbered peacefully in its tropical isolation. By race, language and tradition, the island was connected with the Gilberts despite its distant position. From time to time - either from Ocean Island to the Gilberts or vice-versa - a few canoes undertook the dangerous crossing. The island had one particularly hard aspect though - drought - which at intervals reduced the population. Water was rare. On a peak of rock ending in steep cliffs, where could one find a stretch of fresh water? The porous rock meant that the rain seeped away. There were only a few pools in very deep underground basins . There were about fifty such places, all haggled over even more than the land. Only the women had the right to draw the precious liquid - and the trouble of doing it. they got to it along long galleries, blackened with smoke from torches, and the little water they brought out in coconut shells was sparingly used.

The phosphate deposits on Ocean Island are estimated at 20,000,000 tons at least and on Nauru there is thought to be 100,000,000. Phosphate is found in an almost pure state. the islands are, as it were, made up of two elements: very closely packed coral rocks, settled there like pitted and irregularly shaped sanding-stones, and in between these, phosphate, which will sometimes come away at a few blows from a pick and sometimes can only be dislodged by explosives. the hardest is found on Ocean island where the bed of phosphate reaches twenty metres in depth. On Nauru it is rarely more than ten metres deep. In 1933 the extraction of phosphate yielded 600,000 tons between the two islands, which could supply a million tons if necessary. to achieve this yield, many difficulties had to be overcome, and several mechanical installations had to be made. this was a real triumph for the engineers and directors of works. On 1 January 1938 the Ocean Island company and the government together gave employment to 1976 people: 112 whites, 783 Chinese, 534 Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) and 346 Ellice Islanders (Tuvaluans); 201 worked for the government. Both whites and locals could bring their families - but not the Chinese. for a few years Japanese were employed and the Chinese replaced them.

On Nauru they employed only Chinese, on three-year contracts. The 693 inhabitants of Ocean Island showed themselves recalcitrant when it came to work: they preferred to live off their rented-out land. Those on Ocean island (450 in 1900 and 540 in 1927) saw great changes in their little island, where previously each year brought only two or three sailing ships coming to load copra. Now large steamships were continually arriving at their island. Little locomotives ceaselessly pulled wagons containing phosphate along a railroad. Above the worked-out rocks bucket swung along on cables suspended between metal supports. On the side of the hill you could hear a groaning like that of all the beasts of the Apocalypse. Crushing machines took the rock and ground it into powder, calling with 2,400 tones per day. Other mechanical monsters dried it with hot air. Sea water was pumped up and transformed into fresh water, for the 1,350 cubic metres of water reserved in the cisterns was no good to quench the thirst of both men and machines. The man who had been so thirsty in times of drought (and a whole generation could recall such times) never regressed from such luxury. As for the cables transmitting light, power, the spoken word - and the radio antennae up on the hill which could open up communication with captains of out-of-sight ships and receive news from the world of the whites - all this was an indescribable marvel to the labourer newly arrived from his home island, where everything was simple and primitive and had scarcely changed for a thousand years.

The loading of the ships was a delicate operation. Ocean Island and Nauru are two peaks rising from the water, with no anchorage. There are reefs only fifty metres out and deep water almost at once. for the safety of the ships it was necessary to set up a very costly buoy system. Two hundred metres out from shore a five-ton anchor, let down to a depth of four hundred metres, was fastened by an enormous chain to a buoy 3.60 metres high and 6.50 metres long. Two cables, forming a triangle with the shoreline, linked the buoy to land. A ship could only load in calm weather when the wind was blowing off the land. If the captain was taken by surprise by a sudden westerly, then within two minutes his ship was on the rocks. four large cargo ships have already been wrecked there. The first, the Elba, which sank in 1904, provided the spectacular sight of a Leviathan as it were, rolling down from the top of a mountain. The locals shrieked and the steamer sank. When it had disappeared it was possible to follow its descent into the abyss and its breaking-up against the underwater slope of the hill, by a trail of broken wood that shot up as high as the ship was to sink low, until its iron framework reached its grave at the foot of the great submerged mountain.

The Ocean island gods: Na Areau (or Nareau), Tabakea and Auriaria, seemed to unleash their fury against these spoilers of their land. Three ships carrying the name of the island were wrecked on the Ocedan Isalnd rocks after world-wide voyages. the last, Ocean transport, taken by surprise when empty, was carried into land on a high wave, to a place where canoes found it difficult to float at low tide. the loading was done by launches in calm weather. both Gilbertse and Ellice islanders are masters of manoeuvring these and their tugs. One day they loaded 3,775 tons of phosphate. Usually an 8,000-ton ship would stay anchored for a week - or even longer if ti had a cargo to unload as well.

On Nauru things are done more quickly. since 1930 a cantilever can pour a thousand tons of grey powdered phosphate per hour into the ship's holds. The installation of this cantilever was a costly and difficult matter. Its two outstretched arms - one at the foot and the other at the stern of the ship can be extended to sixty metres. They turn on a pivot and come back to a rest position when their task is completed. If the customs officials and doctors carry out their work quickly, a 10,000 ton ship that arrives in the morning can be on its way again before night, as it cannot stay below the cantilever on Ocean Island so they keep to the old methods. If phosphate extraction has to be stepped up then efforts will concentrate on Nauru. In November 1914 Nauru was occupied by the Australians. The Japanese navy arrived a few days too late. In 1919 Britain, Australia and New Zealand agreed to buy the company's interests for 3,531,100 and to share the phosphate produced as follows: 42% to both Britain and Australia and 16% to New Zealand. In fact Britain doesn't import her share because of transport costs. Almost all the phosphate produced is used in Australia and New Zealand. Each country has a representative on the board of commissioners who control phosphate workings on both islands. Albert Ellis, the man who discovered these riches, received his reward by becoming representative for his country, New Zealand - after eleven years as director on Ocean Island and on Nauru.

The local people have profited greatly from this industry which has taken over their island. As well as compensation for the use of their land they can earn money labouring in the phosphate works or for white people. They can sell their fishing catch or whatever they produce on their land at a good price. The phosphate company has always been generous and kindly towards them, providing them with inexpensive and well-stocked stores; drinking water and electricity. they can have treatment from the company hospital's doctor - and this even before the colony government has provided such advantages. Ocean Island, then, is no longer a hopeless drought-ridden island as it was in 1870 when five American ships had to take three-quarters of the inhabitants to Hawaii. However, a time will come when the island will return to an isolation and hardship even worse than before. When the phosphate is exhausted - probably within a hundred years - all that will be left on ocean Island will be its denuded coasts and limestone outcrops, poorly clad with wild plants and lianas. Only the sea birds will continue to live in their old home - but it is far from certain that the flocks of greedy frigate birds will deign to inhabit terraces with no perching-places. They say that it is these birds who have made the phosp0hate - not that their droppings or remains alone would have sufficed to crate such a thick deposit, but that their action might have decomposed the lime between the peaks of coral. where is this vast family of birds now? There is no trace of their eggs or their bones in the phosphate, but shells, fish bones and sharks' teeth can be found. The island must have been submerged at least once - some people say several times. When digging out a well on Nauru phosphate was discovered below se level. the formation of the islands is, however, a matter to be decided through research and the insight of scholars. 

Missionary Work

As is the case throughout the Gilberts, the Protestants were the first to arrive on Ocean Island. They had influence over the whole island in 1900. soon the company built a large church. The numerous Catholics recruited from the Gilberts met wherever they could for the Sunday sevice. Away from home and influenced by the Protestants, some of them turned from the faith. The others asked for a priest. As it was Campbell's government circumstance weren't in favour of their receiving one. In 1908, however, Mgr Leray made an abortive attempt. The harbour-master had been instructed to refuse landing permission to Father Quoirier who had arrived on the Germania. He had to go on his way to Nauru and wait there for a chance to get back to the Gilberts. In 1909 the commissioner was removed. His superior received a constant torrent of complaints against him. the governor of Fiji sent his secretary, Mr Mahaffy, to open an inquiry into Campbell's deeds and actions. Amongst various other things, Mahaffy stated that Campbell had exceeded his rights in preventing Father Quoririer from landing at Ocean Island. Ti right these wrongs he himself intended to bring back the missionary in the government ship. this time the welcome from the company and the Resident commissioner, Captain Dickson, was more sympathetic. The Catholics were full of enthusiasm. A plot of land north of the village of Tabwewa was rented and a subscription fund was opened to provide a building whi9ch would swerve as chapel, school and priest's house.

Conventions were always rare among the islanders, but there was plenty to do. Dysentery, flue and other illnesses were frequent among the workers. Some never saw their home-islands again, despite hygiene measures taken by the government and the company. the unwise and careless people allowed themselves to be attacked by new illnesses against which they had only slight immunity. when they died they were pleased to have a priest to help them. At the company's buildings made it possible, so Gilbertese workers were brought to Ocean island in ever-increasing numbers together with their wives and children and thus this parish of nomads grew in size. Gradually, resources made it possible to put up other buildings'; a maneaba, a house for the Sisters, a school, a pretty little presbytery - and water-cisterns too. Father Quoirier gave cinema shows; he organized meetings and games: attractions to help his parishioners spend Sunday religiously, in a family atmosphere. Father Quoirier was succeeded by Father Berclaz in 1911; and after 1920 by Father Pujebet. For a while two Sisters gave classes on Ocean Island. They were recalled to the Gilberts where the numbers of children needing schooling were greater.

On Nauru the Catholic Mission began earlier and brought better results. The island was biggr and more populated. In 1900 there were 1,400 inhabitants. Nauru was discovered in 1840 by Captain Fearn on the whaling ship Hunter. Oval in shape the island is twenty kilometres round and not unlike a hat in form. the brim, as it were, forms a flat surface on average four hundred metres wide and well covered with palms. The rest of Nauru is an undulating plateau reaching sixty metres in height. In one place there is a little lake at the same level as the sea. The higher part of the island is a vast field of phosphate and there the palms are very much thinned out. l the villages except one are on the shore. As far as good and water are concerned, the inhabitants are in about the same state as people in the northern Gilberts. The rain - an average fall of 3.20 metres per year - is noticeably more abundant than on Ocean Island, which, however, is on the same line of latitude. The people are hardly any different to those of Micronesia but the language is completely different. Thee is no known relationship to a language in any neighbouring island group. At one time the island was shared by twelve families, who gave some spice to life by making war.

About 1840 the island was already infested with criminals and deserters from whaling ships. In 1847 Harris, the redbearded pirate, had already been trading there for forty-five years. He was tired of wars which were becoming more and more lethal now hat guns and even cannons were used. so he longed for the arrival of the missionaries. the following year the Germans annexed Nauru and about the same time Protestantism was introduced to the island by a Gilbertese : Tabua from Tarawa. The apostle on Nauru is Father A. Kayser, from Alasace. He has been there wince 1904 and is certainly the only white person to know the island's difficult language. for some years he has been helped by an Australian colleague, Father O'Brien, and by the few Sisters. The island has to parishes, Meneng and Arubo, and there are 602 Catholics out of 1,651 Nauruans.

An Account of the Gilbert Islands
By Father Ernest Sabatier

Father Ernest Sabatier is part of the history of Kiribati. His book: Soux l'equateur du Pacifique was translated into English by Ursula Nixon and published by Oxford University Press in 1977, under the title: ASTRIDE THE EQUATOR - An Account of the Gilbert Islands.

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