The very, very, very strange history of Nauru

By Heaps Gay Staff

Nauru’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story starts with a fortune built on valuable bird-shit and squandered on reckless spending, luxuries, and a failed West End musical, and ends with concentration camps on a destroyed tropical paradise. It’s a story practically worthy of its own AMC TV show.

Breaking Bad’s Walter White doesn’t seem like such a bad guy if you watch the show from the start. He just got caught in a bad situation and got desperate. He did things that he needed to do. Bad things.

Nauru is in a similar situation; a small island nation that has been desperately turning tricks since the year 2000, trying to make a buck.

Because of this, Nauru has become known today as a conveniently rented rug under which Australia sweeps refugees. But Nauru’s going through a tough time and debt and desperation has pushed this tiny island into some weird and ugly situations.

It wasn’t always like this though. Nauru used to be rich and beautiful.

Kids behind the fence at the Nauru detention facility

Dubbed ‘The Pleasant Island” by early whalers, the tiny republic sits on a coral island once rich in valuable phosphate deposits in the topsoil, the result of centuries of sea-bird guano.

In 1899, a prospector named Albert Ellis confirmed the high quality of the phosphate topsoil.  After Australia, Britain and New Zealand seized the island from Germany during WW1, the colonial powers formed the British Phosphate Commission and spent the next fifty-five years grabbing for bird-shit riches like drunken party-goers pawing at beers in a bathtub.

In the time that Nauru was under the British mandate, the islanders were given next to nothing for their valuable phosphate. But everything changed in 1970 when Nauru purchased the mineral rights from Australia, having declared independence just two years earlier.

In the following decade, Nauru got real rich, real quick. Flooded with new cash from the phosphate money, Nauruans left behind the traditional ways of fishing and foraging, and imported food, luxury goods and domestic help from nearby islands.

By 1980, the Republic of Nauru was the wealthiest nation on earth. With the locals receiving an estimated A$500,000 per capita in annual phosphate royalties; tales abound of the wild spending during the boom times.

“Recess” at the Nauru detention facility

Among them, the apocryphal story of dollar notes being used as toilet paper, and the equally popular number about the chief of police abandoning a newly purchased Lamborghini when he discovered that he was too fat to get behind the wheel.

The government of Nauru knew that the money from mining wouldn’t last, so the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust was established to invest the massive surplus profits in other, non-guano based ventures.

The NPRT set about buying up international real estate, resulting in an impressive portfolio that included properties in London, the U.S., Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia.

The Republic of Nauru owned both the Mercure hotel in Sydney and (unsurprisingly) Nauru House in Melbourne. At its peak, the fund commanded around A$1 billion in property assets, which isn’t bad for a nation with a population of fewer than 10,000 people.

Unfortunately things still came crashing down when the phosphate in the topsoil started to dry up. The last hundred years of aggressive strip mining had almost completely exhausted the deposits on the island, leaving a moonscape of deep craters and jagged pillars of hard coral. Today 70-80% of Nauru is uninhabitable; pocked and stripped of its topsoil; the land is almost completely unusable.

See, the reason phosphate was so valuable is because of its usefulness as fertiliser. Australia had cleared huge amounts of land for farming, then had Nauru dug up, put in bags and sprayed across it to make it fertile again.

By the 1990’s it became clear that the future was looking desperate for Nauru.

Widespread mismanagement and corruption had seen millions lost from the NPRT. Government officials travelled extensively and expensively around the world on investment jaunts, and borrowed heavily against the national assets. And all the while, the trust was putting money into some pretty weird shit.

In 1991 the NPRT slapped down a cool A$4 Million on a West End musical based on the love life of Leonardo Da Vinci on the advice of Kelly Emiu, special adviser to the President.

The show was the brainchild of Duke Minks, former manager of the 60’s UK pop group Unit 4 + 2, with lyrics scored by the lead singer of the band. Having heard some of the songs, Emiu had a hunch that the show would be a roaring success.

Unfortunately the West End wasn’t ready for a musical romance between Da Vinci and Lisa Gherardini (AKA The Mona Lisa) and amid the smug cackling of the London critics, Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Lovewent down like a lead balloon and with it; the assets of the people of Nauru.

When musical theatre stopped looking like a promising national investment and the debts really started to pile up, Nauru started selling off most of its assets, such as its airport and the fleet of passenger aircraft from the disastrously unprofitable national carrier Nauru Airlines, an airline known for its lack of passengers and erratic service (High ranking government officials were rumoured to have commandeered flights for their private holidays). The planes are long gone, but if you’ve got a spare ten million, the airport is still for sale, having first gone on the market in 1996.

Amid mounting debts, things started to go full Walter White when Nauru tried its hand at becoming an offshore tax haven and money-laundering hub. Legislature was changed to allow offshore investors to hide the movements of large amounts of (dirty) money in the banking system, and the Russian Mafia is reputed to have washed over A$94 Billion through Nauru’s national laundry.

It was around this time that made-to-order Nauruan passports started to enter the black market. Fugitives and international criminals looking for a new identity could purchase one for $15,000-$35,000. Terrorist groups including Al Qaeda took advantage of this  offer until the government cracked down on the practice once the US threatened to cut the island off from global financial institutions.

Faced with the continued lack of funds, Nauru got into the friendship racket. Here’s how it works; Nauru has a seat in the UN, and a vote; and if your nation or cause wants some recognition or support, you can give Nauru a little something in exchange for a vote in favour of your interests. Although Nauru is just 21km in size and has a population smaller than the student body of a university, its vote means quite a lot to those who can’t get support from elsewhere on controversial issues.

In the 2012 UN General Assembly, Nauru (a nation that received generous technical aid services from Israel) was one of just nine nations that voted against recognising Palestinian statehood.

Taiwan and China have both tried outbidding each other for a place in Nauru’s heart; Nauru having recognized Taiwan as a sovereign nation, then siding with China, before going back to supporting Taiwan. It’s as awkward and painful as a high-school love triangle.

But for all of these side hustles, Nauru is still in some major debt. The main source of national income is still Australian aid, which is given annually as a payment for hosting an Australian concentration camp or “Regional Processing Facility” (to use the preferred euphemism) for unwanted asylum seekers.

The camp on Nauru was first established in 2001, as part of the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution, before being closed by the Rudd government in 2008.

Nauru breathed a sigh of relief when the Gillard Government reopened the pacific camps in 2012 and the money started flowing in again. As well as bringing in around $8m in annual revenue through jobs and services created by the camp, the Australian government pays Nauru over A$20 million in aid each year, effectively in exchange for keeping asylum seekers imprisoned.

The Pacific Solution is a Faustian Bargain; it has created a dependency on a privately run, taxpayer funded prison industry existing on the island, so it makes sense when amid reports of rape and abuse of asylum seekers, the government of Nauru puts out a press release that basically says; “Fuck off you guys; everything’s fine here, OK?”

And why wouldn’t they? Three different Australian governments have endorsed throwing cash at a desperate nation in return for imprisoning desperate people that it doesn’t want to deal with.

So spare a thought for the Republic of Nauru; it’s been through some dark and desperate times, it’s been forced to do some pretty bad stuff for money, but it’s got a good heart and it deserves our help. Without any weird strings attached.

A combination of shortsightedness and the push for policy that values ‘electability’ over ethics has managed to create a situation in which aid payments hurt two different groups of people; it’s like a taxpayer funded version of Bumfights.

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