Republic of Kiribati

Nikunau has an area of 18.2 square kilometres and a population of 1,741. 


Most historians agree that Commodore John Byron R.N. of H.M. Ships Dolphin and Tamar discovered  Nikunau in 1765.

The 1840s brought whalers, with their need for refreshment and their desire for women, and the beginning of a more permanent relationship with the islands. The southern Gilberts were a regular base for these whaling ships since the sperm whales frequented the areas southwest of Tamana and Nikunau. Very little whaling contact took place in the northern Gilberts except for Kiebu, an islet next to Makin which was used for melting down whale fat. Butaritari was visited late in the 1850's after the development of a trading port that provided an added attraction to the whalers

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Betrothal and Marriage

On the islands of Nikunau and Beru there was very often no betrothal and no marriage ceremony, a wife bring simply appropriated and carried off by her suitor; this existed side by side with the more formal institutions dealt with and to be discussed. The nature of the practice, its difference from that in usual vogue, and its reminiscence of the habits of exogamous peoples, seem to indicate the presence on these two islands of a racial strain either foreign to, or submerged by, the other islanders. There are distinct indications in the traditions of many families that a small Melanesian invasion struck Beru about A.D. 1325 (as reckoned by the genealogies) and resulted in the settlement in the settlement of the central part of the island by a black-skinned man-eating folk, who eventually intermarried with the autochthones.. Again, it is provable that Nikunau, which lies only twenty-eight miles east of Beru, was dominated at a very early date by settlers from the latter island. Lastly, among he inhabitants of both islands to this day are to be seen types which more nearly approach the Melanesian than others in the Group. It seems not unwisely venturesome to infer that the ancestors responsible for the exceptional types were also responsible for the exceptional marriage by rape.

The Destination of the Soul

Butaritari and Makin give Matang alone as the land of departed spirits. On every other lagoon island Bouru and Neineaba, coupled together, are most generally accepted, though among certain families of Beru, Nikunau, Onotoa, Nonouti, and Tabiteuea, a land called Mwaiku is mentioned as the home of Nakaa the guardian. Lastly, Manra, which is the name applied, as a rule, to all the world of living men and women, is sometimes used in the Northern Gilberts to designate that particular space of sea trodden by the soul immediately before arriving at Bouru.

Kiribati Islands



When Nareau the Wise had lifted the upper portion of Te Bomatemaki a little higher, he was aware of himself and his surroundings. When he looked around he saw stiff bodies lying beneath the cover he had raised. They were spirits just as he was. He called this cover Robungini Karawa or (The Darkened Image of Sky).

The first task which Nareau the Wise had to do was to raise the cover even higher. So he went to the stiff bodies lying inside and broke parts of them to make them flexible so that they could move. He also noticed that they could not speak, so he chanted these words:

Why lying, why lying.
Crowd-of-spirits (bunanti)
Within Te Bomatemaki
Arise for we'll converse
Speak for we'll speak.

When they began to converse, Nareau the Wise knew that these spirits had life in them. Therefore, he gave them names that he thought suited them. Some of these names were:

Uka (blowing - the essence of moving air)
Nabawe (antiquity - the essence of age)
Karitoro (push into heap - the essence of energy)
Kanaweawe (lofty - the essence of dimension)
Ngkoangkoa (long, long ago - the essence of time)
Riiki (coming into existence, growing - the essence of procreation)
Auriaria (rising, coming from afar - the essence of light)
Nei Kika (the octopus)
Nei Tituabine (the sting ray, the cockroach)
Nei Tewenei (the comet)
There were many others.

After Nareau the Wise had given them names, he went to Nareau the Creator to seek advice as to how to separate the earth and the sky. He was advised to try alone, at first using his power of magic.

Nareau the Wise returned to the inside of Te Bomatemaka and began his work. He then chanted this prophecy:

Speak of the sky and move it.
Speak of the sky and lift it.
Rest it on its pillar, Te Kaintikuaba (The Tree of Life)
May fruits of this, my sceptre, come forth.
Speak Riiki, speak Nei Tituabine,
For Samoa the first land.
And Beru the second land.

There are different versions of which was the first land and which was the second. Those from Beru and Nikunau have Samoa as the first of all lands and then Nikunau has Samoa as the first of all lands and then their respective islands as the second. Those from Tarawa and Tabiteuea say that their island was the first to be created. The actual creation of lands is explained in the next chapter about the Tree of Life.

In a traditional story of the creation, Nareau having created Samoa then created people on Beru represented by Taburimai and Riki who were the first man and his wife. Settlement of Beru could have sprung from the disastrous war in the 3rd century A.D. when Savea, a great Samoan chief drove out the navigators and migrants who had settled there in earlier centuries. They scattered across the Pacific, some along the old migration route to the Gilberts told in the story of the 'Tree of Life'. The story implies the migrants met with a people of similar ancestry so implying that the Gilberts were inhabited at the time of their arrival. Traditionally told story of the coming of Tematawarebwe to Beru in AD 140 was related by the elders of Beru.

Very large numbers of families in the Gilberts can trace ancestry from Beru. It was from this island that its leader, Kaitu set out on a mission of blatant conquest sometime around 1550. He took his strategist and divinator Uakeia from Nikunau and an army of 600 men travelling in 37 large canoes accompanied by quite a few women and food. (Kaitu's own canoe was 60 feet long and 7 feet high with an outrigger 40 feet long. This canoe was described as "moderate size" and preserved at Abemama into the 20th century). The expedition made its first landing at the southern end of Tabiteuea. There, the islanders fled north to give warning and gather forces. Kaitu consulted Uakeia who consulted his oracles. These were probably 32 round coral stones or a collection of palm leaves stalks; however, Uakeia was clever and advised a strategy that put the battleground at the gap between the two islets or motus. Then Kaitu's army spent an entire day and night making 30 stone men who were over twice the height of an ordinary man. The stone men "armed" with spears and placed to "defend" the islet, looked like warriors of colossal stature across the gap. As dawn came, Kaitu's army made as much of a din as they could and the Tabiteueans could see the terrifying sights of the Beru "chiefs". They fled to their canoes and Kaitu continued his advance up the atoll. One of the Beru chiefs, Kourabi, had a grandfather and uncle who lived at Temanoku and Tekabwebwe and these two northern villages were left undisturbed. Another man from Beru named Tabora had his land and the place where he caught crabs untouched.

Next the invaders went to Nonouti where rumours of the Beru giants had preceded them. Tabiria, queen of the southern part welcomed the invaders and was spared any plunderings. Further north, people fled in terror and the army took what they wanted. Within a few weeks, Kaitu helped by Uakeia and his men took every island as far north as Abaiang and Marakei without loss of a single warrior.

The story is told that the northernmost atolls of Butaritari and Makin combined forces and made elaborate plans to resist invasion. Such a united force might well have defeated Kaitu but he did not advance. Mangkia, a young man of Butaritari, got tired of waiting and took a single large canoe and some hand-picked men across 80 miles of open ocean to Marakei only to find that Kaitu had returned to Tarawa. Mangkia continued onwards and found Kaitu's army enjoying themselves in the maneaba at Taratai. Gilbertese formality meant that he was admitted to the maneaba to speak and he boldly asked if Kaitu meant to war against Butaritari and if the matter could be settled "here and now". The men at Beru could see they were surrounded by Mangkia's hand-picked companions standing just under the eaves of the maneaba. They did not wish to see a victory celebration spoiled by death and admiring the bold Mangkia, they agreed not to invade. Mangkia demanded a "pledge" of proof and asked for Abemama which was granted and he became the ancestor of the Kings of Abemama. On the conquered islands, a large percentage of the men were dispersed and lands were divided among Kaitu and his chiefs. This invasion may account for the uniformity in tradition and the social organization throughout the region's scattered atolls. Kaitu is also credited with conquering Nui in the Ellice Group (Tuvalu) and may account for a Gilbertese "patoist" noted there early in the 20th century.


ON 2nd JUNE 1892

The following is the record of the visit of Captain Davis of the H.M.S. Royalist to the island of Nikunau.

Name of King or Chief and his religion. There is no King but rather a council of 70 to 80 "Old Men." There were 200 police.

Name and Religion of Missionary. Does he trade? The missionaries were Liwan, Ellia, and Sakalia (Samoans), Jov and Taitai (Ellice Islanders), London Missionary Society. The Missionaries did not trade. 

Name of Whites and Traders -- Nationality -- For whom trading.

Thomas Day (British). Own account.
Richard Tomlinson (British) - Jaluit Geswellschaft
Robert Homes -  American - Crawford & Co.
Jean Francois Eyen  French.  Own account.


Number of native population Religion 1779.
1621 Protestants; 158 Roman Catholics.

Increase or decrease. Cause.  Increasing.

Marriage Laws. Woman marry at 15 to 16.
Roman Catholics as they like.

Labour - about 200 mostly in Mexico. Some few in Fiji and Samoa.

Productions - Copra, Papoi, Pumpkins.

Exports annually - About 120 tons copra; 1 ton sharks' fins.

Weapons and Ammunition - None. A few guns for shooting bush-fowl, etc.

Last visited by Man-of-war - LaFaorite (French) 1868. H.M.S. Espiegle 1883.

Communication with other Islands etc. Steamer ARCHER.

English, American, and German vessels occasionally.

Landing - Fair in canoes, at S.W. end.

Anchorage - Fair in 10 fms. off the Maneaba at S.W. end.

Laws and Customs. Murder life for life. Adultery 10,000 nuts each party or three months work on roads. Illicit connection 5,000 nuts or 1 or 2 months on roads. Drunkenness 3,000 nuts or work on roads.

REMARKS: Village and houses poor looking. "Old Men" complained of one man Taune who had committed adultery and who frequently got drunk on sour toddy refusing to pay any fine. I sent for him but he could not be found. I advised them all to send for him and warned him once more if he did not reform to flog him. I told them they ought not to allow one bad man to defy them. I understand that the heavy fine for illicit connection on this island is the cause of many unsuitable marriages and also causes many men to recruit. All mission teachers and many natives visited the ship. The church is not yet finished building. They are waiting for an iron roof from Sydney. The missionary's house is not yet built. A Roman Catholic priest occasionally visits the island. There is no Roman Catholic teacher stationed here. On the whole I thought that on this island the "Old Men" lacked the necessary authority. Not calling at this island on my return through the group, I sent a letter by the steamer Montserrat to the missionary asking him to ascertain whether the "Old Men" were willing to contribute towards the support of a white resident and to forward the answer to me at Sydney.

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Jane Resture
 (E-mail: -- Rev. 14th April 2012)