Nauru — History and Culture
Although Nauru’s isolated location kept the island free from European contact and influence for several centuries, very few of the old cultures and traditions remain. However, Nauruans still perform traditional rhythmic singing and dance on special occasions. Many local crafts are made from materials like kokosfasern and kokospalme.
Very little is known about Nauru’s history prior to its first encounter with the Europeans, but the island’s original residents were Micronesian and Polynesian people who lived on pandanus, coconut and fish raised and caught from the Buada Lagoon (Aiwo District, Nauru) about 3,000 years ago. Trained hawks and canoes were the preferred methods of catching fish. The 12-point star on Nauru’s modern flag represents the 12 ancient clans who ruled centuries ago.
In 1798, the British became the first Europeans to encounter Nauru and name it Pleasant Island, but the island’s first known permanent settlers were two escaped Irish convicts who arrived around 1830. One of these men, John Jones, killed or disposed of all other visitors to the island until his own expulsion in 1841.
The arrival of guns and alcohol to the island ended the peaceful relationships between its 12 tribes, who entered a 10-year civil war in 1878. The fighting lasted until the island became a German territory called Nawodo or Onawero in 1886. In 1900, a prospector named Albert Ellis discovered the phosphate which would become Nauru’s main export during the next century.
After WWI, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand gained joint control of the island and its lucrative phosphate reserves. The natives, on the other hand, suffered serious tuberculosis and influenza epidemics. Both Allied and Axis forces wrought further damage to Nauru during WWII, when phosphate production was brought to a halt. A communications bunker the Japanese used during their WWII occupation remains at Command Ridge (Aiwo District, Nauru), the island’s highest point.
In 1947, the United Nations established Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand as the island’s official trustees. When Nauru became an independent republic in 1966, they gained control of their own phosphate reserves and became the developing world’s second-highest gross domestic product per capita during the mining boom of the 1960s and 1970s.
By the 1990s, the island’s prosperity and phosphate both virtually disappeared. The country has only started to recover from its large debt and borders closed to most international visitors during the infamous "Pacific Solution" when Australia sent many of its Afghan asylum seekers to the island.
Sadly, not much of Nauru’s ancient culture has remained, despite centuries of isolation from Western influences. Christianity has replaced goddess worship as the dominant religion and Australian Rules football is the official national sport. Many island weightlifters have successfully won medals and beaten competitors from much larger countries.
Although most elders can no longer understand Radio Nauru’s collection of local songs, traditional reigen music and rhythmic singing are still performed on special occasions. Fishers still use trained birds and small light boats to gather their catches, and traditional materials are used to make many arts and crafts. These include kokospalme wood, kokosfasern fans and screw tree sheets.