Gilbert Islands

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Gilbert Islands
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Gilbert Islands
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Gilbert Islands
Location Pacific Ocean
Total islands16
Area281.10 km2 (108.53 sq mi)
Administrative divisionNone
Largest Island settlement Tarawa (pop. 45,989)

The Gilbert Islands (Gilbertese : Tungaru; [1] formerly Kingsmill or King's-Mill Islands [2] ) are a chain of sixteen atolls and coral islands in the Pacific Ocean about halfway between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii. They form the main part of Kiribati ("Kiribati" is the Kiribati rendition of "Gilberts" [1] ).

Taetae ni Kiribati or Gilbertese, also Kiribati, is a Micronesian language of the Austronesian language family. It has a basic verb–object–subject word order.

Atoll Ring-shaped coral reef, generally formed over a subsiding oceanic volcano, with a central lagoon and perhaps islands around the rim

An atoll, sometimes called a coral atoll, is a ring-shaped coral reef including a coral rim that encircles a lagoon partially or completely. There may be coral islands or cays on the rim. The coral of the atoll often sits atop the rim of an extinct seamount or volcano which has eroded or subsided partially beneath the water. The lagoon forms over the volcanic crater or caldera while the higher rim remains above water or at shallow depths that permit the coral to grow and form the reefs. For the atoll to persist, continued erosion or subsidence must be at a rate slow enough to permit reef growth upward and outward to replace the lost height.

Pacific Ocean Ocean between Asia and Australia in the west, the Americas in the east and Antarctica or the Southern Ocean in the south.

The Pacific Ocean is the largest and deepest of Earth's oceanic divisions. It extends from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Southern Ocean in the south and is bounded by Asia and Australia in the west and the Americas in the east.



The atolls and islands of the Gilbert Islands are arranged in an approximate north-to-south line. As the crow flies it is approximately 420 nautical miles (780 km) between the northernmost island, Makin, and the southernmost, Arorae. In a geographical sense, the equator serves as the dividing line between the northern Gilbert Islands and the southern Gilbert Islands. The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) considers the Gilberts wholly within the South Pacific Ocean, however. [3]

Equator Intersection of a spheres surface with the plane perpendicular to the spheres axis of rotation and midway between the poles

An equator of a rotating spheroid is its zeroth circle of latitude (parallel). It is the imaginary line on the spheroid's surface, equidistant from its poles, dividing it into northern and southern hemispheres. In other words, it is the intersection of the spheroid's surface with the plane perpendicular to its axis of rotation and midway between its geographical poles.

International Hydrographic Organization Intergovernmental organization

The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) is the inter-governmental organisation representing hydrography.

Another method of grouping the Gilbert Islands is by former administrative districts, the Northern, Central, and Southern Gilberts (Tarawa once was a separate district as well).

A group of the southern Gilberts is called the Kingsmill Group, a name that in the 19th century applied to all of the Gilberts. [2]

The Gilberts form a continuous chain of seamounts with the Ratak Chain of the Marshall Islands to the north.

Seamount A mountain rising from the ocean seafloor that does not reach to the waters surface

A seamount is a mountain rising from the ocean seafloor that does not reach to the water's surface, and thus is not an island, islet or cliff-rock. Seamounts are typically formed from extinct volcanoes that rise abruptly and are usually found rising from the seafloor to 1,000–4,000 m (3,300–13,100 ft) in height. They are defined by oceanographers as independent features that rise to at least 1,000 m (3,281 ft) above the seafloor, characteristically of conical form. The peaks are often found hundreds to thousands of meters below the surface, and are therefore considered to be within the deep sea. During their evolution over geologic time, the largest seamounts may reach the sea surface where wave action erodes the summit to form a flat surface. After they have subsided and sunk below the sea surface such flat-top seamounts are called "guyots" or "tablemounts"

Ratak Chain chain of islands within the island nation of the Marshall Islands

The Ratak Chain is a chain of islands within the island nation of the Marshall Islands. Ratak means "sunrise". It lies to the east of the country's other island chain, the Ralik Chain. In 1999 the total population of the Ratak islands was 30,925.

Marshall Islands country in Oceania

The Marshall Islands, officially the Republic of the Marshall Islands, is an island country and a United States associated state near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, slightly west of the International Date Line. Geographically, the country is part of the larger island group of Micronesia. The country's population of 53,158 people is spread out over 29 coral atolls, comprising 1,156 individual islands and islets.

Islands of the Gilberts

In official north-south order (grouped by former administrative districts), the islands and atolls are:

Atoll / IslandMain
Land area Lagoon  areaPop.
c. 2005
of islets
km2sq mikm2sq mi
Former district of the northern Gilberts
Makin Makin 7.893.00.30.12,38562 3°23′N173°00′E / 3.383°N 173.000°E / 3.383; 173.000 (Makin)
Butaritari Temanokunuea 13.495.2191.774.03,2801111 3°09′N172°50′E / 3.150°N 172.833°E / 3.150; 172.833 (Butaritari)
Marakei Rawannawi 14.135.519.67.62,74118 2°00′N173°17′E / 2.000°N 173.283°E / 2.000; 173.283 (Marakei)
Abaiang Tuarabu 17.486.7232.589.85,5024-2018 1°50′N172°57′E / 1.833°N 172.950°E / 1.833; 172.950 (Abaiang)
Tarawa Bairiki 31.0212.0343.6132.745,9899+30 1°26′N173°00′E / 1.433°N 173.000°E / 1.433; 173.000 (Tarawa)
Former district of the Central Gilberts
Maiana Tebwangetua 16.726.598.438.01,908912 0°55′N173°00′E / 0.917°N 173.000°E / 0.917; 173.000 (Maiana)
Abemama Kariatebike 27.3710.6132.451.13,404812 0°24′N173°50′E / 0.400°N 173.833°E / 0.400; 173.833 (Abemama)
Kuria Tabontebike 15.486.01,08226 0°13′N173°24′E / 0.217°N 173.400°E / 0.217; 173.400 (Kuria)
Aranuka Takaeang 11.614.519.47.51,15843 0°09′N173°35′E / 0.150°N 173.583°E / 0.150; 173.583 (Aranuka)
Nonouti 1) Teuabu 19.857.7370.4143.03,179129 0°40′S174°20′E / 0.667°S 174.333°E / -0.667; 174.333 (Nonouti)
Former district of the Southern Gilberts
Tabiteuea 1) Buariki 37.6314.5365.2141.04,8982+18 1°20′S174°50′E / 1.333°S 174.833°E / -1.333; 174.833 (Tabiteuea)
Beru 1) Taubukinberu 17.656.838.915.02,16919 1°20′S175°59′E / 1.333°S 175.983°E / -1.333; 175.983 (Beru)
Nikunau 1) Rungata 19.087.41,91216 1°21′S176°28′E / 1.350°S 176.467°E / -1.350; 176.467 (Nikunau)
Onotoa 1) Buariki 15.626.054.421.01,644307 1°52′S175°33′E / 1.867°S 175.550°E / -1.867; 175.550 (Onotoa)
Tamana Bakaka 4.731.887513 2°30′S175°58′E / 2.500°S 175.967°E / -2.500; 175.967 (Tamana)
Arorae Roreti 9.483.71,25612 2°38′S176°49′E / 2.633°S 176.817°E / -2.633; 176.817 (Arorae)
Gilbert Islands Tarawa 281.10108.51,866.5720.783,382117+1563°23'N to 2°38S
172°50' to 176°49'E
1) part of Kingsmill Group proper

Source for land areas: Kiribati 2005 Census Report

Northern Gilberts

The Northern Gilberts (mweang) geographically and traditionally encompass Butaritari, Makin, Marakei, Abaiang (literally northland) and Tarawa. They have unique tonal accents with differences particularly noted amongst Butaritari and Makin inhabitants. Traditionally, Butaritari and Makin were ruled by a chief who lived on Butaritari Island. This chief had all the powers and authority to make and impose decisions on the Islanders, a system very different from the Southern Gilbert Islands where power was wielded collectively by the unimwane or old men of the island. [4]

Butaritari island

Butaritari is an atoll in the Pacific Ocean island nation of Kiribati. The atoll is roughly four-sided. The south and southeast portion of the atoll comprises a nearly continuous islet. The atoll reef is continuous but almost without islets along the north side. Bikati and Bikatieta islets occupy a corner of the reef at the extreme northwest tip of the atoll. Small islets are found on reef sections between channels on the west side. The lagoon of Butaritari is deep and can accommodate large ships, though the entrance passages are relatively narrow. It is the most fertile of the Gilbert Islands, with relatively good soils and high rainfall. Butaritari atoll has a land area of 13.49 km2 (5.21 sq mi) and a population of 4,346 as of 2010. During World War II, Butaritari was known by US forces as Makin Atoll, and was the site of the Battle of Makin. Locally, Makin is the name of a separate atoll three kilometers to the northeast of Butaritari.

Makin (islands) island

Makin is the name of a chain of islands located in the Pacific Ocean island nation of Kiribati. Makin is the northernmost of the Gilbert Islands, with a population of 1,798.

Marakei island

Marakei is a small atoll in the North Gilbert Islands. The central lagoon consists of numerous deep basins and surrounded by two large islands which are separated by two narrow channels. The atoll covers an area of approximately 40 km².

The northern Gilberts have a greater mean rainfall in comparison to the southern and central Gilberts allowing cultivation of a wider crop range. Butaritari and Makin supply most of the bananas sold in Kiribati. The cultivation of taro or babai (Colocasia esculenta) has been historically easier in the northern Gilberts due to a higher water table and regular rainfall.

Central Gilberts

The Central Gilberts or nuka have traditionally included Maiana, Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka. However, the latter three are considered the main islands that have unique historical and cultural characteristics which distinguish the Central Gilberts from the north and south. [5]

Maiana island

Maiana is an atoll in Kiribati and is one of the Central Gilbert Islands. Maiana is 44 kilometres (27 mi) south of the capital island of South Tarawa and has a population of 2,027 as of 2010. The northern and eastern sides of the atoll are a single island, whilst the western edge consists of submerged reefs and many uninhabited islets, all surrounding a lagoon. The atoll is 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) long and is very narrow, with an average width of less than 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) and a total land area of 16.72 square kilometres (6.46 sq mi).

Abemama atoll, belonging to Kiribati

Abemama (Apamama) is an atoll, one of the Gilberts group in Kiribati, and is located 152 kilometres southeast of Tarawa and just north of the Equator. Abemama has an area of 27.37 square kilometres and a population of 3,299 as of 2015. The islets surround a deep lagoon. The eastern part of the atoll of Abemama is linked together by causeways making automobile traffic possible between the different islets. The outlying islands of Abatiku and Biike are situated on the southwestern side of the atoll.

Kuria (islands) island

Kuria is the name of a pair of islets in the Central Gilbert Islands in Kiribati, northwest of Aranuka. The two islets, Buariki and Oneeke, are separated by a 20 metre wide channel on a shallow water platform, which is crossed by a bridge of the connecting road. The islands are surrounded by fringing reef which is broadest on the eastern side of Kuria. The population of Kuria was 980 in 2010.

Tembinok', the last king of Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka died in the early part of the 20th century. [4]

Southern Gilberts

The Southern Gilberts include the atolls of Nonouti, South and North Tabiteuea, Beru, Nikunau, Onotoa, Tamana and the most southerly island of Arorae.



The islands had been inhabited by Micronesians for several millennia (at least 2,000 years, probably 3,000).

Contact with other cultures

Portrait of a native of the Makin islands, drawn by Alfred Thomas Agate (1841) Makin Islander.jpg
Portrait of a native of the Makin islands, drawn by Alfred Thomas Agate (1841)

In 1606 Pedro Fernandes de Queirós sighted Butaritari and Makin, which he named the Buen Viaje (‘good trip’ in Spanish) Islands. [6] [7]

Captain John Byron passed through the islands in 1764 during his circumnavigation of the globe as captain of HMS Dolphin. [8]

In 1788 Captain Thomas Gilbert in Charlotte and Captain John Marshall in Scarborough crossed through Abemama, Kuria, Aranuka, Tarawa, Abaiang, Butaritari, and Makin without attempting to land on the atolls. [9]

Further exploration

In 1820, the islands were named the Gilbert Islands or îles Gilbert (in French) by Adam Johann von Krusenstern, a Baltic German Admiral of the Russian Czar after the British Captain Thomas Gilbert, who crossed the archipelago in 1788. French captain Louis Duperrey was the first to map the whole Gilbert Islands archipelago. He commanded La Coquille on its circumnavigation of the earth (1822–1825). [10]

Many whaling ships called at the islands in the 19th century. The first recorded visit was by the Ann & Hope which called at Nikunau in December 1799. [11]

Two ships of the United States Exploring Expedition, USS Peacock (1828) and USS Flying Fish (1838), under the command of Captain Hudson, visited many of the Gilbert Islands (then called the Kingsmill Islands or Kingsmill Group in English). While in the Gilberts, they devoted considerable time to mapping and charting reefs and anchorages. [12]

Colonial rule

A British protectorate was first proclaimed over the Gilberts by Captain Davis of HMS Royalist (1883) on 27 May 1892. [13] British official Arthur Mahaffy visited the Islands in 1909. He noted that the "villages are kept in admirable order and the roads are scrupulously clean." A hospital was on each island, as well. [14] The conduct of W. Telfer Campbell, the resident commissioner of the Gilberts was criticised as to his legislative, judicial and administrative management (including allegations of forced labour exacted from islanders) and became the subject of the 1909 report by Arthur Mahaffy. [15] In 1913 an anonymous correspondent to the New Age journal described the mis-administration of W. Telfer Campbell and questioned the partiality of Arthur Mahaffy as he was a former colonial official in the Gilberts. [16]

In 1915, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were proclaimed a colony of the British Empire. [17]


The natives of the Gilbert Islands are Micronesian, similar in many respects to the natives of the Marshalls, the Carolines, and the Marianas.

In Mahaffy's 1909 report to the British Government he described the missionaries or Protectorate staff then resident in the Gilbert Islands. [14]

At the outbreak of World War II, about 78% of the native population were said to be Christians. This group was divided mainly into two denominations: Congregationalists (43%) and Roman Catholics (35%). The rest of the population were largely semi-pagan agnostics; they did not adhere to the Christian faith, nor did they retain much of their beliefs in their own ancient gods.

Native diet during this time consisted mainly of fish, coconuts, pandanus fruit, babai (swamp taro), chicken, and some pork. [14] Housing for Europeans employed in the island was simple: constructed of European and native materials and generally of the bungalow type. Mahaffy described the native clothing as being of "shocking shape" and "atrocious color," and that the style was changing into "kilt(s) of leaves or fine woven mats." [14]


In the early to mid 20th century the principal source of income for Gilbert islanders was from working on the production of phosphate from the deposits on Banaba (Ocean Island), an island to the west of the Gilbert Islands. [16] In addition, coconut palms were cultivated on some of the islands. All labor was supervised by the British and every effort was made to see that the wages and living conditions were fair and adequate. Sanitary inspections by the British did much to improve the general living conditions on most of the islands.

Mahaffy noted in 1909 that "extreme poverty is virtually unknown," and that most people on the island owned their own land. Residents paid taxes, with the majority of taxes going back into the community, and a small portion going to the Protectorate. [14]


Judged to be about 84% literate, the Gilbertese responded readily to the colony's educational efforts. All education in the islands came under the supervision of the Colonial Education Department whose aims were to educate native boys for employment in government and commercial work, and to standardize the level of education throughout the colony. The bulk of the education was provided by the missions, which maintained all the village schools and trained the native school teachers.

With the availability of European-style medical care life improved. The Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme sought to provide an outlet through the development of three uninhabited atolls in the Phoenix Islands and was the last attempt at human colonization within the British Empire.


Hiram Bingham II (1831–1908) was the first to translate the Bible into Gilbertese, and also wrote hymns for the Gilbertese language. Joanna Gordon-Clark writes of their religious belief:

The Gilbert (and Ellice) Islanders had a strong set of beliefs of their own, pre the Christian missionaries; they had a strong foundation myth, involving trees and the two genders. Their ancestors, they said, had been white skinned and red haired and came from elsewhere, perhaps the West (possibly coinciding with the outward spread of Homo sapiens from Africa and elsewhere). As might be expected, they gave power to the natural forces and gave them names and godly characteristics (sun, moon, etc.) but believed in one spirit god, a bit similar to the god of Genesis, in that he/she seemed to have power over dark and light and so on, and was pretty much invisible. They had a strong belief in behaving properly to their ancestors, and especially their parents, and had well-developed community rules for courtesy to others. Read A Pattern of Islands , by Arthur Grimble, who worked in these islands and on Banaba, for the Colonial Administration, from just before the First World War to the mid thirties, or thereabouts. It is a remarkable, informative, funny and warm-hearted account of these people and their religion. Other religions on the islands figure slightly, and there are remarkable stories of adventures, bravery, political machinations, etc. Probably out of print, but second hand copies are available I think, I have two, and the illustrations are delightful.

The Second World War

On the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Gilbert Islands, occupying them by 10 December 1941. [18]

On 17 August 1942, 221 U.S. Marines of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion raided Makin from two submarines. The raid was intended by the Americans to confuse the Japanese about US intentions in the Pacific, a feint to draw Japanese attention away from the planned invasion route through the Solomons. It is instead believed to have alerted the Japanese to the strategic importance of the Gilbert Islands and led to their reinforcement and fortification. Marines captured during this operation were subsequently summarily executed by the Japanese, in gross violation of the laws of war. The 19 Marines who died were left behind for the villagers to bury. In 1999, a Marine Honor guard was sent to recover the bodies and found them after a villager showed them where to dig. All were exhumed and were taken to the United States. [19] [20]

Tarawa and Abemama were occupied in force by the Japanese in September 1942 and during the next year garrisons were built up on Betio (Tarawa Atoll), and Butaritari (Makin Atoll). Only nominal forces were placed on other islands in the Gilberts.

On 20 November 1943, the United States Army and U.S. 2nd Marine Division landed on Makin and Tarawa, initiating the battles of Makin and Tarawa, in which the Japanese were defeated. The Gilbert Islands were then used to support the invasion of the Marshall Islands in February 1944.


The Gilbert and Ellice Islands became autonomous in 1971. From 1976 to 1978, the Ellice Islands were separated, and the Gilberts became the Gilbert Islands colony, which issued stamps under that name. In 1979, the Gilberts opted for independence, becoming the independent nation of Kiribati. The Ellice Islands became the independent nation of Tuvalu. [21]


  1. 1 2 Reilly Ridgell. Pacific Nations and Territories: The Islands of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. 3rd. Ed. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1995. p. 95.
  2. 1 2 Very often, this name applied only to the southern islands of the archipelago, the northern half being designated as the Scarborough Islands. Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam Webster, 1997. p. 594
  3. "Limits of Oceans and Seas, 3rd edition" (PDF). International Hydrographic Organization. 1953. Retrieved 7 February 2010.
  4. 1 2 Stevenson, Robert Louis (1987) [1896]. In the South Seas, Part V, Chapter 1. Chatto & Windus; republished by The Hogarth Press.
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  6. Maude, H.E. (1959). "Spanish Discoveries in the Central Pacific: A Study in Identification". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 68 (4): 284–326.
  7. Kelly, Celsus, O.F.M. La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo. The Journal of Fray Martín de Munilla O.F.M. and other documents relating to the Voyage of Pedro Fernández de Quirós to the South Sea (1605-1606) and the Franciscan Missionary Plan (1617-1627) Cambridge, 1966, p.39, 62.
  8. "Circumnavigation: Notable global maritime circumnavigations". Retrieved 20 July 2009.
  9. Samuel Eliot Morison (1944-05-22). "The Gilberts & Marshalls: A distinguished historian recalls the past of two recently captured pacific groups". Life magazine . Retrieved 2009-10-14.
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  13. Resture, Jane. "TUVALU HISTORY – 'The Davis Diaries' (H.M.S. Royalist, 1892 visit to Ellice Islands under Captain Davis)" . Retrieved 20 September 2011.
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 Mahaffy, Arthur William. Report by Mr. Arthur Mahaffy on a Visit to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, 1909. London: Darling & Son, ltd. pp. 5–12.
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  16. 1 2 Correspondent (5 June 1913). "Modern buccaneers in the West Pacific" (PDF). New Age: 136–140.
  17. Annexation of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands to his Majesty's dominions : at the Court at Buckingham Palace, the 10th day of November, 1915. Great Britain, Privy Council, Gilbert and Ellice Islands Order in Council, 1915 (Suva, Fiji : Government Printer). 1916.
  18. Pacific, Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Tassafaronga, Cape, Esperance, SantaCruz, Tarawa, Savo, Island, Midway, Doolittle, Sunda, Strait, Java, Sea, battle
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Kiribati Island nation in the central Pacific Ocean

Kiribati, officially the Republic of Kiribati, is a sovereign state in Micronesia in the central Pacific Ocean. The permanent population is just over 110,000 (2015), more than half of whom live on Tarawa Atoll. The state comprises 32 atolls and reef islands and one raised coral island, Banaba. They have a total land area of 800 square kilometres (310 sq mi) and are dispersed over 3.5 million square kilometres. Their spread straddles both the equator and the 180th meridian, although the International Date Line goes round Kiribati and swings far to the east, almost reaching the 150°W meridian. This brings the Line Islands into the same day as the Kiribati Islands. Kiribati's easternmost islands, the southern Line Islands, south of Hawaii, have the most advanced time on Earth: UTC+14 hours.

History of Kiribati aspect of history

The islands which now form the Republic of Kiribati have been inhabited for at least seven hundred years, and possibly much longer. The initial Micronesian population, which remains the overwhelming majority today, was visited by Polynesian and Melanesian invaders before the first European sailors visited the islands in the 17th century. For much of the subsequent period, the main island chain, the Gilbert Islands, was ruled as part of the British Empire. The country gained its independence in 1979 and has since been known as Kiribati.

History of Tuvalu aspect of history

The first inhabitants of Tuvalu were Polynesians, so that the origins of the people of Tuvalu can be traced to the spread of humans out of Southeast Asia, from Taiwan, via Melanesia and across the Pacific islands of Polynesia.

Gilbert and Ellice Islands

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a British protectorate from 1892 and colony from 1916 until 1 January 1976, when the islands were divided into two colonies which became independent nations shortly after. A referendum was held in December 1974 to determine whether the Gilbert Islands and Ellice Islands should each have their own administration. As a consequence of the referendum, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony ceased to exist on 1 January 1976 and the separate countries of Kiribati and Tuvalu came into existence.

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King George V and Elaine Bernacchi School (KGV/EBS) is a government senior high school of Kiribati, located in Bikenibeu, South Tarawa. As of 1993 it has almost 600 students. In 1993 it had a competitive admissions process as there was not enough space for every high school student in Kiribati; the remainder had to enroll in Christian high schools. Since then the Kiribati government had established two additional government high schools.

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