Category: Spotlights

Riches to rags: the sad, bizarre story of Nauru

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A few clicks south of the Equator about 1,400 miles off the northern coast of Fiji, the island of Nauru is only eight square miles in land area — an oval-shaped slab that is located in the epitome of no man’s land. Its closest neighbors (in clockwise order) are the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. The smallest independent country on Earth, Nauru has a story that is seemingly fitted to occupy an obscure section in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! 

Flash back 50 years. Nauru is enjoying its newfound independence, and it’s going well. Maybe too well. The island’s population of 9,000 is filthy rich due to phosphate, second only to the oil kings of Saudi Arabia in terms of per capita wealth. Nauruan residents don’t have to work too much, as their government has set up a trust fund that has managed the phosphate profits and will give them a large safety net for years to come. Most residents go fishing, play Aussie rules football, ride the main island road on their motorcycles, buy boats and cars for their family members, and drink beer with friends until the sun sets.

Now flash forward 50 years. Nauru is broke — quite literally. Since the country’s bank shut down, Nauru is using the Australian dollar exclusively, and with only one ATM on the island, the vast majority of transactions are in cash only. The government’s phosphate trust went belly-up roughly a decade ago, resulting in the almost complete collapse of the nation’s economy. Due to lack of funds, the island’s schools shut down for nearly three whole years in the early 2000s. The national airline had its Boeing repossessed, and the once-prosperous phosphate mines were abandoned.

Modern-day Nauru and its inhabitants are in bad shape, in more ways than one. The island’s interior is irrevocably scarred from the strip mining, with 80% of it now uninhabitable and unsuitable for agriculture; nearly all Nauruans live around the coast. Due to the lack of island vegetation and over-reliance on imported processed foods, Nauru’s citizens are some of the most obese on the planet, with the world’s highest per capita rates of diabetes and heart disease.

The country’s private sector is practically non-existent outside of a general store, two hotels and a few restaurants. With one exception: a so-called “offshore processing centre” run by the Australian government on and off since 2001, in order to deter would-be asylum seekers from navigating Australian waters.

Other than these enterprises, the island has a 90% unemployment rate, and some adult residents, if they’re able and willing to work, earn a mere AUS$70 per week. With no personal income taxes and no way of paying off their debts, Nauru’s government is insolvent and almost completely reliant on foreign aid, mostly from Australia.

So what the hell happened?

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Part 1: The good times

Originally christened Pleasant Island by English sea captain John Fearn, Nauru was inhabited by a dozen tribes of Micronesian and Polynesian stock. They were strong-bodied, excellent fishermen, and known as good-humored by the few people in the Pacific who knew they existed (in the early 19th century, this was mostly confined to Asian sea merchants and the odd Australian escaped convict).

A civil war broke out on the normally peaceful island in 1878 following a domestic dispute. This dragged on for a decade, exacerbated by the presence of firearms previously supplied by merchants and whalers. The conflict only ended when German merchants arrived and the war-weary Nauruan chief pleaded with them to establish a protectorate over the island so that the fighting could stop. They obliged, and Nauru was proclaimed a German protectorate in 1888.

Nauru was relatively autonomous under German oversight, and the people were Christianized by missionaries from their nearest neighbors in the Gilbert Islands. But in 1900, British prospector Albert Ellis was visiting Nauru and he surprised many when he found something.

You see, Nauru was about as far removed as any island could be (4,300 miles from Singapore, 2,500 from Sydney, and 3,000 from Tokyo). The island was also surrounded by a coral reef, prohibiting construction of a major port. And as Mr. Ellis found, Nauru had very few natural resources over the space of eight square miles, with no indigenous animals, rivers or lakes.

What they did have was phosphate. Lots of it.

Phosphate is made up of guano (fossilized bird droppings) and is a valuable ingredient in fertilizers and explosives. At the turn of the 20th century, with the industrial revolution still going, it proved to be a potentially valuable commodity for basically every first-world nation on the planet. Mr. Ellis established the Pacific Phosphate Company in order to conduct strip mining operations on Nauru, as well as the two other nearby phosphate islands Makatea (modern-day French Polynesia) and Banaba (Gilbert Islands).

Then World War I broke out. With Germany preoccupied on the western front, the Allies collectively seized most of the German possessions and protectorates in the Pacific, and Nauru was no exception. Following the war, the newly-established League of Nations entrusted Nauru to Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, but only after they were allowed to use the island as a phosphate mining operation with the Nauru Island Agreement.

While the strip mining was a successful operation for both Nauru and Britain, there was no effective way to rehabilitate the land from the mining, which left behind jagged rock pinnacles and no arable land suitable for agriculture. The South Pacific was also hit hard by the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918-1920, and the Nauruan people suffered dramatic mortality rates accordingly (at least 230 deaths).

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Part 2: Japanese occupation

The mining continued until December 1940, when two Nazi ships sank four merchant ships off the Nauruan coast and shelled the phosphate mines, cutting off the supply to Australia and New Zealand. Understandably, Nauru immediately faced an economic crisis amid the encroaching Japanese threat. The Japanese invaded in August 1942, enslaving the Nauruans. Some were forced into labor on their homeland, building an airfield for the Japanese to use. Others were deported to the Chuuk Islands in Micronesia, a few thousand miles away. Some were literally shipped off the coast in a boat that the Japanese torpedoed in order to send a message.

As Allied forces slowly but surely reclaimed Papua New Guinea, Guadalcanal, Indonesia, Guam, and the Philippines, the Nauruans were left high-and-dry. A month after Japan surrendered, the Royal Australian Navy finally arrived and reclaimed Nauru. Out of the 1,200 Nauruans kidnapped and enslaved, a mere 737 survived. The island became an Australian mandate again, this time under the UN, in 1947.

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Part 3: Independence (and more good times)

Australia managed Nauru (and its phosphate) for a good two decades following the end of WWII. By 1966, Nauru achieved autonomy, and two years later, they were fully independent, writing up a constitution and electing Hammer DeRoburt as the island’s first president.

At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the first things the new Nauruan government did was purchase the British Phosphate Company’s assets and rename it the Nauru Phosphate Corporation (NPC). Irritated with Australia over what they viewed as chronic mismanagement of the phosphate, the government would manage the exports and then transfer the profits to Nauruans themselves.

As mentioned previously, this resulted in the islanders becoming exceedingly rich and enjoying the benefits of being exceedingly rich. The island got their own airline, Air Nauru, buying a jet that could almost fit the country’s whole population inside. The government built a golf course on Nauru and bought high-rise hotels and other real estate in Manila, Melbourne, Sydney, Guam, and Honolulu, among others. Nauru was sitting pretty, and people were taking notice of the island paradise. But soon that paradise would be lost.

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Part 4: Panic time

Here’s where it gets weird.

By the late 1980s and early 90s, the phosphate was beginning to run out. Therefore, Nauru’s government needed a backup plan. One of the country’s financial advisers, an Australian man named Duke Minks, came up with a strange idea — fund and sponsor a West End musical. Minks had connections in London prior to his banking days and decided to co-write and produce a musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Nauru’s then-president, Bernard Dowiyogo, jumped at the idea.

Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love debuted in June 1993 and was a massive critical flop, becoming one of the biggest bombs in West End history. The cost to the Nauruan taxpayers? Seven million dollars.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Nauruan citizens were getting disgruntled. Phosphate was no longer a viable industry, and the people knew it, with their shrinking bank accounts staring them in the face. With the advent of the internet in the early 90s, Nauru’s government jumped at the chance to purchase ads on the World Wide Web. They posted several, offering anyone with $20,000 the chance to open up a bank on Nauru.

You can probably see where that was going. In 2000, it was revealed that the Russian mafia laundered $70 billion through Nauru in one year alone. Increasingly desperate for money, Nauru even began selling passports to anybody who wanted one and started playing diplomatic musical chairs, recognizing Taiwan, then Communist China, then Taiwan again in exchange for lucrative foreign aid packages to upgrade their own decrepit infrastructure.

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Part 5: Australia, the Godfather

Only a month before 9/11, a boat carrying a few dozen refugees and asylum seekers capsized in the Indian Ocean. Many of them were Afghan, Pakistani, or Sri Lankan and were fleeing their home countries due to religious persecution, political persecution, or both. Most were trying to get to Christmas Island, an overseas territory of Australia near the maritime border with Indonesia, when the boat capsized. A Norwegian cargo freighter, the Tampa, rescued the refugees, but were promptly stopped and ordered to turn back by the Australian Defence Force.

Immigration had been an ongoing issue in Australia in the past few years leading up to this event, and the government’s policy was never to allow anyone who came by boat. But regardless of ones feelings about admitting would-be boat people, this incident triggered a full-blown crisis for Australia, its Parliament, and then-Prime Minister John Howard. Norway wasn’t happy. Neither were the refugees.

Howard refused to let any of the refugees into Australia, but didn’t want to deal with a permanent solution for them either. Instead, his government came up with the so-called Pacific Solution and passed the buck to — you guessed it — Nauru, offering lucrative amounts of foreign aid in exchange for temporarily housing the asylum seekers. In other words, Australia became Don Corleone: they made Nauru an offer they couldn’t refuse.

This proved to be a double-edged sword for both countries. First, Nauru couldn’t exactly say no (their bills weren’t going to pay themselves). Secondly, Australia’s government didn’t want refugees and certainly did want to provide an effective deterrent to any others that tried to come. And thirdly, none of the refugees were actually processed at the offshore Nauru centre; they were simply left there, given their papers, and conveniently forgotten.

Seeking to protect their new source of income, Nauru closed off the processing centre to outside observers and began charging outrageous prices (AUD$8,000) for media visas. Concurrently, Australia passed strict anti-whistleblower legislation in the hopes that no one would find out about the processing centre and its grim conditions. It was the perfect storm.

When Australia’s government changed hands in 2007, they temporarily shut down the Nauru centre, but it re-opened in 2012 under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and continues to have broad bipartisan support in Parliament. Men, women, and children alike were once again shipped off to the depleted phosphate island as they faced an uncertain future.

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Part 6: The Aftermath

Nauru continues to deal with the consequences of the past five decades. Corruption is almost as widespread in Nauru as obesity: this is a country that changed heads of government an astonishing 17 times in 14 years (including three presidents in 1996 alone) and whose presidents would routinely commandeer the Air Nauru planes on weekends, leaving paying customers stranded on the tarmac.

Way back in 1962, the Australian government, including then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies, understood the potential ramifications that generations of phosphate mining could have on Nauru and its people, who were getting ready to become fully independent at the time. Menzies even went so far as to hire a Director of Nauruan Resettlement, whose job was to scour the Pacific and/or the Australian coast for a suitable island for Nauruans to move to once their home was completely ruined. Nauru balked at the idea, arguing that moving the whole island’s population would diminish their own culture and ruin their lives. They stayed put.

In the early 2000s, after Nauru’s dubious transactions with the Russian mob were well-documented, The Economist wrote a non-flattering piece about the island’s ecological state:

Seen from the air, Nauru resembles an enormous moth-eaten fedora: a ghastly grey mound of rock surrounded by a narrow green brim of vegetation. On the ground, this unlovely impression is confirmed. Strip mining has turned Nauru into a barren, jagged wasteland. The once-dense tropical vegetation has been cleared.

And its rampant corruption:

Greed, phosphate, and gross incompetence in a tropical setting….the citizens of Nauru, to their credit, have not taken all this lying down….rare visits from international dignitaries have been disrupted by placard-wielding protesters, demanding to know where their money has gone. It is a melancholy sign of the islanders’ desperation that the idea of simply buying another island and starting afresh is once again under discussion. But who in his right mind would let the Nauruans get their hands on another island?

In 2018, Nauru will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence, although I’m sure few people feel like celebrating. Essentially, Nauru is back where it started — heavily dependent on Australia — only this time, with no more valuable mineral resources to give. They’ve become the archetypal client state, beholden to a larger power while Australia holds all the cards in the deck 3,000 miles away.

While many Nauruans try to stay positive and do all they can to work with what they have, this story was never going to have a happy ending. For better or worse, Australia and Nauru are forever intertwined, if only by a handful of refugees. And as far as Nauru’s decline goes, sadly, the writing was on the wall. One easily exploitable resource plus chronic fiscal mismanagement equals collapse.

Or, as Vlad Sokhin of the World Policy Institute puts it, “Nauru is a cautionary tale of what happens when the music stops. Or, more to the point, what happens when the single commodity on which an economy rests runs out.”

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Like a moonscape, much of Nauru's land has been left barren by miners who have extracted phosphate o..

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HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Tom Wills

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Tom Wills’s life had all the drama, passion, and excitement of a major movie script: someone who was beloved across a then-fledgling country as a talented dual sportsman and an eccentric personality.

The man was one of the most talented Australian cricketers of his day and also helped give birth to Aussie rules football — a unique and fast-paced game that enthralls modern audiences and has spread across the globe. However, immediately following his death, he fell into obscurity and did not achieve folk hero status as an Aussie sports legend for many decades. Who was Wills, and what made him such an intriguing figure?

Thomas Wentworth Wills was born in rural New South Wales (then still a British colony) on August 19, 1835 to Horatio Wills and Elizabeth McGuire Wills. Wills’s maternal grandparents were Irish convicts, while his paternal grandfather Edward Wills was an Englishman who was convicted of highway robbery and transported to Australia in 1799.

Horatio Wills was active in local politics and also owned a newspaper, where he helped make the case for a self-reliant, robust Australia with minimal British interference. By the time he got married and started raising a family, however, Wills moved to the countryside, settling in a predominantly Aboriginal region of Victoria near the modern-day town of Moyston. Here, the Wills family began a more pastoral style of living.

Young Tom naturally gravitated towards his Aboriginal neighbors as companions, learning their language and appreciating their music. Horatio Wills was also well-regarded among the community due to his uncommon hospitality to the locals, allowing Aboriginal clans to hunt on his land. Tom eventually moved south to Melbourne and attended Brickwood’s School from the age of 11, where he developed a close relationship with his uncle, who lived nearby. A natural athlete, Wills first began playing cricket while at school in Melbourne.

By 1850, Wills was 14 and his father was looking to ensure a good secondary education for his eldest, so he sent him to the elite Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. Here, Wills continued to play cricket and developed a sterling reputation as one of the best young bowlers at the school. In addition to his prowess as a cricketer, Wills also excelled in other athletic events, including Rugby School’s annual sports carnival. At a lanky 5’10” with natural agility and skill, Wills was considered the best all-around athlete in the school.

Wills, despite battling homesickness, finished his schooling in 1855 and began playing cricket across England, including first-class appearances for some of the most historic cricket clubs in the country. Eventually, after pressure from his father, Wills returned home to Australia right before Christmas 1856.

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Wills came back to his home country at the perfect time — the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales were battling annually in cricket and the competition had reached a fever pitch. Recruited to the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) by his old school friend, William Hammersley, Wills soon became a highly-regarded cricketer in Australia as well.

At the time, Aussie cricketers were strictly amateur sportsmen. Wills didn’t mind; he liked playing sports strictly for fun, but he also enjoyed drinking and fraternizing with the professional Aussie cricketers, which irked sporting officials but endeared him to the average fan.

During the 1857-58 cricket season, Wills was elected secretary of the MCC, but he was blamed for poor administrative skills and sometimes didn’t even show up to club meetings, even when the MCC was heavily in debt. Wills eventually resigned in a huff, resulting in a strained relationship with the MCC that would last for many years.

Despite his lack of secretarial skills, Wills was a prolific writer on cricket-related matters, penning numerous letters to the local press, many of which were often contentious in nature. On July 10, 1858, Wills wrote a letter to Bell’s Life, a Melbourne sporting chronicle, discussing the possibilities of forming a football club to help keep cricketers fit during the winter months:

Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature….why can they not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws?

Wills may not have realized it at the time, but he made a historic declaration, stating that “foot-ball” should be an organized and regular pastime. After spreading the word to local schools, Wills and his fellow cricketers organized a series of test matches at the Richmond Paddock, located adjacent to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The matches were played on subsequent Saturdays in August between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School. At this point, the form of football was more akin to rugby than anything else, but Wills would soon devise a scheme to make his new code of football unique.

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On May 14, 1859, Wills and a handful of other cricketers founded the Melbourne Football Club. Three days later, Wills invited William Hammersley, Thomas H. Smith, and J.B. Thompson to the Parade Hotel to formally codify the new type of football.

The four men debated the public school forms of football that were popular in England at the time. Wills naturally geared more towards the rugby of his alma mater; however, Hammersley disliked what he viewed as the complex and violent nature of rugby. The men compromised and decided to tailor-make the rules to the typical Melbourne winter conditions. They drew up a set of 10 rules:

1. The distance between the goals and the goal posts shall be decided upon by the captains of the sides playing.
2. The captains on each side shall toss for choice of goal; the side losing the toss has the kick off from the centre point between the goals.
3. A goal must be kicked fairly between the posts, without touching either of them, or a portion of the person of any player on either side.
4. The game shall be played within a space of not more than 200 yards wide, the same to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centres of the two goals; and two posts to be called the “kick off posts” shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards on each side of the goal posts at both ends, and in a straight line with them.
5. In case the ball is kicked “behind” goal, any one of the side behind whose goal it is kicked may bring it 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the “kick off” posts, and shall kick it as nearly as possible in line with the opposite goal.
6. Any player catching the ball “directly” from the foot may call “mark”. He then has a free kick; no player from the opposite side being allowed to come “inside” the spot marked.
7. Tripping and pushing are both allowed (but no hacking) when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of the ball, except in the case provided for in Rule 6.
8. The ball may be taken in hand “only” when caught from the foot, or on the hop. In “no case” shall it be “lifted” from the ground.
9. When a ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary-line, and thrown in at right angles with that line.
10. The ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown.

While not all of these rules have survived, they still form the official basis of Australian rules football — primarily kicking goals, marking the ball, and playing a fast-paced game over a very large area. Due to Wills’s immense popularity in Australia, the new game grew quickly, spreading across Melbourne and the nearby city of Geelong.

While Wills was developing Aussie rules during the winter, he remained a constant — albeit controversial — figure in cricket. After his falling-out with the MCC, Wills traveled around Australia, playing for any cricket team that would have him. This made many clubs furious, as Wills would frequently play without giving prior notice to the opposition, dramatically tilting the odds in his new team’s favor.

Shortly before England’s inaugural cricket tour of Australia in 1861, Wills abruptly announced his retirement from all sports. At the behest of his dad, Wills moved to found a new family property, this time thousands of miles north in outback Queensland along the Nogoa River. Wills, his family, and a number of his dad’s employees took a steam train to Brisbane, and then began the long trip to the rugged Queensland interior to establish their new property. Upon their arrival, Horatio Wills named the new location Cullin-la-ringo and established a ranch there. The family was wary of intermittent fighting between Anglos and Aborigines in the area and resolved to have a non-interventionist approach to the conflicts.

Two weeks later, on October 17, Wills was out of town seeking new supplies when nearly everyone at Cullin-la-ringo — including Horatio — was killed by Aborigines. Nineteen people (including women and children) were clubbed to death, resulting in the deadliest massacre of Anglo settlers in Australian history. Wills was not the only survivor; two men avoided being spotted by the Aborigines and reported the news to Wills later on.

Following the tragedy, Wills rebuilt the property at Cullin-la-ringo and sold it to a relative; however, Wills began to descend into insomnia, PTSD, and alcoholism. Drifting for awhile, he returned to cricket briefly and also spent some time coaching footy in Geelong before going back to Cullin-la-ringo.

By 1864, Wills’s personal life was imploding — his fiancée broke up with him and he was deeply in debt due to squandering money on alcohol while falsely claiming it as “station expenditures.”

Wills eventually moved back to Victoria, staying in Geelong with his sister Emily. He continued to play cricket occasionally, but his on-field professionalism was undermined when opposing players and umpires alike accused him of throwing games repeatedly (In cricket, one must use an orthodox method of bowling the ball, with very little wiggle room. Otherwise, a “no-ball” is called.).

By 1871, Wills’s style of play had ostracized many of his former friends and teammates, including Hammersley, and during that year’s match, Wills was tossed from the game and eventually banned from intercolonial matches. Wills attacked Hammersley (an Englishman) many times in the press, accusing him of manipulating the rules against Australians and threatening legal action.

Despite his fall from grace in the cricket world, Wills was still highly regarded in Geelong, where he helped further develop footy’s popularity. He continued to play and coach, and consulted with other authorities to make new rules and provide innovative game plans. He retired from footy in 1877.

Continuing to struggle with debt, Wills lived with his longterm girlfriend, Sarah Barbor, in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. Wills’s alcoholism continued to consume him until he was completely broke. With no money, Wills experienced withdrawal symptoms, including intense paranoia, and was admitted to a local hospital on May 1st, 1880. After being observed and released, Wills continued to suffer from paranoid delusions; two days later, he stabbed himself in the chest three times and died. Estranged from most of his family, Wills was buried in an unmarked grave and his funeral was attended by only six people.

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Wills was Australia’s first real sporting celebrity — excelling in cricket professionally and developing Aussie rules into a beloved winter pastime. However, the man himself remains an enigma among his supporters and detractors alike.

In addition to his alcoholism and PTSD, which sprang from the personal tragedies in his life, Wills had strange personality traits. He was frequently described as charismatic and laconic, although he also had very narcissistic tendencies and was not shy about alienating people. Wills was also a notorious womanizer and may have had hidden mental health issues, often confiding in friends and family that he didn’t always feel like himself.

Wills also wrote many letters to his friends and family over the years, many of which were composed in bizarre fashion: he had a peculiar stream of consciousness style of writing that sometimes defied grammar, featuring random puns, strange Shakespearean allusions, and droll asides. It’s possible that he was bipolar or even mildly epileptic. “He could be dismissive, triumphant, and brazen all in a single sentence,” says Australian historian Greg de Moore.

Despite his moral flaws, Wills is heavily remembered not just for his sporting legacy, but for his egalitarian attitudes, which are strongly reflected in Australian culture at large. In some ways, he is emblematic of the tough, down-to-earth, individualistic image of the “Aussie bloke.”

“‘Great’ athletes seem to be anointed every day; far rarer are those entitled to be considered ‘original’. Tom Wills is such a figure in every respect,” says journalist Gideon Haigh.

Whatever you think of Tom Wills as a person, he will probably always be remembered as a lasting icon of Australia’s two most famous sports.

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Jim Stynes

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Jim Stynes has been cemented as one of the all-time greats in Australian football, winning a Brownlow Medal, earning two All-Australian honors, and holding the record for most consecutive AFL games. But Stynes didn’t know the finer points of Aussie rules until he was a young man, as the sport was entirely foreign to him growing up.

Born in 1966 to Brian and Teresa Stynes, he was raised in the southern suburbs of Dublin as one of six kids. He began playing Gaelic football and had a real passion for it, starting from the age of eight and continuing throughout his school days in Ireland. In addition to relishing the fast pace and ball movement in Gaelic football, Stynes also liked full-contact sports, competing in rugby union at De La Salle College, Churchtown.

In 1984, when he was only 18, Stynes led his team — Ballyboden St Endas — to a Gaelic football title in the All-Ireland Minor Championship division. While coming down from the high of this big win, Stynes wanted a steadier income. Since Gaelic football was an amateur sport, Stynes had to support himself by delivering papers for meager wages. While he wanted to go to college, it seemed like a pipe dream.

Soon afterwards, Stynes saw an ad in his newspaper from the Melbourne Football Club. They were offering two scholarships for young Irishmen to come and play Aussie rules while studying at a university in Melbourne. Lanky and athletic, Stynes saw it as a great opportunity and was eventually selected, flying to Australia in November 1984.

In addition to adjusting to the cultural differences in Australia, Stynes had to learn Aussie rules from scratch. While both Aussie rules and Gaelic football feature similar ball movement and kicking skills, Stynes found it hard to transfer his football IQ right away. He needed to fine-tune his techniques, adjust to the full contact nature of footy, and attempt to compete with young men his age who were far more experienced.

However, after about a year or so with the Melbourne Demons’ reserves squad, Stynes began to settle in and be more comfortable with a footy. Coaches liked his athleticism and his positive attitude, and by 1987, he made his senior level debut in a night game between Melbourne and Geelong.

It didn’t go as planned; Stynes performed poorly on the grand stage and didn’t play much the rest of the ’87 season. Melbourne got to the AFL Preliminary Final that year and was leading Hawthorn in the final seconds. The siren sounded to end the match, but Hawthorn had one more shot and were given a free kick after Stynes ran across the mark. This critical error cost the Demons a shot at the Grand Final that year.

But once again, Stynes didn’t quit and the following year, Melbourne made it back to the postseason. This time, they did advance to the Grand Final and lost badly, but Stynes was showing rapid improvement.

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In 1991, Stynes had his best season yet, playing all 24 games for the Demons and leading the league in marks (214). He also won the Brownlow Medal, the AFL Players Association MVP award, and was named All-Australian. To date, Stynes is the only foreign-born AFL player to ever capture a Brownlow, which is the game’s highest individual regular season honor.

Stynes was highly regarded for his relentless pursuit of the ball, out-hustling and maneuvering his opponents and using his quickness to be aggressive towards bigger players. In 1993, Stynes collided with a teammate and broke a rib. He was initially ruled out for six weeks, but amazingly, he returned the following week and played with light chest padding for protection. He was holding the all-time record for consecutive AFL games when he suffered another severe injury — this time to his hand — in 1998, and he retired that fall as one of the best players in Melbourne history, playing 264 career games.

Following his retirement, Stynes remained involved in the community, both on and off the footy oval. In 1994, while still playing, Stynes co-founded the Reach Foundation with his friend, filmmaker Paul Currie, with the goal of starting community outreach programs. The foundation works with kids, families, and the like to help people in various ways, from mental health education, to violence prevention, to sports and athletic activities.

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Stynes continued his philanthropic efforts in 1997, when the Government of Victoria asked him to help assist their anti-suicide task force, helping advocate for youth treatment programs and compassionate outreaches. In addition to two autobiographies, Stynes also wrote children’s self-help books and was named Victorian of the Year twice (in 2001 and 2003). In recognition of his community activism and work with children, Stynes received an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University. The AFL inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2003.

The Jim Stynes Medal was named in his honor, first awarded in 1998 to the best Australian player in the International Rules Series, which pits Aussie rules and Gaelic footballers against each other under hybrid rules.

Stynes became president of the Melbourne Football Club in 2008 to much fanfare, although the following year he announced a sabbatical after being diagnosed with melanoma. Stynes continued to work during his treatment, but soon the cancer had metastasized. He passed away at his home at the age of 45 on March 20, 2012 and was survived by his wife Samantha and two kids.

Former Melbourne team captain turned TV journalist Garry Lyon gave an emotional tribute to his former teammate on The Footy Show:

Jimmy refused to let the game define who he was. It was just a part of him and it allowed us to marvel at his determination, unwavering self-belief, resilience, strength, skill, endurance and courage….he was secure enough to know that displaying vulnerability can be a strength and not a weakness.

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Kelly Tarlton

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You might not guess it, but New Zealand has been home to many inventors, pioneers, and explorers. The small South Pacific country developed a well-regarded do-it-yourself mentality during its long period of isolation in the 19th century. Kiwis were long regarded as ingenious problem-solvers due to the fact that, early in their nation’s history, you had to be self-reliant. Kiwis invented the jet-powered boat, the electric fence, and bungie-jumping, among others, and were well-known as explorers and adventurers. And of course, the country’s favorite son was Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mount Everest and who is now immortalized on the New Zealand $5 bill.

The country’s adventurous spirit has sparked many other unconventional and inspirational figures over the years — like Kelly Tarlton.

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Tarlton was born in 1937 in Dargaville, a small town in the North Island of New Zealand. An only child, Tarlton moved with his parents to Christchurch, a large city in the South Island, when he was a boy, where he developed a love for mountaineering and mountain-climbing. In 1956, at the age of 19, Tarlton was set to join some friends on a trip to the Andes.

Unfortunately, the group’s plans had to be canceled at the last minute — Peru was facing political unrest at the time and closed off its borders. Left at a loose end, Tarlton walked around town and wandered into a movie theatre that was screening the Jacques Costeau film Silent World.

Tarlton was captivated by Costeau’s film — a documentary that focused on underwater diving — and decided to go about learning more. He built much of his own scuba diving gear and purchased a quality underwater camera while building protective camera casings himself.

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Several years later, Tarlton had developed a well-regarded reputation as a photographer of sea life, and even got into treasure hunting. In 1967, he traveled to the Three Kings Islands off the coast of the North Island in order to collect marine specimens, but stumbled upon the wreckage of the SS Elingamite, an Australian steamer that sank in 1902 while carrying large amounts of gold. Tarlton ended up leading several expeditions to the Elingamite after his initial discovery and recovered much of the gold (although it was much less than had been assumed previously).

Tarlton was also celebrated when he discovered the SS Tasmania, another Australian ship that had sunk off the coast of New Zealand in 1897. Tarlton’s intricate research led him to recover a number of lost jewels onboard, many of which belonged to one of the survivors, Isadore Rothschild. Tarlton put several bits of the treasure on display at the Museum of Shipwrecks in the tourist town of Paihia, but they were stolen by a former staff member and the jewels’ whereabouts are currently unknown.

While many would be satisfied by securing a reputation as a scuba diver and treasure hunter, Tarlton’s interests didn’t stop there. By the 1970s, he was onto his next hobby — marine archaeology — and had paired it with his love of shipwreck-hunting. The task at hand was to recover three lost anchors that had belonged to the 18th century French ship St Jean Baptiste, which lost the anchors during a bad storm off the coast of the North Island. Tarlton and his team of researchers dug deep into the official accounts of Captain Jean François de Surville, discovering that the ship had drifted dangerously close to a large rock and was no further than “a pistol shot” from the shore when the anchors were dropped. By calculating the distance, wind speed, and other factors, Tarlton ended up finding all three anchors, which were put on display at Wellington’s Te Papa Museum — the national museum of New Zealand.

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In the early 80s, Tarlton’s attention shifted to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, where he desired to build a full-size aquarium. However, he ran into some challenges right away, as he lacked the funds to buy molded acrylic, which were needed to build the transparent tunnels. Still, Tarlton was unfazed, remarking that if he could build his own underwater camera casings, he could build tunnels, too! And he did just that, forming an innovative and skilled team of engineers to construct them. The job took its toll, with Tarlton and his men frequently working 18-hour days in order to get the project finished within a 10-month time frame.

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The aquarium — officially titled Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium — was opened in January 1985 and is located in the seaside suburb of Orakei, less than four miles east of Auckland’s downtown area. It was an instant hit with the public, with exhibits focusing on South Pacific marine life, an Antarctica discovery zone, and much more.

New Zealanders flocked to the aquarium from near and far, and after seven weeks, Tarlton was photographed shaking hands with the 100,000th visitor. Sadly, that image was the last time he was photographed — he died that very night of a heart attack at the age of 47. Today, the aquarium honors Tarlton with a bust that is inscribed: “Diver, dreamer, explorer, inventor, instigator, worker, storyteller, father — a man who linked us all with his love of the sea.”

 

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Don Ritchie

After completing his service in the Australian Navy during World War II, Don Ritchie became a life insurance salesman. But his far greater accomplishment was quite literally “selling life” to the dozens of distraught Sydneysiders who have attempted suicide at The Gap.

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The Gap is a gorgeous cliffside in the affluent Sydney suburb of Watsons Bay which separates Sydney Harbour from the Tasman Sea. It has been a notorious suicide spot for nearly two centuries, with only a three-foot fence separating one from the edge.

And Don Ritchie lived next to it for 50 years.

According to estimates, Ritchie — the so-called “Angel of The Gap” — has saved 160 people from jumping to their deaths, all by being friendly and offering a warm smile. Frequently he just offered a cup of tea to them or invited them to chat at his home. While many would dread living to such a depressing place, Ritchie saw it as an amazing opportunity.

“How wonderful is it to save so many? How wonderful is it to sell them life?” he once said. “People will always come here. I don’t think it will ever stop. You can’t just sit there and watch them.”

“I think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we live here and we can help people?'” his wife Moya added.

Ritchie didn’t keep count of how many people he actually saved, although the actual count could be close to 400. Sadly, many people eluded his grasp and plunged to their deaths regardless.

Some of the ones he spoke with were battling cancer, while others suffered from mental illness. Sometimes, the men and women who jumped left behind reminders of themselves on the edge — notes, wallets, shoes, etc. Once, Ritchie rushed over to help a man on crutches. By the time he arrived, the crutches were all that remained.

Ritchie admitted that he didn’t want to pry into would-be victims’ lives; rather simply being someone who could listen and offer an alternative if needed. He claimed that he didn’t try to dwell on the ones he could have saved, although there are still some that haunted him.

On a summer evening several years ago, a 19-year-old man had already climbed over the small fence at The Gap and was preparing to jump.

“I went over and I tried to talk to him, asking him questions…he wouldn’t talk much and just kept looking straight ahead. I was talking to him for about half an hour, thinking I was making headway. I said, ‘Why don’t you come for a cup of tea, or a beer if you’d like one?’ He said no and stepped off…his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.”

It was later discovered that the young man had lived down the street many years prior and grew up with Ritchie’s grandkids. The man’s mother brought Ritchie flowers and thanked him for trying. “If you couldn’t have talked him out of it, no one could,” she said.

Ritchie also once spoke with a woman who he described as “nervous and confused”; she had struggled with depression for years and felt that her medications were of no help. Ritchie and his wife spoke with her for several hours and she eventually went home safely. Months later, she returned with a message of thanks: “I’ll never forget your important intervention in my life. I am well.”

Ritchie consistently remained humble and low-key about his extraordinary work. In 2006, he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to suicide prevention. However, he was acutely aware that excessive publicity could potentially attract more depressed people to The Gap.

The following year, on November 2, 2007, prominent Australian journalist/newscaster Charmaine Dragun jumped from The Gap after suffering from depression and anorexia for years. According to Ritchie’s wife, there were six more suicides in the following few weeks.

Therein lies the problem for many activists and would-be helpers: while The Gap’s security needs to be upgraded, how can that be done subtly without attracting more potential victims? There aren’t easy answers, but the local city councils are doing all they can to improve the situation.

As for Ritchie and his wife, they’ve always insisted that they’ve had successful, full lives. They raised three daughters and have a few grandchildren, and have traveled all around the world. One day, Ritchie found an anonymous gift in his mailbox — a painting of a ray of sunshine with a message at the bottom, calling him “an angel who walks amongst us.”

However, the humble Aussie was just glad to be of service to the community. “It makes you — oh, I don’t know. I feel happy about it. Once I’m gone, I imagine somebody else will come along and do what I’ve been doing.”

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Suffering from recurring cancer, Ritchie passed away in 2012 at the age of 86.

“He would always say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile….an everyday person who did an extraordinary thing for many people that saved their lives, without any want of recognition,” Ritchie’s daughter, Sue, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Taika Waititi

He’s made quirky independent comedies and drama films in his home country for years. As an actor, writer, director, and comedian, he’s helped spearhead a close-knit group of like-minded creatives. He wrote the original script for Disney’s animated Polynesian blockbuster Moana last year. And now he’s taking on the Marvel Universe.

But truth be told, Taika Waititi probably wouldn’t be recognized on the street in places like New York or Los Angeles.

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The 41-year-old Waititi has dominated the cinema scene in his native New Zealand for over a decade. In 2003, he came out of nowhere and got a Best Short Film nomination at the Oscars for Two Cars, One Night. He didn’t win, but he drew plenty of laughs when he pretended to fall asleep during the ceremony before they got to his category.

Waititi has been a darling at the Sundance Film Festival for many years – following his initial short film success, he wrote, directed, and co-starred in Eagle vs. Shark, an offbeat romantic comedy starring his good friend and frequent collaborator, Jemaine Clement. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007. Three years later, Waititi wrote and directed the coming-of-age story Boy, which tells the story of a young Māori kid learning the truth about his long-lost ex-convict father (played by Waititi). At the time, the film was the highest-grossing domestic movie ever at the New Zealand box office.

In 2014, Waititi and Clement tag-teamed the director’s chair for vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, which also wowed audiences at Sundance despite being made on a NZ$1.7 million budget raised entirely on Kickstarter. Last year, Waititi’s kid-friendly caper film Hunt for the Wilderpeople became the little Kiwi film that could, grossing over $12 million in its home country and $23 million worldwide, while also receiving unanimous acclaim (97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). Also a smash hit in nearby Australia, Hunt for the Wilderpeople became the highest-grossing Kiwi movie ever, ahead of Boy – meaning that Waititi dethroned himself as New Zealand’s box office king.  “It’s the happiest and saddest day of my career,” Waititi quipped when he was told the news.

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Born in the small coastal village of Raukokore in the North Island of New Zealand, Waititi is entirely Maori on his father’s side, while his mother is of Russian Jewish descent. He attended school at Onslow College before moving on to the Victoria University of Wellington, where he met Clement while studying film and drama.

Waititi and Clement formed the comedy duo The Humourbeasts, touring the nation and winning the Billy T Award – New Zealand’s highest comedy honor – in 1999. Meanwhile, Waititi also earned a couple of bit parts in indie films, most notably an award-winning turn in the student drama Scarfies, which was filmed in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1999. Eventually, he decided to give directing a shot, starting with short comedy films for New Zealand’s 48-hour film festival. From that came Two Cars, One Night and immediate domestic success.

Earlier in 2017, Waititi was named the recipient of the New Zealander of the Year Award. “There are a lot of nominations for things I never won and this is something I actually did win – it feels like I’ve followed through on this one,” the director says, while expressing regret that he couldn’t attend the ceremony in person.

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“If someone asked, ‘What are your films like?’, the best I can come up with is that they’re, like, a fine balance between comedy and drama. And they deal mainly with the clumsiness of humanity,” states Waititi, who lists his favorite directors as Hal Ashby and George Miller.

Now, Waititi will be directing the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, the third entry in the Marvel Universe starring the comic book character portrayed by Chris Hemsworth. However, Waititi was given a shocking amount of artistic freedom and declared almost immediately that the film would be set outside the Marvel Universe and be a stand-alone movie. Primarily shot in Australia, Thor: Ragnarok will be premiering on November 3rd.

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Waititi’s films all have vulnerability mixed with offbeat Kiwi humor, which will certainly be a unique addition to a big-budget superhero film. Conversely, Marvel has never had someone like Waititi direct a film of theirs. Noted critic Sarah Marrs said specifically that she was only as excited as she was for Thor: Ragnarok because Waititi was directing it, and that Marvel was giving him a long leash in order to do so.

“Having had pretty much four successful films at home, I know there’s an audience for my work,” Waititi explains. “A lot of people are trying to get out of their home country and think ‘making it’ is if you’re able to work in another. For me, I’d be quite content to keep doing my own little films down there for the rest of my filmmaking career.”

Similarly, Waititi remains low-key about being the proverbial Hollywood outsider. “I’ve always felt like I wanted to make a Marvel film. I just want to make sure I’m not making an episode.”

Now that Thor: Ragnarok is in the can and preparing for its release, Waititi is turning his attention elsewhere. He’s working on a werewolf-themed spinoff of What We Do in the Shadows and recently landed a $20 million Netflix deal to direct Bubbles, a film about the life of Michael Jackson as seen through the eyes of his pet chimpanzee.

“From film to film, it’s a new thing,” Waititi says. “And that, to me, is more inspiring than making same type of movie every time.”

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Lachlan Macquarie

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Lachlan Macquarie was born on Ulva Island, Scotland, in 1762, to a well-regarded family of Scottish clan chieftains. Macquarie left his home island at the age of 14 and eventually found his way into the British Army.

In April 1777, the young Macquarie was deployed to North America during the American Revolutionary War and ended up stationed in modern-day Nova Scotia as an ensign. But that was only the beginning of Macquarie’s military excursions, as he saw many different stations over the next decade — including the American colonies, Jamaica, India, and Egypt. During this time, he became known as a very successful commander, rapidly climbing the ladder from Lieutenant to Captain to Major.

In between his service stints overseas, Macquarie also spent some time in London as an assistant adjutant general to the honorable Lord Harrington. After returning to India for two years, Macquarie ended up in London again in 1807, this time commanding the 73rd Foot Regiment.

In April 1809, Macquarie received word that he was to become the Governor of New South Wales. At the time, it must have seemed like a demotion, as the New South Wales colony was widely regarded as a poverty-stricken penal settlement on the eastern coast of Australia.

With widespread political corruption, a group of rebellious, undisciplined soldiers, and conflicts with local Aboriginal groups, New South Wales was hardly considered a dream destination. Previously, the British had only wanted naval officers to govern the place due to its remoteness, but had experienced very little success. But nonetheless, Macquarie was viewed as the right man to bring law and order to the fledgling New South Wales colony.

Macquarie arrived in the colony by December 1809, bringing along a good-sized group of his own men; he officially became Governor on January 1, 1810.

His first order of business was to restore order among the populace after the so-called “Rum Rebellion” of 1808. Macquarie also had to navigate the testy relationship between free settlers (AKA “exclusives”) and reformed convicts who had finished their sentences and/or been granted pardons (known as the emancipists). Severe droughts occurred in consecutive years, and Macquarie also had his hands full while he attempted to overhaul the military corps and the justice system. The first few years in the colony were grim, indeed.

Macquarie’s plan for the courts clashed with Jeffrey Bent, the Chief Judge of the new Supreme Court. Bent had alliances with the military and the exclusive settlers, and some accused Macquarie of trying to rebel against English common law by issuing ordinances that were viewed as inconsistent with the Crown’s plans for New South Wales. Macquarie’s attempts to allow emancipist attorneys into the court were particularly frowned upon.

It became clear that Macquarie’s plans for New South Wales were facing an uphill battle. His greater vision was to have the colony as a egalitarian settlement — allowing ex-convicts to coexist peacefully with civilian settlers and military officers. While that may seem perfectly logical and innocuous today, Macquarie was largely viewed as a radical at the time.

In 1816, Macquarie had been subject to repeated harassment and decided to proclaim a new law against trespassing, having three offenders — all of them free settlers — flogged in order to send a message. While an extreme example, this was one incident that Macquarie’s political opponents used against him. Eventually, Macquarie was censored by Lord Bathurst, the man who was in charge of colonial affairs in New South Wales. The British set up a committee in order to investigate Macquarie, as well as detail further plans for the penal colony.

Surprisingly, the committee was mostly OK with Macquarie’s policies and vision, but they disapproved of his liberal use of pardons and tickets of leave. They ended up supporting Macquarie in his goal to help New South Wales become a prosperous colony for ex-convicts who desired to start anew. However, many others still wanted Macquarie gone, so he eventually resigned.

Shortly thereafter, the Napoleonic Wars ended, and many free settlers decided to move to Australia, as Britain was sinking into a post-war economic depression. By the time Macquarie had resigned and returned to London in 1822, nearly 40,000 settlers lived in New South Wales.

Macquarie is also credited with being the first governor to issue official currency in Australia, in 1813, and helped found the Bank of New South Wales four years later. He helped bring in architects and engineers to supervise the building of many sites, most of which are still standing in Sydney today. Macquarie also encouraged further exploration of the Australian continent and helped build some structures in Tasmania, another penal colony, when he visited there. Macquarie University in Sydney, one of Australia’s most prestigious schools, is named for the governor.

To this day, Australians universally regard Macquarie as an extremely influential and important figure. The idea of “giving everyone a fair go” is a phrase that continues to be popular among Aussies to this day, echoing Macquarie’s philosophy that regardless of background, religion, educational level, or socioeconomic status, one can attempt to succeed and make a good life.

Macquarie passed away in London at the age of 62 while still awaiting charges for his alleged crimes. He was buried at a remote mausoleum in Scotland alongside his wife and two children — with the words “the Father of Australia” written on his epitaph.

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