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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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DeRoburt, Hammer (1922–1992)

by Nancy Pollock

This article was published online in 2020

Hammer DeRoburt (1922–1992), head chief and president of the Republic of Nauru, was born on 25 September 1922 in the Territory of Nauru, son of DeRoburt and Eidumunang. His maternal grandfather, Daimon, was head chief of Nauru (1920–30). In the aftermath of World War I, a League of Nations Mandate was granted to the United Kingdom, with Australia and New Zealand, sharing administrative control over Nauru as the British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC). Under the mandate the BPC was committed to managing the island’s affairs, with Australia appointing a chief administrator. The BPC also took responsibility for managing phosphate mining. These dual responsibilities would sit uneasily beside the commissioners’ financial interests in phosphate deposits on the island.

Raised in the district of Boe, DeRoburt was educated at the Nauru Boys’ Secondary School. In the late 1930s he and several other boys were sponsored by Harold Hurst, an Australian boy scouts commissioner, to attend Geelong Junior Technical School in Victoria. While Hurst aimed to equip his charges for leadership roles in their homeland, critics believed his plan produced a group of ‘over-educated and over-Europeanised’ youths (R.W.R. 1941, 25). Returning to Nauru, DeRoburt took a position as a teacher (1940–42) until he was exiled to Truk (Chuuk) along with one thousand two hundred other Nauruans by the Japanese military occupation (1943–45) of the island during World War II. He was among the fewer than eight hundred to survive. They returned to find Nauru devastated and polluted by the Japanese occupying force, and the mine destroyed by Allied bombing. Rebuilding the nation was a high priority for survivors including DeRoburt and the Nauru Local Government Council (NLGC) that would be formed in 1955 to administer their affairs.

From 1947 phosphate mining and administrative BPC governance was resumed under a United Nations (UN) Trusteeship. DeRoburt returned to education, taking on liaison and then teaching roles. On 19 August 1950 he married Lukale Rowena Harris at the London Missionary Society church, Orro. In 1953, as chairman of the Nauruan Workers’ Organisation, he led a successful strike for reduced hours and a minimum wage for Nauruan families. Two years later he was elected to the NLGC and was made head chief.

DeRoburt was the architect of the Nauruan push for independence and control of the phosphate mine. He led councillors seeking to regain control of their people, their affairs, and their island environment. He also headed agitation for the rehabilitation of mined-out areas of Topside (the island’s central plateau), while seeking to increase the returns Nauruans received from the BPC’s sale of phosphate. As head chief and chair of the NLGC, he represented community demands to UN visiting missions (1956, 1959, 1962, and 1965) and to Australian administrators.

In 1964 DeRoburt and the NLGC rejected Australia’s offer to relocate Nauruans to Curtis Island, off the Queensland coast, observing that his people had a deep cultural commitment to their island, despite the damage caused by mining. He continued to express Nauruan concerns to UN visiting missions, urging the trusteeship council to support moves towards Nauruan sovereignty. He employed lawyers, academics, publicists, and others to present Nauru’s economic and politico-cultural position to the trusteeship council, BPC, Australian administrators, the press, and others. On 31 January 1968 Nauru was granted independence with DeRoburt elected as the first president. As part of the terms of the independence settlement the republic purchased the phosphate mine from the BPC for $A21 million and established the Nauru Phosphate Corporation (NPC) to continue mining. The country formally became the Republic of Nauru with DeRoburt re-elected intermittently as president (1968–76, 1978–86, 1986–89) until his death in 1992.

Having achieved independence and control of the phosphate mine, DeRoburt reinstituted urgent negotiations for rehabilitation of worked-out lands. With phosphate deposits expected to be exhausted by 1995, the NPC continued mining, while seeking outside guidance on investments, including a fleet of ships; their own airline, Air Nauru; and Nauru House, a high-rise building in Melbourne. Since the 1970s Nauruans had been urging the NPC to sell the remaining phosphate at true market rates in order to maintain the country’s economy. In the 1980s, as economic conditions worsened, political opponents criticised his excessive spending and authoritarian approach to governance, but supported the urgent need to rehabilitate the worked-out mine areas.

For his beloved homeland DeRoburt pursued the matter of rehabilitation that former head chief Timothy Detudamo and other Nauruan leaders had long posed to the BPC and Australia as administering authority. The BPC’s interests in mining profits, DeRoburt contended, conflicted with its obligations to the Nauruan community who were treated as secondary citizens on their own island and less important than migrants involved in the mine’s operations. He also argued that the land at Topside, made inaccessible and unusable by mining, was vital to support the future needs of Nauru’s expanding population. In 1989 DeRoburt instituted legal proceedings against Australia in the International Court of Justice in the Hague on behalf of the Nauruan people for compensation for environmental damages caused by mining. Although ill, he travelled with Nauru’s legal advisors to address the court in November 1991. The parties settled in September 1993 before a determination by the court, Australia paying Nauru $A107 million.

Hardworking, charismatic, and softly spoken, DeRoburt was also a tough negotiator with a quick temper. Appointed OBE in 1966, he was elevated to an honorary GCMG in 1982. He represented Nauru at meetings of the South Pacific Forum and other regional organisations, as well as on the world stage. Chancellor (1974–76) of the University of the South Pacific, Fiji, he was accorded an honorary doctorate at the end of his term. As a youth he played Australian Rules football, but in later years listed ‘resting’ as his only recreational activity. He was a member of the Congregational Church and served as a deacon for Boe district. Predeceased by his wife and survived by their daughter, he died on 15 July 1992 while in Melbourne for medical treatment. He was accorded a state funeral, before being buried in Boe cemetery, Nauru.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • National Archives of Australia. A463, 1988/1534.

  • Pollock, Nancy J. Nauru Bibliography. Wellington, NZ: Department of Anthropology, Victoria University of Wellington, 1994

  • Pollock, Nancy J. ‘Nauru Phosphate History and the Resource Curse Narrative.’ Journal de la Société des Océanistes, no. 138–39 (2014): 107–19

  • R.W.R. ‘Too Much Geelong.’ Pacific Islands Monthly, December 1941, 25

  • Viviani, Nancy. Nauru: Phosphate and Political Progress. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1970

  • Weeramantry, Christopher. Nauru: Environmental Damage under International Trusteeship. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992

  • Williams, Maslyn, and Barrie MacDonald. The Phosphateers: A History of the British Phosphate Commissioners and the Christmas Island Phosphate Commission. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1985

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Nancy Pollock, 'DeRoburt, Hammer (1922–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/deroburt-hammer-29936/text37063, published online 2020, accessed online 22 October 2020.

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