History of Kiribati

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Shark tooth weapon from the Gilbert Islands, manufactured in the mid to late 19th century.

The islands which now form the Republic of Kiribati have been inhabited for at least seven hundred years, and possibly much longer. The initial Micronesian population, which remains the overwhelming majority today, was visited by Polynesian and Melanesian invaders before the first European sailors visited the islands in the 16th century. For much of the subsequent period, the main island chain, the Gilbert Islands, was ruled as part of the British Empire. The country gained its independence in 1979 and has since been known as Kiribati.


The islands had been inhabited by Micronesians for several millennia (at least 2.000 years, probably 3.000). The I-Kiribati or Gilbertese people settled what would become known as the Gilbert Islands (named for British captain Thomas Gilbert by von Krusenstern in 1820) some time in between 3000 BC[1][2] and 1300 AD.[3] Subsequent invasions by Samoans and Tongans introduced Polynesian elements to the previously installed Micronesian culture and invasions by Fijians introduced Melanesian elements, but extensive intermarriage produced a population reasonably homogeneous in appearance, language and traditions.

Contact with other cultures[edit]

In 1606 Pedro Fernandes de Queirós sighted the Makin/Butaritari group.

Captain John Byron passed through the islands in 1764 during his circumnavigation of the globe as captain of HMS Dolphin.[4]

In 1788 Captain Thomas Gilbert in the Charlotte and Captain John Marshall in the Scarborough. Messrs. Gilbert and Marshall crossed through Abemama, Kuria, Aranuka, Tarawa, Abaiang, Butaritari, and Makin without attempting to land on shore.[5]

Further exploration[edit]

Portrait of a native of the Makin islands, drawn by Alfred Thomas Agate (1841)

In 1820, the islands were named the Gilbert Islands or îles Gilbert (in French) by Adam Johann von Krusenstern, an Estonian admiral of the Czar after the British Captain Thomas Gilbert, who crossed the archipelago in 1788. French captain Louis Duperrey was the first to map the whole Gilbert Islands archipelago. He commanded La Coquille on its circumnavigation of the earth (1822–1825).

Two ships of the United States Exploring Expedition, USS Peacock (1828) and USS Flying Fish (1838), under the command of Captain Hudson, visited many of the Gilbert Islands (then called the Kingsmill Islands or Kingsmill Group in English). While in the Gilberts, they devoted considerable time to mapping and charting reefs and anchorages.

Colonial era[edit]

Whalers, slave traders, and merchant vessels arrived in great numbers in the 19th century, and the resulting upheaval fomented local tribal conflicts and introduced damaging European diseases. In an effort to restore a measure of order, the Gilbert Islands and the neighboring Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu) were forced to become the British protectorate of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1892. A British protectorate was first proclaimed over the Gilberts by Captain Davis of HMS Royalist (1883) on 27 May 1892. Banaba (Ocean Island) was annexed in 1901 after the discovery of phosphate deposits.

The entire collection, plus Fanning and Washington islands (part of the Line Islands), was made a British colony, also called Gilbert and Ellice Islands, in 1916, as part of the British Western Pacific Territories (BWPT). Most of the Line Islands including Christmas Island, the Phoenix and even the Union (Tokelau) islands (until 1925) were incorporated piecemeal into the Gilbert and Ellice Islands over the next 20 years. The BWPT was a colonial entity created in 1877, and governed by a single High Commissioner until 1971, only five years before its abolition.

One very famous colonial officer in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony was Sir Arthur Grimble (1888–1956), at first as a cadet officer in 1914, under Edward Carlyon Eliot who was Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony from 1913 to 1920. This period is described in Eliot's book "Broken Atoms" (autobiographical reminiscences) (Pub. G. Bles, London, 1938) and in Sir Arthur Grimble's "A Pattern of Islands" (Pub. John Murray, London, 1952). Arthur Grimble became the Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony in 1926.

There is speculation that Amelia Earhart might have crash-landed her plane at Nikumaroro in the Phoenix Islands group during her 1937 attempt to fly around the world.

World War II[edit]

Japan seized part of the islands during World War II to form part of their island defenses. On 20 November 1943, Allied forces threw themselves against Japanese positions at Tarawa Atoll and Makin Atoll in the Gilberts, resulting in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific campaign. The Battle of Tarawa and the Battle of Makin were a major turning point in the war for the Allies, which battles were the implementation of "Operation Galvanic".[6]


Britain began expanding self-government in the islands during the 1960s. In 1975 the Ellice Islands separated from the colony to form the independent state of Tuvalu. The Gilberts obtained internal self-government in 1977 and held general elections in February 1978 which saw Ieremia Tabai elected Chief Minister as only age 27.

The islands formally became an independent nation on 12 July 1979 under the name of Kiribati. Although the indigenous Gilbertese language name for the Gilbert Islands proper is Tungaru, the new state chose the name "Kiribati," the Gilbertese rendition of "Gilberts," as an equivalent of the former colony to acknowledge the inclusion of islands which were never considered part of the Gilberts chain.[7] The United States gave up its claims to 14 islands of the Line and Phoenix chains (previously asserted under the Guano Islands Act) in the 1979 Treaty of Tarawa.

Independent Kiribati[edit]

Post-independence politics were initially dominated by the Commonwealth of Nations' youngest head of state, Ieremia Tabai, just 29, Kiribati's first beretitenti (president), who served for three terms from 1979 to 1991. Teburoro Tiito was elected beretitenti in 1994, and reelected in 1998 and 2002. However, in the previous parliamentary elections in 2002, Tito's opponents won major victories, and in March 2003 he was ousted in a no-confidence vote (having served the maximum three terms, he is barred by the constitution to run for another term). His temporary replacement was Tion Otang, the Council of State chairman. Following the constitution, another presidential election was held, in which two brothers, Anote and Harry Tong, were the two main candidates (the third one, Banuera Berina won just 9,1%). Anote Tong, London School of Economics graduate, won on 4 July 2003, and was sworn in as president soon afterward. He was re-elected in 2007 and in 2012 for a third term.

The Banaba issue[edit]

An emotional issue has been the protracted bid by the residents of Banaba Island to secede and have their island placed under the protection of Fiji. Because Banaba was devastated by phosphate mining, the vast majority of Banabans moved to the island of Rabi in the Fiji Islands in the 1940s where they now number some 5,000 and enjoy full Fijian citizenship. The Kiribatian government has responded by including several special provisions in the Constitution, such as the designation of a Banaban seat in the legislature and the return of land previously acquired by the government for phosphate mining. Only around 300 people remain on Banaba. Despite being part of Kiribati, Banaba's municipal administration is by the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders, which is based on Rabi. In 2006, Teitirake Corrie, the Rabi Island Council's representative to the Parliament of Kiribati, called for Banaba to secede from Kiribati and join Fiji.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Cinderellas of the Empire, Barrie Macdonald, IPS, University of the South Pacific, 2001.
  • Les Insulaires du Pacifique, I.C. Campbell & J.-P. Latouche, PUF, Paris, 2001
  • Kiribati: aspects of history, Sister Alaima Talu et al., IPS, USP, 1979, reprinted 1998
  • A Pattern of Islands, Sir Arthur Grimble, John Murray & Co, London, 1952
  • Return to the Islands, Sir Arthur Grimble, John Murray & Co, London, 1957


  1. ^ Cinderellas of the Empire, Barrie Macdonald, IPS, University of the South Pacific, 2001, p.1
  2. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, "Kiribati"
  3. ^ I-Kiribati Ministry of Finance and Economic Development: "History"
  4. ^ "Circumnavigation: Notable global maritime circumnavigations". Solarnavigator.net. Retrieved 20 July 2009. 
  5. ^ Samuel Eliot Morison (1944-05-22). "The Gilberts & Marshalls: A distinguished historian recalls the past of two recently captured pacific groups". Life magazine. Retrieved 2009-10-14. 
  6. ^ "To the Central Pacific and Tarawa, August 1943--Background to GALVANIC". Ch 16, p. 622. Retrieved 2010-09-03.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  7. ^ Reilly Ridgell. Pacific Nations and Territories: The Islands of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. 3rd Edition. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1995. p. 95

External links[edit]