Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Homes of the Island Exile: A Historical Perspective

Lucas Watt

Exile is a word that signifies the forced physical expulsion from a place without the permission to return. For many, the idea of exile conjures an image of being removed from society and being abandoned on an uncharted island as commonly depicted in novels and movies. Exile has come to mean something different in the Oceanic context. The prospect of exile is not an unthinkable prospect for many island inhabitants and not something restricted to select groups of others or a concept rooted in fantasy. Historically, various social, cultural, political and environmental developments have caused islanders to be exiled from their home islands. This article explores the various forms of exile Oceanic people have experienced historically. It also explores a new form of tacit island exile emerging in Oceania. This form of exile is tacit in the sense that some inhabitants of rural islands are encouraged, but not explicitly forced, to migrate to informal settlements in urban areas. Such exile is prompted by island kin because of a lack of available rural land and opportunities. I argue the tacit nature of this form of exile affects how these exiles produce home in the urban context.

Pre-European Warfare and Exile

Prior to European arrival in the Pacific, political exile was common In Oceania. Anderson (2006) documents how chiefs defeated in battle by political rivals, or those who had committed offense, were exiled by more dominant political entities from their particular islands. These defeated chiefs and their followers were forced to leave by raft and canoe finding new islands and therefore becoming settlers of new lands. These early political exiles were uni-directional with the prospect of return to be completely severed. In these cases, relationships with original home rural islands can be assumed to be limited. However, the maintenance of ancient migratory origin stories often still persists. Think of the Maori voyage to New Zealand from Hawaiki.

Colonial Control of Movement

Movement of island populations was controlled by colonial administrators in the late 1800s and early 1900s. First and foremost, local warfare was outlawed limiting movement due to political exile seen above. The drawing of invisible boundaries with regulations on movement between these boundaries also limited ocean movement. For larger islands such as Fiji, movement was even more thoroughly restricted to villages. The British colonial administration in Fiji justified the restriction of internal population movement due to their concerns that movement may undermine traditional local culture by disrupting traditional social and kinship structures. Taxes were implemented that forced those who migrated away from their traditional villages to pay the colonial administration which effectively kept the Fijian villager at home. 

Control over the movement of peoples however did not only allow the restriction of movement but, in some cases, forced movement was initiated by colonial administrators. Many cases have been documented in the edited book Exiles and Migrants in Oceania by Michael D Lieber (1977). In this book Silverman (1977) details how the residents of Banaba were relocated by British colonial administrators in 1945 to the Fijian island of Rabi in order for the British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC) to intensify phosphate mining which over time environmentally devastated the island. Kiste (1977) details the relocation of the communities of Bikini Atoll in 1946 by American administrators in order for nuclear military testing to be conducted on the island. There were also more veiled reasons behind forced relocations made by colonial administrators. Lieber (1977) details how German colonial administrators moved communities on the remote islands of Fana, Sonsorol, Pulo Ana, and Merir, to the Island of Palau. This forced relocation was officially justified because of a typhoon that ravaged the islands in 1905. The underlying reason behind these forced migrations however were based on the logistical challenges the German colonial administration faced in servicing these islands. The typhoons merely acted as an event that could conceal this underlying reason. For the communities involved in these relocations, there has been a desire to maintain or reconnect with these lost homelands. In the cases of Banaba and Bikini Atoll, re-connection with home islands has been made difficult due to environmental degradation. For other exiles such as those living on Palau this re-connection is also difficult because of the prevailing economic conditions that have isolated these islands.

Environmental Degradation on Banaba from Phosphate Mining

In response to the difficulty in the physical return to these islands, it is common to recreate these lost homes in these new locations. Tonkinson (1985) recounts how residents of Maat village on Ambrym island in Vanuatu were forced to relocate from their island to the main island of Efate in 1951 due to volcanic eruptions and ash falls. They gained permission from Mele village on Efate to set up their own village nearby which they also called Maat. The use of the same name is no coincidence. Efate Maat was an attempt to replicate the cultural identity formed in Ambrym Maat. The village maintained its cultural boundaries despite their proximity to Mele and other Efate villages. In particular they continued to speak the language of Ambrym, maintained its communal structures and projects, voted for the same politicians in national elections, and continued to maintain their Presbyterian faith. Such recreations of home in the face of exile can consistently be seen across Oceania. Jones (2016) defines these recreations as “urban villages” as this term reflects their traditional values despite being located in unfamiliar urban locations.

Post-colonial Movement and Changing Conceptions of Home

This type of restricted and forced movement has for the most part come to an end since many (but not all) Oceanic countries declared independence in the period of 1960-1980. The removal of colonial administrations in favour for self-governance has made returns to these home islands in the above examples possible. In the cases of Banaba and Bikini Atoll, the displaced communities empowered with self-governance have been able to obtain agreements with colonial administrations to restore their home islands to a livable state. However, not all displaced communities have returned home despite the opportunity to do so. Kempf (2017) argues that not all displaced communities return home because that the meaning of home changes throughout a migrants lifespan. In the case of Banaba, the community set up on the Fijian island of Rabi has become home for many Banaba settlers especially for the children born on Rabi. As a result, many Banabans have decided to stay in Rabi. For those who have chosen to return, many have not returned to Banaba, but to Tarawa, the urban capital of Kiribati, a collection of islands which Banaba is now arbitrarily a part of. Only a select few of the older generation have returned to Banaba proper. Kempf (2017) details here how the notion of returning home can change as the context of home also changes over time.

Banaban Diaspora across the Pacific

In addition to this changing context of home, the preference for Banaba migrants returning to the urban capital of Tarawa instead of rural Banaba may be symptomatic of structural economic processes that is forcing other islanders off their home rural islands in favour of urban centers. During the postcolonial period there has been a consistent trend of rural-urban migration. In the case of Fiji, Ward (1961) identified that the vast disparity in living conditions between rural and urban spaces motivated this rural-urban migration trend. With the removal of the restrictions in movement put in place by colonial administrators, rural-urban movement became more possible. Initially, rural-urban migration was thought to be circular with migrants returning home especially during productive growing seasons, or when urban income earning possibilities were low. However, many migrants who intended to return to their home rural islands never did and unexpectedly became permanent urban residents. Generally, this urban permanence has been attributed to the lack of economic opportunities on these home rural islands, but there are other social processes at play here that have driven and kept these rural-urban migrants away from their home islands. 

Tacit Island Exiles

Brookfield et al (1977) and Bedford (1988) identified that many rural islands in Fiji, in particular the Lau group, reached their maximum carrying capacities in the post-colonial period. Their islands could no longer support larger populations in terms of allocating the limited arable land between its residents. Many island residents encouraged others to migrate to urban centers. With the island lands been fully allocated, any prospect of permanent return was limited until the death or absence of those with land titles. I argue here that this form of rural-urban migration initiated by the reaching of carrying capacity constitutes a form of tacit exile. This form of exile is tacit in the sense that it is not visible forced by the island community, but subtly encouraged through marginalisation and removal from sociality. Attempts to return are met with a similar form of marginalisation that again force these residents back to urban centers. This tacit form of exile certainly does not resemble the forced removal of individuals or groups of people from a place seen in political exiles or colonial initiated relocations. However, I argue the very tacit nature of this form of exile affects how these exiles create and define home.

First and foremost, what needs to be considered here is that for many of the other exiles discussed, relocation has often been accompanied by an effort to create a new community either by colonial administrations or by the exiles themselves. Tacit exiles do typically relocate to urban villages that house fellow kin members; however, these urban villages also typically encompass people from other kinship groups, or in the case of places like Fiji, other ethnicities. Therefore, unlike the urban community of Maat, these urban villages that tacit exiles migrate to house a mix of cultural identities unfamiliar on home islands. Tacit exiles also relocate to multiple different settlements due to the absence of a new community designated for them.

Secondly, many of these urban villages are not legally recognised by their governments. They are therefore not formally provided with electricity, water or garbage collection. The residents also have no control over the future of these settlements. Bryant-Tokelau (2014) has highlighted how many of these urban settlements in Fiji, particularly those on valuable coastal land, are starting to be reclaimed for commercial development forcing their residents to relocate. This prospect of being relocated by governments and land developers inhibits the extent to which these urban villages can be considered stable homes by these tacit exiles.

Thirdly, in this urban insecurity, the relationships that tacit exiles have with their home islands continue to be obscure. There is no clean break initiated by some external sources. Their own community has encouraged, but yet not forced, them to leave. In this sense they are not forsaken but not welcome. These tacit exiles therefore feel a sense of unfulfilled belonging rather than a denied belonging felt by exiles during the colonial period. Tacit exiles define home in ways that include multiple places and people that is often obscure due to the tenuous links these people have with each of these places of home.


How the tacit exile continues to define home will have an important impact on how Oceanic cities continue to develop. In particular, how Oceanic governments develop urban policy will be of critical importance in how tacit exiles interact consider the Oceanic city as a home. If Oceanic governments allow tacit urban exiles to securely reside and define home in urban villages by offering secure land tenure, a distinctly Oceanic city may emerge that reflects the traditional social structures and practices of the urban village. Jones (2016) has conceptualised this as the “village city”, however this utopian dream is far from becoming reality due to inert urban policy. Persistently inert urban policy that fails to accommodate tacit island exiles may exacerbate feelings of alienation and isolation that these exiles already feel, and by extension inhibit the imprint that that these peoples have on defining the Oceanic city. If the history of Oceanic exiles has taught us anything is that Oceanic populations are in an active pursuit to define “home” even as contexts and circumstances change. Currently Oceanic governments have an opportunity to facilitate a definition of home that includes urban places. As autonomous Oceanic governments free from the shackles of colonial administration, this should be a fundamental goal for the benefit of the populations they represent.


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

One response to “Homes of the Island Exile: A Historical Perspective”

  1. […] In a previous article I introduced the notion that exile is not an unfamiliar process in Oceania. I described how Oceanic peoples were often exiled from home rural islands during the colonial era. Governing powers would haphazardly move Oceanic peoples around for economic, political, and military reasons (Lieber, 1977). For instance, the residents of Bikini Atoll who were relocated to other not so nearby islands as their home island became to site for nuclear weapons testing (Kiste, 1977). Processes of exile such as these, forcedly removed island peoples from their homes and require them to adapt to new locations. As the colonial era has for the most part ended many of these exiled peoples have had the opportunity to return to their lost home islands. Despite this, many have chosen not to return to their home islands due to economic isolation and lack of opportunity. Ironically, locations of exile have also been established as new homes that now hold personal and emotional significance (Kempf, 2017). […]

Leave a Reply