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Nauru - History

Nauru History

Not much is known of traditional Nauruan life, and even less is known about the island's history before Captain John Fearn came across it in 1798 as he was sailing from New Zealand to China. He must have thought it was all right, naming it Pleasant Island and noticing quite a few dwellings from his offshore vantage point. The usual European rou├ęs - whalers, blackbirders, loggers and buccaneers - started dropping in over the next 30 or 40 years.

The introduction of firearms and alcohol destroyed a relatively peaceful co-existence of the 12 tribes living on the island, leading to a ten-year war. By the 1870s so many guns had been traded to Nauruans that the German traders who found themselves based there asked their government to protect them. Warfare and introduced disease reduced the population by a third in little over 40 years, and a rough census showed that women outnumbered men by 30% by the time Germany invaded in 1888. Nauru was incorporated into the German Marshall Islands until 1914.

In 1899 a British prospecting company discovered that Nauru was nearly solid phoshpate - a precious commodity as European soils were becoming exhausted and Australian ones were proving none too fertile. Mining began, and Australia's first action of WWI was to wrest Nauru from Germany, which one warship did without an angry shot. After the war, the island became a British-mandated territory administered by Australia, and exploitation of the phosphate continued in earnest. In December 1940, German raiders exacted revenge for Germany's loss of its colony, shelling and sinking several Australian and British vessels sheltering offshore during a cyclone. The Japanese invaded in 1942 and deported about half the population - 1200 people - to Truk Island in the Carolines for forced labour. Nearly 500 perished, and by 1946 when the 737 survivors returned, the population that stayed home had dwindled to less than 1000. After the war, Nauru remained under Australian administration as a United Nations Trust Territory.

The British Phosphate Commission offered to resettle islanders, suggesting Curtis Island in the chilly Bass Strait of southern Australia. Needless to say, the Nauruans turned down the offer. By 1951, the Local Government Council was established, granting a small measure of self determination to islanders. Nauru won full independence in 1968, when it was accorded special member status of the Commonwealth. In 1970, Australia, New Zealand and Britain handed over their joint control of the phosphate operations to the Nauru Phosphate Corporation.

In the early days of mining the company paid half a penny to those Nauruans holding land in mined areas per ton of phosphate shipped, and the annual amount shipped was generally between one half and two million tons. While the royalty did increase, Nauru lodged a claim against Australia in 1989 for compensation for damage caused before independence. Australia and Nauru signed an out-of-court settlement in 1993 for US$66 million, and New Zealand and Britain each agreed to contribute nominal sums. The Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust invests money from the sale of phosphate and has extensive investments in Australia, Hawaii and other countries as insurance for the day when the phosphate mining grinds to a halt.

Under Nauru's Constitution, the Trust must pay a percentage of phosphate royalties into a fund to finance rehabilitation of the trashed landscape. The current estimate is that the job will cost US$230 million over more than 20 years. Nauru will face enormous financial difficulties when the phosphate is mined out. The Government announced plans to rehabilitate the island during the 1994 Small Island States Conference on Sustainable Development, without settling on a preferred method.

With their nation edging towards economic ruin, the government has been plagued with instability and accusations of poor financial management, and since November 1995 Nauru has had six rulers, with changes often brought about by votes of no confidence. Some of the large-scale losses were recouped in 1996 when the government successfully sued its legal advisors. However, as the country's finances continued to deteriorate, the government was forced to sign up to the Australian government's 'Pacific solution', whereby the Australians pay Pacific nations a handsome sum for hosting (in poor conditions, and at Australia's expense) would-be refugees who are denied entry to Australia because such entry would give them added legal rights the government prefers not to extend.

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