HISTORY OF BANABA

         

As one would expect from its size and isolated location, Banaba was not one of the first islands in the Central Pacific to be discovered and settled. Indeed, it was most probably one of the last. There is no evidence whether based on tradition, archaeology or linguistic that would allow one to give an approximate date for the discovery of Banaba. Such an effort could well be wrong by hundreds or even thousands of years.

The available evidence much of it based on linguistics suggests that the Banaban people are descendants from those of Southeast Asia. There are many theories put forward as to the route taken in these early migrations. Some researchers had suggested that many of the main bird migration routes across the Pacific Ocean are also the routes taken by men. One such flyway used by the bar-tailed godwit of East Siberia and Alaska, followed the China coast down to Indonesia, and turned east through Melanesia to Fiji, Tahiti and the Tuamotus. Another came down past Japan, then through the Marianas, Carolines and Marshalls to the Line Islands and on to Tahiti. Both these tracks corresponded with routes thought to have been followed by early human migrants into the area.

It would appear that the first inhabitants of Banaba were black-skinned (I-Batabata) and had other Melanesian physical characteristics. On the linguistic evidence, we are told that the first settlers on both the Gilberts (Kiribati) and Banaba came from Vanuatu. These are the "the fierce people" of Mangati, so called from their principal hamlet inland from Tabwewa. They were reported to be skilled in fighting and in magic. We have no record of their being seafarers so how they reached Banaba is conjectural though in all probability they were part of a larger body which found the then uninhabited Gilberts (Kiribati) at the same time; and colonized the atoll from Makin to as far south as Beru and perhaps even Nikunau.

  

The main archaeological relics left by these people on Banaba are the low stone cairns which could be found here and there on the summit of Banaba between the old Residency and Buakonikai village. They are apparently burial mounds and at one situated under a mango tree near the site of the former maneaba (public meeting place) in the hamlet called Te Aka one could see the skulls of both the long jawed and the short jawed people through gaps between the stones; at least as late as 1903. Evidently the Melanesians had inter-married with later arrivals, but were still distinguishable by the shape of their jaws.

It is significant that adjoining Te Aka was the hamlet of Te Maeka n Anti (the home of the spirits) while the cairns were known as Burita, which Sabatier's Dictionary defines as meaning 'a place haunted and dangerous, to be avoided for fear of being carried away and ill-treated by anti', clear indications of the awe with which the I-Mangati were regarded by others, even though they became absorbed eventually into the general body of subsequent arrivals.

Before we can tell the story of the next group of colonists on Banaba it is necessary to discuss the situation in Te Bongiroro, the archipelago of small Indonesian islands lying between Gilolo (or Halmahera) and the western tip of New Guinea, north of the Ceram Sea and forming part of the Moluccas. The inhabitants of the Bongiroro were in fact one of the two principal ancestors of both the Gilbertese and the Banabans. They were apparently late-comers from south-east Asia and had found the large islands already occupied; but being seafarers and fisher-folk they were happy to settle in these small, mostly low and not very fertile 'line of western islands' which nobody else seemed to want.

Many years later, and probably due to population pressure, what seemed to have been the majority of them, decided to explore the islands to the east of New Guinea (as other Pacific Islanders had done before) until they found somewhere they could settle down in peace and prosperity. A large fleet of canoes, and the larger baurua, assembled under the leadership of the descendants of Auriaria and Nei Tituabine, the High Chiefs of their principal island of Matang.

It is important not to mix up the different Auriarias and Nei Tituabines in Gilbertese and Banaban traditions, for there were many called by those names. The first mentioned in the Banaban traditions were atua, the brother and sister for some say the children of Tabakea the Firstborn and they were followed by anti bearing the same names and later by antimaomata. But this is all mythology and not history.

In historical times we find the first of a dynasty of High Chiefs and chiefesses on Matang also called Auriaria and Nei Tituabine. These were all true aomata but claimed to be descended from the original atua. The High Chief Auriaria is described as very handsome, fair-skinned and tall; and a superb dancer. He spent much time in performing the kauti magic, in which he was said to be more proficient than anyone else.

Divider05f.gif (21052 bytes)

By the time of the migration to Samoa all, or at least most, of the Matang community, through generations of intermarriage, came to be called 'the children of Auriaria' or, as is the Gilbertese custom in referring to communities, simply 'Auriaria' ; though it is doubtful if any of their leaders was actually named Auriaria.

We do not know how long they took over their journey or where they stopped off en route, but somewhere along the line they must have heard of Samoa, for that is where they clearly made for. But as is usual on such long voyages the canoes began to lose touch with each other and several of them made their final landfall farther north in the Gilberts and at least one arrived and stayed at Banaba, where the people on board settled at Tabwewa, and were known as the children of Auriaria (For further detail on the Bongiroro and the colony of Samoa - see Chapters III and IV of Maude and Maude 1994).

They did not have to fight for ascendancy with the original settlers, who were also living in the Tabwewa district, but merely pushed them up further towards the east and north and took the best part of Tabwewa, which was immediately above the coast, for themselves. Eventually, after generations of fraternization and some inter-marriage, they divided Tabwewa into their own fertile strip over the coastal cliffs, consisting of eight hamlets, which they called Te Karia; and a larger but less fertile triangular area behind, consisting of seven hamlets, called Te Karieta, though they overflowed as time went on to form additional hamlets in what was eventually called the districts of the Aonoanne and Toakira.

The amity which grew up between Te Karia and Te Karieta is shown by many hamlets being occupied by a mixed population of both peoples, like Aurakeia, Marakei and Te I-Namoriki, and the fact that everybody shared the same Maneaba at Tawanang. They even shared the Te Karia Uma n Anti for many years, until Te Karieta built a separate one. This would seem unbelievable were it not that the Te Karieta fold had no Maneaba when they lived in Vanuatu and their uman anti ceremonies were family affairs and did not require large buildings.

tabiang.jpg (21578 bytes)

A pre-war photograph of Tabiang village, Ocean Island.
This village was later destroyed by the Japanese.

Nei Teotintake gives a picturesque description of how the Auriaria people 'set Banaba in order', after they and the original inhabitants had settled in together, by turning it upside down and cutting off the southern bit and leaving a bay between Tabiang and Uma. These are mythological explanations to account for Banaba's unusual geographical appearance, so unlike the neighbouring low coral islands of Abariringa. The cut-off piece was thrown by Auriaria to the east and became Tamana, by which is meant that Tamana was colonized by Banabans, a fact which has been acknowledged by the Tamanans themselves from their earliest contact with Europeans to the present day.

Nei Teotintake also says that Auriaria 'set a fence around his land; he set a guard of canoes about it'.  The Tabwewans did indeed decide that they had enough people and strictly prohibited any further arrivals by canoe from landing; as a result after several generations they began to believe that their ancestors had lived there from the beginning of the world and that Banaba was 'the Navel of the Universe'.

An eloquent testimony to the effectiveness of this policy is seen in the first tradition ever collected in Kiribati, which records that two canoes arrived from Banaba, their occupants having escaped being conquered in a civil war. Presumably they tried to settle there and may even have succeeded in remaining ashore in some remote part of the island; but were told that if they did not leave at once they would be killed. (Maude and Maude 1994:1).

It was a period sufficiently long to have developed a distinctively Banaban culture, with ancillary linguistic and possibly physical characteristics. The children of Auriaria had become the Bun Anti.

It was broken, so far as we know for the first time, by canoes sailing from Beru under the command of Nei Anginimaeao and her brother Na Kouteba, with the subsidiary leaders Na Manenimate and Nei Teborata. Other notable elders were Tebubua, Namakaina and Nang Kautia, and most of them had their families and followers, Nei Anginimaeao's leading canoe was called by the lovely name of Taberani Kai ni Butini Beru; and the genealogical tables show that they arrived at Banaba approximately 13 generations before these were written down in 1930.

Divider05f.gif (21052 bytes)

We have often been told that Nei Anginimaeao and her companions left Beru because of the dislocations caused by the wars of Kaitu and Uakeia, and allowing for the average age of the leaders being about 30 a period of 13 generations, with a genealogical span of 30 years each (as preferred by the Gilbertese historian Kambati Uriam and ourselves) brings us to the year AD 1570, not long after the wars had started under Tem Mwea, when Bakarerenteiti was Uea of Beru. No one was in danger of losing lands on Beru Island and it seems probable that Nei Anginimaeao and her followers thought it a good time to settle on an island not quite so crowded. Others had left during the wars and settled on most of the islands to the north as far as Marakei. Nikunau was a partner with Beru in the conquering of the Northern islands and Onotoa was too intermarried with both to be touched.

What Nei Anginimaeao and her party were in fact doing was to copy the tactics of Kaitu and Tem Mwea on the one suitable island which neither of them had visited: because, we suggest, it was too far away, not one of the Gilberts, and they knew almost nothing about it.

But Nei Anginimaeao clearly knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do, and she did it with superb skill. Landing on what was later the Uma coast at Na Bitakini Kainnano she 'measured the foreshore' clockwise as far as Te Ruarua and gave it to Na Manenimate, who called his district Uma. Then she went on to Te Matabou and gave it to Nei Teborata, who called her district Toakira. Following on to Aon te Maiango she took the district which she called Tabiang for herself. Meanwhile her brother Na Kouteba walked along the foreshore anti-clockwise as far as the Tabwewa boundary, taking the district for himself and calling it Te Aonoanne. Both left the Tabwewa foreshore strictly alone.

The interesting question is how did Nei Anginimaeao, the unquestioned leader, know so much about Banaba and its inhabitants that she could take such risks and be so confident - indeed how did she know how to get there in the first place? We suggest that the answer may lie in the stories of one or two visits of Banabans to Beru and the possibility that Nei Anginimaeao had Banaban blood. There is no need to pay much attention to the mythological material, especially in Tradition 2 where Auriaria creates Samoa and the Gilbert Islands-this is good patriotic Banaban myth but not history-but that Anginimaeao was a Banaban is in accord with some views we heard over sixty years ago. After all there is no doubt that her anti was Nei Tituabine, who seems to have been of help to the people of Tabiang on a number of occasions.

Some informants have maintained that it was through her close association with Nei Anginimaeao and the people of Tabiang that Nei Tituabine came to take a greater interest in the welfare of the Banabans than any other of 'the old gods'.

For example it has been said that it was on her advice of the aomata called Tituabine, from whom Nei Anginimaeao is believed to be descended, the most famous is the first High Chiefess of Matang, who is said to have been the most beautiful Gilbertese or Banaban in history, with her fair skin, her flashing eyes, her graceful proportions and her unrivalled skill in dancing. It was to try and make themselves look like her that the girls from the most important families went through the bleaching process known as Te Ko.

To continue our narrative, a meeting was arranged between the people of Auriaria and the newcomers at which it was agreed that each of the latter should hold his land in accordance with the custom of Kiribati while the Tabwewans should continue to hold theirs as they always had; and at the same time it was recognized that the Tabwewans were 'the first people of Banaba'. Seemingly in return for this concession the Tabwewans were granted nine overlord privileges, of which the most important were the 'wan tieke' (the right to board first all visiting canoes or vessels), and the right to take the stranded porpoise, turtle or urua fish (see Maude and Maude 1932:284-5 for a detailed list of privileges).

According to Nei Beteua, an acknowledged expert on Banaban custom, these privileges were not granted until the time of Nei Anginimaeao's great-grandchild Na Borau the younger and they were subject to reversion. She maintained, furthermore, that they caused a fight between Tabiang and Tabwewa before they were finally agreed to. But as Nei Beteua was a direct descendant of Anginimaeao we suspect her of a ……..that the Banabans, many of whom were reluctant to change their religion, decided to become Christians in 1885. Again in 1947, when many of the Banabans went to their island to settle land matters with Maynard of the BPC, who heard that Nei Tituabine mentioned to one of them that she was lonely on Banaba all by herself and would accompany them to Rabi where she would live in future. This was said to have been the turning point in making many of the Banabans feel that Rabi rather than Banaba was now their true home. (Check Bibliography for sources)

Divider05f.gif (21052 bytes)
 
Banaba Home Page
 
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 28th September 2013)