The World of Info



Early history

More than 3,000 years ago, the Gilbert and Banaba Islands were inhabited by settlers from the Caroline and Marshall Islands. The Phoenix and Line Islands were never permanently inhabited. The inhabitants of the Gilberts Islands lived together in kaingas (villages) with different families. Except on the two northern islands of Butaritari and Makin, which had a central "chief", each kainga was led by a maneaba. A maneaba was a traditional village house where meetings were held under the leadership of an "unimane", a kind of council of elders.

British rule

Because the islands of Kiribati were remote and had few natural resources, it took a long time for the first Europeans to arrive. In 1606, the Spanish explorer Pedro-Fernandez de Quirós was the first European to land on the Gilberts. The next European, John Byron, did not land until 1766 on the island of Nikunau, one of the southern Gilberts. In 1788, Captain Thomas Gilbert discovered several more islands on his way to China. The Gilberts are named after him.

Whaling at the beginning of the 19th century brought increasing numbers of Europeans to Kiribati, especially to the southern Gilberts. Missionaries and traders also found their way to the Gilberts. The traders made use of Butaritari's little harbour, where goods were exchanged for coconut oil and shells. At the end of the 19th century, many islanders were taken as labourers to plantations in Fiji, Hawaii and Australia. Kiribati has never known Spanish, German, Japanese or American rule. The islands have mainly been British territory (British Dominion). Towards the end of the 19th century, the Gilbert & Ellice Islands (now: Tuvalu) were administered as a kind of British protectorate. This structure was formalised on 27 May 1892 by Captain E. Davis and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands officially became a British protectorate. Three years later, Tarawa was declared the capital.

In 1900, Albert Ellis of the Pacific Islands Company discovered a large stock of high grade phosphate on Ocean Island. Immediately, about 1000 workers were recruited from other islands to start mining activities. In 1901 Banaba became part of the protectorate. At the request of the inland administration, the islands were made into a colony in 1915, expanded to include Christmas Island (Kiritimati) in 1919 and the Phoenix Islands in 1937.

Second World War

The First World War passed relatively unnoticed by the Gilberts, unlike the Second World War. Just after Pearl Harbor Banaba was bombed by the Japanese and Butaritari, Makin and Tarawa were occupied. In mid-1942, American marines carried out a mock attack on Butaritari. The intention was to distract the Japanese from the real attack on the Solomon Islands. This indeed succeeded, but the furious Japanese responded to this act by conducting a true reign of terror among the population. In retaliation, Butaritari was bombed and 47 inhabitants were killed as punishment. Nine US marines who had stayed behind by mistake were beheaded. On Makin and Tarawa all remaining Europeans were executed. And still in 1945, 160 residents of Ocean Island were blindfolded and shot.

Meanwhile, on several islands forts were built and ever stronger defences erected. In November 1943, the island of Betio near Tarawa was attacked by about 5000 American marines. It took three days before the Americans were able to land on the beach and this cost about 1,500 Americans their lives.

Kiribati and Gilberts Islands become independent

After the war, an islander was appointed magistrate but had little say. An independence movement emerged in the mid-1950s, which gained momentum in the 1960s with the struggle for independence from the Solomon Islands and Fiji. In 1963, an "executive council" was set up, together with an advisory council. Both bodies were intended to advise the magistrate, but in fact they were already the precursors of a real parliament. In 1967, therefore, the advisory council was proclaimed the House of Assembly with eighteen members from the Gilbert Islands and five from the Ellice Islands.

In 1974, the House of Assembly was established. Domestic self-government was granted to the Gilberts on 1 November 1976. In 1978, the Ellice Islands seceded and called themselves Tuvalu from that time onwards. The British left Kiribati less developed than other Micronesian nations. The main problem was a lack of money, partly due to the drying up of phosphate reserves. The island of Banaba became uninhabitable as a result of phosphate extraction. Other problems are the overpopulation on South Tarawa, in 1989 plans were announced to transfer over 4700 inhabitants to the atolls Teraiba and Tabuaeran, the rapid urbanisation and the administration of the widely dispersed islands.

On 12 July 1979, the Republic of Kiribati, comprising the Gilberts, Phoenix Islands, Line Islands and Banaba (Ocean Island) became an independent nation after 87 years of British rule. At the first elections in 1978, Jeremiah Tabai became prime minister and, after independence in 1979, the first president. He remained in power until 1991, when he was succeeded by Teatao Teannaki, who was succeeded by Teburoro Tito in 1994 after an electoral defeat. His CDP later merged with the NPP to form the Christian Democratic Maneaban Te Mauri. In March 2003, Tito was forced to resign after parliament passed a vote of no confidence.

On 10 July 2003, Anote Tong of the Boutokaan Te Koaua ("Pillars of Truth") became president. Since November 2003 Kiribati has maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan. On 15 August 2005, the two countries signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of health care in Taipei. In 2005, Kiribati had only three doctors and 24 nurses.

After Kiribati established relations with Taiwan, China broke off diplomatic relations. In response, on 1 November 2005, President Anote Tong accused China of trying to undermine his government. In October 2007, Tong won the presidential election with a large majority. In January 2012, Tong was elected president for the third time. In March 2016, Taneti Maamau was elected president and re-elected in June 2020.


Galbraith, K. / Micronesia
Lonely Planet

Levy, N.M. /Micronesia handbook Moon

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated June 2024
Copyright: Team The World of Info