The Nauru War — The Smallest Conflict in History

Blink and you'll miss it -- Nauru is the world's smallest island nation. In the 1870s, an influx of rowdy European sailors, modern fire arms and tribal hatred touched off a 10 year civil war.

Blink and you’ll miss it — Nauru is the world’s smallest island nation. In the 1870s, an influx of rowdy European sailors, modern fire arms and tribal hatred touched off a 10 year civil war.

Nauru is located several hundred miles east of New Guinea.

Nauru is located several hundred miles east of New Guinea.

WITH ONLY eight square miles of territory, the remote South Pacific island of Nauru has the distinction of being the smallest island nation on the face of the earth. Yet its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it size didn’t stop inhabitants from waging a bloody ten-year war in the late 19th Century.

The conflict, which was fuelled by equal parts locally-made palm wine and European armaments, broke out during a wedding feast on the three-kilometer wide island in 1878. A disagreement between two guests over the finer points of dining etiquette grew hostile, at which point one of the debaters produced a pistol and began blazing away. A stray bullet struck the son of a clan chief killing him. The island’s factions, who were already nursing old grudges, used the occasion to attack one another. The fighting escalated from there.

While primitive tribes had lived on Nauru for more than 3,000 years, the inhabitants had zero contact with Europeans until the late 18th Century, when the island was discovered by a British whaling expedition. For decades after that, European vessels would anchor off Nauru and exchange trade goods and muskets for fresh water, local hooch and coconuts. The small island also became a haven for unruly ship crews looking for a chance to desert. Even runaway criminals and stowaways were known to make their way there. The fallout from the wedding feud might have fizzled out in short order had the island not been awash in traded rifles, booze and quarrelsome Europeans — instead it raged for years like an episode of the Walking Dead (but without the zombies).

In 1881, a fleet of Royal Navy vessels approached Nauru. A British convict living on Nauru by the name of William Harris rowed out the flagship to escape the chaos. He reported that life on the island was marked by ceaseless raids, inevitable reprisals and all manner of grizzly atrocities. He described how two factions battled ceaselessly for control — one group was headed by Aweida, the king of the island. The other was an opposing rebel clan led by a white chief who claimed the throne for himself. The British fleet noted the situation, took Harris aboard and sailed away.

In 1887, a New Zealand merchant ship arrived to trade with the locals for coconuts. The captain recorded in his log that his crew had gone ashore to make contact with locals who were friendly enough although all of them were armed to the teeth. The inhabitants reported that the fighting had largely died down in recent years.

The following year, Germany dispatched the warship SMS Eber to Nauru to develop the island’s lucrative coconut crop. For much of the decade, the Kaiser had been cobbling together an overseas empire. Now the German ruler was keen to add Nauru to his growing collection of territories. The captain of the Eber ordered his men ashore and embarked a small party of colonists and missionaries from nearby islands to set up a settlement. To avoid further bloodshed, the Germans ordered the clansmen to hand over their weapons or else the Eber’s crew would arrest and kill all tribal chiefs on the island. The locals delivered nearly 800 rifles and thousands of rounds of ammo to the Germans.

Berlin controlled Nauru until the outbreak of the First World War when Australia snatched it up and expelled the Germans once and for all.

In 1942, the Japanese army captured Nauru. The occupiers built a runway on the southwestern end of the island and evacuated more than 1,000 locals to work as forced labourers on nearby islands. The airfield was bombed by the Americans in 1943. The Australians liberated the small territory after Japan’s surrender and administered it under authority of a UN mandate until independence was granted in 1966.


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