Map of Butaritari
|Area||13.49 km2 (5.21 sq mi)|
|Highest elevation||3 m (10 ft)|
|Population||4,346 (as of 2010 Census)|
|Density||322 /km2 (834 /sq mi)|
|Ethnic groups||I-Kiribati 99.7%|
Butaritari is an atoll located in the Pacific Ocean island nation of Kiribati. It is the most fertile of the Gilbert Islands, with relatively good soils (for an atoll) and high rainfall. Butaritari atoll has a land area of 13.49 km² and a population of 4,346 as of 2010[update]. During World War II, Butaritari was known by American forces as "Makin Atoll", and was the site of the Battle of Makin. Locally, Makin is the name of a separate atoll to the Northeast of Butaritari.
Butaritari is the second most northerly of the Gilbert Islands; three kilometers to the northeast is Makin. Butaritari was called Makin Atoll by the U.S. military, and Makin was then known as Makin Meang (Northern Makin) or Little Makin to distinguish it. Now that Butaritari has become the preferred name for the larger atoll, speakers tend to drop the qualifier for Makin. Butaritari has also previously been known as Pitt Island, Taritari Island, or Touching Island.
The atoll is roughly four-sided and nearly 30 km across in the east west direction, and averages about 15 km north to south. The reef is more submerged and broken into several broad channels along the west side. Small islets are found on reef sections between these channels. The atoll reef is continuous but almost without islets along the north side. In the northeast corner, the reef is some 1.75 km across and with only scattered small islet development. Thus, the lagoon of Butaritari is very open to exchange with the ocean. The lagoon is deep and can accommodate large ships, though the entrance passages are relatively narrow.
The south and southeast portion of the atoll comprises a nearly continuous islet, broken only by a single, broad section of interislet reef. These islets are mostly between 0.2 and 0.5 km across, but widen in the areas where the reef changes directions. Mangrove swamps appear well developed in these latter areas as well as all along the southern lagoon shore. Narrow islets are somewhat characteristic of Kiribati atolls running east-west.
Bikati and Bikatieta islets occupy a corner of the reef at the extreme northwest tip of the atoll, bordering what may be a second small lagoon to the north of the main lagoon. Larger Bikati (2 by 0.5 km) harbors a village.
The population of Butaritari in the 2010 Census was 4,346 people, inhabiting twelve villages:
Butaritari is one of the lushest of the islands of Kiribati due to good rainfall. Typical annual rainfall is about 4 m, compared with about 2 m on Tarawa Atoll and 1 m in the far south of Kiribati. Rainfall on Butaritari is enhanced during an El Niño.
Butaritari has rich marine resources, with a large lagoon and wide reef. Butaritari is also the island of Kiribati with the greatest potential for agriculture; bananas, breadfruit and papaya grow well, and successful cultivars of pumpkin, cabbage, cucumber, eggplant and other vegetables have been created with assistance from the Taiwan Technical Mission based in South Tarawa. However most households still keep to a subsistence lifestyle, and although food is plentiful money is often scarce as there are few paid jobs on the island.
Traditionally, Butaritari and Makin were ruled by a chief who lived on Butaritari Island. This chief had all the powers and authority to make and impose decision for Butaritari and Makin, a system very different from the Southern Gilbert Islands where power was wielded collectively by the unimwane or old men of the island. The people of Kuma village had the power to call dolphins or whales, and used this ability on special occasions to provide meat for important feasts such as the opening of a new maneaba.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Fanny Vandegrift Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne visited Butaritari from 14 July 1889 to early August. At this time Nakaeia, was the ruler of Butaritari and Makin, atolls, his father being Tebureimoa and his grandfather being Tetimararoa. Nakaeia was described by Stevenson as “a fellow of huge physical strength, masterful, violent … Alone in his islands it was he who dealt and profited; he was the planter and the merchant” with his subjects toiling in servitude and fear.
Nakaeia allowed two San Francisco trading firms to operate, Messrs, Crawford and Messrs. Wightman Brothers, with up to 12 Europeans resident on various of the atolls. The presence of the Europeans, and the alcohol they traded to the islanders, resulted in periodic alcoholic binges that only ended with Nakaeia making tapu (forbidding) the sale of alcohol. During the 15 or so days Stevenson spent on Butaritari the islanders were engaged in a drunken spree that threatened the safety of Stevenson and his family. Stevenson adopted the strategy of describing himself as the son of Queen Victoria so as to ensure that he would be treated as a person who should not be threatened or harmed.
Any possible Guano Islands Act claim by the United States to Butaritari and Little Makin was renounced in the 1970s. The islands were visited as part of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1841.
The earliest trading companies on Butaritari were the Hamburg-based DPHG with Pacific headquarters in Samoa, and On Chong (Chinese traders with Australian connections via the goldfields). These traders helped Butaritari became the commercial and trading capital of the Gilbert Islands until Burns Philp, a powerful trading company, moved to Tarawa, following the seat of political power.
Butaritari Post Office opened on 1 January 1911.
The Japanese trading company (Nanyo Boeki Kabushiki Kaisha) established operations in Butaritari Village. W. R. Carpenter & Co. (Solomon Islands) Ltd was established in in 1922. Through the 1920s On Chong experienced gradual decline in its operations as the result of low copra prices. Eventually On Chong was taken over by W. R. Carpenter & Co.
World War II
On 10 December 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 300 Japanese troops, plus laborers of the "Gilberts Invasion Special Landing Force" arrived off Butaritari — then known as "Makin" — and occupied without resistance. Lying east of the Marshall islands, Makin would make an excellent seaplane base, extending Japanese air patrols closer to Howland Island, Baker Island, Tuvalu and Phoenix and Ellice Islands, all held by the Allies and protecting the eastern flank of the Japanese perimeter from an Allied attack.
Butaritari atoll was the site of the Makin Raid in August 1942, when two companies of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion landed from the submarines USS Argonaut and USS Nautilus, as a feint to draw Japanese attention away from the planned invasion route through the Solomons. While they annihilated the local garrison, they failed in their initial objectives of taking prisoners and gathering intel.
On the eve of invasion, the Japanese garrison consisted of 806 men. Most were of aviation or Japanese and Korean labor units who had little or no combat training and were not assigned weapons or a battle station, and the number of trained combat troops on Makin was no more than 300 soldiers. The garrison also included three tanks and three 37mm anti-tank guns.
Butaritari's land defenses were centered around the lagoon shore, near the seaplane base in the central part of the island. A series of strongpoints was established along Butaritari's ocean side as the Japanese expected the invasion to come from there, following the example of the earlier raid of 1942. Without aircraft, ships, or hope of reinforcement or relief, the outnumbered and outgunned defenders could only hope to delay the coming American attack for as long as possible.
American air operations began on November 13, 1943, followed by bombardment from fire support ships. Troops began to go ashore on November 20, and the attacking troops knocked out the fortified strongpoints one by one. Despite its great superiority in men and weapons, the Americans had considerable difficulty subduing the island's small defensive force. On November 23 the force commander reported "Makin taken."
As compared to an estimated 395 Japanese and Koreans killed in action, American combat casualties numbered 66 killed and 152 wounded. But when the American losses incurred during the sinking of the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay on November 24 by a Japanese submarine are included, the loss balance tips toward the other side. Counting the 687 sailors who went down with the carrier, American casualties exceeded the strength of the entire Japanese garrison on Makin.
Butaritari is served by a twice weekly air service connecting with neighbouring Makin and the capital, South Tarawa, provided by Air Kiribati. The runway of Butaritari Atoll Airport was originally built as the WW2 American strip (Starmann Field). An international air service with a route of Tarawa Atoll–Butaritari–Majuro operated for a short period in 1995. The aim was to facilitate the development of a strong cash crop economy on the island and link the Marshall Islands with Kiribati. Unfortunately with the demise of Air Nauru (Our airline) in 2008, the only international air connection left over is through South Tarawa, which is connected via a twice weekly Air Pacific flight with Fiji.
There are three guesthouses on Butaritari, providing a basic level of accommodation aimed mainly at Government staff and visitors, though tourists are also welcomed.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Butaritari.|
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- Stevenson, Robert L. (1896), In the South Seas
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- In the South Seas (1896) & (1900) Chatto & Windus; republished by The Hogarth Press (1987), Part IV
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- "Outer Islands Accommodation Guide". Kiribati Tourism, Government of Kiribati.