Before white men came to these islands, a Gilbertese man normally wore nothing when engaged in everyday work. At meetings, when dancing or on more ceremonial occasions he wore a mat of woven pandanus leaves, the upper part of the body being bare. Women, and girls after puberty, wore the graceful riri (skirt) made from coconut leaves. Customs and norms were strictly obeyed, and failure to follow the rules resulted in community enforcement, by war if necessary.
Today, Gilbertese men walk about the islands dressed in lavalava, or shorts and shirts. Mats are now used only for dancing. They travel on motorbikes and other means of transport that might have annoyed a Gilbertese almost two centuries ago. Most women nowadays wear clothes made from imported fabrics, and only a few wear the traditional leaf skirts.
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Last century, political systems fell into two broad categories. The northern islands were under chiefly leadership, and in the south the leaders of the of the kaainga governed from the maneaba. Then traders brought food, tools and weapons; and recruiters engaged workers for labour overseas. The Gilbertese soon developed a liking for the sharper steel knife and he threw away his traditional toddy knife - a shell sharpened with pumice stone which had been found along the shores. Steel axes replaced stone and shell adzes, steel fish hooks replaced wooden or bone hooks, cottons replaced leaves. Next came the missionaries, the "good people" as they were called by the Gilbertese. They brought a new kind of belief, and their teachings caused considerable changes in the Gilbertese way of life.
British influence began to be noticed in the latter part of the nineteenth century. British warships began frequenting the islands from the mid 1800's until the hoisting of the flag on Abemama by Captain Davis in 1892. The British government came to the islands with totally different motives from the traders or missionaries. The British came to rule. They stopped civil disturbances, set up a system of government, which included traditional leaders at least for a time, established law and order, and protected the interests of foreigners residing in the islands. Later, educational and medical facilities were also developed.
MILITARY TRAINING AND PHYSICAL FEATS
Just as is the case with great civilizations, the history of the Gilberts Islands (Kiribati) is full of wars and massacres. From the earliest times the people of Kiribati led something of a less than idealistic existence. There were wars with foreign invaders, wars between the islands and the chiefs and probably worst of all were the religious wars. It was not until Kiribati became a British Protectorate in 1892 that peace and order came to the Gilbert Islands. This Web site looks at some of the horrific wars that caused much death and destruction in Kiribati during those early years.
Warrior in armour holding a sharks' teeth sword, trousers and jersey (te tuta) made of knitted or woven coir sennit; coat (te otana) made of plaited coir twine, with a high back piece to protect head and neck; belt (te katibana) of woven coir twine; or dried ray skin, 7-10 inches broad, worn round body as protection from spears; skull cap (te baratekora) of plaited coir twine 1/2-inch thick to protect the head from blows; and over it a helmet (te barantauti) made of inflated porcupine fish skin. The swords are of old, well-seasoned coconut wood with sharks' teeth barbs.
Right from birth certain ceremonies destined the male to be a warrior. He must not be a coward. Consequently the green young soldier was called up and made to undergo military training. It wasn't only a matter of physical exercise. Moral and religious training was given far more prominence than it is in many modern armies.
There are a number of very interesting customs relating to this training for war: religious ceremonies, ritual bans on certain things and development of the body. It is hard to say to what extent they were practised, but certainly they must have developed before falling into disuse. When the boy was about twelve his hair was cut with a shark's tooth, to the accompaniment of incantations which would give him a true warrior's heart and in particular protect him against the attractions of the opposite sex. He must not marry until he was a grown man and after he had followed a long training in war and manly ways in general. When he was about twenty his hair was cut again at the time of year when the star Antares rose after sunset. This was a painful procedure; his father went at it smartly with his primitive cutting equipment and the boy had to keep his face turned towards a large fire lit upwind in the east. If he flinched, his uncles, who helped at the ceremony, would beat him with their palm-frond fly swatters. Next they lit a torch over his head. The sparks from it fell on his naked skin. His uncles would brush away the bigger ones but let the other land and burn out. The boy could not move or complain. If he did the whole procedure had to be carried out again. Furthermore the ceremony was repeated anyway after two full moons.
Four months later an even bigger fire was lit, fed with hard wood. Sitting close to it on a stone and facing east, the youth was given a coconut shell full of a half-and-half mixture of sea water and oil, mixed with a stringray's barb. Doubtless it was necessary to add potency to this drink, through various incantations, to make the young man stay there without flinching, from morning to night. Now and then, just to add flavour to this endurance test, his father would stab his bead with a shark's tooth. The blood had to stream down over his eyes and his cheeks. Meanwhile his stern uncles fed the fire and hit him if he turned his head or so much as twitched a shoulder. This ceremony, repeated at the next two full moons, was supposed to strengthen him against all testing situations for the rest of his life.