“Banaba had to die for New Zealand’s grazing agriculture to live,” explains Hele Christopher-Ikimotu. (Photo supplied)

In 1945, Banaban people were forcibly displaced from their ancestral island because of destructive mining by the British Phosphate Commission.

The BPC members were New Zealand, Australia and Britain. They began mining phosphate in Banaba, as well as Nauru, around the 1920s.

The phosphate was used for fertiliser on New Zealand and Australian farms and was also sold internationally for profit. The forced relocation of the Banaban people to Rabi island in Fiji occurred because the BPC wanted to continue mining unimpeded.  

By the 1980s, the land in both Banaba and Nauru was effectively barren. In Banaba, 90 percent of the land surface was removed. For both peoples, the destruction of their islands through exploitative colonial practices continues to be devastating.

In this piece, originally published by the Pasifika Medical Association, Hele Christopher-Ikimotu reflects on that history, and what it means to be Banaban in New Zealand.


Recently, my eight-year-old niece, with the biggest smile on her face, told me that when kids at school ask about her cultural background, she tells them she is Banaban.

Even though the response is always “what’s that?”, it doesn’t stop her from standing proud and firm in her identity.

When I was her age, I didn’t even know I was Banaban. I grew up thinking I was only Niuean and I-Kiribati. Even now, I sometimes pick and choose when to say I’m Banaban to avoid the inevitable: “What’s that?”

It can be overwhelming having to explain our history, our displacement and the painful experiences of my ancestors. However, my niece’s pride as a Banaban is a potent reminder that we must keep our culture and identity alive by simply saying: “I am Banaban.”

The Banabans are from the island of Banaba, also known as Ocean Island, located in the Central Pacific. When phosphate was discovered there in 1900, it triggered the destruction of our island at the hands of the British Phosphate Commission (BPC), which was comprised of three nations: Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Phosphate was like gold during this time. More than 20 million tonnes of our land was removed through mining. Where did this phosphate go? It was spread across farmlands as fertiliser in the three BPC countries of Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

As my mother always says: “Our land died, so others could live.” The Banabans were displaced to the Fiji Island of Rabi in 1945 so mining could resume after the Second World War, and we now call Rabi home.

“Language is only one marker of identity,” says Hele Christopher-Ikimotu, pictured here with his mother, Janet Tawaketini. (Photo: supplied)

During Kiribati Language Week this month, the theme focused on nurturing, enhancing and sustaining the Tungaru language and culture — “Tungaru” being the ancestral name for Kiribati.  I thought of my Banaban ancestors and a language that has died with them.

Banaba is now a part of Kiribati territory. The British handed us over to them when Kiribati gained independence in 1979. Before European contact, we were an independent island. This part of history comes with challenges for us, because, as Banabans, we’re our own people separate from I-Kiribati. Many people don’t know that.

They also don’t know that Banabans had our own language because today we speak the Kiribati language. Our language was wiped out when missionaries used Kiribati Bibles to spread the gospel. The recruitment of men from the Gilbert and Ellice islands (Kiribati and Tuvalu) to work for the BPC contributed to intermarriage with Banabans — and many of my great-grandparents’ generation became mixed Banaban-Gilbertese or Banaban-Tuvaluan. Gilbertese or the Kiribati language became the dominant language. Even the Tuvaluans of the colonial era spoke Gilbertese.

So, what does that mean for the Banaban Islanders, some may ask? Do we have a right to say we’re our own people when we speak a language that belongs to another?

My answer to that is YES.

It’s important to remember that language is only one marker of one’s identity. We Banabans have our own history, our own geography, and our own culture reflected in our songs, dances and storytelling. I acknowledge the relationship between the Banabans and I-Kiribati, but also stress the importance of recognising our differences.

Navigating the complexities of this relationship is not easy when the countries we now live in, especially the BPC countries of Britain, Australia and New Zealand, put their heads in the sand like an ostrich when they need to recognise and acknowledge who the Banabans are.

Two years ago, the Ministry for Pacific Peoples invited Pacific communities to a discussion about the education curriculum and how it should cover New Zealand’s historical relationship with the Pacific.

Of course, the Dawn Raids was a topic not to be missed. My mother attended that meeting and pointed out that the relationship with Banaba is also an essential piece of history, particularly the link between phosphate mining and farming in New Zealand. Previously, it was taught as part of the geography curriculum — as students who studied under the School Certificate and University Entrance system would remember.

It should never have been removed. New Zealand’s history of colonialism with Banaba should be part of the current education curriculum. Phosphate from Banaba nurtured New Zealand’s agricultural industry from the early 1900s till the 1970s, and that industry continues to thrive today. Students should understand how Banaba had to die for New Zealand’s grazing agriculture to live.

The Banabans now live in diaspora here in New Zealand. We have a thriving Banaban community. We are recognised in the Ministry for Pacific Peoples as a people with our own ethnic identity — as a result of meetings with our elders and the ministry. When we fill the census, we can be counted as Banaban under the “Other Pacific” category.

If the Banabans can be counted as a unique identity in the census, then people in Aotearoa should also learn about who we are — our culture, history and Banaban identity.

(Photo supplied)

Hele Christopher-Ikimotu is Niuean-born, and of Niuean, Banaban, I-Kiribati descent. He’s a proud South Aucklander, who lives in Māngere. Hele is the communications manager for the Pasifika Medical Association Group (PMAG) and is the chair of the Banaban Cultural Community of Auckland Youth (BCCAY). This is a lightly edited version of his original piece, published here.

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