Why we need a reminder about Australia's imperialist history with Nauru

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Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

A young asylum seeker from Iraq pictured at the boundary fence at the Oval on Nauru.

A young asylum seeker from Iraq pictured at the boundary fence at the Oval on Nauru.

 How do you imagine Nauru? A desolate wasteland that Australia populates with persecuted people? A small Pacific island filled with large, lazy Islanders? An open prison that props up the borders of our own closed paradise? Like all islands, we tend to imagine Nauru as a kind of terra nullius, an empty land, without history, suspended in splendid isolation from the world but eternally open to the will of larger nations.

It benefits us to think of Nauru as a mean-spirited atoll hovering outside of time and space, because it saves us from having to confront some dark historical truths.

Nauru did not simply wake up one morning and decide that it wanted to harbour our concentration camps. And nor did Australian politicians run a finger over the skin of a spinning globe until it stopped on Nauru. Our histories are entwined. Nauru is a product of European and Australian imperialism.

Australia oversaw the strip-mining of over eighty per cent of Nauru's land leaving it barely habitable.

Australia oversaw the strip-mining of over eighty per cent of Nauru's land leaving it barely habitable. Photo: Angela Wylie

What we forget in the asylum-seeker debate is that the history of offshore processing is but another chapter in a history of empire. We fail to question the 'Pacific' in the 'Pacific Solution'.

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Australia chose Nauru because we have a tradition of ignoring its sovereignty. After World War One Nauru was one of many countries considered by the League of Nations not "able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world". It was thus transferred to Australia and Britain as a Class C 'mandate', to be administered by Australia as "an integral part of that territory", which meant giving our government the right to impose upon it almost full control.

During this time we exploited its resources and decimated its land, which partly explains Nauru's decision to accept the camps today: they're now one of the most indebted countries in the world.

You'd be forgiven for being unaware of Australia's history of imperialist aggression in the Pacific. Bleatingly subservient to our English or American cultural overlords, we have ignored our own region's history. But when High Court decisions are handed down declaring Australia's sovereign right to send back asylum seekers to Nauru (in short to assert our sovereignty by undermining their sovereignty) we would do well to know that there is nothing new or shocking in this decision. It's an extension of a shameful past.

Australia was not the first to colonise Nauru. In the famous 'scramble' for Africa and the Pacific in 1884-5, Germany, Spain and Great Britain fought over the islands of the Northern and Western Pacific. Nauru became a German protectorate in 1886 (along with other countries like PNG and Samoa). Of course, no Pacific Islander was consulted about being stripped of their sovereignty.

Australia was unimpressed. Ever since we declared Tahiti to be within our jurisdiction in the early 1800s, we had long considered the Pacific to be part of our 'sphere of influence'. By the late nineteenth century we were raiding Vanuatu and the Solomons for slave labour, lopping sandalwood trees in Fiji, pressuring Britain to annex Vanuatu and Fiji, and attempting, as an editorial in The Age said in 1914, "to…[lay down] the foundations of a solid Australian sub-empire in the Pacific Ocean."

Nauru caught our attention in 1899 when an Australian entrepreneur found rich phosphate deposits (a sought-after fertiliser ingredient) formed out of, yes, ancient bird droppings. By 1912 we had drawn up plans to seize Nauru (as well as New Guinea and Samoa) and in 1914 we invaded Nauru, claiming it as an Australian possession. In 1919 Billy Hughes pushed for a full annexation by Australia of former German Pacific islands – particularly New Guinea and Nauru – at the Versailles negotiations; but settled for a mandate status.

Part of the reason we won Nauru, according to Greg Fry, was because of our experience in "managing" Aboriginal Australians. Australia finally granted Nauru independence in 1968, after a post-World War II UN trusteeship and brief period of Japanese occupation. But by this time the island was all but destroyed.

Australia oversaw the strip-mining of over 80 per cent of Nauru's land, leaving it unpassable and unfarmable; a lunar nightmare of white stone pinnacles.

By independence, the country was so ravaged that Australia declared Nauru 'uninhabitable' and offered to resettle the population on Fraser Island and, later, Curtis Island in Queensland. (Possibly apocryphally, a plane-load of Nauruans were said to have done a reconnaissance of the proposed islands but decided that they preferred their own blasted island to the racist Queenslanders).

The trade was also economically catastrophic: the conservative Economist has called the terms of our monopoly "outrageous". And with Nauruan landowners paid just half a penny for every ton of phosphate extracted you can see why. In 1993, Australia paid Nauru $72 million in an out-of-court settlement at the International Court of Justice for the environmental devastation caused by mining.

Australian imperialism also sanctioned the colonisation of Nauru's political institutions, which left Nauruans at independence with little institutional memory or political knowledge. As Epeli Hau'ofa has argued, "unlike other colonial regions of the world, our political independence… was largely imposed on us. It also came in packages that tied us firmly to the West."

To this day white Australians continue to fill major roles in the Nauruan judiciary and bureaucracy; the Australian High Court is the highest court of appeal for Nauru and aid packages have always been tied to preferential trade agreements that benefit Australia. Of course, the most recent violations of Nauru's sovereignty come in the form of 'regional processing centres', where you'll find an Australian government office decorated with an Australian coat of arms, inhabited by uniformed Australian staff.

This is not to suggest that Nauru is innocent. It's clearly been plagued by corruption, lavish expenditure and economic mismanagement. But to suggest that these failings can be divorced from the catastrophe of colonisation would be absurd. Almost as absurd as thinking that Australia simply decided out of the blue to relegate our gulags to Nauru, and that they serendipitously accepted.

If Australian borders are 'strong' as Turnbull reminds us, then it is only because for over a century we have regarded Nauru's borders as weak or non-existent. We don't just protect our sovereignty, we extend it through the informal colonisation of our neighbours.

Islands are always going to be either a paradise or a prison, and in its narcissistic quest to be great, Australia has created a gulag. This is the forgotten horror of the 'Pacific' behind our hellish 'Pacific Solution'.

Dr Alecia Simmonds is the author of Wild Man (Affirm Press), a researcher in law at UTS and a lecturer in Pacific history at NYU-Sydney.