History of Kiribati

From Academic Kids

The I-Kiribati people (or Gilbertese) settled what would become known as the Gilbert Islands (named by von Krusenstern, an Estonian admiral of the Czar, in 1820, after a British captain, Thomas Gilbert) between 3000 and 2000 years ago. Subsequent invasions by Samoans, Fijians and Tongans introduced Polynesian elements to the previously installed Micronesian culture, but extensive intermarriage produced a population reasonably homogeneous in appearance, language and traditions.

European contact began in the 16th century. Whalers, slave traders, and merchant vessels arrived in great numbers in the 1800s, and the resulting upheaval fomented local tribal conflicts and introduced damaging European diseases. In an effort to restore a measure of order, the Kiribati were imposed to becoming British protectorates in 1892. Banaba (Ocean Island) was annexed in 1901 after the discovery of phosphate-rich guano deposits, and the entire collection, plus Fanning and Washington islands (Line Islands), was made a British colony in 1916. One very famous Colonial Office officers was sir Arthur Grimble, first as cadet officer since 1914, then as Resident Commissionner in 1926. Most of the Line Islands including Christmas Island, the Phoenix and even the Union (Tokelau) islands (until 1925) were incorporated piecemeal over the next 20 years.

Japan seized part of the islands during World War II to form part of their island defenses. In November 1943, Allied forces threw themselves against Japanese positions at Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts, resulting in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific campaign. The battle was a major turning point in the war for the Allies.

Britain began expanding self-government in the islands during the 1960s. In 1975 the Ellice Islands separated from the colony to form the independent state of Tuvalu. The Gilberts obtained internal self-government in 1977, and after general elections held in February 1978 (Chief Minister: Ieremia Tabai, 27), formally became an independent nation on July 12 1979 under the name of Kiribati (the rendition of Gilberts, in Gilbertese language).

Post-independence politics were initially dominated by the youngest Commonwealth's Head of State, Ieremia Tabai, just 29, Kiribati's first president (Beretitenti), who served for three terms from 1979 to 1991. Teburoro Tito (or Tiito, pronounced Seetoh) was elected President in 1994, and reelected in 1998 and 2002. However, in the previous parliamentary elections in 2002, Tito's opponents won major victories, and in March 2003 he was ousted in a no-confidence vote (having served the maximum three terms, he is barred by the constitution to run for another term). His temporary replacement was Tian Otang, the Council of State chairman. Following the constitution, another presidential election was held, in which two brothers, Anote and Harry Tong, were the two main candidates (the third one, Banuera Berina won just 9,1%). Anote Tong, London School of Economics graduate, won on 4th July 2003, and was sworn in as president soon afterward.

An emotional issue has been the protracted bid by the residents of Banaba Island to secede and have their island placed under the protection of Fiji. Because Banaba was devastated by phosphate mining, the vast majority of Banabans moved to the island of Rabi in the Fiji Islands in the 1940s. They enjoy full Fiji citizenship. The Kiribati Government has responded by including several special provisions in the Constitution, such as the designation of a Banaban seat in the legislature and the return of land previously acquired by the government for phosphate mining. Only 200-300 people remain on Banaba.

Selected bibliography: Cinderellas of the Empire, Barrie Macdonald, IPS, University of the South Pacific, 2001. Les Insulaires du Pacifique, I.C. Campbell & J.-P. Latouche, PUF, Paris, 2001 Kiribati: aspects of history, Sister Alaima Talu et al., IPS, USP, 1979, reprinted 1998

See also: Kiribati

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