Dr Ludwig Keke recalls Hammer deRoburt

Hammer deRoburt (1923-1992) was born and educated on Nauru and at Geelong Technical College in Australia. He was a school teacher on Nauru from 1940 until he was one of the 1200 Nauruans deported to do forced labour for the Japanese in 1942. He worked for the government after the war and became a member of the Nauru Local Government Council, rising to the position of Chairman and Head Chief of Nauru in 1965. On independence in 1968 he became president. After several terms in opposition, he was serving his fourth term as president when he died in office in 1992.

Nauru's current ambassador to Taiwan, Dr Ludwig Keke, served as Parliament's Speaker and Deputy Speaker, and was an associate of President deRoburt.  He was interviewed by Michael Powles in 2011.


Dr Ludwig Keke: My involvement in political issues of Nauru actually started in 1967, at that time I returned from Brisbane after working in Australia as a dentist. I’m a graduate from Queensland University in dentistry, and after graduation when I got back to Nauru at the end of 1966 or early ’67 that’s when the convention started being formed.

Michael Powles: The convention leading to the constitution and independence?

LK: Yeah, the constitutional convention, that’s the word. The convention was being formed and I came at the time when the Nauru local government council was operating on behalf of the Nauruan community. We had to have an election for a member of the constitutional convention and although there were others better qualified, I was fresh from Australia at that time and I got personally involved when I became member of the constitutional convention in 1967.

MP: This would have been quite an exciting time I assume, the preparations and everybody thinking and talking about independence.

LK: Yes the issue was discussed quite widely amongst the community, by the local government council. Not only by the head chief but by the members of the NLGC as we called it.

MP: At that time Hammer DeRoburt was both head chief and president of the Nauru Local Government Council?

LK: He was, yes, head chief and chairman of the council.

MP: Was he at the lead in pushing for independence?

LK: Hammer was unanimously elected as the head chief and the chairman of the Nauru Local Government Council. It was that time that they really pushed ahead for independence, though the issue of independence had been in and out of the council meetings for years before that.

MP: For how long before that had it been something that people talked about?

LK: Well probably between themselves it had probably been going on since the mid- or late-50s. Hammer himself and a couple of his colleagues, they were moving in and out of Australia, and to the UN and attending trusteeship council meetings to push their view to the council.

MP: I take it that at that time, memories of the Second World War would have still been very strong in people’s minds.

LK: It was, yes.

MP: I remember when I first visited Nauru in about 1980 I think, President DeRoburt took me and showed me the war memorial. I remember asking him if he had taken the Japanese ambassador to see the war memorial also and he was almost angry with me, he said, ‘yes of course, of course.’ The war memorial referred to the murder of innocent civilians by the Japanese, you probably know all about that.

LK: I have a fair idea Michael.

MP: Would those sensitivities have been part of the background picture which led to a strong feeling of wanting to run your own affairs?

LK: Well that would be one factor...

MP: …other factors?

LK: Well the council between themselves and even some of the older Nauruans, you see Nauru was under foreign domination for many years, centuries actually.

MP: Starting with the Germans, right?

LK: Yes it started with Germans, then under the League of Nations with Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain, and then the Japanese in WWII, and then under UN trusteeship council, Australia and New Zealand were nominated.

MP: And Australia was the actual administering power under the trusteeship council?

LK: Australia was administering from Canberra yes, that’s true.

MP: By the time you came back from Brisbane about 1967 or so, was there significant anti-Australian feeling? A desire to get rid of the Aussies in Nauru?

LK: Half of the population were aware of the Nauru Local Government Council proposal to go for independence, half would just cruise along with the rest of the community. There was a form of dissatisfaction with the way the British Phosphate Commissioners, and the way the Australian government had been administering the island. That’s the feeling that I got.

MP: Was the dissatisfaction more to do with the BPC, the British Phosphate Commission, than the Australian administration?

LK: That would be correct in some ways. BPC was a very powerful organisation. Sometime they almost overruled the administration, or ran the administration, because they had control of the shipping which brought in supplies, and everybody depended on BPC. The other camp: BPC were one camp, Australian administration was another camp, and the rest of the community was the other camp.

MP: In some ways Nauru was run a bit like what the Americans would call a company town?

LK: Yes it is. That’s my personal view.

MP: So when people were beginning to talk about independence, was the objective more to get independence to govern yourselves, or was the objective partly to get control of the resources away from the BPC? Or was it a mixture of wanting to look after your own affairs, and control Nauru’s own resources?

LK: Well if I may use the quote that had been said often by a member of Nauru Local Government Council was that “Nauru is for Nauru”. Their main idea was to have Nauru completely independent, looked after by the Nauruans themselves. Associated with that is the second issue, the control of the phosphate industry, which has been under control of foreign companies. The council thought it was about time in the early 60s or late 60s when independence seemed to be sweeping through the Pacific, that Nauru should now be capable to run its own show, look after Nauru, and take over the phosphate industry and run it themselves, rather than have a foreign country running it.

MP: Did the issue of compensation from the three governments, Australia, Britain, and New Zealand, the issue of compensation come up later, or was it already being talked about around the time of independence?

LK: I believe so. It had been talked about at that time, maybe even a little bit before that. During the council meetings. Certainly during independence and afterwards. I was also involved in a meeting with members of parliament and our legal counsel on the issue of compensation and of course, Australia, New Zealand and Britain refused to discuss the issue. They think it's not part of their mining activities, which is perhaps not quite correct.

MP: Exactly. Later acknowledged that it was not correct.

LK: That's it, and that's why Nauru took Australia to the court at the Hague, seeking compensation.

MP: Exactly, Ludwig. Can you remember and tell us anything about Hammer DeRoburt's role and leadership during that period?

LK: He was a natural leader in many ways. A very hardworking person and to me, a man of great principle and he got the vision and then during the meeting with the Administrator who often, not always, attended Nauru Local Government Council meeting, the issue of independence and later the takeover of the phosphate industry was very much discussed. So the rehabilitation programme was to be undertaken by the three governments, which they refused, and that led to the court in Hague.

MP: Yes you refer to Hammer DeRoburt’s vision. Is there any more you could say about that, did he articulate that in public speeches quite a bit, to encourage public support for independence?

LK: Well he tried to, he tried very hard but there was mixed feelings amongst the community, especially with two members of the council who were not quite agreeable with the method of independence. They were trying to set the council to run a referendum for the people to decide whether they wanted independence or not.

MP: Was it their aim to stick with Australia in some way?

LK: The aim was to be associated with Australia.

MP: When independence was being discussed in Kiribati, quite significant numbers of people both in Kiribati and Tuvalu really did not want the British to go away, of course the majority in the end did. Perhaps the same in Nauru, it was not a clear-cut case of everybody wanting the colonial power to depart.

LK: No not really, my recollection was that the council wanted Nauru to be run by the Nauruans. But the relationship with Australia would remain. Because Australia at the time of independence, they offered to look after the military defence system of Nauru. It was not really a matter of removing everybody, a matter of saying to Australia ‘goodbye’. No, the idea was that the Nauruans would run Nauru, and the industry. But still associated, the friendship would still very much be associated with Australia and New Zealand.

MP: So there was not really a great deal of bitterness in relations during the negotiations with Australia? Not really?

LK: Not publicly. I think people were aware how difficult it was for us to deal with Australia.

MP: Difficult in what way Ludwig?

LK: Difficulty was that the Australian government and New Zealand and Great Britain at the time certainly were not in discussion about independence on Nauru. At that time my personal feeling and what I gather from some of the people, naturally Australia and Great Britain did not want Nauru to be independent.

MP: Of course this is quite early in terms of independence in the Pacific wasn’t it? Samoa had become independent in 1962 but I don’t think any other Pacific states had become independent before Nauru.

LK: Samoa I believe is the first country to become independent, then followed by Nauru in 1968. Then from then on there’s a flow on of independence going on across the Pacific. 1970 I think, Fiji.

MP: That’s right, so with Samoa, Nauru was one of the pathfinders in independence in the Pacific.

LK: Yes I believe so.

Displaying the new flag, 31 January 1968 Displaying the new flag, 31 January 1968. Left to right: Mr DJ Carter, representing the NZ Government; Mr CE Barnes, Australian Minister for territories; Sir Charles Johnston, representing the United Kingdom; and Mr Hammer deRoburt, Head of State of the Republic of Nauru.

MP: Did you meet or have anything to do with Professor Jim Davidson, who came I think as advisor to the Nauruan government at the time?

LK: I met him the first time at the constitutional convention. I believe that he was, well Hammer at the time also was very friendly with the leader of the Samoan government.

MP: Mata’afa.

LK: Mata’afa I believe, and Geoffrey Henry of the Cook Islands, I think with their guys and maybe advice of some of his fellow colleagues that he had Professor Davidson and another lady that came with him, assisting Nauru with the constitutional convention.

MP: Can I ask you whether you have any other thoughts or anecdotes or recollections that you could give us about Hammer DeRoburt at the time?

LK: Well as I said, I found him a man of vision and certainly got great principle, and workaholic, he’s really hardworking and he had the issue of Nauru at heart. He worked hard and he demanded perfection of himself and his staff and I said earlier, he seemed to be a natural leader for Nauru at the time. His relationship as you mentioned with the Japanese - he had no hatred for the Japanese people, like everybody else he had hatred for the war. In fact after the war, Hammer made a trip, his first trip to Japan, and he looked for some of the friends that used to help us on Truk during the war.

MP: Yes that was where many Nauruans were sent to do forced labour by the Japanese.

LK: That is correct. And he made friendship with the Japanese. In fact during his time they formed the Japanese Nauru Association. Then later on he developed a relationship with Japan whereby he obtained the Japanese government agreement for Air Nauru to fly to Japan once weekly. Many of his friends are Japanese that he met during the war and later on. There’s no hatred of Japanese people because of the war.

MP: Do you feel that when eventually the international court ruled on the compensation reparations in relation to the phosphate dispute, there was then a degree of overall satisfaction in Nauru and on the part of Hammer DeRoburt about how things had happened and how things had worked out in the end?

LK: Well unfortunately there was a great dissatisfaction among the members of parliament. Some conflict about the compensation amount that we were issued.

MP: That it was far too low.

LK: That it was far too low, in fact, when we had parliamentary meetings with our legal counsel who went to the court, many of us were thinking in the vicinity of $300m. When actually the Australian Prime Minister came up to Nauru, he had a forum meeting, and handed over the cheque to President Bernard Dowiyogo, Hammer had passed away then, it turned out that the amount is rather meagre, $190m or something. Conditions had been set whereby Nauru didn’t really have that money, it’s been discharged on a monthly or yearly basis in certain years.

MP: That would have been Prime Minister Keating or was it before that?

LK: Paul Keating, that’s right.

MP: I remember the forum meeting, I was actually by chance there at that meeting.

LK: I was present at the handover of that money to President Dowiyogo at the civic centre.

MP: Now finally Ludwig, are people reasonably happy with how things have gone since independence? I know there have been financial problems and troubles, but is there a sense of confidence or pessimism in Nauru at present?

LK: There’s a sense of pessimism, the legacy that Hammer DeRoburt left behind is to make Nauru a happy and prosperous society. His vision of creating all those investments worldwide was to cater for Nauru’s future. We knew that there would be a period of time where the phosphate industry would one day wind down.

I remember bringing up the issue in the late 60s, early 70s, that we should be looking for a second or third income-generating industry, but at that time we were so heavily indulged ourselves with the phosphate industry that we missed out on the fishing industry, which was a big thing at the time. Years later we thought about it, but it’s too late. So no fishing industry really brought in any benefit at all.

MP: So there was not really any time to develop a fishing industry, or resources to do so?

LK: That’s right. There were talks about establishing canning, fish canning or transportation and export of fish to Guam. The fishery started at one time but it did not continue on. Our resources are such that we cannot involve ourselves or we cannot get engaged in huge industry, but the fishery people more or less are becoming our guardian for the fish around the Pacific, and we just rely on the fishing licenses, not the big industry itself. You know what fishery is like.

We could not even find time to find out what would be our third income-generating industry. I believe the phosphate industry is dwindling down. I believe there is the possibility of secondary mining. We don’t know exactly what is the actual quantity or how much and how long and what income it will bring, although the president of the Nauru Phosphate Corporation is trying to find out what other income they could get no longer out of phosphate but out of generating industry in relation to the coral chips or coral slag.

MP: So there are some possibilities there still?

LK: There are some possibilities, there are some further possibilities but don’t forget at that time the population was more and so the income is quite high simply divided by the number of people, but population getting high, and with a very large youth sector of the population and currently many of them are unemployed. So looking for employment facilities is another issue that Nauru government is looking at. But the Nauruans are taught to be hopeful. Unless we can rally ourselves up it’s going to be a very difficult life ahead, unless the industry or something else comes up.

MP: Has there been any attempt to develop the tourism industry?

LK: Tourism has been around since as long as independence or even before that, tourism is a big word used for everyone in the region. Nauru tourism is nonexistent in terms of actual organisation. Apart from using Nauru as the stepping point to other tourist areas like Fiji and maybe Kiribati, but no there’s not much potential for tourism.

I think the future for Nauru is to look ahead and try our best to make what is available and we’ll see what happens after that.