Splendors and miseries of the island of Nauru

Lost in the South Pacific, located northeast of Australia, the island of Nauru was one of the world’s wealthiest countries before experiencing a resounding economic collapse.

The island has a little over 10,000 inhabitants spread over an area of 21 km². A tiny state, Nauru is the smallest republic on the planet. A single, unique road follows the rounded contours of the island.

Pleasant Island

In 1798, Westerners discovered the island. The whaling ship “Hunter”, commanded by the English captain John Fearn, approaches the shores of Nauru. The locals come to meet the boat with enthusiasm.

Impressed by the beauty of the island, the captain calls it “Pleasant Island.” The origins of the island and its inhabitants remain relatively unknown. For thousands of years, it was a land colonized by birds during migrations.

Phosphate Island

A century later, in 1896, a ship’s captain picked up a strange stone on the island that looked like petrified wood. He brings her back to Australia to his employer’s headquarters, the “Pacific Island Company”.

Splendors and miseries of the island of Nauru

It was hanging on the office floor for three years; it used to prop up a door. In 1899, Albert Ellis, who also worked for this company, was intrigued by this stone. He has it analyzed. The result is astounding: the stone turns out to be pure phosphate. Nauru’s fate now seals. It will be inseparable from that of phosphate.

An open-pit mine

At the dawn of the 20th century, Nauru became a significant mining stake. All colonial empires need raw materials. Phosphate extraction began in 1907.

For decades, Western companies will exploit the resources of the island. Nauru passed successively into the hands of the Germans, the English, and the Australians.

According to history, the future writes according to the balance of power that thousands of kilometers away.


During World War II, the island engages by the Japanese, who deported the population. The event is traumatic. After the war, Hammer DeRoburt was one of the first Nauruans to leave the island to study abroad. According to him, foreign powers have only weakened his people.

In the mid-1950s, he, therefore, began complicated negotiations with Australia to obtain independence. In 1968, he became the first president of the Republic of Nauru. He decides to nationalize the exploitation of phosphate.

A new Arcadia

Much of the income from mining donate to the inhabitants of the island. Although Nauru obeys an exacerbated capitalism, the system wants to be, in a certain way, “collectivist”.

Nauru is quickly becoming the country with the highest GDP/capita in the world ($20,000 per capita). Mining work is not carried out by Nauruans but by Chinese immigrants.

The state coffers are always full; the inhabitants do not pay tax. Water and electricity are free, as is health care.

The collapse of traditional culture

The island appears more and more like a true consumerist paradise, where waste is the only law. Traditional culture is collapsing. All the social life of the island disappears.

Immersed in total idleness, Nauruans prefer to spend their time in front of the TV. The government even goes so far as to pay them housekeepers. Fishing no longer practices; the inhabitants, abandoning basic activities, buy prepared meals from the many Chinese traders who have settled on the island.

Disastrous management

From the end of the 1960s, it knows that phosphate’s exploitation could only last around thirty years. The phosphate money must invest in preparing for the future.

Unfortunately, corruption and incompetence plague all levels of power. Nauru is embarking on a series of investments that will quickly prove to be disastrous, particularly an airline: Air Nauru.

The decline

From the 1990s, phosphate’s economic activity slowed down dangerously until it came to a complete stop. 80% of the island’s surface has been excavated. The landscape now comprises “pinnacles,” tall white columns, the result of massive phosphate mining.

Splendors and miseries of the island of Nauru

The country is at bay. Deprived of resources and used to seeing money flowing freely, the Nauruans are unable to react.

The government forced to borrow at all costs, vote in favor of resuming whaling to obtain some subsidies and lease part of Australia’s territory, setting up detention camps thereof migrants.

An ecological and human catastrophe

Disfigured by decades of mining, the island, dotted with abandoned infrastructure, now has other record statistics: 90% of Nauruans are unemployed, 80% suffer from morbid obesity (4 in 5 inhabitants), and 40% of type II diabetes.

Diabetes has become one of the leading reasons for death on the island. At the forefront in the 70s, the hospital was now dilapidated. Nauru faces an actual public health problem.

Life expectancy has fallen to such an extent that the survival of the population is no longer assured. The hope of an economic recovery lies entirely in the exploitation of the second layer of phosphate.

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