Banaba/Ocean: picturing the island – Marian Crawford

Marian Crawford, the current Siganto Foundation Creative Fellow shares her thoughts as she begins  research in State Library of Queensland.

My first visit to the slq was in January this year, 2016. Dates are important, and so easily forgotten. I’m travelling to Brisbane from Melbourne on a mission to reconstruct, to find dates and names and places, to discover events long past and long forgotten. My project is titled Banaba/Ocean: picturing the island.

My parents were both wanderers, and in the 1950s both travelled from Australia to work for the British Phosphate Commission (BPC) on a small island in the Central Pacific Ocean. The BPC’s mission was to mine the island’s phosphate resources, and the name of my childhood home was Ocean Island. It has only been in the last few years that I’ve thought about the impact that this island childhood had in determining the way I see the world, and this relationship with an island that I will probably never re-visit.

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Men & women of Jabor, Jaluit/ Akira Matsumura

The Siganto Fellowship project presents an opportunity for me to explore the resources of the Library’s collections to discover how my private recollections of a tropical childhood fit into the broader context of Pacific Ocean cultures and their histories, the field of island studies, stories of colonialism and the implications of climate change for island nations in the Pacific Ocean.

Australia too is an island and we have many of our own islands floating around our shores, so let’s not forget we have this in common with our Pacific island neighbours.

My January visit to the Neil Roberts Research Room was a bibliographic feast, and I located a range of books that will become key texts for my project.

Coconut scraping at Jabor, Jaluit / Akira Matsumura

Coconut scraping at Jabor, Jaluit / Akira Matsumura

In 1959 Egon F. Kunz compiled An annotated bibliography of the languages of the Gilbert Islands, Ellice Islands, and Nauru and this careful and comprehensive work lists and annotates an abundance of texts, in this ‘roneo’d and semi-permanently bound bibliography’ (1). Many of the texts described were published by Christian missionaries, who translated and printed the Bible and other texts in local languages, Gilbertese in the case of the Reverend Hiram Bingham and his wife. Bingham’s publications, Kunz comments, were ‘distributed among native peoples as soon as printed and were eventually thumbed out of existence, or lost or damaged under the difficult local conditions, copies have become very scarce.’ (2)  Kunz’s modest volume revealed a wealth of information to be found about the geography, history, languages and ethnic affiliations of the island nation now know as Kiribati.

Barrie Macdonald’s 1982 Cinderellas of the empire: towards a history of Kiribati and Tuvalu revealed how the independent nation of Kiribati was named. The new nation of Kiribati came into being on 10 July 1979, and being ‘unable to find for the country any traditional name that had widespread support, the Government adopted the local form of (the English word) Gilberts’ – Kiribati. (3)

I’m not perhaps the only person who feels a gap in my identity. The thirty-three islands that now comprise Kiribati have seen successive layers of visitors – whalers, beachcombers and escaped convicts, traders and missionaries, blackbirders, miners and the colonialism of the United Kingdom and Australia. After all these impositions, I wonder how the cultures of these island peoples survive. I’m adding my voice to the chorus, and remembering the beauty of the place that was my childhood home with this slq research:
The deep waters off the reef in the light of the tropical sun are a deep cobalt blue. Over the shallow reefs the water becomes a rich purple, and various shades of emerald reflect from the shallow waters of the lagoon. (4)

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The range of texts I found during the first visit to Brisbane was broad. A 1943 paper from the Smithsonian Institution War Background Studies reminded me of these islands’ significance in the global power play of WWII. A 1918 paper published by Imperial University of Tokyo further signified the importance of island nations to Pacific powers. Kambati Uriam is a Kiribati historian and his paper ‘In Their Own Words: History and Society in Gilbertese Oral Tradition’ was published in the Journal of Pacific History, 1995. It is only in later 20th century literature that I found Kiribati voices.

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Albert Ellis and Arthur Grimble both lived and worked in Kiribati, and both have made considerable contributions to the literature. Copies of Grimble’s books, Return to the Islands: Life and Legend in the Gilberts, 1947 and We Chose the Islands: A Six-Year Adventure in the Gilberts, 1952 are on my bookshelves, part of my parents’ library. To find these works in the slq collection (and in much better condition that my battered copies) was to understand the historical significance of something I’d once thought was of interest only to my family.

I’ve discovered my place in a much bigger history.


1. Biggs, Bruce. An Annotated Bibliography of the Languages of the Gilbert Islands, Ellice Islands, and Nauru (Book Review) The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 1 June 1959, Vol. 68 (2), pp.161-161

2. Kunz, Egon F. An annotated bibliography of the languages of the Gilbert Islands, Ellice Islands, and Nauru, Sydney: Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, 1959, p.6

3. MacDonald, Barrie. ‘Cinderellas of the empire: towards a history of Kiribati and Tuvalu’ Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1982, p. 274

4. Kreiger, Herbert W. ‘Island People of the Western Pacific, Micronesia and Melanesia’ 1943. Washington: Smithsonian Institution War Background Studies Number Sixteen, p. 36