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Bird shit, refugees and failed musicals – The Strange tale of Nauru

There’s every reason why you would not have heard of the Republic of Nauru,
or if you have heard of the nation it is only because of their hosting of Australia
bound refugees in Concentration Campesque facilities.

But, what is the story with Nauru? Weird Word Wire went to investigate.

Nauru is a 21 square kilometer island nation of roughly 11,000 people in the Pacific
ocean. It is the least populated UN member nation (sorry Vatican, you don’t count)
and was once upon a time the “richest country on earth”. It isn’t anymore, at all.

A Brief History of Nauru

Located in the Pacific and without any redeemable characteristic to it, the
Micronesian and Polynesian populations of the country were largely left to do their
own thing by the colonial powers of the day. From here, they formed themselves
into 12 tribes, which are reprinted on the flag of Nauru today.

Flag of Nauru
Flag of Nauru

Things went swimmingly until the dastardly Germans arrived and started funneling
guns and booze to the natives which resulted in a 10 year civil war. Boasting
statistics that would have made the Khmer Rouge blush, about 1/3 of the
entire population of Nauru died during this period.

In 1888 Britain gifted Nauru to Germany as a colony, at the time thinking it had nothing to offer. Enter phosphates stage left.

Discovery of Phosphates

In 1900, phosphates were discovered in Nauru, a lot of phosphates. Being a rock in
the middle of nowhere meant Nauru was a popular stop off for birds flying about
doing their thing. It turns out that of if birds shit on an island for thousands of years
you will eventually get phosphates. Phosphates, whilst less important now were
important for things like gunpowder. Officially at least this would make
Nauru rich right? Alas this is not how colonialism works.

German Rule of Nauru

The Germans started to plunder the phosphate reserves of the country, but alas only got to do so for 14 or so years as they also started World War 1, which ended their presence. Sadly the Germans left very little in the way of culture with Nauru as they do not produce their own sausages, nor even decent beer.

British Colonial Rule of Nauru

Australia initially captured Nauru from where it was put into a trusteeship between
the UK, New Zealand and Australia. The British Phosphate Commission was set
up and they started to mine the island hardcore.

Japanese Take over Nauru

Japanese outpost in Nauru

The Japanese took over in 1942 and hit the ground running by increasing many of
their slightly more controversial policies by exporting almost the entire adult male
population of 1200 people to work as slave labour in the Gilbert Islands. Many
them were never to return. Whenever you hear Japanese-Americans complain about war-time internment, imagine how little those countries colonized by Japan give a shit about it.

On a plus point the Japanese did build an airfield (that was bombed) and leave some cool bunkers and World War 2 guns that form pretty much every tourists attraction on the island.

Japanese Leave Nauru

After the Japanese defeat in World War 2 things reverted back to the status quo, with the Australians leading a coalition of colonial overlords that included the British and Kiwis. Of course mining of phosphates was to resume in abundance.

For the next 20 years, and to pardon my French, but colonial overlords “mined the fuck” out of Nauru without sharing all that much money with the Nauruan people. This got the locals to thinking that perhaps if they were to gain independence then they would no longer have to share their money. An idea that could in no way shape or form work was born, Nauruan independence.

Nauru Gains Independence

In 1967, and a full 10 years before other Pacific Islands nations were deemed ready
for independence, plucky Nauru, an island with only about 5000 people opted for
not only independence, but the obvious riches that the phosphate mines would
bring. Things did not go as well as planned.

The Golden Years of Nauru

Phosphate mine in Nauru

In 1970 the Nauru Phosphate Corporation was formed and for a brief period, the
Republic of Nauru was the richest country per capita on earth. Foreign missions
were created throughout the world, they formed their own airline and overall being
a Nauruan was a pretty good situation to be in. Alas the reserves of phosphates
were running out. The only way to save things was to invest and to invest smartly.

Nauru Makes Really Bad Investments

Ever heard of the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund? Basically Norway took the
profits from its oil, made sound investments and thus the citizens of Norway enjoy
one of the best standards of living as well as having lots of money in the bank. The
Nauru sovereign wealth fund was like that, but instead of good investments they
made really bad ones and pissed the nations wealth away in less than 20 years.

At its height, the country had AUD $1.7 billion to play with. Yes we said billion. Enough to make every man, woman, child and goat multi-millionaires and still have money left to run a successful island nation. Instead the nation went on a real life version of Brewsters Millions and pissed away the lot.

Quite who was in charge of investments no one knows, but some highlights of how
stupid they were included funding “Leonardo Da Vinci” the musical and somehow
managing to lose money on real estate investments in Australia. By the 90’s the country were on the brink of becoming a failed state and something drastic needed to occur.

Nauru Becomes a Tax Haven

Being small, bankrupt and having an island, it was only a matter of time before someone shot the elephant in the room and went balls deep in becoming an offshore haven, so this was the next logical step for the Republic. During the 1990s it was selling banking licenses and passports, including diplomatic passports, to customers as diverse as the Russian mafia and al-Qaida.

As you might imagine this managed to ruffle a few feathers. The US placed it on a transparency rating the same as Ukraine, whilst restricting its citizens from going there. Eventually Australia stepped in and told Nauru to back the truck up.

Alas this meant that Nauru again had no money, no savings, no mines, and no way
to support themselves as a nation. If only there was a colonial overlord to step in?
Step in Australia.

In 2001 Australians dipped their toes into the outsourcing refugee market in Nauru.
By 2011 this had become the main industry of Nauru, leading to a construction boom, employment for the islanders, expats and some extra sauce in the rater listed Nauruan gene pool!

And that is how things have largely stayed. Nauru for all intents and purposes exists an offshore outsourced processor of refugees wishing to get to Australia. As of today most of the refugees have been moved on (mostly not to Australia), but the infrastructure and indeed economic dumping of cash is what has kept Nauru solvent over the years.

Why Doesn’t Nauru Embrace Tourism?

This where it gets kind of sad. Nauru is a tropical island in the Pacific, so
you’d assume a great place for a resort right? Alas every beach around Nauru is
protected by rock that makes swimming not only impossible, but will probably kill you.

This has helped make Nauru the least visited country on earth, with it estimated that less than 100 people per year visit the country. In case you have not gotten the context to this, that means that more people CHOOSE to visit Somalia and Yemen rather than visit Nauru. Factor this in with the fact that statistically Nauruans are the most obese people on earth and it does not really lean well to a “can do” attitude to tourism.

What Does the Future Hold for Nauru?

When it comes to riches, you’d have to say that the ship has probably sailed by now. Same for Nauru being the next Cayman Islands.

And yet whilst the world has enough dictatorships and wars to force people to risk
life and limb for a better life then there will always be hope for Nauru. As long as
people suffer, Nauru will prosper.

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