On Tarawa, warfare was common between the various kaainga and districts. The leader of each kaainga led his people during war. It was believed that the leader with the most powerful magic won the war. Most wars were controlled by the chiefs of the districts. If one chief wanted to declare war on another, he had to plan carefully because if he lost the war he would be pushed off his land with his people. They could not stay because their enemies would kill them. Usually the defeated chief would leave the island with his people and they would sail in their canoes to other islands. Some were lost at sea. Those who reached land, if they were strong enough, could get a place to settle down, but those who were not might be taken as slaves.

The main causes of war were the need for land and the fact that no kaainga or district wanted any other to control the island. If one of the chiefs began to increase his power, then other chiefs would try to overthrow him. Sometimes wars were caused when chiefs unsuited, or acted in an unfriendly way towards other chiefs. Some of the wars arose from disputes between brothers or cousins who wanted to succeed as chiefs. The wars on Tarawa were usually between competing chiefs, but sometimes other islands got involved, as when some chiefs of Abaiang fought at Tarawa in the war called "Nanon te Rawa" (which means "passage" because the war took place at the passage between Ukiangang and Nuatabu). This happened because Tarawa and Abaiang are so close together and the leaders were related.

A period of intense warfare occurred in the 19th century ending with the arrival of Captain Davis in 1892. There were ten wars altogether, over about four generations. They involved chiefs from throughout Tarawa but except for the first war, each was concentrated in one particular area and involved only a few kaainga. The wars were, in order:                                                            

1.  Kateia ba Kaini Karawa
2.  Katurake
3.  Bakinikin
4.  Nanon te Rawa
5.  Makoreao
6.  Te Booti
7.  Katibeka
8.  Nea (1)
9.  Baretangaina
10. Nea (2)


The first group of wars are known as Tebau's Wars: Kia be Kaini Karawa, Katurake, Bakinikin and Makoreao. Tebau was the chief of Tabiang on North Tarawa who fought to expand his influence and power. He did not actually begin the first two wars, but became involved when other chiefs from North Tarawa asked for his help.


In the war of Kateia ba Kaini Karawa, Tebau helped Taburimai to take the chiefly title from his brother-in-law, Tem Bwenna, who had taken the title upon the death of Taburiman's brother. He controlled the area from Matang to Buariki. Taburiman, who claimed the title, was ashamed to go against Tem Bwenna because he was his brother-in-law. So Taburimai went to Tabiang and asked Tebau for help. Tebau agreed, saying that he would come with his warriors on the first day of the full moon.

Taburimai tricked Tem Bwenna by telling him and his men to bring dancing sticks about four feet long, made from the branches of the uri tree, to use as the welcome for Tebau's people. They arrived at Tabouea at the northern end of Taratai. Taburimai was at the front and Bwenna's men were standing in rows facing him. Tebau told his men to go behind them, to watch the dancing. When Taburimai said to his people "Kateia ba Kaini Karawa" (hold your sticks up), they held their sticks up vertically. This was the time for Tebau's men to strike with their clubs. They struck those in the back row first and killed them. When Bwenna's men tried to turn back, Taburimai shouted again "Kateia ba Kaini Karawa" and his men held up their sticks again. Tebau's men struck again until all the people were killed.

Bwenna was, therefore, overthrown by Tebau. Taburimai assumed the title of chief but Tebau, in return for his help, was recognised as the high chief of that area. In addition he received several pieces of land for his support.

The war at Katurake was similar to the first one. Here again, Tebau helped a kaainga from Te Kauae (Marenanuka) to overthrow an existing chief, Marera of Noto (Eretibou). Marera was defeated and Tebau was recognized as high chief and was given land.

The war of Bakinkin and Makoreao were different from the first two because they were actually Tebau's wars. He fought them on his own behalf. The first time was against Neneuri, chief of the Buota area, and the second against Kokoria, chief of a kaainga near Nuatabu. In both cases the defeated people were forced to recognize Tebau as their chief. 


Tokiteba, a chief from Betio, fought two wars: "Nanon te Rawa" at North Tarawa and "Te Booti" (the boat) which was fought at Tarawa, Abaiang and Marakei. The first war was between Teng Kimaere, a chief of North Tarawa, and his brother, Te Kauongo, over the chiefly title. Tokiteba began by supporting Kimaere but then switched on the instructions of the followers from Betio. As Te Kauongo and Tokiteba were defeated, Tokiteba lost his title.

The second war was a direct result of the first. Tokiteba fought it and attempted to regain his title and was helped by five Europeans who came from Nikunau in their boat. They landed at the place now named after them "Te Bike Ni Matang" (the beach of the foreigners), at Betio. The guns they brought with them were the first ever seen at Betio. Tokiteba got on well with them so they offered to help him. He knew that this was his chance to gain his title, so he started a war which was called Te Booti. They sailed in a European boat along the lagoon from Betio to Buariki, landing at different places at North Tarawa. Tokiteba named each place where they stopped and claimed land. The people whom they met were afraid when they found that the guns could kill them from a distance.

Then they sailed to Abaiang and Marakei and wherever they landed Tokiteba claimed land. Because of the Europeans and their guns, the people were too frightened to try and stop them. On their way back to Betio, Tokiteba killed the Europeans and kept the boat. It is said that he did this so that he would not have to share any of the land with them.


Kourabi, the son of Tebau from North Tarawa, became high chief of Tabiang when his father was old. He was involved in two wars: Te Katibeka and the first war at Nea. By this time power on Tarawa was concentrated at Betio in the south and at Tabiang in the north.l There were struggles over the leadership of Tarawa.

The first war was between two kaainga on South Tarawa who were sup;porters of Tebau. The Betio ;people are said to have caused the war in order to reduce Tebau's influence in South Tarawa. Two battles were fought, one at Banraeaba and the other at Te Kabi. The result was a success for the Betio side since it succeeded in dividing Tebau's supporters.

Because of Tebau's weakened position after the war of the Katibeka, Matang, the chief of Betio, decided to attack Tebau. He combined with his allies in North Tarawa and fought a battle at Nea. By that time, Tebau was old, so Kourabi took his place during the war.

One night when it was raining, Matang led his men to Nea, where Kourabi and his men were sheltering. They surrounded the place and took Kourabi by surprise. He was killed on August 31, 1878, with 23 others, and after this Matang of Betio was recognized by most of the people as high chief.


Matang remained high chief for a number of years. During the time he became involved in a war called Baretangaina in which he helped Tabikau, an old ally from Taratai in North Tarawa. During the war Tebikau was killed and his son, Tekinaiti, took over as chief in the area. Then he turned on Matang by refusing to recognize him as high chief, and this led to the second war at Nea.This was the last of of the Tarawa wars.

The incident which set off the war occurred when Tekinaiti stepped on the food which his people had prepared for Matang. The presentation of food was a traditional way of showing support for a chief. When Matang called Tekinaiti to his maneaba at Bikenibeu to explain about the food, Tekinaiti told him that his people would no longer make food for him. Matang signalled to his men to shoot Tekinaiti but Nei Tikoro, wife of Matang's nephew, who was Tekinaiti's cousin, had removed the bullets from the guns.

Tekinaiti went back to North Tarawa to the small islet of Tebuatarawa, north of Nea at Buariki, taking with him guns which he had purchased from Albert Kustell, a European trader. Matang and his men were at Buariki waiting for a chance to attack. When his magic predicted that he would not be able to capture Tekinaiti on that islet, he moved back to Nea at Tabiang. Tekinaiti followed Matang southward and when he had a chance he ordered one of his men called Tonganibeia to go and shoot Matang. When Matang was fast asleep; after midnight, Tonganibeia shot and killed him; then he returned to Tekiinaiti telling him that Matang had died.

Tekinaiti gathered his people to decide when they should attack. As a result of consulting their gods, they found that there would soon be some visitors and, before they were to start fighting, Captain Davis and his ship arrived. He and his crew went ashore at Taratai. He was looking for Matang and was told that he had already died. Captain Davis told Tekinaiti to stop the war and asked them to give up their guns. He also took the guns from Matang's people and told them to return to their villages because a new government was going to look after them. If Captain Davis had not arrived, Tekinaiti would have probably won the war.

Captain Davis arrived in June 1892. He established the protectorate government and hoisted a Union Jack at Taratai. The chiefs from both North and South Tarawa signed a peace treaty on the Royalist. Then Captain Davis recognized Tekinaiti as high chief and made Kauntuntarawa, Matang's nephew, the Tia Moti (magistrate), the man to deal with matters between the government and the people of Tarawa. Thus with the coming of colonial rule, traditional warfare came to an end on Tarawa and throughout the Gilbert Islands. 

Father Guichard, a Roman Catholic missionary,  has tried to unravel the history of wars on Tarawa after Kaitu's conquest. This is no easy task but anyone who is interested in the story of human passions can find these on an island just as much as in a continent. Here or there men would like to force their conflicts even beyond death. The quarrels are carried on from generation to generation. The Polynesian is capable of just as much pride and hatred as any Corsican. A quality of vengeful patriotism is not an exclusive attribute of people said to be civilized. After Kaitu had gone back south his warriors were scattered to occupy the islands they found themselves somewhat vulnerable there, when they no longer had numerical strength - or were not clever enough to make their rule an accepted fact.

This was the Nauatabu, rose against the invaders, who were either massacred or made into slaves. Only two members of Teabike's family survived - and they took refuge on a rock, surrounded by lashing waves. A chief from Buariki took pity on them and sent them food and water. Then he invited them to his village. They made an alliance with the Buariki people, defeated the Nuatabuans and took over three villages. Later, under cover of a fishing expedition at he end of the island, they took the people of Nauatabu by surprise and wiped out the population of three villages. The Teabike family took over their land, but the Buariki people didn't want any part of the plunder. The former inhabitants of Tarawa must have been pacifists - they were forever being taken over. Like an octopus minus one tentacle, they sought only to enjoy their restricted life to the full. Tatimaki, a strategist on the enemy side, suggested a night attack. To avoid mosquitoes the locals slept in huts on stilts, out in the lagoon. This was a hard position to defend. The people being attacked were either massacred or became food for sharks if they tried to escape by swimming. This time all the victors had a share of the abandoned land.

Years went by and the Teabike family increased in size. When they felt strong enough they turned on their Buariki allies and defeated them. The only thing then was to quarrel among themselves and this they did in a seventh war, when the younger branch of the Teabike family came out the winners.

There was no lack of other internal squabbles or sorties against neighbours. The cruiser that set up the British Protectorate came just in time to prevent another massacre. The Pacific Islander of early times certainly didn't lead an idyllic existence in an enchanted spot. In the islands as anywhere else, the human being suffered most in terms of sin.

Pacific Islands Radio Stations

(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 7th August 2009)