Nauruan Tribal War

The Nauruan Tribal War was a war among the twelve indigenous tribes of Nauru between 1878 and 1888. By the end of the war about 500 people had died, around a third of the population.


Since the British captain John Fearn discovered Nauru in 1798, it had been avoided as much as possible by many ships, due to its notoriety as a station for pirates. Nevertheless, in the 19th century, the immigration of Europeans, often lawbreakers, steadily increased. Traditional life had been disrupted by the introduction of arms and spirits, an unknown drink in ancient Nauru, although the Nauruans consumed toddy for several thousand years.


The conflict began during a marriage festival; while discussing a point of etiquette, which turned into a heated argument, one of the guests fired a pistol and shot a young chief. The need to avenge the young chief's death was perceived as clear in a Nauruan cultural context. Former feuds had their origins in similar incidents, but this time every family in every tribe's clan had guns, exacerbating a potential conflict. Moreover, the Nauruans were goaded by the beachcombers, released convicts and dismissed whalers from Europe. Several deadly shootings led to most Nauruans participating in the war. A kind of guerrilla war broke out; drunk people shot others accidentally or broke into an enemy's house, accidentally shooting candles, matches, or anything that moved. Women and children were slaughtered.

War reports

A squadron of the British Royal Navy anchored off the coast of Nauru on September 21, 1881, and the squadron's flagship approached the island, to appraise the local situation. An acculturated local beachcomber, William Harris, boarded the British ship, which summoned the rest of the squadron by semaphore that evening, saying that a tribal war was raging, that all of the islanders were drunk, that the actual king of the island, Aweida, wished to have missionaries come to the island to help stop the war.

Six years later, an Auckland-dwelling British sea captain named Frederick Moss came in his schooner, the Buster, landing on Nauru while his ship was being reloaded with copra. He reported that the inhabitants of Nauru were friendly and of good humor, although most of the boys and all of the men were armed with rifles and carbines. The war was still going on, although by this time it appeared that many of the islanders had had enough. Through his conversations with the natives, Moss noted that none of them wished to continue fighting, but no tribal group trusted the others to lay down their arms if it did so first. They wished for a universal disarmament of the island. Moss received another report from Harris, who still lived on the island. Harris said that two of his family members had already been shot, and that he wished a Christian mission would come to the island to restore peace once again.

German annexation and end of the war

Annexation ceremony in Nauru on October 3, 1888

The war helped neither the island's copra production nor the interests and securities of the German merchants, who had established cocoa plantations and other agricultural establishments. Because the political stability of the island affected the German holdings there directly, German authorities recommended that Germany should take over administration of the island, which they did. Germany annexed the island on April 16, 1888, banning both alcohol and firearms. On October 1 of that year, the German gunboat SMS Eber, with 87 men, anchored off the coast of Nauru. The armed German seamen met with Harris, and returned with the first European settlers, as well as a Christian missionary from the Gilbert Islands. The next morning, October 2, saw the arrest of the remaining tribal chiefs and the German annexation ceremony, complete with the hoisting of the German flag. German authorities declared that unless all firearms and munitions were turned over to the German government in one day, the chiefs would be executed; the next morning, the natives of the island turned over 765 weapons and several thousand rounds of ammunition, ending the bloodiest tribal war in Nauruan history.


The annexation of Nauru by Germany halted the self-destruction of the island through firearms and alcohol, although the Nauruans lost control of their island and their fate for nearly 80 years. After German annexation, King Aweida retook the throne. In 1914, Germany lost possession of the island in a bloodless transfer of power to Australia.


Military History - The Smallest Conflict in History -

See also

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