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History of Kiribati

It's unknown when the first people arrived to the modern day islands of Kiribati (pronounced "KIRR-i-bas"). Some estimates say the islands have only been inhabited since 1300 AD, but most estimates believe people arrived much earlier, in fact as early as 3000 BC, although this seems to be a bit early. Although this is a huge window, it seems people most likely arrived to the islands of Kiribati between about 1000 BC and 1000 AD, but little archeological work has been done to provide a more accurate date.

The origin of these earliest immigrants is also unknown, but the people were likely of Austronesian descent. If this is the case the people probably arrived from nearby Micronesia including what are today the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The people likely first settled the Gilbert Islands in the west then moved east. The culture and lifestyle of these early settlers was likely based on survival as the people lived off the lands, little of which was fertile, and the seas, which were home to numerous animals and hence food; the rains were heavy so they regularly had fresh water. Beyond this little is known of the culture of the people prior to European arrival.

Despite being an island chain, which essentially isolated the people, other people arrived to the islands sometime in early history. Despite having no written records, it appears the Samoans, Tongans, and Fijians all invaded or visited the islands prior to the 1600s. The Samoans and Tongans introduced aspects of Polynesian culture and the Fijians introduced aspects of a still developing Melanesian culture. Today most people have traces of these ethnic groups in them and there are words and other cultural aspects from Polynesia and Melanesia in Kiribati, meaning these foreigners and locals likely intermarried.

The first Europeans arrived in the 1500s or 1600s, although settlement wasn't the objective at the time. These early arrivals were simply explorers or merchants, most commonly whalers. Perhaps the most significant of these explorers were John Marshall (after whom the Marshall Islands are named) and Thomas Gilbert from the United Kingdom, after whom the Gilbert Islands are named, who came in 1788. However, few of these early people made any impact on the culture until the 1800s when greater numbers of people began to arrive to the islands. During this time the islands were often used as a stopping point for traders in the Pacific Ocean. Again colonization and settlement weren't the objectives at the time, but people became exposed to numerous European diseases, killing huge portions of the population. These outside influences also introduced new tools, technology, and other small aspects of outside culture. All of this also stirred up local battles between tribes on the numerous islands.

As the lives of the people in Kiribati slowly changed in the 1800s, the people of the Gilbert Islands and of the Ellice Islands (Tuvalu) agreed to become a protectorate of the British Empire in 1892. Nine years later the island of Banaba was added to this protectorate when the British discovered phosphate on the island. This was truly an economic union as the people of Banaba and the Gilbert Islands were vastly different from a cultural, linguistic, and ethnic perspective. Additionally, the lifestyles were different as Banaba offers a mountainous landscape and great soils, giving the people on that island a very different way of life.

In 1916 a few of the islands in the Line Island chain (in Kiribati's far east) joined this union and later most of the rest of the Line Islands joined as well. All of these islands were eventually incorporated into the British colony called the British Western Pacific Territories. At this time the rest of the Line Islands, as well as the Phoenix Islands fell under the Jurisdiction of the United States.

Throughout this period of British rule foreigners settled the islands, but these islands were never a focus of British colonization and never became a significant immigration destination for the British or other foreign nationals. Because of this, little changed in the culture of the people of Kiribati during these years. The two most significant and longest lasting changes during this time came in the form of technology, such as new communication and transportation, and the introduction of Christianity.

Missionaries from the United Kingdom and other countries arrived to the islands to spread Christianity and they did so very successfully. This was likely the most important change to the people, their lifestyle, and their culture instigated by the British and other foreigners on the islands, including the Americans in the Phoenix Islands and Line Islands.

The primary reason few other cultural changes took place, and the reason few settlers arrived to the islands was that there was no true economic value in the islands. In fact the only island that held true colonial power was Banaba due to the Phosphate deposits. Banaba was the only economic power in the islands, so became home to most of the settlers and trade in the islands. Sadly, these mines were emptied and the foreigners left, leaving behind few changes other than the destruction of the island's lands.

It was also during this time, in 1937, that famed American aviator Amelia Earhart went missing on a flight in the region. It is believed by some that she may have landed and/or crashed on Gardner Island (now known as Nikumaroro), which is in the Phoenix Islands and at the time under the jurisdiction of the United States.

Having little military presence in the islands, when the Japanese arrived in World War II, they easily took over a few of the islands in today's Kiribati, but the British and other Allied forces re-took these lands later in the war as the islands became stepping stones on the path to Japan. Tarawa Atoll was the recipient of one of these battles, which the Allies eventually won as they moved northwest from there.

After the war, Kiribati remained under British control, but by the 1970s independence was becoming more realistic. The Ellice Islands declared independence in 1975, creating the nation of Tuvalu and in 1978 the Gilbert Islands held their first general election, giving this island chain, along with the Line Islands and Phoenix Islands independence in 1979. The British had little interest in maintaining these islands as they had little economic value and few British settlers had called the islands home, so the transition was relatively smooth from the British perspective.

Since independence in 1979 Kiribati has, for the most part, remained politically stable. The only major issue is that the island of Banaba has run out of phosphate and their local economy has essentially crashed. Many of the residents have moved to Fiji and some are actively requesting that the island of Banaba join Fiji. Despite these calls for succession by Banaba, no legislature has been passed to make this move official. Today only about 300 people still live on the island of Banaba.

This page was last updated: February, 2013