Ocean Island

Last month (November 2022), there was a series of news items in newspapers and magazines about lonely and isolated Ocean Island, out there in the wide open vistas of the nostalgic blue Pacific Ocean.  The writers and the interviewees were deploring the loss of island life on Ocean Island, which is known by the local citizens as Banaba Island.

The small and beautiful island of Banaba (Ocean Island) in the Kiribati group was mined for rock phosphate from about 1906. The first photograph shows the island shortly before mining began. The second was taken soon after, and shows how the vegetation and soil of Banaba were removed to extract the phosphate rock. Alexander Turnbull Library, Colville Collection; Reference: PAColl-6044-15; PAColl-6044-01; Photographs by Lilian Arundel

During the colonial era under the British, the top surface of the island had been almost totally denuded in the commercial attempt to retrieve as much of the phosphate rock as possible.  Phosphate is a valuable commercial product that is required as a fertilizer for the growth of plant foods.

Many of the Banaba citizens had been relocated to Rabi Island in Fiji, which was emptied of its own inhabitants for the benefit of the new refugees from Banaba.  Even so, the displaced Banabans still had a longing for their original island home.

On several occasions over the years, the small and lonely Ocean Island in the western Pacific near the equator has featured prominently in international news events.  It is a solitary raised coral island that can be described on the map as a broken circle, with a total area of less than 2½ square miles.

The current population on Ocean Island is just 300 people and they speak their own variety of the language known as Gilbertise.  Ocean Island, also known internationally as Banaba Island, forms the westernmost point of the scattered island nation now known as Kiribati.

The original Melanesian inhabitants arrived on Ocean/Banaba around four thousand years ago.  The first known sighting of Banaba by Europeans occurred on January 3, 1801 when Captain Jared Gardner of the American vessel Diana sighted the island.  Then three years later (1804), Captain John Mertho on the convict cargo ship Ocean sighted the island and named it after his vessel.

Beginning in the year 1900, the Pacific Phosphate Company began the mining of phosphate rock in the center of the island, and they constructed a railway line to deliver the fertilizer to a coastal harbor.  However, due to the preliminary events that led to Pacific War in the middle of last century, most of the foreigners on Ocean Island were evacuated, beginning in July 1941.  Japanese armed forces occupied the island from August 26, 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945.

Map of Ocean Island in 1936. By IndolencesIndolences, utexas.edu, Public Domain, Link

Immediately after the end of the Pacific War, the British colonial authorities resettled most of the local population onto unoccupied Rabi Island, that belonged to Fiji due to the devastation on Ocean Island caused by phosphate mining and Japanese occupation.

Back in the year 1908, just eight years after Marconi inaugurated his first permanent wireless station in England, the Pacific Phosphate Company announced that they hoped a wireless station could be installed on Ocean Island.

During the following year (1909), another announcement indicated that the wireless station would be capable of long distant transmission.  In addition, the specific location on Ocean Island for the projected station would need to be approved by a Wireless Engineer, they said.  The new longwave spark wireless station on Ocean Island was taken into regular service during the year 1917.

Royal Australian Air Force image of Ocean Island (Banaba), 1945, with the extensive impact of phosphate mining visible at the centre of the island. Royal Australian Air Force, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After the end of World War 1, the wireless station on Ocean Island was in regular usage, and it was listed under the international callsign VQK.  In January 1923, a series of test transmissions was carried out with a similar wireless station on the somewhat nearby island of Nauru.

Beginning in April 1938, the Ocean Island radio station began to take on importance in the Pacific Island Coast Watching Service, by providing local intelligence information back to New Zealand.  In December 1940 for example, station VQK heard wireless transmissions at the time the German raiding ship, the Black Raider, sank the phosphate carrying ship, the Triadic, off the coast of Nauru.

Then in early December 1941, the Japanese navy bombarded the island, and station VQK warned the island of Nauru that Japanese war planes were on a mission towards their island.  At the time radio station VQK was manned by civilian New Zealanders.

The Japanese occupied Ocean/Banaba Island on August 26, 1942, and they remained on the island until after the end of the Pacific War in August 1945.

Due to the small population currently living on Ocean/Banaba Island, just three hundred, there is no regular radio broadcasting station on the Island.

Rabi Island

Rabi island is a part of the Vanua Levu Group of islands which form the northern administrative unit in the Central Pacific Island nation of Fiji.  This volcanic island has an area of 26 square miles and it was originally the home of Melanesian Fijians.

The island was sold a hundred years ago to the British/Australian commercial company Lever Brothers, who manufacture and sell soap and food products.  Then in 1941 the British government bought Rabi Island from Lever Brothers with the intent of transferring Banaba islanders into this location, a project that was interrupted by World War 2.  Four years later (1945), the Fijians on Rabi Island were transferred to Taveuni Island, and most of the islanders on Banaba were transferred to Rabi.

In the prewar era, the Australian radio company AWA established a network of communication stations throughout Fiji, and two of these were installed in the northern Vanua Levu Group.  Station VPE was installed on Labasa Island, and station VQL was installed on Savusavu Island, both of which served Rabi Island also.

These days Radio Fiji operates a nationwide network of FM stations, and some of these relay stations provide adequate radio coverage of the Vanua Levu Group, including both Rabi and Taveuni Islands.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of December 18, 2022

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