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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. 


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Aerial photograph of Kiribati Parliament House, Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati
Courtesy Tawaia Buibui of Kiribati

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.

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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.

Some of the information in the above few paragraphs has been extracted from an excellent publication entitled: "Kiribati - A Changing Atoll Culture," Various authors, Institute of Pacific Studies, USP, 1985.

Dame Dr. Jane Resture

The Gilbertese people are of fine appearance, some among them are fairly tall. They seem more vigorous than the natives of the Western Islands, while the women are also of a more refined type. They are of a brown complexion with black hair, not wavy like that of the pure Polynesians. They are a very civilized and intelligent race. A large number are literate, and most of the women sew well and produce very high quality workmanship.

Many of the men have worked on ships and at other professional work. After the Pacific War (World War II) quite a number of both men and women have done University studies. Since their Independence the President is head of the Republic of Kiribati. He is supported by a number of Ministers as his assistants. Quite a number of young people are working in Government positions and private enterprise and some own trading stores. So the situation is quite different from that of pre-war days.

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.

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Red_ch.gif (2665 bytes) Tarawa

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. 

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H.M.S. Royalist - 1892

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.

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(From a photo by Captain Davis, H.M.S. Royalist)

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.

(To view an Extract of the Davis Diaries, Click  here to take you to the Extract of Captain Davis Diaries declaring a Protectorate over the Gilbert Islands)


Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the world with an area of 248 square miles of which 125 square miles is land and the remainder lagoon.  It is 2,015 miles from Tarawa, capital of the Republic of Kiribati, 1,335 miles from Honolulu, 4,000 miles from Sydney, Australia and 3,250 miles from San Francisco. It lies between longitude 157 degrees 10' west and 157 degrees 34' west and latitudes 1 degree 42' north and 2 degrees 3' north.  It is 145 miles north of the equator.

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Travelling to Christmas Island is normally by the weekly Aloha Airline flights from Honolulu.  In addition I-Kiribati ships visit the Line Islands three or four times each year and intermittent visits by fuel tankers and tourist ships.      

There is a wild life sanctuary on Christmas Island plus an extensive population of bird life. Fish are found in profusion in Christmas Island's lagoons and the ocean waters are home to bonefish, trevally, wahoo, yellow fin tuna, sailfish, groupers and sharks.

The Captain Cook Hotel on Christmas Island is a convenient Fishing Lodge for visitors and game fishermen from around the world who come to experience this world renowned fishing ground.

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Christmas (Kiritimati) Island


Old Church Buildings (built during the early 1900's) on the outer islands are of interest, as are the war relics on the islet of Betio, Tarawa.  Abemama Island is an historical site as it was the first Island on which the Union Jack was hoisted by Captain E.H.M. Davis in 1892.  It also lays claim to being the place where Robert Louis Stevenson was a resident in 1889.

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Air Kiribati

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Buses and taxis operate on South Tarawa, and there are taxis in Tarawa, the capital. From Betio, the Tarawa ferry and boat services operate to the outer islands.
Internal Air Services are provided by Air Tungaru.


Restaurants offer a wide selection of menus and in addition there are delicious local specialties. The people of Kiribati are renowned dancers and floor shows can be enjoyed during festive occasion, or on request at village maneabas (meeting place) and at the Otintaai Hotel.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson's
last known portrait.

Kiribati Mwaie (Dancing) featuring the winners (Ministry of Information, Communications and Transport - M.I.C.T.) of the Inter-Government Ministries Dancing Competition, 1998.  These competitions are held annually in July on Tarawa Island, following the Kiribati Independence Celebrations on 12th July.

More Kiribati Mwaie

Copies of the Kiribati Mwaie Video Films can be obtained from Nei Tabera Ni Kai, P.O. Box 88, Bairiki, Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati. Telephone/Facsimile No. + 686 21629 and E-mail:


The Gilbert Islands have a reputation for the finest handicrafts in the South Pacific. They are famed for their canoe building and weaving. Coins are also considered collectors items.

For more information, please contact Kiribati Visitors Bureau: P.O. Box 261, Bikenibeu, Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati. Telephone + 686 28287-28288; Facsimile + 686 26233

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