Prior to a young man being able to carry weapons he first had to become a warrior. This process started with the ceremony in which the young man's hair was cut. As this was done, his grandfather was busy making the youth's first soldier's spear. It was made from seasoned coconut wood and was twelve or more feet long with the double row of shark's teeth at the point. These teeth were tied on the wood by string reinforced with strands of the warrior's hair. The spear was left in the father's house while the lad underwent further trials.

A month after the ceremony of hair cutting, the young warrior was taken to a secluded hut on the eastern side of the island. He had to stay there alone until the roof began to leak - which was two from 2 to five years. No woman  - not even his mother could visit him. The men in his family brought him his food. Young people were not allowed to speak to him and he was forbidden to come to the village.

His grandfather especially had charge of his training. He gave him hard tasks and difficult duties to perform; cutting down trees, clearing the bush and carrying heavy stones. The old man wouldn't joke with him or allow any relaxation. It was his aim to create a strong warrior who could bring honour to the family. His grandfather had the authority to prolong his testing period and, if he thought that nature is weakening, he would summon up magic to help him. At the end of this period, the new warrior was led to the village, armed with his spear, and taken to the maneaba for ceremonial dances in his honour. Then he became one of the warriors and could marry, something he was quick to do.

Gilbertese weapons were simples but attempted to inspire terror. The bow was unknown. The most useful weapon was the palm-wood spear, bristling with shark's teeth that made wounds more serious, as the flesh was so torn. Rather like an arrow, there was a short wooden javelin pointed at both ends. They also had a sort of lasso - an ordinary piece of wood at the end of a rope. They tried to wind this round their opponent's legs and bring them down by pulling on it.  

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An impressive weapon against a naked body was a javelin four to five feet long, finishing in a tuft of stingray's barbs. Sometimes the tips of these were burnt so that they would be more likely to break off in the wound. To ward off blows from this, they attached three or four pieces of wood, rather like the prong of a pitchfork, to their spears. Their best protection, however, was an original type of armour, covering them completely, with leg-pieces, breastplate and helmet, leaving only the feet and face uncovered. This coat of mail was made of coconut fibre. The helmet was sometimes made from the skin of a very prickly spiny fish.

With such well-trained and well-equipped warriors we might expect to hear of epic battles. In fact, we will hear mainly about routs and massacres.

The first guns were introduced by the whites about 1840. They didn't scruple to make their fortune out of gunpowder and gin. Selling these, they were quick to amass wealth.

A runaway from Abaiang became friendly with a white man in Tarawa who had a gun. Suddenly, he decided to make use of this powerful aid to get his revenge. He took the white man and some friends on his expedition. Off they went to Abaiang in a launch. They rowed in close to land. Abaiang warriors were there to prevent a landing. Suddenly, one of them was wrenched out of the ranks. He had been standing there, spear in hand, and yet now there he was, well setup, yet arching his body in pain. The others thought this was odd. There had been smoke over there, a cracking noise, and there was their comrade on the ground. "It's a trick played on us by the spirits", they decided. "This place is not favourable. We will go and fight somewhere else". They moved further away. The launch followed along the shoreline. Once again the warriors arranged themselves in battle formation. The man with the gun had only to calmly choose the largest target as a victim and reload his weapon when he wished. The same scene was replayed further on.

The Abaiang warrior eventually realized that it wasn't safe to stand along the shore opposite this tube that smoked, made a cracking noise and sent death to them. After these first emotions, interest focused entirely on ways of owning and using similar magic. They had to pay a great deal, on Abaiang and on the other islands to obtain such initiation into modern warfare. Soon after, the Kings and the great Chiefs had guns and even cannons. Was warfare more bloody as a result? They claim that the defeated army ran away sooner and more quickly. By that time, there were no longer encumbered with their fibre armour.

The people had a good memory for events in the wars, but at a distance of some 300 years it is difficult to disentangle history from legend. One thing is certain: the golden age of happiness and peace no more existed in the islands than it did for great civilizations. If an invasion from outsiders did not chase away the islanders then they were at each other's throats. It was family against family, clan against clan, for the sake of glory, for land or for women. The always had their spears in their hands. If degenerate Christians fought amongst themselves, what could the unconverted hope for?

Pacific Islands Radio Stations
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 11th July 2009)