History, Language & Culture Kiribati
The first settlers in the Gilbert Islands and Banaba came from Southeast Asia, by way of Micronesia, some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. About the 14th century CE the southern islands received an influx of Samoans, and soon thereafter the islanders adopted a gerontocratic style of government (i.e., based on rule by elders). The Line and Phoenix islands had no prehistoric population.
Spanish explorers sighted some of the islands in the 16th century, but most of Kiribati was not charted until the early 19th century, when first whalers and then coconut oil traders reached the islands. From the mid-19th century, Gilbert Islanders were recruited to work on plantations elsewhere in the region.
The Gilbert Islands became a British protectorate in 1892, and Banaba was annexed in 1900 after the discovery of its rich phosphate deposits. Both were linked with the Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu) as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony from 1916; the colony subsequently was extended to include most of the Phoenix and Line island groups and, for a time, Tokelau. Administration was through island governments, which sometimes became enmeshed in sectarian rivalries between Roman Catholics and Protestants. As a response to drought and perceived overpopulation in the 1930s, a resettlement plan was initiated for the Phoenix Islands; under a later plan, other islanders were resettled in the Solomon Islands.
During World War II the islands were occupied by Japan, which was later ejected by Allied forces. The colony had few services until aid-funded development programs were introduced after the war. An elected House of Representatives was established in 1967. The subsequent emergence of ethnic tensions led to the division of the Gilbert Islands and the Ellice Islands into two territories in 1975–76. In 1971 the Banabans sued the British government for a greater share of royalties from phosphate mining and compensation for the island’s environmental devastation. The trial ended inconclusively and without a court order to have the mining company restore the land, the outcome for which the Banabans had hoped. In 1981 the community agreed to Britain’s offer of a one-time trust payment of $10 million (Australian) in return for the abandonment of further litigation. The Gilbert Islands achieved independence under the name Kiribati in 1979.
U.S. troops advancing on Tarawa, Gilbert Islands, in 1943
U.S. troops advancing on Tarawa, Gilbert Islands, in 1943, during World War II.
U.S. Dept. of Defense
After independence a high priority was given to economic development, especially the exploitation of marine resources and the use of the country’s strategic position astride the Equator for space launch and tracking projects. Both Japan and China constructed Earth-satellite telemetry stations in the late 1990s, although China dismantled its facilities after Kiribati shifted its formal recognition of China to Taiwan in return for economic assistance in 2003. A commercial satellite-launch platform located on a converted oil-drilling rig east of Kiritimati began operation in the late 1990s. Kiribati belongs to the Pacific Islands Forum, the International Whaling Commission, the Commonwealth, and the United Nations.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, rising sea levels (thought to be a result of climate change) threatened to contaminate and eventually submerge Kiribati’s low-lying islands. The government investigated strategies for preparing the country for the future and ensuring citizens’ future safety. Possible long-term solutions include encouraging skilled workers to emigrate as well as purchasing land elsewhere in the Pacific and creating artificial islets in the ocean similar to offshore oil-drilling platforms to which the population could be moved should some or all of the islands of Kiribati become uninhabitable. In 2014 the government bought some 8 square miles (20 square km) of land on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu that could serve as a new homeland if one became necessary and that in the interim could be used for supplemental food production.