Like many Australians, Noelle Janaczewska originally knew Nauru as a place the government has been sending asylum seekers for processing. Then the anthropology-trained writer started researching environmental history, and discovered the backstory of a tiny island in the middle of the South Pacific. What she found down a rabbit hole of archives and databases was weird, funny and unsettling. “It’s like the whole place has a strange theatricality about it,” she says.
First settled by Polynesian and Melanesian explorers, Nauru first received westerners in the late 1700s and was briefly annexed by the Germans in 1888. The next 100 years witnessed intense phosphate mining by Australia and a few other countries, before Nauru demanded its independence. VICE spoke to Noelle about Nauru’s history, which she will relay in a 30-minute performance essay entitled “Blasted Island” at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney.
What’s your take on Nauru before westerners got involved?
It was never really a jewel in the Pacific or a tropical paradise. It was always an idiosyncratic place. It’s not part of an archipelago or island chain. It had a very distinct culture and language, and was organised into a few matrimonial tribes, but experienced western culture very early on. The first westerners on Nauru were escaped convicts from Norfolk Island or deserters from whaling ships from North America or New England. So Nauru’s first exposure to westerners at the start of the 19th century wasn’t necessarily a terribly happy or positive experience.
Did you come across any conflict between the Nauruans and those washed up whalers and convicts?
There was some conflict. The Nauruans were much friendlier and treated the washed up convicts much nicer than the westerners treated them. The westerners came more often as the island became a place that whaling vessels stopped. So they introduced all sorts of things like alcohol, cigarettes and guns. That had a big impact for life on Nauru.
Then the Australians got more heavily involved about 100 years ago. What’s it like to mine for phosphate?
In terms of mining, it’s quite simple. You scrape off the topsoil and dig out the phosphate underneath. Nauru is basically a raised coral atoll. Once you take off the topsoil and phosphate, which is basically hundreds of years of bird shit, what you have left is this moonscape of coral pinnacles and depressions. As far as I can see on Google Earth, the coral looks quite bleached—it’s pale grey and it’s rocky. It’s not relieved by vegetation or any greenery, because there’s no soil for anything to grow on. So it looks like a barren pitted plateau. It’s a sorry tale of sacrificing the future for short-term gain.
So it’s really no surprise that Australia declared Nauru uninhabitable in the mid-1900s. What happened after they moved on?
They knew the phosphate would run out at some point. There was no reparations made and only a small part of the island was inhabitable. There were various discussions about what would happen and the three-part government–Australia, New Zealand and Britain–that had exploited the phosphate and ruled Nauru, decided its inhabitants would be offered resettlement in one of those countries, which quickly boiled down to Australia. The Australian idea was to absorb them into our general population, but the Nauruans wanted their own identity. So we started to look around for nearby resettlement on an island. Eventually one was offered in the 1960s, but the Nauruans wanted sovereignty and Australia wouldn’t have that, so the deal fell apart. Nauru decided they wanted independence.
What did they do for the next few decades, before the Australians needed a place to put asylum seekers?
There was a bit of phosphate left, so they continued to mine. There were a whole lot of other schemes, like setting up offshore banking and fairly dodgy financial investments. They became easy prey for a lot of operators and advisors, and again Australia had a rather unfortunate role, and money was misspent. So, when John Howard’s Pacific Solution came along in 2001, it was like phosphates out and refugees in.
Why do you think that turnaround happened?
They needed money. They needed a way to keep themselves afloat. Australia has always exerted a lot of control over Nauru. We can only speculate, but maybe it seemed like a good idea to the Nauruans at the time.
Did you uncover any other things that surprised you?
Well, after independence, Nauru owned its own natural resources and had a high per capita income. One thing they invested the money in was a West End musical about Leonardo da Vinci. Which was a real flop. Another one I came across was a very strange Graham Greene/James Bond type story–a scheme to extract North Korean scientists and defectors, and help transport them to the west.
From what you’ve described of the last 100 years of this piddly little island, it feels like Nauru has gone through quasi-colonialism?
I think it went through pretty major colonial exploitations! It’s 100 years of colonial exploitation and broken promises. You do have to also admire the determination of the Nauruans. They argued for independence and they got that. Although I think Australia has treated Nauru in a very shabby way, I don’t think they’re simply victims. They’ve shown some extreme resilience in the face of a big bully of a neighbour.
Are there any other unsavoury parts of Australian history or politicians that need a performance essay?
Well… for the first six months of this year, I wrote a letter every week to the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. So I’m going to make them into a performance. It’s mostly unrequited correspondence.
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