By the time of the first recorded European sighting of Nauru (by Captain John Fearn in 1798), the Nauruans were a distinct people with their own language and culture. They had little contact with Europeans until whaling ships, traders and beachcombers began to visit regularly in the 1830s.
The introduction of firearms and alcohol destroyed the social balance of the 12 clans living on the island and led to a ten-year internal war, which reduced the population to around 900 by 1888: in 1843 there had been 1,400 people on Nauru. Peace was only restored when Germany took action to remove firearms from the island.
The island was allocated to Germany under the 1886 Anglo- German Convention. Phosphate was discovered a decade later and the Pacific Phosphate Company started to exploit the reserves in 1906, by agreement with Germany. The island was captured by Australian forces in 1914 and administered by Britain. In 1920 the League of Nations gave Britain, Australia and New Zealand a Trustee Mandate over the territory. In reality the island was administered by Australia. The three governments bought out the Pacific Phosphate Company and established the British Phosphate Commissioners, who took over the rights to phosphate mining.
Nauru was damaged by German naval gunfire and later by Allied bombing in World War II. During Japanese occupation (1942–45), 1,200 Nauruans were deported to work as labourers to Truk (now Chuuk), Micronesia, where 463 died as a result of starvation or bombing. The survivors were returned to Nauru in January 1946.
After the war, the island became a UN Trust Territory, administered by Australia in a similar partnership to the previous League of Nations mandate, and it remained a trust territory until independence in 1968. Anticipating the exhaustion of the phosphate reserves, a plan by the partner governments to resettle the Nauruans on Curtis Island, off the north coast of Queensland, Australia, was put forward in 1964. However, the islanders decided against resettlement. Legislative and executive councils were established in 1966, giving the islanders a considerable measure of self-government.
In 1967, the Nauruans contracted to purchase the assets of the British Phosphate Commissioners and in June 1970 control passed to the Nauru Phosphate Corporation.
Nauru became independent as a republic in 1968. Following a constitutional convention in 1967–68, a new constitution protecting fundamental freedoms and establishing a parliamentary democracy was adopted. Sir Hammer DeRoburt became President and went on to dominate parliament during the next 20 years, leading the government for most of the period. In the absence of a formal party system, there have been many periods when governments have been sustained by a single vote.
In August 1989 DeRoburt was ousted in a vote of no confidence. Kenas Aroi succeeded him but was himself succeeded by Bernard Dowiyogo after he suffered a severe stroke in November 1989. Dowiyogo went on to win the next presidential election, but in the November 1995 election was narrowly defeated by Lagumot Harris (nine votes to eight). In November 1996, there was an early general election which, due to a number of votes of no confidence, was followed by three changes of President in as many months.
Kinza Clodumar was elected President in a further general election in February 1997. He was defeated in a no-confidence vote in June 1998 when Dowiyogo again took over the leadership. In April 1999 Dowiyogo was himself defeated in a vote of no confidence and René Harris was chosen by parliament to succeed him. Following the general election in April 2000, the 18 newly elected members re-elected Harris as President. When he resigned a week later, Dowiyogo was chosen for the sixth time. In March 2001, when Dowiyogo was in Australia undergoing medical treatment, he was narrowly defeated in a no-confidence vote; Harris was then chosen to succeed him. Having superseded René Harris in January 2003 following a no- confidence vote, Bernard Dowiyogo died in March while on a visit to the USA, and an election was held in May 2003.
In August 2001, the government agreed with the Australian Government – for an initial A$30 million – to accommodate some 1,000 mainly Afghan boat people while their eligibility for asylum in Australia was assessed. In October 2005 the Australian Government decided to bring 25 of the remaining 27 asylum- seekers to Australia. Only one asylum seeker remained on the island in mid-2006, but seven Burmese asylum seekers were transferred to Nauru for assessment in September 2006 and 82 Sri Lankan refugees in March 2007. Then in late 2007 the new Australian Labor government indicated the camp would be closed.
On 27 February 2010, a popular referendum rejected a package of proposed changes to Nauru’s constitution, following a constitutional reform process which had been under way for several years. Among other things, the changes had been intended to stabilise government and establish a popularly- elected presidency.