- Republic of Fiji -
Rabi is a beautiful island but the Banabans still yearn for the homeland
Extracts: "Te Rii Ni Banaba - The Backbone of Banaba" by R. K. Sigrah & S. M. King
Published IPS, University of South Pacific, Fiji 2001
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FIRST ARRIVAL ON RABI
At the end of World War II, with exaggerated reports from the British government that all of the villages of the island had been destroyed, the Banabans were gathered and taken to Rabi in Fiji, over 3,200 kilometres away. On 15 December 1945, 703 ill-treated and weary Banabans, of whom 318 were children, and 300 Gilbertese arrived at their new home.
Rabi was a freehold island owned by Lever’s Pacific Plantations Pty Ltd, which the British government then bought at the beginning of the war using the Banabans’ own phosphate royalties. About 70 square kilometres in area, or 10 times larger than Banaba, Rabi has a rugged interior, which rises to 470 metres.
Despite its physical beauty and lushness, Banabans found it hard to adapt to this strange new home.
THE BANABANS HAVE TO DECIDE THEIR
The Banabans only agreed to this resettlement for a period of two years, with the option of permanently settling there. If after the two year period, any or all of them should wish to return to Ocean Island, suitable transport would be arranged at the expense of the Gilbert & Ellice Island Colony Government.
At the start, the old Banaban form of government from Ocean Island was requested to carry on until a new system could be devised. However on the 27th. December the Fiji government enacted the Banaban Settlement Ordinance No. 28 of 1945, which enabled the Governor in Council to make regulations for the peace, order and good government of the Banaban community on Rabi.
The Banaban arrival on Rabi saw the Banabans face new adversities. A different environment and climate change of cold winters, cyclone seasons and mosquito born diseases saw the lost of many of the Banaban children and elders from pneumonia and dengue fever. Meagre army tents held no protection against the cyclonic rains that lashed the island and the Banabans had never experienced any cold weather before. They were only left with two months supplies of rations and told that they were now on an island of 'plenty'. Plenty of running spring water, groves of swaying coconut trees and pandanus to feed them, and a multitude of cattle and wild pigs to hunt and farm. No one explained that the cattle were riddled with T.B., the Banabans had no knowledge of farming and the pigs were indeed wild. The Banabans had never known the art of hunting, only fishing in their own environment. They welcomed the idea of not having to worry about droughts, but no one told them about the other dangers of drinking contaminated water in the tropical dry season.
After this turbulent period the majority of Banabans decided to stay on Rabi while those who wanted to return to Banaba had to return to live in a makeshift camp (more like refugees in their own homeland) and not allowed to return to their land. With not a lot of options the Banabans who stayed on Rabi also had more strife ahead. Now under the control of various European, so called Banaban Advisors, the people found themselves increasingly at odds with their Advisors as their Rabi Council of Elders clashed with the British Phosphate Commission (BPC) and their plans to acquisition more land for mining back on Banaba.
Eventually the Banabans were left to administer their own affairs under the Rabi Council of Elders after Major Laxton reluctantly left in controversial circumstances in the 1960’s. This period was followed by the court case in London during the 1970’s, where the Banabans sued the British government and the British Phosphate Commission for compensation in relation to phosphate mining back on Banaba.
THE STRUGGLE TO STOP MINING ON BANABA
While the Banabans elders fought in the British High Courts, approximately 100 young Banaban men and women from Rabi went willingly to try and regain Banaba. Here they were met with opposition from the local police force which was made up entirely of Gilbertese (now known as I-Kiribati) recruits under control from the colonial office based on Tarawa.
After days of various clashes where the police and the local Gilbertese labour force employed by the mining company united, using batons and tear gas against the Banabans, resulting in many of the Banabans being arrested and thrown into prison on their own homeland. The Ellice labourers with BPC would not involve themselves in these actions and even assisted some of the Banabans during this time of conflict.
These skirmishes resulted in fatal injuries to one of their young men, Tabare Biara aged twenty-one years, when he was struck by a tear gas canister and hit over the head with a baton. He became paralysed and died of brain damage a few months later. During the weeks that followed the Banabans made plans to stop all mining on the island with a peaceful demonstration, including young and old.
From informants the Banabans received information that the police had been instructed by head office in Tarawa to use guns and whatever force was necessary to stop them. Knowing all this they were prepared to sacrifice all for the land they loved. On the day in question, and with only hours to spare, a message was received from the Rabi Council of Leaders to cease further protest actions.
LIFE BACK ON RABI
One of the major problems the Banabans had to overcome was the cost of imported food. Since the move to Rabi they had to adapt to new skills and a life in a completely new environment. The Banabans were now relying more and more on the Banaban owned Co-operative and brought cans of tinned tuna and fish (ironically caught on a nearby Pacific Island and canned in China). Many a visitor to Rabi in the seventies though impressed with the community spirit and the charm of the Banaban people were also greatly alarmed at the amount of canned food the Banabans were eating.
After this period in the seventies not much was heard of the Banabans and their life on Rabi or Banaba for that matter. Visitors to Rabi decreased and contact with the outside world diminished while the court case in the British courts continued and the phosphate mining on Banaba by the BPC and the three governments involved would only increase.
More on Banaban History