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 A SHORT HISTORY OF KIRIBATI     THE FAMILY,  KIRIBATI SOCIETY  Popular attitudes about language changes




The name "Kiribati" is the local language equivalent of the word "Gilberts" and is pronounced "Ki-ri-bas."



Towards the end of the 18th century, two British Captains Gilbert and Marshall discovered the central and northern islands of the Gilberts group which they named the Gilberts. A group further north were named the Marshall lslands. The Gilbert islands straddling the equator are just west of the International Date Line. In 1890 Great Britain took control of the Ellice Islands which consisted of 9 islands. In 1892 the Gilberts became a British Protectorate.

The Republic of Kiribati consists mainly of the Gilbert Islands, a group of 16 low coral islands or atolls in the Central Pacific between 173 degrees and 170 degrees east longitude and 4 degrees north and 3 degrees south latitude. From north to south, a distance of nearly 800 km., the islands are Makin, Butaritari, Marakei, Abaiang, Tarawa, Maiana, Abemama, Kuria, Aranuka, Nonouti, Tabiteuea, Beru, Nikunau, Onotoa, Tamana and Arorae. They are rarely more than six metres above sea level with a total land area of about 275 sq. km. Most of the Gilberts are atolls - oval, rectangular or triangular shaped lagoons enclosed by reefs on which rest many islets. The equator passes between Aranuka and Nonouti. The islands to the north are in certain ways culturally different from those to the south.

Kiribati also includes other islands than the Gilberts. Banaba or Ocean Island lies 400 kilometres to the west of Tarawa (capital of the Republic of Kiribati), and much further to the east of the International Dateline, the Phoenix Group with 8 islands, 1,120 kilometres E.S.E. and the Line Islands - 8 Islands 2,400 kilometres east of the Gilberts - a total of 33 Islands, the total area being about 3.5 million square kilometres.

Because of the more favourable climate in the north, babai (a taro-like plant) and mai (breadfruit tree) grow better there. In the south, especially in the old days, famine often plagued the islands owing to long periods of drought. Babai is grown in dugout pits and needs to be well cared for, or it dies. This is one reason why people in the south have always been known as more thrifty compared with the open-handedness of the north.

Coconuts were once stored in okai, small houses especially built for holding the nuts for future use in time of need, as during a drought or as a dowry when a daughter married. The pandanus fruit, which is seasonal, can be made into tuae, kabubu or karababa, preserved foods that can be stored for many years. Fish is salted and dried in the sun for future use, and coconut toddy is boiled to make kamaimai. Well-water can be very brackish. The houses, rectangular in shape and sometimes with raised floors, have thatched roofs of pandanus leaf and walls made with coconut frond sticks. In former years, people wore skirts made from coconut leaves.

As there is more sea than land, the only means of transport in the old days was the canoe. Such craft are still used for fishing and travelling short distances within the lagoon. A bigger version of the canoe, te baurua, was used for travelling among the islands. It was fashioned from the trunk of the uri tree (Guettarda speciosa) and was owned by the whole island or a village. Its manufacture took months and even years of arduous and skilled labour. Cord made from coconut husk fibre was used to bind the different canoe parts together. Today, te baurua is built with imported timber and other foreign materials.

To take a trip from Tarawa to Butaritari, travellers could not just sail straight north to their destination. They had first to stop on Abaiang where they would be received as guests of the people there. Kiribati hospitality would not allow visitors to pass by without making them welcome. Each village on Abaiang would take turns to feed and entertain the travellers in their maneaba (public meeting house) for weeks and even months. The visitors, whether they liked it or not, had to stay and could leave only after repeated, carefully worded and well-timed requests to do so, and when the people of Abaiang then allowed them to leave. This was the usual custom of travelling in the old days.

The Kiribati people live very close to nature, and since it plays a great part in forming or influencing the culture they have, such a simple and restricted environment as found in Kiribati has resulted in relatively simple living. The people have a name for everything in their environment, no matter how small. Because of this closeness to nature, their language is rich in matters that have to do with their environment.






Central to Kiribati social and political life is the maneaba (sometimes spelled mwaneaba). Its history is said to go back to the time when people were anti (spirits). The first maneaba, called Tabontebike, is said to have been built on the Island of Beru in the south by Tanentoa of Beru.

It is in the maneaba that the elders from each extended family sat in council, making decisions in disputed matters involving more than a single family. Decisions reached under the roof of the maneaba became laws that were carried out under pain of excommunication from the community.

Traditionally, the maneaba is divided into a number of boti, which refers to sitting space assigned to each extended family in the community. The speaker at a maneaba meeting is chosen from a certain family; he who responds represents another boti and the message is passed on by someone from still another kin group.

Then the matter to be discussed that day is ready for debate by all who are seated in the maneaba. The structure of the maneaba reflects the social structure of the island community. When one is visiting another island, he is always invited to sit in the boti to which he is related. When questioned by the elders why one boti and not another was chosen, he should be ready to justify his claim by tracing his family's genealogy to its root. Unless the elders are completely convinced, the visitor will have to sit in the boti reserved for strangers and other guests.

The maneaba was later adopted by the British administration as a centre for the social life of the community. Here visitors are welcomed and entertained, and government officials conduct discussions with the villagers and relay decisions from the central administration. Traditional or customary penalties for stealing and incest have long since been superseded by fines in the form of money or by imprisonment for a number of months or years depending on the severity of the crime. Today, especially in South Tarawa, stealing is becoming a serious problem in the overcrowded urban community.

KIRIBATI CULTURE Kiribati dancing is an art. Like other social functions, it is rather formal with very little movement compared to the dance in some other Pacific islands. It may be very boring for those who do not know anything about dance in Kiribati. Appreciation comes from knowing something about the subject. I suppose that Kiribati dancing in its formality reflects the society, while in a more general view it reflects the way people look at life. The singers sing and clap with all their might to make the dancing more exciting. The dancers and their concentration on movement - a time for the hands or feet to move, the position of the eyes, a time to smile and a time to look grave and serious - all of this may symbolise that amidst life difficulties, anxieties and turmoil, life still goes on and there is always a time for everything.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of Kiribati Mwaie (Ruoia) that was performed on one of the northern Gilbert Islands (Butaritari): "Of all they call dance in the Pacific, the performance I saw on Butaritari was easily the best...Gilbertese dance appeals to the soul: it makes one thrill with emotion, it uplifts one, it conquers one: it has the essence of all great art: an immediate and far from exhausted appeal".

Allied with dancing are the arts of composing and weaving. Like other Pacific islanders, I-Kiribati love to sing. Composing in the old days was always done by te ibonga, a magician or sorcerer. The new song was created with the help of the anti. Te ibonga had to perform certain acts and observe certain rites afterwards the words and tune of the song would come to him in a dream or be taught to him by the spirits. Te katake, a chant sang very slowly, was an old form of singing usually done by elderly men and women.

Weaving is a skill as well as an art, and the Kiribati women are very fine weavers. Designs used in weaving are family property, and mothers passed the skill on to their daughters. Besides weaving fine mats for sleeping, they also make baskets, hats and fans. Pandanus leaves are used, and sometimes coconut leaves. The application of easily procured commercial dyes is not unknown today, no doubt in preference to local dyes which are prepared much more laboriously.

Besides the heritage of land, other family treasures consist of skills in fishing; forecasting the weather by observing clouds, waves, winds and birds; navigating by the stars at night and by birds and clouds during the day; building canoe; cutting toddy; cultivating a babai plant in a special kind of feeding (te ribana) to enlarge their size; medicine such as special drinks for treating certain diseases or illnesses; massaging and bone-setting; and embalming.

These skills are usually kept within the family, and can be transmitted to strangers or others outside the kin group only as a special favour, for example, to show gratitude for care or love in time of sickness. Even when this happens, all of the skill is not revealed. The last of it is reserved for the person who cares for a parent on his or her death bed. Sometimes, when a parent dies in the care of a stranger who took pity, the latter may publicly challenge the otherwise rightful heirs to claim that he or she gain full possession of the skill in question. Each of the Islands of Kiribati has its own culture and consists mainly of very small, low, white coral islands or atolls which in most cases has a number of quite small islets which are separated from one another by narrow passages of water from the lagoon side to the ocean. Not all these islets are inhabited. A typical island or atoll is simply a series of very narrow strips of land forming an arc which partially encircles a lagoon on the western side.

Prior to World War I many people outside the Pacific Islands had never heard of the Gilberts Islands. On a small map there was no mention of them, while a very large map would show only a number of very small dots. However, since the Pacific War (World War II) and the famous Battle of Tarawa, more is known about them but one still meets people unaware of their existence. In the early days travelling to the different islands was quite difficult, but nowadays airstrips have been built on all the islands to and from Tarawa where the Tarawa Air Terminal is located at Bonriki.



Legends and prehistory researches tell of migrations from south-east Asia and, much later, from Samoa in the 14th or 15th century A.D. European discovery of the Western Pacific in the 18th century brought them into contact with the Chinese and other Pacific Islanders as well. These foreign populations have left many traces in the Gilbert Islands, both physical and cultural. I-Kiribati today are distinctively Micronesian in appearance. Most are of average height, slim and sturdy, with finely moulded facial and bodily features, open countenance, black straight hair and light brown skins.

The Gilbertese people are of Micronesian stock, a very lovable race - very easy-going and have no regard for time. They live for the present and do not necessarily worry about the future. Each day is taken as it unfolds, and there is always tomorrow if things are not done today. People may appear to be idle and doing no work, but they will work and very hard, too, when there is a need. In this way they are a most gracious and patient people. "I'm waiting for ...," is a typical Kiribati phrase and is heard frequently.

I-Kiribati are like "homing pigeons". Young men who work on ships overseas always come home for the holidays. They enjoy their jobs on the ships and they travel to see new places, but they look forward to returning home to be with their families. It is the women rather than the men who tend to marry foreigners, and they go to live with their husbands in homes far away from Kiribati. The men, on the other hand, seem to prefer to marry Kiribati women and to settle down in the islands. Even if they do marry women from other countries, they usually bring their wives home to live.

When visitors arrive on an island, everything is dropped in order to attend to the new guests. People are important as persons, and time exists to be used regardless of how one makes use of it. I-Kiribati are gracious, both in manner and in speech. They are hospitable and cautious not to offend others. They are retiring and not outspoken. They are proud to be I-Kiribati, and yet they feel at ease with anybody. They tend to sit back and watch rather than to plunge headfirst into any new venture. This is also characteristic of their relationship with new acquaintances. They are a people who possess a wisdom of their own.

In the old traditional order, I-Kiribati had no sense of national unity. Each island was a polity in its own right. The people were conscious of being people from one of the islands of Kiribati, as the case may be. In the south, the islands were governed by the elders or old men from each family group. They sat in council in the maneaba to decide on disputes between families and other matters of community concern. In the north, the people had chiefs who achieved their status and power through victory in war.

They are noted for their hospitality and will deprive themselves to welcome and feed strangers. It often happens that canoes will be taken out of their course on account of bad weather or contrary currents. They then land on another island where they are well looked after for days or weeks. In 1939 it was the drought time - seven years without any rain.

In the southern part of the group small children did not know what any rain was, coconuts were getting smaller and in some cases the trees die. Often the people had very little to eat. Fish were not always easy to catch and their well water became very brackish.

Some had to go on their canoes from one islet to another with their buckets or tins in order to get some drinking water. During this time some canoes arrived at their island so the villagers did all they could to welcome and feed these people. Orphanages and places for elderly or very sick people are unheard of as there is always someone to look after them.



The family is the most important grouping in Kiribati society. It is rare in Kiribati for a family of husband and wife to live alone with their children, without the presence of an aunt, uncle, cousin or grandparents as members of the household. Even if the couple have no children, they are sure to adopt one of the extended family members' sons or daughters thus strengthening family ties.

Traditionally, extended families lived in household clusters on their own lands. In this way, it was easy to defend their lands against the raiders. The family grouping, as well as the most closely kin group, was the only land owning unit. All members of the group built their homes on land belonging to it. They lived under the supervision of the most senior member of the family whose duty it was to regulate all family activities regarding land cultivation or food production, and matters concerning other family groups such as marriage, canoe building, warfare and the like.

Leadership within the family is still the heritage of the eldest male. Seniority was also important in the sense that when a marriage proposal was made for the second daughter in a family and the first was still not married, the first daughter would have to be given instead of the second or third one who had been asked for. This is often still the case, but here changes are taking place.


Kiribati society is very much structured and controlled by custom, hence social gathering are more or less formal depending on their purpose. Some families are regarded as socially higher than others. The family was, and is, so important that all of its members do everything they can in their power to safeguard its good name. A person is known by the good or bad deeds of his or her ancestors.

Cowardice was the worst insult one could bring upon one's family. If a member of the family was killed in a fight, it was the duty of the others to ensure that his death was avenged. Shame was also a reason why daughters were kept under strict surveillance, as it would be embarrassing for the family if a bride were found by her husband to be no longer a virgin. In such case, the marriage could break up and then the girl would be marked for life. Christianity has modified this custom insofar as there is nowadays rarely a public demonstration to indicate the state of a bride's virginity.

Marriage is still arranged by parents, and land is still a very important factor in the marriage contract, although differences in practice exist between islands and changes have occurred. Girls were taught household chores from their early years, while boys were brought up to be warriors and breadwinners for the family. A girl whose family had plenty of land was very much in demand. Parents chose brides for their sons according to age, that is, the eldest son should be married to an eldest daughter or an only child to one who was also an only child. If they could find no one suitable for their son on their own island, they looked to other islands for a prospect in families of equal rank.

Incest and stealing were other crimes that could bring shame on the family. Punishments for the parties concerned might be death or being set adrift in a canoe. There seems to have been no such thing as an individual crime; everything was seen as a family matter. People were supposed to mind their own business, and in this sense nobody was in any position to tell someone else to do this or not to do that. To reveal another's misdeeds was a dangerous matter. To do so, could bring death to oneself and as a consequence could involve one's family in a fight with another family. To seek satisfaction in court is a recent development in Kiribati, because people are now convinced of the power of the law to protect them from reprisals that might be carried out by members of a victim's family.

Located in Micronesia in the Central Pacific and straddling the Equator, Kiribati covers about five million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean of which eight hundred and twenty two square kilometres are land, made up of 33 low lying coral atolls scattered in three main groups: the Gilberts, the Phoenix and the Line Islands; and has a population of approximately 79 thousand. A fully independent democratic Republic, self-governing since 12th July 1979, Kiribati seat of Government is in Bairiki, one of three urban centres on Tarawa atoll in the Gilberts chain. Tarawa is the most important atoll of the group by reason of the good anchorage. Its deep lagoon provides for ocean-going vessels and it is also the headquarters of the Government, headquarters of the Catholic Mission, the main hospital, the Government Teachers' Training College, large stores and many other offices etc.

Tarawa Island consists of 30 or more islets which before causeways were built, were isolated from each other at high tide. In the 1960's work was commenced on building causeways thus making it much easier to get from one islet to the next. Nowadays motor vehicles can travel to many of these islets. When the Americans were preparing for the actual invasion of Tarawa they took aerial photographs and gave a special name to each of these tiny islets.

With an Oceanic climate and a prevailing breeze from the east, Kiribati has temperatures varying between 25 degrees C and 33 degrees C. Between December and May westerly winds bring rain. The main language is I-Kiribati. English is widely understood and spoken particularly in the urban centres Bairiki, Betio and Bikenibeu, on Tarawa Island.

The economy is predominantly subsistence with copra and fisheries the main source of foreign exchange earnings. Other major sources of income are from remittances from I-Kiribati seamen working on overseas ships, and the licensing of foreign vessels fishing in the country's exclusive economic zone.

In 1995 the International Dateline was officially moved to encompass the eastern-most atoll of Carolines to enable the whole country to operate on the same calendar day. Thus Kiribati was the first to witness the dawning of the new millennium over its eastern-most atoll which was renamed Millennium Island to reflect the occasion.


The Micronesians populated Kiribati sailing in from the South Pacific between 200 and 500 AD. Sighted by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, they were named the Gilbert Islands after Captain Thomas Gilbert who passed them in 1788. The sixteen Islands of the Gilberts, declared a Protectorate by Captain E. H. M Davis, R. N. of H.M.S. Royalist between 27th May and 17th June 1892 were discovered intermittently from perhaps as early as 1537 up to 1826.

During the sixteenth century the history of European voyaging and discovery in the Pacific remained predominantly Spanish with the Portuguese at the Pacific Western edge until superseded by the Dutch at the end of the Century. By the beginning of the 17th Century, the Dutch had taken over much of the Portuguese East Indies and thereafter continued the Portuguese policy of voyaging and discovery.

Piecemeal and incomplete discoveries continued until the improvement in European ships and navigation in the 18th Century allowed the great discoveries and charting of the Pacific of that period. By the end of the 18th Century British and French rivalry in the Pacific had increased. European Traders and Missionaries of many nationalities were establishing plantations, trade and religious interests throughout the Pacific which often led to conflicts which led in turn to requests for help to the European countries from their nationals.

In 1886 the British and German Governments agreed to a division of the Western Pacific into two spheres of influence - the Marshall Islands and Nauru came within the German's sphere - the Gilberts, Ocean Island and the Ellice within the British. Germany immediately took over the Marshall Islands but Britain took no action in the Gilberts which had by this time become an area of intense rivalry between German, American and some Australian based trading interests. In 1892 the British Government, realizing by now that failure to declare a Protectorate would probably lead to acquisition by Germany, ordered the Commander-in-Chief, H. M. Ships, Australia, to send a warship to the Gilberts to declare a Protectorate. Captain Davis R. N. of H.M.S. Royalist was sent to carry out this task. In accordance with his instructions, Captain Davis talked with the old men of each island to obtain their agreement to the Declaration of the Protectorate and to explain what it would mean. After talks with the old men, he eventually declared the Protectorate on all Islands.

Banaba (Ocean Island) was included within the Protectorate in 1900. In 1916 the Protectorate became the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Kiribati and Tuvalu) and in the same year Fanning and Washington Islands of the Line Islands were included in it together with the Islands of the Tokelau or Union Group; Christmas (Kiritimati) Island was included in 1919. The Tokelau Islands were detached in 1925; the Phoenix were added in 1937 and the five islands of the Central and the Southern Line Islands in 1972. The Ellice Islands (Tuvalu) were detached to become a separate Colony in 1976.

This was one of the last acts of what has been termed "British Imperialism." Davis did more than bring "The Flag." He settled disputes amongst traders of various nationalities then operating in the Gilberts and between traders and islanders. He ended a civil war on Tarawa. He met and talked with all manner of people. What he saw and heard he recorded, and his observations are detailed and shrewd. The Davis Diaries provide an invaluable source of material for anyone engaged in Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) History. It is also hoped that it will stimulate more people to take an interest in the History of the Gilbert Islands now called Republic of Kiribati.





The Gilberts (Kiribati) form part of that multitudinous archipelago of gemlike islets called Micronesia, which, beginning with the Palau Islands stretches eastward a full 2,000 miles above the equator, then curves away to the southeast, crossing the equator at the Gilbert Islands. The Gilbert atolls do not bulk large amid so vast a concourse, and statistics seem to render them more insignificant still.

Their collective area amounts to 166 square miles; not one of them rises as much as 15 feet above sea level, or exceeds in width 1,000 feet from beach to beach. They are mere ribbons of coral rock, from ten to fifty miles long, topped with a soil so sandy that it supports no useful plant save the coconuts, the pandanus palms and the taro (babai).

Yet these islands, which have neither stream nor mountain and lack the barbaric and colourful luxuriance of vegetation usually associated with the Tropics have rare enchantment. Here it is form, not colour, that charms the eye - the exquisite penciling of palms overleaning the lagoon, the rare gradations of light and shade, the matchless transparencies of atmosphere.

They enjoyed, as Robert Louis Stevenson, a one time resident and frequent visitor wrote "a superb ocean climate, days of blinding sun and bracing wind, nights of a heavenly brightness".

According to native tradition, the first white man seen in the group arrived fourteen generations ago, or, say, at the end of the sixteenth century. He is reported to have come to the island Beru, alone and nearly dead, "in a boat shaped like a box".  He was "tall as a giant, but very thin, like a lizard, with a head narrow like the blade of an adze". His hair was red, and he had a beard "that hung in two long points below his middle". From this description the stranger seems to have been of Caucasian type, and the boat "shaped like a box" suggests a craft of European construction. Possibly he was some driftaway from a Spanish ship in these waters.

Nikunau Island was sighted by Captain John Byron (the poet's grandfather) of the British navy in 1765. Most of the middle and northern islands were next discovered by Captains Gilbert and Marshall in 1788 and the rest had become known by 1828.

In 1892, the Gilbert Islands, together with the Ellice Islands (Tuvalu) directly to the south, was converted into a British Protectorate, which in 1915 became a Crown Colony. The administrative headquarters were at Ocean Island (Banaba), which lies 250 miles west of the Central Gilberts. The Colony was under the charge of a Resident Commissioner who was at the time responsible to the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific resident at Suva, Fiji.

The only important product of the Gilbert Islands is copra, the sun-dried flesh of the coconut which is made to yield its oil to the soap manufacturers of civilisation. The copra was not grown on organised plantations, for every square foot of land is owned by the Gilbert Islanders who sold the copra to the local traders who in turn sold it to visiting ships.

Within the silver-and-green crescent dreams the lagoon, shut off from the ocean by its enclosing reef, which stretches like a bow-string from tip to tip of the land. Across the lagoon from the entrance passage, the palms are seen tenuous against the skyline, like the lashes of an enormous eye. The water under the blazing sun glows incandescent. Over the deep places burns a cobalt so vivid that it seems to be a pigment. Within the lattice shade of the palms that overlean the beach is an eternal cool. Only the sound of surf, muted by trees and distance steals through the sanctuaried stillness.

So serious did overpopulation in the Gilbert Islands become that 1938-1940 saw some 2,000 people being transferred to the Phoenix Islands. The Gilbertese are one of the few island races of the Pacific whose yearly birth rate exceeds the death rate.

The complexion of the average Gilbertese is midway between the light copper of Polynesia and the black of Melanesia; for here in the flux of race migrations, black and brown have mingled to beget a hybrid folk facially the native is aquiline. His brow is bold and intelligent, his nose salient though broad at the nostrils. There is decision in the thick-lipped but firmly closed mouth, pugnacity in the heavy jaw. He carries his head high, and looks upon the world from level brown eyes in which lurks a shrewd humour.

The ready smile of a Gilbertese girl is childish, dimpled, spontaneous; it lights up the rather broad features and exposes teeth that bespeak cleanliness and health. In the old days, infinite pain were taken to preserve the loveliness of the tawny skin. Women and girls would shut themselves up for months in screened rooms, wherein no sunlight could penetrate, for the sole purpose of improving their complexions. and white teeth. Her abundant hair is black and straight, and her attractive features are delicate.

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A Gilbertese young girl of about ten years of age with ready smile displaying clean
and white teeth. Her abundant hair is black and straight, and her attractive features are delicate.

Every day the whole body was massaged three times with coconut oil, washed with rain water, and then pasted over with the creamy juice expressed from coconut flesh. After six months of such treatment a girl would emerge from seclusion blanched almost white.

Sex morality in the past was high. Girls went naked until marriage, and were protected by laws of extreme ferocity. To molest a maiden was to court death by slow strangulation, or by being tied to a log and floated out to sea as food for the teeming sharks. British law has abolished the death penalty, robbing offence of its terror.

In the more remote islands, however, especially when a dance is forward, one may still see girls wearing the old national dress, a simple kilt of grass that reaches from hip to kneecap and sets off to admiration their suppleness of figure.

The old men still clinging to the custom of their youth, are generally clothed in a mat of beautiful texture wound about the waist and made fast with the girdle plaited of their wives' hair. The younger men use a loin cloth of trade print worn kiltwise. Shaded by palms just above the lagoon beach stands the native village. It consists of one long street on either side of which the houses are built at spacious intervals. The houses are mere thatches with eaves raised by corner posts a man height from the ground. An elevated floor of coconut leaf midribs leaves an air space of three feet under each dwelling. There are no walls to exclude the sane winds of heaven, only leaf screens which may be let down from the eaves at night. Two trees supply all the materials needed to build these rustic homes. The pandanus palm affords thatch, rafters, joists and corner post. Midribs for flooring and string for lashing the paths together are obtained from the coconut palms.

Walking down the village street between the lines of open dwellings, gives an impression of cool spaciousness and health. The casual stroller had no need to pry if he wished to observe the Gilbertese at home. He sees women braiding their hair, plaiting flower chains, changing garments, bathing children, weaving mats; and men taking their siesta, smoking, making nets or sails.

In these days, a Gilbertese is allowed only one wife, but formerly polygamy was the rule. A man married a whole household of sisters at a time; or, if his ceremonial bride had no sisters, he took with her all such first or second cousins on her father's side as might have been arranged in advance by private treaty. Furthermore, a man whose married brother died consider it its paternal duty to take all the widows into his own household.

The primary object of such multiplication was to guarantee a husband against childlessness. If his wife were sterile, who, argued the Gilbertese, could be a more fitting mother of his children than her own sister. If a husband died, who but his brother ought to save his widows from the reproach of barrenness. That is why infanticide, so common elsewhere throughout the Pacific, was never known in the Gilberts; and that, incidentally, was why the Gilbertese were the terror of all the surrounding islands within a thousand-mile radius.


Many precautions were taken to protect an expectant mother, for she was believed to be peculiarly susceptible to the attack of sorcery. Her nail parings, hair clippings and worn garments were carefully burned lest through these intimate things an enemy focus his magic upon her. She is festooned with amulets of leaf, porpoise tooth and human hair; and protective charms are muttered over her at sunrise and sunset.

From her diet, is excluded everything that tastes either very sweet or very bitter; she is given much coconut milk and large quantities of baked land crab, since these two foods are considered especially good for lactation. Fish she may eat sparingly, but on no account may she touch crayfish because it might cause her child to grow stiff hairs upon the face; flatfish, because having both eyes on one side, it might induce a similar distortion in the unborn; turtle and eel, because they are "crawlers", and would make a cowardly toady of the child; or any slow-moving creature of the sea, for fear its sluggishness may be imparted to the infant.
On the other hand, shark and swordfish are esteemed the best possible diet, they are fighting creatures, and their courage may be conveyed to the unborn through the mouth of the mother.


In the centre of the village surrounded by a spacious square of shingle, is the Maneaba, the general meeting house of the people, the hub of Gilbertese communal life. It is a thatch of colossal size raised on monoliths of white coral. Its eaves descend to within three feet of the ground, so that a man must stoop in order to enter. Inside, it may be as much as 120 feet long by 80 broad.

Under that vast roof is a brown coolness, a solemn gloom. The place is a whisper with the voices of sea, wind, and trees, caught up and echoed as in a mighty sounding box. Between the ranks of soaring columns that support the shadowy rafters broods the quiet of a cathedral.
The edifice is the focus of social life, the assembly hall, the dancing lodge, the news mart of the community, and the beloved resort of the aged who, daily repairing to its peaceful shade, exchange interminable mumbles of their memories of the "days that are no more".

The Maneaba is sacred. No angry words may profane its quiet, no blows may be exchanged within its precincts; its timbers may not be insulted by careless violence; even the shingled space whereon it stands must be trodden by respectful and decorous foot. Each Gilbertese clan has its hereditary sitting place in the building, its privileged function in the ordering of ceremonial. The place of honour, where sit the so-called "Kings of the Maneaba," is by the stone pillar in the middle of the eastern side. That monolith is called "The Sun" a name also given to the clan which sits beside it.

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The Gilbertese maneaba

The Sun clan is holy within the Maneaba. Outside, war and accidents of temporal life may have reduced its members to a state of serfdom; but this has not the slightest effect upon its prestige within the sacred edifice. The clan still enjoys the first share of any feast and the first and last word in all debates. It is protected by the fear of un-nameable sanctions from contradictions, interruption, discourtesy, or any violence.


      Popular attitudes about language changes

Older I-Kiribati have a strong resentment towards change in the language. Most of them are very conservative and are often very quick to criticise young people when the latter fail to use what they call "proper" Kiribati speech. Young folks tend to be careless in the way they use the language, both in the grammatical structure and in the vocabulary, and they tend to mix Kiribati and English in order to convey their message in a changing cultural situation. It does not mean that they have no words in their own language which they could adapt to their need. Some youths are quick to use English words modified by a Kiribati pronunciation, for example, boki for "book".

Despite the older generation's effort to discourage young people from misuse of words and incorrect grammar, many new words or slang terms of non-Kiribati origin are being introduced. A great number of these are borrowed from the English language and also from neighbouring Pacific Island vernaculars but some seem to be completely new inventions by local youth.

Most people, especially those who have had formal schooling, tend to converse in a mixture of Kiribati and English. A visit to one of the public bars will clearly portray this change. Not only will they mix English with Kiribati when they are drunk but it often becomes a habit even when they are sober. The older people are against this trend, and they often write letters to the newspaper or Radio Kiribati, saying very sarcastic remarks about those who speak over the radio in a mixture of the two languages.

Under the rules of procedure in the national parliament, members have the right to choose either English or Kiribati during legislative sessions. However, most I-Kiribati would rather have all discussions and debates in "pure" Kiribati. The Clerk of the Maneaba in Maungatabu recently stated in the national newspaper that there is a tendency for members to mix English with Kiribati because they are often pressed for time and find that some English words or phrases cannot be easily translated into the local vernacular. For instance, "the sovereign state of the Republic of Kiribati" is a phrase that would be hard to translate accurately. Generally, all proceedings in the parliament are conducted in the Kiribati language with a word or phrase in English added every now and then.

The young people see things differently from their elders. To them, the use of English in written form, and to some extent in oral communication, is more convenient. Obviously the younger generation is getting the upper hand in this conflict. Probably the changing world gives them some advantage over their more traditional elders.

Language preference in public affairs

In colonial days, English was considered as being the more important language. On all formal occasions such as conferences or the writing of petitions English was always used. Although English still maintains its importance today, the Kiribati language has now been given more or less the same status. It is up to the individual to make a judgement on which of these two is regarded as being more desirable in a given situation.

Almost all important government reports, documents and even the nation's constitution are written in both English and Kiribati. Should there be any misunderstanding of the text by the public, then the English version overrides the one recorded in Kiribati. Memos, letters and official circulars from one government ministry to another are usually written in English. However, when dealing more generally with the public interest, then the Kiribati language is used.

Radio programmes and newspaper articles are presented predominantly in the vernacular. Although many I-Kiribati would like to see Kiribati as the only language used by the media, some English-language features are currently retained on the radio as well as in Te Uekera, the national newspaper. It is important to note that changes which have been introduced in the Kiribati language are reinforced by their use in the media. Once a new slang word is adopted or invented by young people, there is a greater chance to see it in the newspaper or to hear it over the radio.

Language usage in school and church

In Primary schools throughout Kiribati, the vernacular serves as the medium of instruction during the first three years, for the children come from homes in which Kiribati speech is preferred. In the fourth year, a transition to English begins with the teaching of that language. From the fifth through the ninth year, English is gradually introduced as the medium of instruction. Although this is stated to be the policy, the local speech may be used more generally throughout the Primary programme, especially in the outer islands where both pupils and teachers are more comfortable in the vernacular.

There is one school, Rurubao Primary School in Bairiki, that was first established years ago for the children of expatriates who came to the islands to work for the Government. The teachers at Rurubao are mostly I-Matang or white people, and the fees charged for schooling are extremely high. Entry into Rurubao is by examination. Today the school accepts some Kiribati children who are considered to be sufficiently competent in English.

For nearly a century, Primary education of I-Kiribati was a responsibility of Protestant and Catholic churches. Policies varied, as did practice, in regard to the language of instruction and the teaching of reading and writing. In Catholic schools, where many of the teachers were nuns from overseas, the English language received more attention. This was probably for status reasons and not from necessity since experience has shown that most of the expatriate teachers became fluent in the vernacular in a remarkably short time. In the Protestant schools, the case was somewhat different in that most of the teachers were local people, working under the direction of I-Matang missionaries who also assisted in production of textbook materials in the Kiribati language.

After the Government took responsibility for Primary education, first from the Protestant Church in the early 1950s and later from the Catholic Church in the late 1970s, language policy varied. A strong push from the Government in the 1960s attempted to give more emphasis to English as a preparation of I-Kiribati for a more active role in Western-oriented economic and governmental activities. More recently, however, the trend is towards a reasonable mix of Kiribati and English and more attention to Kiribati culture in the curriculum. Classroom materials for the latter are produced by Kiribati trainees in the Tarawa Teachers College. These students are also trained in Vernacular Studies. A standardised curriculum is applied in all Primary schools at the present time.

As children continue their studies at the Secondary school level, the emphasis is definitely given to English. All subjects are taught in that language, except in a course on Kiribati Studies where the vernacular is used for all instruction. Children generally find it hard to deal with the English language when they first go to high school. The exception occurs among those who come from Primary schools in South Tarawa, Banaba and Nauru where they have been exposed to a more urbanised and English-speaking environment.

Churches in Kiribati often conduct their services in the local language and some of these are broadcast on the radio. Hymns are always sung in the vernacular, although most were originally composed in Latin or English. One church in South Tarawa does not have a qualified local minister and therefore an expatriate is recruited to serve in that capacity. Although the services are consequently conducted in English, an interpreter translates the minister's sermons.


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