MINING ON BANABA

         

Ocean Island (Banaba) is not part of any archipelago. It is the top of a spike of land whose base is submerged. Ocean Island lies 1 degree south of the equator and 250 miles west of the Gilberts (Kiribati). Named after the ship which discovered it in 1804, Ocean Island is a round hill in the middle of the sea, 82 metres high and 10 kilometres round.

About 1900 a small British company had worked out Baker and Howland Islands, as well as some others. They have yielded a small quantity of poor quality guano. In this area, business was shaky but the company also sent out its ships around the Pacific Islands, looking for mother of pearls and copra. In 1897 Mr Denson, the Manager, brought back a curious piece of rock. Experts declared that it was petrified wood and it was used in the Sydney office as a door stopper. The piece of rock then attracted the attention of Mr Albert Ellis (later Sir Albert Ellis) who was there as a temporary replacement for his father. It intrigued him by its resemblance to solid phosphate from Howland Island. The experts had, however, given their decision. In 1900 after a three months wait, Ellis shipped off a little piece to analyse it. Chemical tests showed that it is phosphate of the highest quality. Immediately the Directors were informed and Albert Ellis was sent to look into the matter. This particular sample had come from Nauru which was German territory, but not so far away from Ocean Island, similar to Nauru belonged to no one. The island might well contain the same riches. Investigators spent three weeks on Ocean Island and there was no doubt that they had come across a rich source of wealth. Ocean Island was then annexed by Britain.

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Up to this time Ocean Island had slumbered peacefully in its tropical isolation. By race, language and tradition, the island was connected with the Gilberts despite its distant position. From time to time - either from Ocean Island to the Gilberts or vice versa - a few canoes undertook the dangerous crossing.

The phosphate deposit on Ocean Island were estimated at twenty million tons at least. Phosphate is found in an almost pure state. The islands are, as it were, made up of two elements: very closely packed coral rocks, settled there like pitted and irregularly shaped standing stones, and in between these, phosphate, which will sometimes come away at a few blows from a pick and sometimes can only be dislodged by explosives. The hardest is found on Ocean Island where the bed of phosphate reaches 20 metres in depth. To mine the phosphate, many difficulties had to be overcome, and several mechanical installations had to be made. This was a real triumph for the engineers and directors of works. On 1st January 1938, the Ocean Island Company and the Government together gave employment to 1976 people: 112 whites, 783 Chinese, 534 Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) and 346 Ellice Islanders (now Tuvaluans); 201 worked for the Government. Both whites and locals could bring their families - but not the Chinese. For a few years, Japanese were employed and the Chinese replaced them.

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The B.P.C. Club with swimming pool and
sports court at Ocean Island (Banaba)

The local people on Ocean Island (450 in 1900 and 540 in 1927) saw great changes in their little island, where previously each year brought only two or three sailing ships coming to load the copra. Now large steam ships were continuing arriving at their island. Little locomotives ceaselessly pulled wagons containing phosphate along the railroad. Above the worked-out rocks buckets swung along from tables suspended between metal supports. Crushing machines took the rock and grounded it into powder dealing with 2,400 tons per day. Other mechanical monsters dried it with hot air.

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Rock phosphate being broken up
by blasting before it is extracted

The loading of the ships was a delicate operation. Ocean Island possessed no anchorage. There are reefs only fifty metres out and deep water almost at once. For the safety of the ships, it was necessary to set up a very costly buoy system.

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The B.P.C. crushing, drying and
storage installations at Ocean Island

Two hundred metres out from shore, a five ton anchor, let down to a depth of 400 metres, was fastened by an enormous chain to a buoy 3.60 metres high and 6.50 metres long. Two cables, forming a triangle with the shoreline linked the buoy to land. A ship could only load in calm weather when the wind was blowing off the land. If the Captain was taken by surprise by a sudden westerly, then within two minutes his ship was on the rocks.

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Phosphate being loaded using the cantilever.
The closeness of the coral reef can be seen by the white water

The Ocean Island gods: Nareau, Tabakea and Auriaria seemed to unleash their fury against the spoiler of their land. Four large cargo ships including the Elba in 1904 were wrecked in this manner. The last, Ocean Transport, taken by surprise when empty, was carried into land on a high wave, to a place where canoes found it difficult to float at low tide.

The loading was done by launches in calm weather. Both Gilbertese and Ellice Islanders (I-Kiribati and Tuvaluans) were masters of manoeuvring these in their tugs. In 1930 a cantilever was built which allowed the grey powdered phosphate to be poured directly into the ships' holes. The installation of this cantilever was a costly and difficult matter. Its two outstretched arms - one at the foot and the other at the stern of the ship can be extended to sixty metres. They turned on a pivot and come back to a rest position when the task is complete.

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 28th September 2013)