Epigram at a Canon printer in the postgraduate office
Asian century: Realigning policy with the opportunities

Paradise lost - a tale of greed, excess and disaster


Nauruan warrior. 1880sONCE UPON A TIME there was a tiny eight square mile speck of land located in a most beautiful spot along the meridian of the equator in the vast and lonely reaches of the Pacific halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

There was nothing really special about this place, it was nothing but a tiny coral atoll uplifted by previous tectonic forces, however the surrounding waters were teeming with fish, which attracted the attention of wandering birds.

Offering protection from the dangers of the world, it became a favourite transit point for the wanderers of the sea, the frigate bird.

For thousands of years this tiny speck of land remained unspoiled apart from the nomadic visitors leaving behind their tiny blobs of faeces as peppercorn rental. The only other immigrants were botanical, arriving on the sea and wind and finding the rich soils fertile enough to flourish abundantly.

Alas other creatures of the human type descended upon this island paradise to plunder its rich resources and eventually taking up residence.

What a sight it must have presented to these visitors, an isle of black and white with surrounding pristine deep waters teaming with fish.

Then in 1878 a passing British captain, the first westerner to see this remote location, dubbed it Pleasant Island. As later events would have it, that original name sounds cruelly ironic now.

Life for the original inhabitants, the birds, was not so fortunate and many decided to leave and find new sanctuaries on neighbouring uninhabited islands.

The new human residents found that nature can also be cruel and periods of unseasonal weather caused famines, maintaining the equilibrium balances of nature.

As the world expanded, other aliens of fairer skin started to arrive.

The first contact the islanders had with outsiders was when Europeans from whaling ships and traders called in to replenish their supplies of fresh water and, later, when deserters from ships and escapees from penal colonies sought refuge in this new paradise.

Seduced by the relaxed laisse faire lifestyle on offer, these newly arrived visitors quickly took up permanent residence.

Little did the islanders realise that future generations’ lives would be irrevocably changed.

Nor did they realise that, when cultures clash, there are unforeseeable consequences; in this case the newcomers introduced muskets and grog.

Unused to the addictive nature of alcohol the islanders soon found themselves enslaved to this previously unknown nectar. Once hooked, they engaged in trading food to passing ships for guns and grog.

Chaos set in as old traditional lifestyles gave way culminating in a civil war.

The conflict began during a marriage festival. A discussion on a point of etiquette turned into a heated argument. One of the guests fired a pistol and unfortunately shot dead a young chief.

There had been feuds before, but this time every family in every clan had guns. More deadly shootings led to most of the islanders participating in the war.

A kind of guerrilla war broke out; drunken people shot others accidentally or broke into enemies’ houses, accidentally shooting candles, matches, or anything that moved. Women and children were slaughtered.

The resulting inter-tribal civil war between the island's 12 tribes lasted 10 years and reduced the population by 40%.

This dire situation did not go unnoticed in far away Europe and, under the pretext of restoring peace, the island was invaded by Germany.

Peace was immediately restored when the new conquerors issued the edict, “Surrender your weapons or we will execute your chieftains”. The next morning, the natives of the island turned over 765 weapons and several thousand rounds of ammunition, ending the bloodiest tribal war in the island’s history.

Although happy that the bloodshed was over the islanders did not realise that by accepting the German intervention they were destined to a future life of colonisation.

As well as the ignominy suffered by conquest the Pleasant islanders lives were further threatened by the effects of lethal European diseases unknowingly imported by the new colonisers.

The reign of the Germans was short-lived, World War I broke out and their colonies were taken over by the British and the Australians.

The new League of Nations dictated that this tiny island would be administered under a trusteeship arrangement with the future well-being of the original inhabitants of paramount importance.

Whilst the new colonisers were more benevolent than their predecessors, their main agenda was to plunder the legacy the guano deposits donated ungrudgingly by the original colonisers, the birds.

An era of moderate prosperity came at the expense of the island’s landscape and environment.

As the miners started to strip the island of its once dense tropical vegetation, they left a jagged wasteland in their path with exposed pinnacles of former coral outcrops standing as silent sentinels to the desolation.

This period of “good times” in the islands history was to last only some 30 years before the island again became a victim of calamity.

World War II saw the Japanese invade this small island and the people once again found themselves pawns in a game played by great powers.

These new Asian invaders lacked the attributes of benevolence and altruism shown by the previous expatriate rulers and their short-lived occupation was characterised by acts of extreme brutality.

As the island’s scant resources were insufficient feed all of those living there, the Japanese forcibly deported two-thirds of the islands’ population north to Chukk Island, with those remaining forced into slave labour. Many perished from starvation.

At the war’s end, only one-third of those deported had survived and the island had been completely destroyed by bombing.

Post-war things slowly returned to normal and mining operations resumed providing much-needed resources needed to rebuild this tiny country.

The much reduced population meant that the surviving islanders could enjoy a good and somewhat extravagant lifestyle.

During this period the new United Nations decided that the administration of the island was to be placed under a trusteeship administered by Australia, New Zealand and Britain.

The mandate was to eventually return the island to full sovereignty, achieved in 1968.

Upon gaining sovereignty, the citizens of the island, for a brief period of time, saw fortune smile upon them. The island earned a fortune exporting its phosphate for fertilizer and, by 1981, per capita income for each islander was $17,500.

While decades of mining had left the once-lush interior a bleak moonscape of strange, grey coral spikes, the islanders did not care. Wealth had arrived.

The islanders gave up their jobs, brought in migrants from other Pacific islands to do the hot, dirty work of digging, and sat back and watched the royalty cheques drop into their hands.

With money to burn and little thought for the future, everyone went on a shopping spree.

A visiting journalist, Nick Squires, reported in 2008: “Families who had never left the island would charter aircraft to take them on shopping expeditions in Hawaii, Fiji and Singapore. Sports cars were imported, despite the fact that the island has only one paved road and the speed limit is 25 mph.

“A police chief memorably bought a sleek yellow Lamborghini, only to find he was too portly to fit in the driver's seat. ‘We just didn't know how to handle it all,’ a barefoot islander told me as he played his guitar beneath a tree.

“Hardly anyone thought of investing the money. ‘Dollar notes were even used as toilet paper,’ his friend told me. ‘It's true,’ he insisted seeing my look of disbelief. ‘It was like every day was party day’."

During the 1970s, when the island had one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, poor investment strategies and mismanagement by those in control saw the money pot shrink and the government’s largesse to its citizens proved unsustainable.

The government employed 95% of the workforce, schooling and medical care were free and students went to university in Australia on the government's tab and medical treatment was delivered in Australia.

But the guano was running out. Too soon, the money was gone.

Most of the island’s citizens still cannot accept that the party is over and that they are poverty-stricken.

The name of this island is Nauru. The story of this Nauru’s descent from prosperity to penury is one of the most cautionary tales of modern development.


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Martin Hadlow

Indeed, a tale of caution and woe, Harry. Sadly, a country which has had a past full of brutal events and colonial shame.

In its hey-day, Nauru had investments in property all over the Pacific, including the famous Nauru House in Melbourne. I believe they even owned the splendidly named 'Apian Way Hotel' in, of course, Apia, Samoa.

When, in the early 1980s, Air Nauru had several aircraft and flew routes throughout the Pacific and even to Japan, I recall travelling with them from Apia to Honiara, via Nauru. From Apia to Nauru, there must have been only three or four passengers on the aircraft.

Upon reaching Nauru and awaiting transfer, we were advised that one of the Air Nauru aircraft had been comandeered by some senior Government official to go shopping in Fiji, so my service had been cancelled. I thus spend a day or two in the only hotel on the island awaiting the next flight.

It's worth remembering that when Nauru sued Australia in the International Court of Justice over the damage caused by phosphate mining, Australia paid out rather than continue the case. It cost $57m up-front, plus $50m paid over several years as the damage was repaired.

In passing, this year (2012/2013) the DFAT web-site indicates that Australia provides $31.8m in aid per year to Nauru. Of this, $23.7m is direct bi-lateral country aid.

Given that Nauru's population is around 9,300, I'll let you do the arithmetic.

Peter Kranz

Barbara - it was Nauru House, 80 Collins Street Melbourne. The Victorian Education Department had offices in the building and I remember attending meetings there in the '70's.


Francis Nii

You kept me in suspense trying to figure out which tiny island you were talking about right to the end. Great narrative Harry.

It's an interesting but a sad tale of that tiny island. The insight of being so rich then becoming so poor through ill planning, craving for extravagance and squandering should be a lesson for economically emerging PNG. Great story.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thanks, Harry for this cautionary tale.

I seem to remember when the people of Nauru owned a large office block somewhere in Australia. They were certainly rich for awhile due to their natural God-given resources.

It is certainly a cautionary tale for both Australia and PNG, mineral rich countries. I worry everytime I hear of another factory closing down due to the effects of the high value of the dollar.

Paul Oates

Great story, Harry. What a pity it's true.

It sounds like a microcosm of every other place humans arrive, overpopulate and then go through the same disasters and tragedies eventually ending up with either a stabiliSed population able to survive on what nature provides or an artificial one supported by resources from other areas that have not yet depleted all their own resources.

Apart from the couple of invasions, the same story has been played out in many other places and islands in the Pacific. Easter Island (Rapa Nui) comes immediately to mind.

Will we ever learn?

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