REPUBLIC OF KIRIBATI

KING BINOKA OF ABEMAMA

           

It is not possible to go into the history of Civil War in each island of the Gilberts (Kiribati) in detail - however, one cannot really omit a description of the most famous and unusual of the Gilbertese: King Binoka of Abemama. R.L. Stevenson described him in his book In The South Seas. In 1889 the great writer saw him at close quarters, for he became Stevenson's host on Abemama. Some old men remember him and show where his house was. It stood about two hundred paces to the east of the royal palace, in the bush, and was built in two days. Stevenson, accompanied by his wife, his brother-in-law and a Chinese cook, was looking for solitude and health in the sunny Pacific Islands. He observed the islanders with perception and a lively sympathy. He was able to talk about them in a very fair way because he both liked and understood them. Stevenson spent four months in the Gilberts; two at Butaritari and two at Abemama.

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Interior of the Maneaba of Tem Binoka's Harem

Before Stevenson, only three white men had been able to set foot on the island. Binoka mistrusted the race. His experience of whites enabled him to place them in three categories: those who cheat you a little, those who would really rook you, and those who would absolutely fleece you. He was some time taking stock of Stevenson before allowing him to land on Abemama. Later he said he had read from Stevenson's face and eyes that he was having to do with a good and loyal man. Stevenson's description of the king is of a Binoka somewhat sobered, rising fifty and in fact with only two more years to live. Binoka, a man of intelligence and tenacity, came from a remarkable family. Tetabo, his great-great-grandfather, was a giant of a man who had saved Abemama from invasion by an army from Tarawa. His family had become more and more important. Baiteke, Binoka's father, had united Kuria, Aranuka and Abemama under his rule. A debonair character, his rule as chief was patriachal; he had plenty of sense and ruled without being oppressive. From his youth Binoka put on all sorts of airs and graces and his father allowed him all his whims. He was soon known for his debauchery and cruelty. The people of Kuria reused to give him their tribute of young girls, so he mounted a campaign against them. Both sides were assured of the help of a ship's captain who would bring arms and ammunition. Binoka's helper arrived first. On Kuria, they had some guns, a little powder, but no shot. One Tapona was strongly opposed to war, against the wishes of the young warriors who had at last found wives.

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Abemama Atoll

'There's the man,' he said, when the boat appeared. 'Stand square on to him. Be firm. There's no running away. I'm going to break the canoes.'

With one blow of his axe he broke a plank just above the keel. A ship then came in through Routa passage. From the shore, Tenu, the witch doctor, hurled all the evil things he had in his bag at it, when suddenly there was a shot from the ship and Tenu dropped dead. Captain Grog had been trying a new gun. The witch doctor was the only victim of the bullets. Unable to return this fire, the Kuria warriors scattered. Their canoes were now not seaworthy and one by one they sank below the waves. The victors who followed them to the north of the island came back horrified. They came across shoals of very excited sharks that crossed the wake left by their paddles, all over the place. Red water streamed from their vast mouths. The population of Kuria has never really got over such a bloodbath. The first navigators counted 3,000 people there. Let's say 1,000. Although the population is increasing it hasn't yet reached 300, which is also the case for the sister-island of Aranuka.

Towards 1840, in Baiteke's reign, the first boats anchored off the islet of Bike, to fill up their barrels with the oil brought to them in coconuts. Everyone did some trading in his own way, even later, when copra replaced oil. Binoka wanted to have a monopoly on everything. He built stores, became a wholesale trader and only he could do business with the captains. Stevenson described the scene.

The sailing ship anchored in the lagoon opposite the royal palace. Soon you would see a canoe nearing it. It carried a ladder which was lashed to the rail. Binoka, a man aware of pomp and progress, would not risk his royal person on the primitive rope ladders of the times. Once he had narrowly escaped breaking back on a rotten ladder. The captain had a ready excuse: it was rare that anyone equalled to Binoka in size or majesty, used his ladder. The King was not the largest of men, but he did rather bulge over. He was a real Micronesian monarch: a credit to the people who fed him. The captains often tried to persuade Binoka that a little exercise - a walk perhaps, would do him good, but this was against protocol. His Majesty moved only in his launch or on his throne, carried by four soldiers.

Once the ladder was fixed, the canoe came back again and you saw four porters and a well-filled chair progressing along the empty beach. Then, pushed, pulled and hoisted, the royal trader set foot on board and it seemed that the ship listed on that side.

The captains were careful to be as courteous as possible. They scoured the ship and took great care with the menu for their ample client. Those who cheated him too much the first time didn't need to come back - or if they did they didn't know their man. To get out of their clutches, the royal trader even bought a schooner to take his money to the banks in New Zealand. There he was not just thoroughly cheated, but his agents stole everything quite easily. He never saw his money again and when the ship was wrecked he found that a swindler had pocketed all his insurance money. He took this quite philosophically and continued to do business with traders who came by.

In Binoka's time there was a man on Abaiang called Karakaua who didn't get on with Kaiea, the King of his island. He had to flee to Hawaii. There he learned to handle a gun and he became a quite remarkable shot. He was dying to show off his talents. On the way back to Nonouti in the the Gilberts, he suggested to Binoka that they should mount a campaign against Abaiang. He became involved intrigue on Nonouti too: behaved as if he were very important, gathered supporters in the south, and set the north against him. To rid themselves of this character, his enemies, who were afraid of his gun, flattered Binoka and persuaded him that he was the only man able to check Karakaua.

The King of Abemama began his campaign. A ship's captain set him ashore at Nonouti with eighty warriors. Karakaua was waiting in the centre of the island for the attack but the ship came to the southern point and when Karakaua went there, after quite a rush, the first of the troops had already landed. They didn't take the matter too seriously. When Karakaua appeared they were all sitting smoking in the Temotu maneaba. The brave Abemama warriors quickly hid themselves behind the first coconut tree they each found. The Abaiang marksman had only a few helpers armed with guns. His wife, behind him, passed him his cartridges. He scarcely missed a shot. Anything sticking out from behind a tree trunk was hit. Puenaua was hit in the forehead; Taupuki, Kaintangare and Tepera, hit in the stomach were left dead on the field. Korina's wife was passing cartridges to him and she had one thigh grazed by a bullet, and the other wounded. Four other gallant soldiers were shot in the arm as they tried to take aim. It was a bad day for the Abemama forces. Binoka hadn't come ashore. They say his men prevented him from doing so. The gun in Karakaua's hand was good, but what a large target he's have! Eventually Uapong had an idea. He left the foot of his tree and wriggled up the sloping shore, surprised Karakaua and broke his back.

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Tem Binoka and party leaving Equator

Then the bold Abemama warriors flung themselves on the wounded man and cut off his head. Binoka hadn't shone in this fight so he was in a bad temper. He worked out his wrath on the people of Nonouti who came out in canoes to meet him, by forcing them to dive. Everyone plunged in, but as soon as a head came up to breathe, Binoka's cannon picked off this target. His men, however, more humane than their king, did not cause too much damage in the villages. All this happened in 1882. The boat went back to Abemama loaded with slaves of both sexes. A little later a British warship came on the scene. Binoka had to hand over all the guns gained from Kuria and all the prisoners of war who wished to be repatriated.

This was a terrible humiliation for the King of Abemama, who nevertheless kept his power and later had a 17-shot gun which was regarded with awe throughout his kingdom. Rumour had it that this was all show for nothing; His Majesty wasn't happy and it would be better to keep quiet. Sometimes the gun went off und4er the very nose of a miscreant. If such a lesson didn't help that particular person then it was useful for others. It wasn't that he was cruel as a shark is, always ready to snap its jaws, Binoka's cruelty came upon him sporadically in moments of rage or passion. He was a barbarian with a somewhat vague conscience and had never tried to control his instincts. He felt the least humiliation as sharply as a danger thrust and his reaction was swift.

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Kuria Atoll

'I have power,' he said to Stevenson, swaggering about. His was an absolute power and he made certain that this was known. Thus his subjects assumed a cringing servility in his presence which was hard to lose.

One evening a lad about ten years old frightened the boy Binoka as he went along a path. The lad thought he was joking with a friend. He wasn't recognized, but got his face scratched. The next day all the children were examined. The guilty lad had slipped away fishing. He should have dirtied his face, for when he came back he was caught. The people drowned him like a puppy and burned his body, in order to compliment the heir apparent.

Binoka had ordered a jetty built on the islet of Bike. Who was missing? Taumon. The king made a tour of the village, Taumon, lying down in his hut, got up and offered Binoka his best mat. A bullet whiled on its way.

It was as a husband that Binoka had his greatest worries. How could he control so many wives in a palace with neither walls not cloisters? He found an original solution. He moved friends and relations into the huts all around his palace. It was their job to maintain a line of fire all night and pick up a stone and throw it now and then to keep themselves aw3ake. It was the old women on guard who were the most zealous.

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Harem and little son of Tem Binoka on board the Janet Nichol passing from Aranuka to Abemama

Yet somehow, a way in was found, for one day the portly king was seen in a jealous rage, drunkenly chasing one of his wives through Tabiang village. The runaway wife would have been saved a hundred times over if one mean courtier hadn't held her so her husband could shoot her. The man who had provoked the royal jealousy was shot.

Another, guilty of the same crime, was thrashed, rolled in excreta, tied hand and foot and flung into the full glare of the sun to be tortured by the flies. Captain Ried was there and got Binoka to give up the young man to him. The Captain then took him to San Francisco. The villagers of three islands, in their turn, were responsible for feeding the court. In this instance, the king was very generous. His family, his servants, strangers and guests couldn't complain about him. They were clothed, lodged and fed very well.

Stevenson saw penniless strangers, brought there by ships' captains, larger going home much the richer, kitted out and given their fares at the king of Abemama's expense.

Protestantism had been established about seven years in his kingdom, when, about 1880, without changing his habits too much, Binoka declared he would join this new religion. The whole island had to follow his example. The king turned himself into a lay preacher. He lorded it and preached in the church alongside the minister. He set off himself to convert Maiana. This fervour lasted only a while. The islanders got bored, banned from dancing and smoking as they were. Two chiefs in the church made one too many. Also the minister's power was increasing on the island. Would he introduce riches that the royal trader could not control? In brief, everything was reversed. By royal decree the island went back to dancing and people were forced to drop religion. A few faithful souls stood firm - even preferring exile.

In May 1891, when Father Bontemps came for the first time, he was made very welcome. He was lodged and fed by Binoka. The big maneaba at Binoianano was put at his disposal for the first Mass on 24 May, Trinity Sunday. Everyone was free to go. Timon, the king's brother was there with his son Paul, the heir apparent, and all his family. Binoka excused himself: 'I am too wicked'. He spent the day on his boat but he promised Father Bontemps freedom of worship and all the land he would need to install himself in his turn.

When Father Bontemps came back from Buataritari at the end of the year he found the island in mourning. Binoka had died on 10th November from a stomach ulcer. Mourning was still going on in the villages. The burns the men had made on their arms were not yet healed over. These elderly heathens must have had a truly savage appearance, dirt-smeared, long-haired, arms slashed and venting wails of grief as they mourned their tyrant king. Brother Conrad had such a vivid memory of Abemama that he still shivered at the thought of it fifty years later.

Have I blackened Binoka? The people of Abemama don't have such a bad memory of him. In their heart of hearts they are rather proud of him. He had grandeur and a certain fascination about him. Beside him, the kings of other islands seemed very minor monarchs. He had a ship, cannons, guns; a three island empire. He governed his subjects harshly, but he treated his friends well and the kingdom of Abemama was respected by men and by the whites!

During Binoka's reign there were always girls from all three islands, Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka, available to him. No girl was allowed to marry until Binoka had seen her. The usual practice was for every girl to visit Binoka at the time of her first menstruation. He could then do with them as he pleased.

Nevertheless history should be more critical for these heathen rulers who made everything a profit to themselves. They are largely responsible for the servility, the immorality and the depopulation of the island people. The acquisition of land by a few families upset the social order by creating a class of serfs with all the physical and moral burdens that go with slavery.

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Aranuka Atoll

The average family was degraded, disorganised or prevented from increasing because of the lack of wives. Consequently there was a problem of depopulation. Binoka himself had no child. So many women of his generation and the following one were sterile, that you could say it was an evil curse. Now the population is slowly building up, particularly thanks to fresh blood having been brought in. Nevertheless marriages are made difficult by the existence of social classes. Serfs, free men and nobles are the three groups which make lives on an island rather trying. Most of the barriers are broken, but those which prevent marriage are upheld. A free man would not want a son-in-law who did not have his own land. This social situation is particularly important in Binoka's kingdom and in Butaritari. The last kings gained from the British Protectorate, which approves the existing system. These recently established kingdoms were in a precarious state, always at the mercy of any little revolutions. Island tradition tends towards equality, but most chiefs who wanted to become Kings failed. Others, who came to power through cunning or force, did not manage to stay in power very long. A committee of heads of families governed each island. Laws against murder, theft, rape, incest and adultery were strict. It was the executive body that acted. Sometimes the criminal, supported by his family, reacted against this and then it was a case of war or impunity. Most of these quarrels did not go far but occasionally some situations that develop out of nothing could become very bitter.

The major wars brought devastation and famine. Before setting off on a campaign the people used up all their food supplies so that nothing was left for the enemies. In enemy territory they burned their villages, destroyed the palm trees and ruined the babai pits. Yet, as we have seen, the real blood baths came about because of sharks or cannibals in the islands to the west where the last surviving canoes were stranded. It is difficult to say whether famine caused many deaths. According to old sayings, coconut palms were once rare. They were planted after a great drought during which the palms, staff of life for the islands as they are, would have been severely depleted. Certainly the really big plantations are something more recent. They date from the time when oil and then copra began to be sold.

The people of these small islands have not, then, known a golden age; only periods of peace between one episode of slaughter and the next. They seem to have been spared one affliction; that of large scale epidemics. Isolation, sun and wind have done more for them than a regiment of hygiene experts. Between 1820 and 1870 whalers and other sea rovers scattered their unpleasant diseases far and wide in Oceania. The Gilberts, however, were relatively safe. They are a long way off the main sea route, difficult to locate, awkward to land on and, having not much water or fruit, were not much good as a port of call. Now that bacteria are so easily spread by modern transport, such as cars and planes, the Gilberts are still among the least affected of places.

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