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Gilbert Islands

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Colony of Gilbert Islands
Flag of Gilbert Islands
of Gilbert Islands
Coat of arms
Anthem: "God Save the King"
StatusColony of the United Kingdom
CapitalSouth Tarawa
Common languagesEnglish, Gilbertese
• 1976–1979
Elizabeth II
• 1976–1978
John Hilary Smith
• 1978–1979
Reginald James Wallace
• Colony
1 January[1] 1976
• Disestablished
12 July 1979
• 1978
CurrencyAustralian dollar
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Today part ofKiribati

The Gilbert Islands (Gilbertese: Tungaru;[2] formerly Kingsmill or King's-Mill Islands[3]) are a chain of sixteen atolls and coral islands in the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii. They constitute the main part of the country of Kiribati (the name of which is a rendering of "Gilberts" in the phonology of the indigenous Gilbertese).[2]


The atolls and islands of the Gilbert Islands lie in an approximate north-to-south line. The northernmost island in the group, Makin, it is approximately 420 nautical miles (780 km) from southernmost, Arorae, as the crow flies. Geographically, the equator is the dividing line between the northern and southern Gilbert Islands. However, the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) considers the entire Gilbert islands group to be in the South Pacific Ocean.[4]

Another way to group the Gilbert Islands is according to their former administrative districts, which were known as the Northern, Central, and Southern Gilberts. (Tarawa was once a separate district as well).

At one time, a subset of the northern Gilbert islands was known as Scarborough Islands and a subset of the southern Gilberts as the Kingsmill Group; in some 19th century texts, this last name of Kingsmills was applied to the entire Gilberts group.[3]

Geologically, the Gilberts and the Ratak chain of the Marshall Islands to their north together form a continuous chain of seamounts.

Islands of the Gilberts[edit]

In official north–south order (grouped by former administrative district), the islands and atolls are:

Gilbert Islands
Atoll / Island Main
Land area Lagoon area Pop.
c. 2005
of islets
Villages Location
km2 sq mi km2 sq mi
Former district of the Northern Gilberts
Makin Makin 7.89 3.0 0.3 0.1 2,385 6 2 3°23′N 173°00′E / 3.383°N 173.000°E / 3.383; 173.000 (Makin)
Butaritari Temanokunuea 13.49 5.2 191.7 74.0 3,280 11 11 3°09′N 172°50′E / 3.150°N 172.833°E / 3.150; 172.833 (Butaritari)
Marakei Rawannawi 14.13 5.5 19.6 7.6 2,741 1 8 2°00′N 173°17′E / 2.000°N 173.283°E / 2.000; 173.283 (Marakei)
Abaiang Tuarabu 17.48 6.7 232.5 89.8 5,502 4-20 18 1°50′N 172°57′E / 1.833°N 172.950°E / 1.833; 172.950 (Abaiang)
Tarawa Betio 31.02 12.0 343.6 132.7 45,989 9+ 30 1°26′N 173°00′E / 1.433°N 173.000°E / 1.433; 173.000 (Tarawa)
Former district of the Central Gilberts
Maiana Tebwangetua 16.72 6.5 98.4 38.0 1,908 9 12 0°55′N 173°00′E / 0.917°N 173.000°E / 0.917; 173.000 (Maiana)
Abemama Kariatebike 27.37 10.6 132.4 51.1 3,404 8 12 0°24′N 173°50′E / 0.400°N 173.833°E / 0.400; 173.833 (Abemama)
Kuria Tabontebike 15.48 6.0 1,082 2 6 0°13′N 173°24′E / 0.217°N 173.400°E / 0.217; 173.400 (Kuria)
Aranuka Takaeang 11.61 4.5 19.4 7.5 1,158 4 3 0°09′N 173°35′E / 0.150°N 173.583°E / 0.150; 173.583 (Aranuka)
Nonouti 1) Teuabu 19.85 7.7 370.4 143.0 3,179 12 9 0°40′S 174°20′E / 0.667°S 174.333°E / -0.667; 174.333 (Nonouti)
Former district of the Southern Gilberts
Tabiteuea 1) Buariki 37.63 14.5 365.2 141.0 4,898 2+ 18 1°20′S 174°50′E / 1.333°S 174.833°E / -1.333; 174.833 (Tabiteuea)
Beru 1) Taubukinberu 17.65 6.8 38.9 15.0 2,169 1 9 1°20′S 175°59′E / 1.333°S 175.983°E / -1.333; 175.983 (Beru)
Nikunau 1) Rungata 19.08 7.4 1,912 1 6 1°21′S 176°28′E / 1.350°S 176.467°E / -1.350; 176.467 (Nikunau)
Onotoa 1) Buariki 15.62 6.0 54.4 21.0 1,644 30 7 1°52′S 175°33′E / 1.867°S 175.550°E / -1.867; 175.550 (Onotoa)
Tamana Bakaka 4.73 1.8 875 1 3 2°30′S 175°58′E / 2.500°S 175.967°E / -2.500; 175.967 (Tamana)
Arorae Roreti 9.48 3.7 1,256 1 2 2°38′S 176°49′E / 2.633°S 176.817°E / -2.633; 176.817 (Arorae)
Gilbert Islands South Tarawa 281.10 108.5 1,866.5 720.7 83,382 117+ 156 3°23'N to 2°38S
172°50' to 176°49'E
1) part of Kingsmill Group proper

Source for land areas: Kiribati 2005 Census Report

Northern Gilberts[edit]

The Northern Gilberts (meang or mweang) geographically and traditionally encompass Butaritari, Makin, Marakei, Abaiang (literally northland) and Tarawa. They have unique tonal accents with differences particularly noted amongst Butaritari and Makin inhabitants. Traditionally, Butaritari and Makin were ruled by a chief who lived on Butaritari (called Makin or Great Makin). This chief had all the powers and authority to make and impose decisions on the Islanders, a system very different from the Southern Gilbert Islands where power was wielded collectively by the unimwane or old men of the island.[5]

The northern Gilberts have a greater mean rainfall in comparison to the southern and central Gilberts allowing cultivation of a wider crop range. Butaritari and Makin supply most of the bananas sold in Kiribati. The cultivation of taro or babai (Cyrtosperma merkusii) has been historically easier in the northern Gilberts due to a higher water table and regular rainfall.

Central Gilberts[edit]

The Central Gilberts or nuka have traditionally included Maiana, Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka. However, the latter three are considered the main islands that have unique historical and cultural characteristics which distinguish the Central Gilberts from the north and south.[6]

Tembinok', the last king of Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka, died in the early part of the 20th century.[5]

Southern Gilberts[edit]

The Southern Gilberts include the atolls of Nonouti, South and North Tabiteuea, Beru, Nikunau, Onotoa, Tamana and the most southerly island of Arorae.



The islands had been inhabited by Oceanians for several millennia (at least 2,000 years, probably 3,000).

Contact with Europeans[edit]

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

In 1606, Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandes de Queirós sighted Butaritari and Makin, which he named the Buen Viaje Islands.[7][8]

1852 map by J. G. Barbié du Bocage. Includes regions of Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia and Malesia. "Scarborough Islands" are the Northern Gilberts, "Gilbert Island" probably Tarawa, Bishop's Island Tabiteuea, Kingsmill Islands the Southern Gilberts just above "île Saint-Augustin", Nanumea.

The British explorer Vice-Admiral John Byron passed through the islands in 1765 during his circumnavigation of the globe as captain of HMS Dolphin.[9][10]

In 1788 Captain Thomas Gilbert on Charlotte and Captain John Marshall on Scarborough crossed through Kuria, Aranuka, Tarawa, Abaiang, Butaritari, and Makin without attempting to land on the atolls.[11][12]

In 1820, the islands were named the Gilbert Islands or îles Gilbert (in French) by Adam Johann von Krusenstern, a Baltic German Admiral of the Russian 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).[13]

Map of Abaiang and Tarawa, from US Ex Ex

US exploration[edit]

Many whaling ships called at the islands in the 19th century. The first recorded visit was by the Ann and Hope, which called at Nikunau in December 1799.[14]

Two ships of the United States Exploring Expedition (1838–1842), USS Peacock and Flying Fish, under the command of Captain William L. 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.[15]

Colonial rule[edit]

In 1886, an Anglo-German agreement partitioned the "unclaimed" central Pacific, leaving Nauru in the German sphere of influence, while Ocean Island and the future GEIC wound up in the British sphere of influence. A British protectorate was first proclaimed over the Gilberts by Captain Edward Davis of HMS Royalist on 27 May 1892.[16] British official Arthur Mahaffy visited the Islands in 1909. He noted that the "villages are kept in admirable order and the roads are scrupulously clean." A hospital was on each island, as well.[17] The conduct of William Telfer Campbell, the second resident commissioner of the Gilberts, was criticised as to his legislative, judicial and administrative management (including allegations of forced labour exacted from islanders) and became the subject of the 1909 report by Arthur Mahaffy.[18] In 1913 an anonymous correspondent to The New Age journal described the mis-administration of Telfer Campbell and challenged the impartiality of Arthur Mahaffy as he was a former colonial official in the Gilberts.[19]

In 1915, starting from 1916, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were proclaimed a colony of the British Empire.[20]


The natives of the Gilbert Islands are Austronesian peoples, similar in many respects to the natives of the Marshalls or the Carolines.[citation needed]

In Mahaffy's 1909 report to the British Government he described the missionaries or Protectorate staff then resident in the Gilbert Islands.[17]

At the outbreak of World War II, about 78% of the native population were said to be Christians. This group was divided mainly into two denominations: Congregationalists (43%) and Roman Catholics (35%), Catholics becoming quickly the majority at the end of the Colony. The rest of the population were then largely semi-pagan agnostics; they did not adhere to the Christian faith, nor did they retain much of their beliefs in their own ancient gods.

Native diet during this time consisted mainly of fish, coconuts, pandanus fruit, babai (swamp taro), chicken, and some pork.[17] Housing for Europeans employed in the island was simple: constructed of European and native materials and generally of the bungalow type. Mahaffy described the native clothing as being of "shocking shape" and "atrocious color," and that the style was changing into "kilt(s) of leaves or fine woven mats."[17]


In the early to mid 20th century the principal source of income for Gilbert islanders was from working on the production of phosphate from the deposits on Banaba (Ocean Island), an island to the west of the Gilbert Islands.[19] In addition, coconut palms were cultivated on some of the islands. All labor was supervised by the British and every effort was made to see that the wages and living conditions were fair and adequate. Sanitary inspections by the British did much to improve the general living conditions on most of the islands.

Arthur Mahaffy noted in 1909 that "extreme poverty is virtually unknown," and that most people on the island owned their own land. Residents paid taxes, with the majority of taxes going back into the community, and a small portion going to the Protectorate.[17]


Judged to be about 84% literate, the Gilbertese responded readily to the colony's educational efforts. All education in the islands came under the supervision of the Colonial Education Department whose aims were to educate native boys for employment in government and commercial work, and to standardize the level of education throughout the colony. The bulk of the education was provided by the missions, which maintained all the village schools and trained the native school teachers.

With the availability of European-style medical care life improved. The Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme sought to provide an outlet through the development of three uninhabited atolls in the Phoenix Islands and was the last attempt at human colonization within the British Empire.


Hiram Bingham II (1831–1908) was the first to translate the Bible into Gilbertese, and also wrote hymns for the Gilbertese language. Joanna Gordon-Clark writes of their religious belief:

The Gilbert (and Ellice) Islanders had a strong set of beliefs of their own, pre the Christian missionaries; they had a strong foundation myth, involving trees and the two genders. Their ancestors, they said, had been white skinned and red haired and came from elsewhere, perhaps the West (possibly coinciding with the outward spread of Homo sapiens from Africa and elsewhere). As might be expected, they gave power to the natural forces and gave them names and godly characteristics (sun, moon, etc.) but believed in one spirit god, a bit similar to the god of Genesis, in that he/she seemed to have power over dark and light and so on, and was pretty much invisible. They had a strong belief in behaving properly to their ancestors, and especially their parents, and had well-developed community rules for courtesy to others. Read A Pattern of Islands, by Arthur Grimble, who worked in these islands and on Banaba, for the Colonial Administration, from just before the First World War to the mid thirties, or thereabouts. It is a remarkable, informative, funny and warm-hearted account of these people and their religion. Other religions on the islands figure slightly, and there are remarkable stories of adventures, bravery, political machinations, etc. Probably out of print, but second hand copies are available I think, I have two, and the illustrations are delightful.

World War II[edit]

On the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Gilbert Islands, occupying 3 of them by 9 December 1941.[21]

On 17 August 1942, 221 U.S. Marines of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion raided Makin from two submarines. The raid was intended by the Americans to confuse the Japanese about US intentions in the Pacific, a feint to draw Japanese attention away from the planned invasion route through the Solomons. It is instead believed to have alerted the Japanese to the strategic importance of the Gilbert Islands and led to their reinforcement and fortification. Marines captured during this operation were subsequently summarily executed by the Japanese, in gross violation of the laws of war. The 19 Marines who died were left behind for the villagers to bury. In 1999, a Marine Honor guard was sent to recover the bodies and found them after a villager showed them where to dig. All were exhumed and were taken to the United States.

Tarawa and Abemama were occupied in force by the Japanese in September 1942 and during the next year garrisons were built up on Betio (Tarawa Atoll), and Butaritari (Makin Atoll). Only nominal forces were placed on other islands in the Gilberts.

On 20 November 1943, the U.S. Army and U.S. 2nd Marine Division landed on Makin and Tarawa, initiating the battles of Makin and Tarawa, in which the Japanese were defeated. The Gilbert Islands were then used to support the invasion of the Marshall Islands in February 1944. The US built bases on Islands.


The Gilbert and Ellice Islands became autonomous in 1971. From 1975 to 1978, the Ellice Islands were separated, and the Gilberts became the Gilbert Islands colony, which issued stamps under that name. In 1979, the Gilberts opted for independence, becoming the independent state of Kiribati. The Ellice Islands became the independent state of Tuvalu in 1978.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ W. David McIntyre. "The Partition of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands" (PDF). Island Studies Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2012. pp. 135–146. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 December 2017. Retrieved 24 October 2020.
  2. ^ a b Reilly Ridgell. Pacific Nations and Territories: The Islands of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. 3rd. Ed. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1995. p. 95.
  3. ^ a b Very often, this name applied only to the southern islands of the archipelago, the northern half being designated as the Scarborough Islands. Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam Webster, 1997. p. 594
  4. ^ "Limits of Oceans and Seas, 3rd edition" (PDF). International Hydrographic Organization. 1953. Retrieved 28 December 2020.
  5. ^ a b Stevenson, Robert Louis (1987) [1896]. In the South Seas, Part V, Chapter 1. Chatto & Windus; republished by The Hogarth Press.
  6. ^ Grimble, Arthur (1981). A Pattern of Islands. Penguin Travel Library. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-009517-3.
  7. ^ Maude, H.E. (1959). "Spanish Discoveries in the Central Pacific: A Study in Identification". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 68 (4): 284–326. Archived from the original on 10 February 2018. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  8. ^ Kelly, Celsus, O.F.M. La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo. The Journal of Fray Martín de Munilla O.F.M. and other documents relating to the Voyage of Pedro Fernández de Quirós to the South Sea (1605–1606) and the Franciscan Missionary Plan (1617–1627) Cambridge, 1966, pp. 39, 62.
  9. ^ H. E. Maude (1961). "Post-Spanish discoveries in the central Pacific". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 70 (1): 67–111. Archived from the original on 27 December 2021. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  10. ^ "Circumnavigation: Notable global maritime circumnavigations". Solarnavigator.net. Retrieved 20 July 2009.
  11. ^ Henry Evans Maude, On Islands and Men. 1968.
  12. ^ Morison, Samuel Eliot (22 May 1944). "The Gilberts & Marshalls: A distinguished historian recalls the past of two recently captured Pacific groups". Life. pp. 90–101. Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  13. ^ Chambers, Keith S.; Munro, Doug (1980). "The Mystery of Gran Cocal: European Discovery and Mis-Discovery in Tuvalu". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 89 (2): 167–198. Archived from the original on 15 December 2018. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  14. ^ Robert Langdon (ed.) Where the whalers went: an index to the Pacific ports and islands visited by American whalers (and some other ships) in the 19th century, (1984), Canberra, Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, p. 64. ISBN 0-86784-471-X
  15. ^ Stanton, William (1975). The Great United States Exploring Expedition. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 245. ISBN 978-0520025578.
  16. ^ The proceedings of H.M.S. "Royalist", Captain E.H.M. Davis, R.N., May–August, 1892, in the Gilbert, Ellice and Marshall Islands.
  17. ^ a b c d e Mahaffy, Arthur William. Report by Mr. Arthur Mahaffy on a Visit to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, 1909. London: Darling & Son, ltd. pp. 5–12.
  18. ^ Mahaffy, Arthur (1910). "(CO 225/86/26804)". Report by Mr. Arthur Mahaffy on a visit to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. Great Britain, Colonial Office, High Commission for Western Pacific Islands (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office).
  19. ^ a b Correspondent (5 June 1913). "Modern buccaneers in the West Pacific" (PDF). New Age: 136–140.
  20. ^ Annexation of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands to his Majesty's dominions : at the Court at Buckingham Palace, the 10th day of November, 1915. Great Britain, Privy Council, Gilbert and Ellice Islands Order in Council, 1915 (Suva, Fiji : Government Printer). 1916.
  21. ^ "Pacific Ocean Campaigns, United States & Allied, Part 1 of 2: 1941–42". Naval-History.Net.
  22. ^ Enele Sapoaga, Hugh Larcy (ed) (1983). "Chapter 19, Post-War Development". Tuvalu: A History. University of the South Pacific/Government of Tuvalu. pp. 146–152. {{cite book}}: |last1= has generic name (help)


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External links[edit]

Media related to Gilbert Islands at Wikimedia Commons