Daryl Tarte. Islands of the Frigate Bird. Institute of Pacific Studies, 1999. 9820201470
I don’t recall ever having heard before of the island of Banaba. Everyone should. It is the history of the world, and it’s future, demonstrated in one small rocky atoll.
Right from the beginning, its story is one of one group of people conquering another. When Rotan and his companions land on a rocky island after months adrift at sea, they call it the most obvious name possible, Banaba, meaning ‘rocky island’, and they soon murder the men among the short, dark-skinned people they find there, and establish a new life with the women and children.
So begins the life and culture of the Banaban people. It is one spent in balance with the earth and the sea. We follow the history of Banaba through the first person voices of many people, Islanders and others, from Rotan in ancient times to Ion Itabirik, a voice from the future.
It’s an engaging way of giving us a detailed history lesson. Through these first person accounts we can understand something of the culture and development of Banaba and its intersections with its neighbours, including Hawaii, Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu (the Gilbert and Ellice Islands), the Marshall Islands, and of course, the i-Matang.
We trace Rotan’s founding of a settlement, and the hardships of living on the atoll of Banaba, later known as Ocean Island. The people carefully steward the resources of food and water. We learn how fresh water was found and is husbanded. The stories of infanticide, to keep populations at a sustainable level, are both confronting and, in the context perhaps understandable. We stand beside Tiata Tewai on the beach after he has performed the requisite feat of endurance so that his “father and all the elders greeted me as a man, and I felt like a man, though I was only 12.”
On Tarawa, the main island of present day Kiribati, Australian Charlie Carrol decides to set up a trade store to buy coconut oil from the locals, the ingredient newly precious for soap and candle making. He works respectfully with elder Kabure, but Kabure’s son, now the grown man Tiata Tewai, does not trust white men. They each, though, confront the advent of the missionaries in their own ways but with similar fears.
Blackbirding takes men like Ten Ten away to Hawaii, but it is the discovery of phosphate and the advent of the Pacific Island Company that truly changes the fate of Banaba. While maintaining an ever smiling face of friendship and paternalism, the British, Australians and New Zealanders slowly mine the island of Banaba out from under the feet of its people. As the miners come to clear almost the last of their productive land, Sito and the other i-Banabans watch on:
Many of the trees had been planted years before by our ancestors. They were part of our heritage. They had life in them and they gave us life. I watched a machine root up an old mango tree and remembered how I had played in its branches as a young boy…
I saw Talu, my wife, hugging her favourite pawpaw tree as one would a dear relative. I felt her pain… The look on her face made my heart want to burst. It was that of a strong and proud person who had been completely defeated.
World wars and occupiers come and go. Borders are drawn arbitrarily around and between island groups by people far away, oblivious to or uncaring of the identity and wishes of the locals. So, the Banabans become i-Kiribati, even though they have never identified themselves as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony. They wonder why they can’t have an independent existence like their neighbours in Nauru. It hardly seems to matter, though, because Banaba has been rendered uninhabitable by mining, and their monumental fight for compensation through the British courts has been lost. The people have been resettled on other islands, although a few have returned after mining ceased in 1979.
Now the people of the Pacific’s atoll nations are facing the new threat of climate change. Islands of the Frigate Bird recounts Ronti Tekai’s address to the United Nations General Assembly pleading for the future of Kiribati and the other Pacific island atolls. I’ve not been able to determine how much author Daryl Tarte has fictionalised his telling, but there is no shortage of accounts of Kiribati pleading this case. The nation has, sadly, become the poster child of climate change impact.
Tarte is evidently not confident of a solution. In his fictionalised version, Ion Itabirik tells us from the year 2234 that
Out in the Pacific Ocean, the waves washed over the reefs that were once the habitat of man and insect, birds and beast. Only such high islands as Banaba and Nauru remained above the ocean surface but devoid of humans. They had become the roosting places of frigate birds that no longer had small islands and atolls on which to nest and have their young. These enormous migrations of birds scavaged far and wide across the vast Pacific and returned to Banaba and Nauru to lay their eggs and to leave their droppings among the crags and crevices like other birds had done for millions of years.
And so the cycle repeats, as it seems to again and again.