I’m going to bet most people have never heard of the third smallest country in the world. In fact, I’ll admit that even I wasn’t exactly sure of the correct pronunciation of this tiny island in the South Pacific. Nauru (pronounced na-OO-roo) is pretty much isolated. Unlike other island countries in this part of the world, Nauru is all by itself – a one-island country. So, what’s so special about one island poking its nose out of the ocean? Plenty.
Historians aren’t exactly sure where the name Nauru came from, but the most accepted origin is that it’s derived from the Nauruan word for “I go to the beach.” When the British arrived in the late 1790s, they referred to the island as Pleasant Island.
Nauru is located in the Micronesian group of islands. Its nearest neighbor is the island of Banaba Island (part of Kiribati), located almost due east. The Marshall Islands are to the northeast, and the island of Kosrae (Federated States of Micronesia) lies to the northwest. A little farther away still to the southwest are the Solomon Islands and the islands of Tuvalu are to the southeast. This island is one of the few islands in the South Pacific that is known for its phosphate deposits. Because Nauru is close to the equator, the climate tends to be warm all year round. They generally see a rainier season (with monsoons) between November and February.
Nearly 3000 years ago, groups of Micronesians and Polynesians moved to the island. There were originally 12 tribes on this island (which is why there’s a 12-point star on their flag). Life went on in their own ways of living off the ocean and what the island provided until the Europeans arrived. The British whale hunter and sea captain John Fearn was the first European to step foot on the island in 1798 and named it Pleasant Island. They began to regularly trade with the islanders, especially in palm wine and firearms. In 1888, Germany took the island in as part of the Marshall Islands Protectorate. At the same time, Christian missionaries began arriving from the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati). The Germans stayed there for almost 30 years. During that time, phosphate was discovered on the island, and it didn’t take all that long before they figured out how to exploit the reserve. During WWI, Nauru was captured by the Australians. Australia, New Zealand, and the UK came together to administer the island and establish an organization to handle the phosphate business. In 1940, the Germans bombed five supply ships and the phosphate mines and other key operations on the island. Two years later, the Japanese invaded and took over the island, removing a number of Nauruans to the Chuuk Islands (Federated States of Micronesia). By the end of the war, the Japanese surrendered it back to the Australians. So, although Australia was the one who administered the island, it was actually divided up between Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. During the mid-1960s, Nauru began working toward self-governance and finally gained independence in 1968. They purchased the phosphate mines for their own, which helped them to have one of the highest standards of living among the islands of the South Pacific.
Nauru is one of the few countries that doesn’t have an official capital. The de facto capital—where the center of government is—is the city of Yaren. Located in the southern part of the island, the city used to be called Moqua. I thought that I grew up in a small town, but this “capital” city is smaller than my hometown: Yaren has 747 people whereas Morgantown, Indiana has about 986 people.
For a long time, the Nauruan economy was based on the phosphate mines. There really aren’t many other natural resources on the island, and they have to import many of their supplies, materials, and food. A trust was formed between UK, Australia, and New Zealand to manage the mines, and part of that included long-term investments. Mismanagement caused them to renege, and this forced them to scrounge to fix their debts. Unemployment is really high, and the vast majority of those employed work for the government. During the 1990s, they were a tax haven and actually weren’t all that cooperative in curbing this problem. Now many people work for an Australian immigration detention facility located on Nauru. This facility has gotten the attention of the international community for its deplorable conditions and riots. Because of the ties with Australia, Nauru uses Australian dollars as their currency.
Most people practice Christianity; there are more Protestants than Roman Catholics, but there are also a number of other denominations represented here as well. Nauru has the largest proportion of Baha’is in the world (10%). There are also smaller communities of Buddhists and Muslims as well. In their indigenous beliefs, their main deity was a female by the name of Eijebong.
The official language is Nauruan. Nearly 96% of the people speak Nauruan in the home. Nauruan is a Micronesian language, but it’s not exactly clear how closely tied Nauruan is to other Micronesian languages. Their language also has many German and Latin loanwords. Because of their ties with Australia, English is also widely spoken on the island and tends to be the language of the government and commerce.
Besides having a matriarchal society in their traditional culture, there are a number of interesting things about this tiny island. For one, they are the smallest country—both in area and in population—in the UN. However, despite its small size, Nauru is listed as one of the Fattest Nations in the World. (I’m hoping that means the food is good?) It’s also one of the least visited countries in the world, receiving around 200 visitors per year. Well, let’s try to put it on the map.
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