I am from a very large island, a continent in fact. Yet smaller islands have meant more to me – trips to Bribie Island with my grandmother to drink shandies and eat crab sandwiches; two years living in an expatriate Australian community on the Malaysian island of Penang; an object lesson in the power of oceans while visiting American Samoa, when my then boyfriend and I were carried by the tide beyond the coral reef we were exploring with snorkels. In my part of the world, small islands often connote tourism, but they also serve other objects. There is a vanishing point where paradise becomes isolation, where utility meets strategy and where purpose matters more than people.
My island continent is surrounded by a string of small islands that have always loomed large in Australia’s national imaginary. This is perhaps more the case now than at any time since World War II. Then, Australians were acutely aware that their troops were fighting Japan on the nation’s doorstep in the external territory of Papua and in New Guinea, which Australia administered under the ‘sacred trust’ conferred by a League of Nations mandate. Manus Island formed part of that mandate. There were other islands that Australia held under similar terms. One of them was Nauru. Australia and its Allies managed to hold out in New Guinea, but Manus Island and Nauru were occupied by Japan, which also recognised their value for its Pacific campaigns.