Kiritimati is a tiny atoll at the heart of the Pacific Ocean. It is also known as “Christmas Island,” and forms a part of the nation state of Kiribati – an archipelago that stretches across the Pacific Ocean. Kiritimati has a population of approximately 6,500 people, who live across the villages of Tabwakea, London, Banana, and Poland. If you were to visit now, you would never consider that this small island was once an epicentre of British and American nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War.
Thirty-three nuclear weapons were detonated around Kiritimati from 1957 to 1962, including powerful hydrogen bombs. These nuclear weapons tests have had long-term social, cultural and health consequences to both nuclear test veterans and islanders alike. Nuclear weapons have had a disproportionate impact on indigenous communities. Homelands, communities, and families have all been harmed – and governments cannot or will not provide reparations.
However, the church has played an important role in building peace and supporting wellbeing for both communities. For the young men who had travelled halfway across the world to work on the British hydrogen bomb, the Church of England military chapel on Main Camp offered a space for reflection, contemplation and solace during difficult times. Being conscripted to the armed forces and then witnessing the destructive force of nuclear weapons would test anyone’s faith. Ron Watson was one of the soldiers who visited the Main Camp church. He said that it was operational by 1958 and that it was built with local materials. A dedication stone was laid by an RAF Reverend “E.G. Alsop.”
Kiribati eventually gained independence on 12July 1979, and Kiritimati was demilitarised. While the servicemen and their bombs went home, they left their buildings behind – and some aspects of the Main Camp barracks remain to the present day. The Main Camp army chapel was initially repurposed as a home by local Kiritimati families. Forty years on, the chapel has become completely derelict, surrounded by salt-bush and entangled in tropical weeds.
A view from the pulpit of Main Camp military chapel now. Photo: B.Alexis-Martin.
The Main Camp military chapel is no longer needed now, as local communities have their own large and vibrant Kiribati Protestant Church in Tabakea, and there are also smaller Catholic churches across the villages.
I attended a Sunday Morning Service at Tabakea Kiribati Protestant Church. Many looked elegant in white clothing for the event. Photo: B.Alexis-Martin.
The Tabakea Kiribati Protestant Church plays an important part in community life in Kiritimati, providing spiritual nourishment and food for the hungry. I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of this church by the pastor’s family when I visited Kiritimati in 2018. They proudly showed me their immaculately clean church hall, their community kitchen facilities, and a shelter for storing live edible land crabs.
Pots of food roasting over copra kindling in the Kiribati Protestant Church kitchens. Photo: B.Alexis-Martin.
Kiritimati feels peaceful now. Despite its history of nuclear weapons and the underlying future threat of climate change, this little island has a burgeoning tourism industry and is a truly wonderful place to visit. The fight to abolish weapons of mass destruction continues. While Kiribati has signed and ratified the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a further 12 ratifications are now needed before this treaty comes into force.
This treaty is vital, as Article 6 will oblige those who have caused harm to provide environmental remediation and to give adequate reparations to affected communities – including the people of Kiritimati. Until this happens, nuclear weapon possessors across the world will continue to intentionally neglect their responsibilities to communities that have been affected by nuclear weapons tests and the whole world will remain under the threat of devastation from a nuclear attack or accident.
I was shown one of the hymn books that has been translated to I-Kiribati. It was published by the Gilbert Islands Protestant Church in 1975. Photo: B.Alexis-Martin.
Dr Becky Alexis-Martin is a pacifist scholar, writer, and photographer. She lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is the author of “Disarming Doomsday: The Human Impacts of Nuclear Weapons Since Hiroshima,” which won the L.H.M. Ling Outstanding First Book Prize. Her Kiritimati photography was Judges Choice for Images of Research 2020.
This text is the second of a series of blog posts highlighting different reflections and experiences of those who are calling for an end to nuclear weapons. Learn more:
"75th anniversary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: has your country ratified the UN treaty?", by Jennifer Philpot-Nissen (15 June 2020)