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Early history

Very little is known about the earliest history of Nauru. It is believed that the first inhabitants were of Polynesian and Micronesian descent. However, Nauru does not resemble the indigenous languages of the other islands at all.

The traditional Nauruan community consisted of twelve tribes. Two tribes died out in the second half of the 20th century. The Eamwit tribe was the most important, to which Nauru's last queen also belonged. Nauru's tribes were matriarchal and the children therefore belonged to the mother's tribe. Each tribe had its own songs, legends and arts and crafts.

Nauru allocated to Germany

In 1798, Nauru was discovered by Captain John Fearn and he called it "Pleasant island". From 1830, whalers passed through, using the island to stock up on provisions. Some Europeans stayed and married the native women of Nauru. Within half a century, under the influence of the Europeans, the traditional community began to fall apart. This drama ended in 1878 in a real civil war between the twelve tribes. The war cost about 40% of the Nauruan population their lives, partly because European weapons were used.

Under the auspices of the British-German Convention of Berlin, Nauru was allocated to the Germans. The Germans arrived in 1888 and immediately renamed the island Nauru instead of Pleasant Island. In 1899, Nauru was placed under the Marshall Islands Protectorate until the First World War. From 1887 to 1917, missionaries arrived from Kiribati and many traditions were lost.

Nauru phosphate island

Already during the 19th century, Europeans were looking for the valuable phosphate in the Western Pacific. Small reserves were found on islands like Peleliu and Angaur. On Nauru, people thought that no phosphate could be found. Also the big Jaluit Gesellschaft couldn't find anything. So it was a big surprise when Albert Ellis of the Pacific Islands Company found high quality phosphate on Nauru and Banaba (Kiribati) in 1900. In one fell swoop Nauru changed from a slumbering nation to a battleground of businessmen.

The Pacific Island Company, which soon changed its name to Pacific Phosphate Company, acquired the right to exploit the phosphate reserves in 1901. The Germans also got a piece of the pie through all kinds of agreements with the British. From 1906 onwards, phosphate was extracted. The very first ship that sailed to Australia ran into the coast of New South Wales in 1917 and sank like a brick. By the end of 1907, 11,500 tons of phosphate were exported to Australia. When World War I broke out in 1914, the British were deported by the Germans to Ocean Island, where, by the way, the British cheerfully continued to extract phosphate.

In November 1914, the HMAS Melbourne came to Nauru and all 23 Germans were in turn deported to Australia and the island occupied by Australia. The German shares in the phosphate industry were auctioned in London for £600,000. The British exiles returned to Nauru and immediately continued mining phosphate. At the end of World War I, the League of Nations allocated Nauru as a mandate area to Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand.

Second World War

An Australian trustee was appointed to govern the island, while New Zealand and Britain retained a vote on the Board of Administrators. The three countries also set up the British Phosphate Commission (BPC); Australia and Britain were each entitled to 42% of the phosphate and New Zealand 16%. In 1930, the first cantilever bridge was built on the west coast, which increased the export of phosphate with one third.

On December 6, 1940, the Germans sank four ships off the coast of Nauru. Three weeks later, the phosphate mines were heavily hit by grenade attacks. In 1942, Nauru was attacked by the Japanese and on 24 August, they surrendered and the Japanese took Nauru. In 1943, 1200 Naureans were deported to the island of Truk (= now the state of Chuuk in the Federation of Micronesia). Only 737 Naureans returned to their island in 1946; the rest had mainly died of starvation. The Japanese took over the phosphate mines, but bombing by the Americans prevented the Japanese from mining the phosphate. On August 21, 1945, the Japanese surrendered.

Nauru independant

After the war, Nauru came under the administration of the United Nations with Australia as the governing power, on behalf of Australia, Britain and New Zealand. The phosphate mines were repaired and resumed operation in 1949. Phosphate exports increased again in the years 1950-1964. Australia for example got 60% of its phosphate from Nauru. More guest workers came from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and a second cantilever bridge was built in 1960. Nauru had some local government structures in the 20th century that were of purely symbolic value, but nevertheless implied an unconscious desire for independence. For example, a Council of Chiefs was formed in 1927 and replaced by the Nauru Local Government Council in 1951. With the end of phosphate mining in sight, Australia, Britain and New Zealand made a plan to emigrate the Nauruan population to Curtis Island, north of Queensland, Australia. However, the Nauruans persisted in their desire for independence. Legislative and Executive Councils were formed in 1965, and in 1967 Nauru, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand agreed that Nauru could indeed become independent. The Nauru Phosphate Commission bought the rights to the phosphate industry from the BPC for $21 million and on 31 January 1968 Nauru officially became independent. Since then the country has been part of the British Commonwealth.

President became Hammer DeRoburt, who has dominated the island's politics ever since. Despite all the prosperity from the phosphate industry, the environment of Nauru has been totally destroyed. Most of the trees have been cut down and much of the island consists of deadly grey-white coral. In 1989, Nauru brought a lawsuit against Australia before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In 1993, the verdict was A$104 million in damages and Australia was obliged to help Nauru rebuild the island. Ironically, Nauru continued to extract phosphate in the meantime.

It is expected that within 10 to 20 years all of Nauru's phosphate will be gone. In 1989, he was forced to resign. He was defeated in the November 1995 parliamentary and presidential elections by Lagumot Harris, but was re-elected president a year later. On 13 February 1997, the parliament elected Kinza Klodimar as head of state and government. In April 1999, Parliament passed a vote of no confidence in President Dowiyogo following an acute financial crisis related to dwindling export revenues. Former President Rene Harris of the National Phosphate Corporation was chosen as his successor. In November, a group of international banks decided to halt payments with Nauru and Palau due to suspicions of money laundering by Russian and Latin American criminal organisations.

21th century

After an uprising among the refugees in December 2002, the government fell in early 2003 and President René Harris was deposed. Ludwig Scotty, elected in new elections in May 2003, also lost the confidence of parliament in August, after which Harris again became president. On 22 June 2004, President Harris' government was again overthrown by a vote of no confidence and Ludwig Scotty was again elected president by Parliament.

With the help of Australian advisers, Scotty began an economic reform programme, but lost the majority in parliament in October 2004 when one of his ministers, Kieren Keke, was suspended because, in addition to Nauruan nationality, he was also found to have Australian nationality. Scotty then declared a state of emergency, dissolved parliament and called new elections for 23 October 2004, in which he obtained a large majority. On 26 October, the new parliament re-elected him as president, without any candidates standing against him.

In September 2001, tiny Nauru took in several hundred refugees who were staying on the Norwegian ship Tampa and the Australian ship Manoora. Australia refused to take the refugees in, after which Nauru offered its services. In exchange for Nauru's hospitality, Australia provides fuel and generators to the island and also waives an outstanding debt.

In 2004, most of the refugees dropped by Australia on Nauru in 2001 returned to Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Iraq; in principle voluntarily, but according to some observers partly under duress. On 14 October 2005, Australia announced that 25 of the 27 asylum seekers in the detention centre on Nauru could come to Australia. Australia thus ended the controversial asylum seeker agreement. In February 2008 Australia stopped sending asylum seekers altogether.

In December, Scotty lost confidence and was replaced by Marcus Stephens. Problems immediately arose over budgeting and a stalemate ensued. In April 2008, Stephens' cabinet takes office again. In March 2010, voters rejected constitutional amendments aimed at making the government more stable in a referendum.

On 19 July 2013, hundreds of asylum seekers wreaked havoc in a detention centre after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that his country was closing its doors to boat people. Many asylum seekers managed to escape during the chaos that ensued.

Australia detains hundreds of asylum seekers on Nauru, which receives money in return. According to the Australian authorities, the vandalism had nothing to do with the announcement to stop accepting boat refugees. In August 2016, the Guardian reported systematic brutality against young asylum seekers on Nauru. The number of refugees has steadily decreased since 2014 and the remaining people were transferred to a hotel in Brisbane, Australia in 2020, effectively closing the asylum centre on Naura.


Galbraith, K. / Micronesia
Lonely Planet

Levy, N.M. / Micronesia handbook Moon

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
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