Weird History
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In Less Than 40 Years, A Small Pacific Island Plummeted From Unprecedented Wealth To Abject Poverty

Updated May 4, 2018 1.4k views13 items

Nauru is a relatively tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. Technically part of Micronesia, a subregion of thousands of tiny westerly islands in the Pacific Ocean, the land was first called Pleasant Island by the British, who used it as a vacation destination. The island's rich phosphate deposits drew colonizers from around the world, and it was occupied or governed by Australia, Germany, and Japan until it formally gained independence in 1968. Over the next 40 years, the beautiful tropical island became a wasteland. The center of the island is currently uninhabitable, and the outer region consists of crumbling buildings and slums. Poor government management and corruption took one of the wealthiest nations in the world and drove it into the ground.  

Nauru is a nation gripped in a cycle of poverty and human rights abuses. But how exactly did they go from tropical paradise to hell on earth, and what does the future hold for them? 

  • Photo: Philip A. Crowl/Edmund G. Love / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Nauru Was Occupied By Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan

    After 3,000 years of occupation by neighboring nations, Nauru became a German colony in the 19th century. Australia regained control in the early 20th century during WWI. By the 1920s, Australia took over Nauru, with joint responsibility held by New Zealand and Britain. During WWII, the tiny nation suffered immensely, in part because of its highly-sought after phosphate resources. After being captured by the Japanese, the island was bombed by American troops and 1,200 Nauruans were sent to forced labor camps. At the end of World War II, the island fell back into Australian control.

  • Photo: Author Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Nauru Became The World's Smallest Independent Republic In 1968

    Nauru is a tiny nation, measuring only 21 square kilometers, or about the size of a university campus or large airport. Although the island was governed by other countries for thousands of years, Nauru began to develop its own system of government in the 1950s and '60s. The island officially declared its independence in 1968, making it the smallest independent republic in the world.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Migrating Birds Provided The Tiny Nation With Its Greatest Resource

    Nauru's biggest export came from humble beginnings: bird poop. Migratory birds passing through the South Pacific used Nauru as a rest stop for an estimated one million years, with their feces building up over time and composting. The bird feces — scientifically referred to as guano — slowly turned into huge deposits of valuable phosphate, which were discovered by British colonizers in the late 1800s. By 1906, Germans took control of the island and established the Pacific Phosphate Company which was later bought out by the newly-formed British Phosphate Commissioners after WWI.

  • Photo: Author Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Nauru Was Once The Second-Wealthiest Nation In The World Per Capita

    Nauru coral atoll on top of an underwater volcano. Over generations, seabirds using the island as a rookery added a layer of phosphate-rich sediment. When the British arrived in the mid-1800s as beach tourists and discovered the phosphate-rich earth, they started a mining company in cooperation with the local government. Phosphate, used as fertilizer, became one of the island's biggest exports. This made Nauru a valuable trophy during WWII, and both Germans and Japanese troops attempted to take control away from the Australians, who had colonized Nauru.

    During the 1960s and '70s, the republic made an immense amount of money from phosphate. Nauru became the second-wealthiest nation in the world per capita, right behind oil giant Saudi Arabia. The small population size of the island helped inflate the GDP statistic, but there was no denying Nauru's wealth for the next few decades.