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Paradise for Sale

A Parable of Nature

Carl N. McDaniel (Author), John M. Gowdy (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 239 pages
ISBN: 9780520222298
January 2000
$31.95, £21.95
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The grim history of Nauru Island, a small speck in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and Australia, represents a larger story of environmental degradation and economic dysfunction. For more than 2,000 years traditional Nauruans, isolated from the rest of the world, lived in social and ecological stability. But in 1900 the discovery of phosphate, an absolute requirement for agriculture, catapulted Nauru into the world market. Colonial imperialists who occupied Nauru and mined it for its lucrative phosphate resources devastated the island, which forever changed its native people. In 1968 Nauruans regained rule of their island and immediately faced a conundrum: to pursue a sustainable future that would protect their truly valuable natural resources—the biological and physical integrity of their island—or to mine and sell the remaining forty-year supply of phosphate and in the process make most of their home useless. They did the latter.

In a captivating and moving style, the authors describe how the island became one of the richest nations in the world and how its citizens acquired all the ills of modern life: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension. At the same time, Nauru became 80 percent mined-out ruins that contain severely impoverished biological communities of little value in supporting human habitation.

This sad tale highlights the dire consequences of a free-market economy, a system in direct conflict with sustaining the environment. In presenting evidence for the current mass extinction, the authors argue that we cannot expect to preserve biodiversity or support sustainable habitation, because our economic operating principles are incompatible with these activities.
Carl N. McDaniel is Professor of Biology and Director of Undergraduate Environmental Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. John M. Gowdy is Professor of Economics and Director of the Ph.D. program in Ecological Economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is editor of Limited Wants, Limited Means (1997).
“While most readers probably have never heard of Nauru, McDaniel and Gowdy make it clear that its history could be our history . . . a worthwhile addition.”—Review Of Radical Political Economics
Chapter 2: Progress Comes to Nauru

The blanketing of european influence across the South Seas commenced on November 28, 1520, when the Concepción, the Trinidad, and the Victoria under the command of Ferdinand Magellan sailed into the Pacific Ocean through the strait that now bears his name. Magellan's ships ventured into a vast, uncharted ocean as they sailed up the South American coast and then out across the Pacific Ocean. After six weeks, provisions were exhausted, and crew members began to die. The island of Pukapuka provided water and turtle eggs, but after several more weeks of sailing west all provisions were exhausted. With only old leather, sawdust, and rats to eat, most of the crew became sick with scurvy and starved. More died, and the rest were saved from a similar fate only by eating the fresh fruits and vegetables given them by the natives of Guam in the Marianas. From the east Europeans had entered an immense ocean whose islands had been populated thousands of years earlier by people who sailed from the west. The first Europeans in the Pacific survived because of the generosity and hospitality of the islanders.

Almost three hundred years passed after Magellan's voyage before a Western ship happened upon Nauru. On November 8, 1798, the whaling ship Hunter rounded Nauru, and many canoes ventured out to meet the ship. The Hunter's crew did not leave the ship nor did Nauruans board, but Captain Fearn's positive impression of the island and its people led to its characterization by its English name, Pleasant Island. The Nauruans carried no weapons, and they were not tattooed, as were many other Pacific islanders. Fearn was surprised at how many natives he saw: several hundred in canoes and countless others on the beach. This first encounter was brief and peaceful.

the island

The island's remote location and small size isolated it from European influences for a few more decades. Although Magellan and other explorers opened the Pacific to European influence, Western culture's first emissaries to many of the Pacific islands were beachcombers. They were often deserters from whaling ships or runaway convicts who lived independent lives, sometimes preying upon, and at other times helping, the islanders. Most were transients, but some stayed and adopted an island's traditional way of life. Beachcombers were among the first westerners to transmit the European worldview to Pacific islanders.

The first Europeans to live on Nauru were Patrick Burke and John Jones, Irish convicts who had escaped from Norfolk Island, an English penal colony set aside for the worst criminals transported to Australia. They were reputed to have been on the John Bull, a ship that had mysteriously disappeared in 1830. Several of those who pirated the John Bull reportedly ended up on Ponape Island, while Jones and Burke proceeded to Nauru; along the way they ate all of their shipmates. In 1837, when five seamen deserted their whalers to adopt the beachcomber's easy life, they found about eight Europeans already on Nauru. The welcome the newcomers received was not what they had expected.

Jones had become Nauru's first, and last, dictator. When the five seamen landed on the island, Nauruans under Jones's command stripped them of their clothes and possessions. They were permitted to stay only by the sufferance of Jones, who, as they soon learned, had set adrift in a canoe two beachcombers who annoyed him. Beachcombing was not what it was cracked up to be, at least not on Nauru in 1837. At the earliest possible moment, the five would-be beachcombers stowed away on the Duke of York en route to Sydney, Australia. In October 1841 Jones poisoned seven beachcombers and shot four others so they would not usurp his power, and then he blamed the Nauruans for the deaths. In return the Nauruans ostracized Jones and banished him to Banaba, Nauru's closest neighbor 300 kilometers due east. Jones tried to return several months later, but the Nauruans would not allow him back. By 1845 only two beachcombers remained on Nauru.

Long before Europeans arrived, other Pacific peoples had moved among the islands, and although some of these newcomers were killed or enslaved, many were welcomed. At first the Pacific islanders viewed the strikingly different physical appearance of Europeans with awe, treating them with deference, but as more westerners arrived and their deeds became known, the islanders realized these foreigners were ordinary humans like themselves. Most of the beachcombers in the Pacific were not as disagreeable as Jones. Many respected the islanders, befriending them and treating their leaders and elders with the respect appropriate to their rank. The beachcombers were sensitive to the local norms of behavior and behaved accordingly, and the natives welcomed beachcombers who were integrated as economic and political assets. The newcomers could repair pistols, muskets, cannons, and an abundance of other articles—axes, knives, scissors, pots—that flowed from the ships to the islands. The beachcombers even served as valuable intermediaries between islanders and Europeans who came to trade.

One of the two beachcombers remaining on Nauru in 1845 was William Harris. He, like Jones, had escaped from the British penal colony on Norfolk Island and arrived in 1842 at the age of twenty-nine. In contrast to Jones, however, and in the beachcomber tradition, Harris assimilated native culture and became an influential intermediary as Nauru came under European influence. He took a Nauruan wife, fathered several children, and was adopted as a Nauruan. He became perhaps the only beachcomber the Nauruans ever fully accepted and trusted.

Over the next decades and into the twentieth century the Nauruans traded pigs and coconuts for steel tools, firearms, alcohol, tobacco, and other products of Western civilization. The islanders had quickly acquired the desire for some of these products, notably firearms. Other desires, however, were created by beachcombers and traders. Tobacco, for example, became a staple as a result of smoking schools where pipes and tobacco were handed out free of charge to generate demand.

Each clan and its leaders regarded the beachcombers as invaluable in negotiating trade agreements with visiting sailors and ship's delegates; and the beachcombers gained great advantage in performing such services. The beachcombers were key agents in bringing Western economic concepts to the islanders. At the outset, goods were exchanged by barter, but as the natives learned that all items had a relative value in marks or pounds or dollars, the concept of money as a medium of exchange became accepted. The social and economic consequences of reducing everything to a single dimension—its market price—were not grasped by the Nauruans, nor by anyone else, for a long time to come.

Copra, dried coconut meat, was a major trade item in the tropical Pacific. It was a natural transition for the Nauruans to shift from preparing dried coconut meat for their own use to making commercial copra, because for thousands of years they had been drying and storing coconut meat for the inevitable droughts. These droughts had been coming to Nauru for millennia as a consequence of extended La Niña events, during which westerly winds persist, thereby preventing the El Niño phase of Southern Oscillation, the periodic warming in the eastern Pacific Ocean that brings heavy rains to Nauru. In good years, when Nauru experienced El Niño-associated rains, a million pounds of copra could be produced for export. In 1886 such a crop was valued at 150,000 German marks on the Hamburg market. On Nauru, as on other islands, beachcomber-traders established themselves as middlemen who processed and exported copra. Although the beachcombers provided valuable services, their presence led to aggressive behavior among the natives. In 1852, in a disputed purchase of a cannon, the Nauruans, encouraged by beachcombers, captured the American brig Inda, killed the captain and several of the crew, and then set the ship adrift. Several other purported incidents gave Nauru a bad name. An amicable people started to settle quarrels in ways contrary to their traditional customs. For a number of years ships avoided the island whenever possible.

Traditional life was also disrupted by the introduction of alcohol, a drink absent from ancient Nauru. Although the Nauruans had drunk toddy for millennia, it was always consumed soon after it dripped from the cut coconut flower. In the mid 1800s visitors from the Gilbert Islands came to Banaba and introduced a new way of preparing toddy by letting it ferment for several days. The product, though sour, induced new sensations. The Banaban chiefs quickly recognized the disruptive nature of the new drink and put the Gilbertese back to sea in their canoes. The currents brought them to Nauru, where sour toddy took hold, and many islanders began to get drunk regularly.

Guns and alcohol are a reactive combination, as the Nauruans learned in the 1870s during a festival associated with a marriage. When a heated argument developed over a point of etiquette, one of the guests fired a pistol and accidentally killed a young chief. It was clear that the young chief's death must be avenged. In the past, clan conflicts had often begun over similar unfortunate incidents, only this time every family in every clan had guns. One drunken shooting incident led to another until most islanders were involved. A form of guerrilla warfare broke out; people randomly shot at others or sneaked up on an enemy's house at night and shot at a candle, a match, or anything that moved. Women and children were slaughtered. Unlike past conflicts in which traditional behavior had restored peace, the strife was not resolved.

A squadron of the Royal Navy arrived off Nauru on September 21, 1881, and the flagship approached the island to assess the situation. William Harris, the acculturated beachcomber, boarded the ship, and in the evening the flagship semaphored the rest of the squadron: "A civil war on the island. An escaped convict is king. All hands constantly drunk: no fruit or vegetables to be obtained, nothing but pigs and coconuts. The present island-king wants a missionary. He was evidently hungry."

Six years later, while traveling on the schooner Buster, F. J. Moss of Auckland went ashore while copra was being loaded. The Nauruans were friendly and in good humor although most of the boys and all of the men were armed with carbines or repeating rifles. The feud was still raging, but they appeared tired of it. From his conversations with Nauruans, Moss surmised that no one wanted to continue, but no one trusted the others to put down arms. The Nauruans wished that someone would simultaneously disarm them all. During his visit with Moss, Harris told the visitor that two members of his family had already been shot and killed and again expressed a strong desire to have a mission established to bring peace to the island.

During this tumultuous period in Nauruan history, the military and economic power of Europe was expanding because of technological innovations such as steam power and telegraphy. The colonial empires were dividing vast areas of the world among themselves. The huge demands of growing industries for raw materials and the quest for new markets for their manufactured goods fueled the expansionist mentality, even in Germany, where the general imperialist push for colonies had not been strong. England and Germany, wanting to avert conflicts and to protect their interests, reached an agreement in 1886 that established each country's sphere of influence in the western Pacific. The German trading consortium the Jaluit-Gesellschaft had traders on Nauru who recognized the island's capacity for copra production. As the discussions proceeded, the German negotiators adjusted the original line of demarcation slightly south to include Nauru in the German sphere but left Banaba to the British. The British did not object, thus setting the stage for German control of Nauru.

The decade-long civil war on Nauru had not helped copra production, nor could the traders' safety be assured. Traders and German officials proposed, therefore, that the government take an active hand in ruling Nauru. Nauru came under the German Protectorate on April 16, 1888, and a ban on firearms was declared. On October 1, 1888, the German gunboat SMS Eber dropped a landing party of thirty-six men on Nauru. Accompanied by William Harris, the armed marines marched around the island and returned with all twelve chiefs, the white settlers, and the newly arrived Gilbertese missionary. The marines kept the chiefs under house arrest until the next morning, when the annexation ceremony began with the raising of the German flag. The Germans explained how the island was to be administered: There would be peace on Nauru and a ban on firearms was promulgated. The Germans told the chiefs that all weapons and ammunition must be surrendered within twenty-four hours or the chiefs would be taken to prison. By the morning of October 3, 765 guns were turned over with at least 1,000 rounds of ammunition. Nauru's devastating internal feud was over.

The annexation of Nauru by Germany had saved Nauruan society from potential self-destruction by sour toddy and guns, yet at the same time the Nauruans lost all control over their island and their destiny. In a mere fifty-eight years, after millennia of self-sufficiency within the confines of their island home, their world had been rearranged. The rearrangement weakened their myths, beliefs, and values, and would ultimately destroy their land and undermine their culture.

Halfway around the world, roughly coincident with the arrival of Patrick Burke and John Jones on Nauru's beaches, another adventure had begun that would challenge the core of Western culture's worldview. In December 1831 a twenty-two-year-old English naturalist named Charles Darwin commenced a five-year voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle. Over the next several decades Darwin would gather and ponder massive evidence to demonstrate that all life on the planet, including humans, had evolved over the eons from common ancestors.

The idea of organic evolution was not new: Darwin's painstaking labor had helped transform a speculative conjecture into observationally substantiated scientific theory. How this evolution occurred depended on thousands of variables, and mounting evidence confirmed the theoretical proposition that evolution was haphazard. When the vast quantities of data and evidence were analyzed and understood, it became difficult to argue that the rungs on the Ladder of Nature represented ascending degrees of perfection, or, more to the point, that humans were God's special creation. Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, the cotheorists of evolution by means of natural selection, had established the basic mechanism for the common ancestry of all life on earth. Humans were far from the center of the universe, and their endowments, like those of all other organisms, were chance outcomes of a mechanistic, undirected process. The medieval concept of humans' place in the universe underwent a second great change. The fundamental assumption of Western culture's worldview had been wrong: organisms are constantly changing, and the reality of the biological world demands an equality and unity among all life, including humans.

While Western culture continued to assimilate the deeper meanings of organic evolution, the Nauruans were adjusting to European domination. On the morning of October 3, 1888, after all of the guns and ammunition had been turned over to the Germans, the chiefs were released. Robert Rasch, a German trader on Nauru, was appointed by the imperial commissioner as temporary official until a permanent official could be found. Later in the day the SMS Eber, with its marines and the imperial commissioner on board, sailed away. The permanent official, Christian Johannsen, arrived on May 14, 1889. Activities and events on the island had become the concern of the German government and its trading company partner, the Jaluit-Gesellschaft. The senior members of the clans, or chiefs as Europeans called them, had been displaced by higher authority. A European official had been installed, and the Nauruans accepted his authority to settle disputes, to punish, and to keep the peace.

Things began well on Nauru after the Germans took charge. Twenty-six more rifles and several pistols were handed over to Mr. Johannsen shortly after he arrived. No violence of a serious nature was reported for years—except for the deaths of several Gilbertese in a drift canoe just before Mr. Johannsen's arrival—although dozens of minor disputes over coconut tree rights, land boundaries, and the like were heard and resolved. The consumption of sour toddy dropped substantially and was soon banned, as the importing of alcohol had been earlier. Drunkenness vanished.

With trade in guns, ammunition, and alcohol ended by decree, some Europeans worried because the only major commodity left to trade with the Nauruans was tobacco. Others realized that, with luck, the nascent taste for imported foods like bread, rice, sugar, and flour would grow so the natives would come to depend on these and other Western trade items. The resulting need for money would make them more amenable to entering into labor contracts on and off Nauru. These changes, the Europeans reasoned, would enable the Nauruans to improve their lives and participate in the world beyond their small island.

Government officials, warships, marines, administrators of the companies, and other bureaucrats now provided services that the Nauruans had not needed in their traditional society. It was a new type of social organization that formalized and standardized relations between individuals and groups. Although on the surface it seemed more complex than the traditional system it was replacing, in many ways it was simpler. In the past, barter, group decisions, rights, disputes, and other human interactions were subject first to general customs and then to case-by-case resolution. Each situation had its own complexity, and the traditional system could cope uniquely with each occurrence. The new system was more of a one-size-fits-all approach.

In the overtly structured industrialized world, when someone provides a service or a material good, there is a monetary price to pay. Nauru was now a part of this system; the traders had to pay a tax to conduct business on Nauru, and each islander had to pay a head tax in copra. The head tax was fixed from year to year as a function of the island's copra production. The chief of each clan was responsible for collecting the copra from his people. When it was all collected and delivered, the chief received one-third of the sale value in German marks. There is no record of Nauruan protest to the tax; the Nauruans appeared to believe that the new peace and order were well worth a little coconut meat.

In September 1890 the first census of Nauru was conducted, counting 1,294 Nauruans and 24 Gilbertese missionaries and their families. The ratio of men to women, 574 to 720, reflected the disproportionate number of men killed in the long internal conflict terminated by German occupation. Some officials predicted that the population, now removed from the artificial constraints of violent conflict, would grow rapidly. This was not viewed as a problem but as an opportunity. Although Nauru had missed the era of "blackbirding," or the roundup of natives for the slave trade, because of its remoteness and small size, good labor was in short supply throughout the western Pacific. Europeans judged that Nauruan men and women would make good workers since by all accounts they were strong, friendly, good humored, intelligent, and skilled craftspeople. These expectations were unrealized, since few Nauruans ever left their island permanently.

Although the Nauruans had their own system of rituals and beliefs, they were receptive to new ideas. Christianity was no exception. When the first missionaries from the Gilbert Islands arrived in 1887, out of curiosity a number agreed to be baptized. For several reasons the deeper meaning of the ceremony was lost, not the least being the poor Nauruan-language skills of the Gilbertese. Some missionaries also let personal desires overcome professional purposes, especially when one committed adultery with the wife of a chief, and the missionaries were deported. With the arrival of the Reverend Philip A. Delaporte from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1899, conversion to Christianity began in earnest.

Nauruans, like many isolated groups of humans, had no knowledge of diseases, except for the nutrient and vitamin deficiencies associated with severe drought. The first indication of disease came in 1864 when Captain Brown of the Nightingale reported that some natives suffered from venereal disease. Nauruans were spared from plagues that depopulated several Pacific islands—tuberculosis, influenza, leprosy, and dysentery—until after the turn of the century.

The Germans brought Nauru into their sphere of influence in 1886 because they believed it a fertile island with copra trade value. Though it was true that Nauru had exported annual harvests of over a million pounds of copra—almost half the total production of the Marshall, Brown, and Providence islands—these harvests were in the wet years. Railfall was unpredictable and droughts were frequent. In the mid to late 1890s several dry years in a row had plunged many of the traders deep in debt. The Jaluit-Gesellschaft tried unsuccessfully to be allowed to remove the administrator to save money. The Pacific economic doldrums for the owners and stockholders of the Jaluit-Gesellschaft were soon to end, however.

In 1896 the cargo officer for the Pacific Islands Company on the Lady M, Henry Denson, found on Nauru an odd-looking rock that he believed was a piece of a petrified tree. Although he considered making children's marbles out of the rock, it ended up as a door prop in the company's Sydney office. In 1899 Albert Ellis, an officer with the phosphate section of the Pacific Islands Company, was temporarily transferred to the Sydney office to analyze samples coming from the islands. He noticed the doorstop and thought that it looked like Baker Island phosphate, but Denson told him that it was fossilized wood. His daily encounters with the doorstop, however, kept his original idea alive, and after three months Ellis decided to chip off a piece and test it. It was phosphate ore of the highest quality.

Many soils, such as those in Australia, are deficient in phosphate—a must for successful agriculture. In the commercial world unequal distribution of raw materials means an opportunity to trade and to make money. The livelihood of many companies is built on redistributing resources like phosphate that are unevenly scattered about the globe. The Pacific Islands Company in 1899 needed new supplies of phosphate because sources of high-grade guano were becoming hard to find. Ellis's discovery in Sydney instilled the hope that huge sums of money could be made. But concerns were raised when it was rumored that an enormous deposit of phosphate ore had been discovered on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Bringing to market such a large deposit might enable another company to control the market and thus put the Pacific Islands Company out of the phosphate business. Unfortunately for the Pacific Islands Company, Nauru, with all of its suspected phosphate, belonged to Germany.


As chance would have it, just to the east of Nauru, Banaba shared Nauru's biological and geological history, and the Pacific Islands Company set its sights on that small island. Industrial and governmental secrecy engulfed transactions between Sydney and London as the Pacific Islands Company conspired to secure the wealth hidden in geochemically processed bird droppings and marine deposits. On May 3, 1900, the natives of Banaba granted the Pacific Islands Company the right to mine all phosphate on the island for 999 years at an annual fee of 50 pounds sterling (British). A year later, the Pacific Islands Company became the Pacific Phosphate Company, and all business except phosphate was abandoned.

Based on his investigative visit in 1900, Albert Ellis reported: "The sight of a lifetime. Material in scores of millions of tons which would make the desert bloom as a rose, would enable hard-working farmers to make a living, and would facilitate the production of wheat, butter and meat for hungry millions for the next hundred years to come." Relying on Ellis's assessment, the newly reorganized company continued to pursue Nauru's phosphate. But the negotiations were convoluted and tricky. Four parties were involved—German and British governments, the Pacific Phosphate Company, and the Jaluit-Gesellschaft—and to further complicate the transactions, the Pacific Phosphate Company did not want the enormous value of the phosphate deposit to be known. Shrewd tactics produced an agreement in 1906 that sanctioned mining of Nauru by the Pacific Phosphate Company. The Jaluit-Gesellschaft's mining rights were transferred to the Pacific Phosphate Company for a cash payment of 2,000 pounds sterling (British), 12,500 pounds sterling (British) worth of shares in the Pacific Phosphate Company, and a royalty payment for every ton exported. Although the Nauruans were not a party to the formal agreements, the Germans, out of a concern for fairness, decided to pay the native landowners a small amount for each ton of rock removed from their land.

In the first year over 11,000 tons of phosphate were shipped to Australia. It was a grand success for all of the Europeans who participated. English and German settlements were constructed on Nauru with flower gardens, coral-lined walks, and a two-story house for the German governor. The antenna of a state-of-the-art wireless station reached 128 meters into the sky.

Despite the fact that the central plateau, Topside, was owned by individual Nauruans, the Pacific Phosphate Company took control of the sale and lease of the phosphate-rich areas. In all of the agreements between those mining Nauru, only two clauses referred to native inhabitants. One required that the mining company give notice of the beginning of operations so measures could be taken to look after the interests of the native people. The other allowed the Jaluit-Gesellschaft to assist the Pacific Phosphate Company in addressing any claims that might be made by natives.

The phosphate deposits below the surface of Topside were nestled among the coral skeletons of the island's creators. As a consequence, mining the phosphate was not easy, and with no harbor or accessible anchorages, offshore loading was a challenge. Chinese and other laborers were brought in as miners because the Nauruans had little interest in organized, for-pay labor. By the time World War I began, 100,000 tons were being shipped annually with a value of $12.50 (Australian) per ton when loaded for transport.

Meanwhile, equally far-reaching changes were affecting other aspects of Nauruan culture. After its poor start in the late 1880s, Christianity was firmly established after the arrival of the Reverend Philip Delaporte and his wife in 1899. They thought that "inappropriate" Nauruan ways needed to be changed so native lives could be improved and Nauruans could learn to live as civilized human beings. Women should not do any heavy work because that was men's work. Old people should not be allowed to go into caves and die, but instead must be given food and kept alive. Sexually suggestive, immoral dances were not to be tolerated and everybody, especially women, should be properly clothed — the Mother Hubbard dress was deemed appropriate female attire. Although they complied, many Nauruan women, for modesty's sake, also wore the traditional coconut or pandanus leaf ridis under their dresses. Many men also wore their ridis under their new lava-lavas, two yards of cloth wrapped around, and tucked in, the waist. Aside from modesty, a problem arose because the coconut oil rubbed on the body after physical activity and before sleeping soiled the new attire. Nauruans changed their new clothes infrequently, even sleeping in clothes still wet from fishing trips; and they stopped oiling their bodies as often. Because of these changes in hygiene and the influx of foreigners harboring new diseases, the incidence of tuberculosis and other health problems climbed. Nauru's most devastating epidemic occurred in 1907 when dysentery caused 150 deaths. Western beliefs propelled the Christian newcomers to zealously "improve" a society that had been living successfully for thousands of years in a place the Christians had just "discovered."

Along with phosphate mining and Christianity came a gentle but greater exposure to the price-based market economy of Europeans. With the small amounts of money that came to some Nauruans from phosphate mining operations or the sale of copra, they purchased tobacco, sugar, rice, biscuits, canned salmon, and flour. Some developed a taste for these items, but for the most part they were extras — the island's traditional ways still provided the necessities of life for almost all Nauruans. Hence the market economy took a while to come to the people of Nauru. Even so, the phosphate lying under Topside made Nauru and its European masters immediate participants in world markets.

In 1918 the cartographer's line that had placed Nauru under German rule took on unexpected significance. When Germany lost its Pacific possessions after its defeat in World War I, the islands were entrusted to the victors under the Covenant of the League of Nations. The concept embodied in the covenant acknowledged the rights of dependent peoples, and it imposed responsibilities on the nations entrusted to look after these peoples' interests. Nauru's sister phosphate island, Banaba, was under British rule, not international mandate, so it became the moral duty of the British colonial power to look after the Banabans' interests. As we shall see, moral and legal accountability played out very differently for the peoples of these two islands.

As negotiations began over the displaced territories, the tremendous phosphate wealth of Nauru was coveted by Australia, whose delegates lobbied to annex the island. In the negotiations U.S. President Woodrow Wilson held firmly to his policy of no annexations; this limited the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand to the trusteeship of Nauru. The trustees acquired all the assets and rights of the Pacific Phosphate Company, which were subsequently administered by the British Phosphate Commissioners. The three powers signed the Nauru Island Agreement of 1919, which entitled them to the phosphate of Nauru at cost of production. After all was said and done, about 34 million tons of phosphate — over $300 million (Australian) at world market prices — were mined during their tenure as trustees.

Rosamond Rhone from National Geographic visited Nauru in 1921 and wrote an article titled "Nauru, the Richest Island in the South Seas." The article describes a native culture that was still vibrant yet a curiosity. The warm, amicable personalities of the people are apparent in the words and pictures. They fish, sing, dance, and practice the traditions of their culture. The word "richest" in the title alludes to phosphate, but the commercial world is still separate from the lives of most of the natives. It is really two cultures coexisting. Like oil and water, they do not mix well, and life goes on. Little progress is made in the 1920s and 1930s to create an independent Nauru, but the Australian farmers have inexpensive phosphate and the Nauruans keep to themselves.

During World War II Nauru fell into Japanese hands. An airstrip was built and the Allies bombed the island. Twelve hundred Nauruans, two-thirds of the native population, were deported to Truk Island, where one out of three died before the war's end. Their traditional culture, already affected by Western patterns of thought and habit, was devastated by Japanese occupation and deportation. On September 14, 1945, the Japanese surrendered to the Australian occupation force, and just over four months later the Nauruans who had survived deportation and forced labor were reunited with their war-torn home.

A new United Nations Trust Agreement was established in late 1947. From a Western perspective life on Nauru returned to normal; the phosphate commissioners again controlled the island's resources. Enormous amounts of money were made by the British Phosphate Commissioners. In 1948 revenues were $745,000 (Australian). A mere 2 percent of this went to Nauruans directly or into their trust funds, and 1 percent was charged for administration. As the years passed, pressures from the Nauruans and from the United Nations Permanent Mandates Commission and the Trusteeship Council led to larger percentages of revenue going to the island's native people. In 1966, two years before independence, the Nauruans were given 22 percent of revenues of just over a million dollars (Australian), while 14 percent went for administration. The British Phosphate Commissioners believed, and maintained, that they were being more than generous since they had no obligation to pay royalties and the Nauruans' needs were more than adequately met. Historical analyses later revealed that the Nauruans held a different opinion.

Neither the League of Nations nor the United Nations ever intended the trusteeships to be permanent. They were temporary arrangements to give the territories under trusteeship time to prepare for independence. The tremendous wealth buried in Nauru's Topside, coupled with the Australian need for phosphate in the context of an imperialistic mentality, did not encourage the trustees to prepare the Nauruans for independence. Among the nations of the world, however, a sense of justice and a drive toward self-determination gained momentum. The Nauruan desire for independence and control of their land no longer could be denied.

The sixty years of mining under occupation and then trusteeship had left more than a third of the island in a state of complete destruction. Who was to restore this hollowed-out wasteland on their island? And if it could not be rehabilitated, would they be resettled on another island? At whose expense? These questions, of vital importance to the Nauruans, were not settled when independence was granted on January 31, 1968. Rather, it took just over a quarter of a century to bring a resolution. On August 10, 1993, Nauru's suit against Australia in the International Court of Justice in the Hague was settled out of court by a "compact of settlement." Nauru would receive, over 20 years, $107 million (Australian) for restoration of the areas of Topside devastated by mining during the years of trusteeship. Though a substantial sum, in 1967 the accumulated revenue loss to the Nauruans during the trusteeship amounted to more than $300 million (Australian). Three hundred million dollars compounding at 5 percent for 26 years between 1967 and 1993 would have exceeded a billion dollars.

The Nauruans' island and their lives had been subjected to powerful external forces from the mid 1800s until independence, which transformed a self-sufficient culture into a radically different one. It was not Nauruan, nor really Western. The traditional values and patterns of life that gave meaning to the people and the culture were as eroded as the island. The wealth extracted from Topside created a market economy on Nauru that the Nauruans were obliged to join, in large part because of the devastation that World War II had brought to their island and culture. They had abandoned the island's traditional foods of fresh fish, coconut, and pandanus fruit for a diet of imported foods. Although a person could easily walk around the island in four hours, automobiles became common. Nauruans achieved independence, but a century of growing dependence on the knowledge and resources of others had not prepared them well for self-sufficiency in a world market.

While the trustees and industry officials knew the ins and outs of the phosphate industry, the Nauruans had been excluded from all aspects of the business, from the mining itself to the complexities of international markets to the management of the profits. As independence approached they had requested and been denied any assistance by those who controlled the island's wealth for almost three generations. Hammer DeRoburt, a Nauruan schoolteacher who had survived Japanese occupation as a youngster, emerged as the chief Nauruan negotiator and provided the leadership that brought independence and native control and ownership of the island's phosphate industry. As the net proceeds from the sale of phosphate accrued to their accounts, the Nauruans began to realize the tremendous wealth that had been diverted to others.

Because of the initial German control of their island, Nauruans had eventually received reparations and independence. By contrast, history treated their neighbors, the Banabans, more harshly. Each Banaban received modest royalty payments during the mining period, a one-time compensation payment of $10,000 (Australian) from the British, and relocation to another island. This difference in human political history reflected a variation in biological history. Banaba had a climate that supported few coconut trees. With no copra-trade possibilities Banaba was of little interest to the Germans in 1886. Thus, biological diversity played a major role in the human political history of these two islands, as it has in all of human history, political or otherwise.

National Geographic, in the person of Mike Holmes, again visited Nauru in 1976; the title of Holmes's article was "This Is the World's Richest Nation—All of It!" The distinctive two cultures Rosamond Rhone observed in 1921 had emulsified—the Nauruans are economic persons of a unique character. "The government offers free or low-cost everything for everybody, from owners of relatively unproductive 'coconut land' to 'phosphate land' millionaires. And nobody pays any taxes on Nauru." The sale of 2.2 million tons of phosphate rock at $60 (Australian) per ton takes care of everything. Baugie Dediya's family, the co-owners of 30 acres of phosphate land, lives in a nicely furnished, modern home with videotape TV, stereo, three washing machines, a motorboat, a motorcycle, a car, and two jeeps. Natives golf, fish for fun, and play soccer. The traditional belief "tomorrow will take care of itself" does seem to be reality.

Exactly how tomorrow will take care of itself had become a major concern for Nauru's leaders, who clearly understood that the supply of phosphate was finite. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested—in Air Nauru, Nauru Pacific Shipping Line, Nauru House in Melbourne (at one time Australia's tallest building); in other office buildings and hotels in Honolulu, Washington, D.C., Houston, Guam, and the Marshall Islands; and in such diverse enterprises as a brewery in the Solomon Islands, forest land near Portland, Oregon, a phosphate fertilizer plant in India, and a musical in London—to ensure the financial well-being of future generations. By the mid 1980s the trust funds were estimated to be just over a billion dollars (Australian), but the rest of the balance sheet was a harbinger of disaster: national debt in excess of $600 million (Australian), annual revenue $60 million (Australian), and expenditures $100 million (Australian). In 1998 with the thirty-year celebration of independence and the passing of two hundred years since Western contact, the supply of unmined phosphate had dwindled—only several years to a decade of profitable mining remained. Air Nauru's five-plane fleet of jet aircraft had been reduced to one, the government payroll was not always met on time, and other signs of cash flow problems abounded.

island map

Despite the successes or failures of financial management, in order to sustain health and a richness of life people need a worldview that gives their lives meaningful purpose. The life span for Nauruan males based upon data from 1976-1981 was under 50 years, lower than any other Pacific Island group; and a major cause is accidents—every family owns at least one vehicle despite only one paved, 18-kilometer road around the island. Nauruans are, moreover, among the most obese people on earth; their incidence of diabetes—30 percent among those over 25 and about 50 percent in the older population—is close to if not the highest in the world. Cancer and heart disease are common, and alcoholism is a serious problem. They have acquired in full measure these and a host of other ills associated with modern civilization. Education and preventive health care are improving the situation, but the negative consequences of exchanging much of their traditional lifestyle for Western ways have been substantial.

The ecological health of Nauru is now no better than the general health of its people. Many Pacific coral islands were not biologically rich before human habitation, and Nauru was such an island. The almost total devastation of Topside coupled with the impact of about 10,000 people living on the thin coastal strip made biologically poor Nauru even poorer—most native plant species are extinct on Nauru, and 27 of the 55 species remaining are endangered or extinct. The mined-out coral pinnacles of Topside offer an inhospitable habitat for most plant life and thus most life. By natural processes it would take more than 1,000 years for Topside to undergo any significant level of biological diversity restoration.


Prior to Western influence, humans had inhabited Nauru for millennia because it supported enduring habitation, not because it was a tropical paradise. Then a new pattern of civilization came to this isolated bit of coral-created land. Within a little over a century, the Nauruans have achieved substantial monetary wealth, but this transformation has left the island and its people with immense challenges. If isolated, Nauru could no longer support its human population, nor has its people maintained the skills, knowledge, beliefs, or pattern of living necessary for enduring habitation. Why does this matter? Nauru is small, isolated, and a footnote in the history of resource exploitation, yet how big is Nauru's shadow across the earth?

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