History of Kiribati

History of Kiribati

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 "discovered" 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 "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 ["Cinderellas of the Empire", Barrie Macdonald, IPS, University of the South Pacific, 2001, p.1] [Encyclopedia Britannica, "Kiribati"] and 1300 AD [ [http://www.mfep.gov.ki/Facts%20and%20background.htm I-Kiribati Ministry of Finance and Economic Development: "History"] ] . 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.

Colonial era

European contact began in the 16th century. 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. Banaba (Ocean Island) was annexed in 1901 after the discovery of phosphate-rich guano 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 (a colonial entity created in 1877, governed by a single High Commissioner) until 1971, only five years before its abolition. One very famous Colonial Office proconsul was Sir Arthur Grimble, first as cadet officer in 1914, then as Resident Commissioner in 1926. Most of the Line Islands including Christmas Island, the Phoenix and even the Union (Tokelau) islands (until 1925) were incorporated piecemeal over the next 20 years.

Japan seized part of the islands during World War II to form part of their island defenses. In November 1943, Allied forces threw themselves against Japanese positions at Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts, resulting in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific campaign. The battle was a major turning point in the war for the Allies.


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. [Reilly Ridgell. "Pacific Nations and Territories: The Islands of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia." 3rd Edition. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1995. p. 95] (the rendition of Gilberts, in Gilbertese language). 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

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 Tito 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.

The Banaba issue

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.


*"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

ee also

*Gilbert Islands

External links

* [http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/1836.htm U.S. State Department Background Note: Kiribati]
* [http://www.phys.uu.nl/~vgent/idl/idl.htm#The%20Kiribati%20adjustment%20of%201994/95 The Kiribati international date line adjustment of 1994/95]
* [http://www.historyofnations.net/oceania/kiribati.html History of Kiribati]

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