Kiribati History

Kiribati History


The settlement of part of the islands that today belong to the Republic of Kiribati probably began in the 1st millennium BC. The ancestors of the Micronesians probably came from Southeast Asia, later Polynesians also settled on the islands.

Europeans discover the islands

The first Europeans to discover the islands were Spanish sailors who traveled to the South Pacific in the 16th century. In 1606, the Spaniard Pedro Fern¨¢ndez de Quir¨®s sighted the Atoll Butaritari, which belongs to the Gilbert Islands. The islands were first explored by the British around 150 years later. In addition to John Byron and Thomas Gilbert, who traveled to the Gilbert Islands from 1765, the British James Cook sighted what is today the main island of the Line Islands, Kiritimati, in 1777 on his third trip to the South Seas. After the date of the discovery, he called it “Christmas Island”.

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From the end of the 18th century, the waters around the Gilbert Islands were a popular area for European whalers. The first settlement of the Gilbert Islands by European merchants took place around 1820. They started trading in coconut oil and copra. Shortly afterwards, missionaries began to Christianize the local population.

British domination

In 1892 Great Britain declared the Gilbert Islands as a protectorate area, four years later they were combined with the nine southern Ellice Islands (today: Tuvalu) to form the “Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate”. After rich phosphate deposits were discovered on Banaba in 1900, this island was incorporated into the Protectorate (in 1979 the phosphate deposits were exhausted, after which Great Britain withdrew from the island devastated by the mining).

In 1915 the protectorate was officially declared a British Crown Colony. Over the next few years, the Line Island atoll “Ocean Island” (1916), Christmas Island (1919) and the Phoenix Islands (1937) were incorporated into the crown colony. Some of the Phoenix Islands (Canton, Enderbury) were placed under the joint administration of Great Britain and the USA in 1939 due to their great strategic importance. The United States had already claimed the Phoenix Islands in the early 20th century.

During the Second World War, the Gilbert Islands were temporarily occupied by Japanese troops, then liberated by Australian and American troops. More than 8,000 soldiers and many civilians were killed in the battle for the main island of Tarawa. The island was almost completely devastated. After the war, the city of Bairiki on the Gilbert Island of Tarawa became the administrative seat of the British crown colony “Gilbert and Ellice Islands”.

From the beginning of the 1960s, the colony was gradually granted internal self-government. A first parliament was elected in 1967. In a referendum on the Ellice Islands in 1974, the majority of the population voted for a separate status for their island group. A year later, the Ellice Islands were separated from the Gilbert Islands (and became the sovereign state of Tuvalu in 1978). From 1977, Britain’s Gilbert Islands were granted full internal autonomy.

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Independent state

In July 1979 the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands and eight of the eleven Line Islands as well as the island of Banaba became the independent Republic of Kiribati within the British Commonwealth. The main city became Bairiki on the island of Tarawa. The constitution established a presidential system, and Jeremiah Tabai was elected the first head of state and government.

In the same year, the phosphate deposits on Banaba Island were exhausted, the sale of which had made up a large part of the exports. In order to compensate for the economic losses, the political leadership of Kiribati sold fishing rights to Japan.

In the 1980s, the territory was expanded to include the atolls Teraina (Washington Island) and Tabuaeran (Fanning Island), which were bought from the large group Burns Philip. At the beginning of the 1990s, the Kiribati government announced its plan to move some 5,000 people from the Gilbert to the Northern Line islands within the next few years. The reason for this was the lack of settlement area and drinking water on the Gilbert Islands.

In the presidential election in July 1991, Teatao Teannaki became Kiribati’s new head of state and government. He was overthrown in May 1994 by a vote of no confidence, the new head of state was Teburoro Tito. In 1999 Kiribati became a member of the United Nations (UN). According to AbbreviationFinder, Anote Tong has been the head of state and government since 2003.

The main problem in addition to high foreign debt and a chronic shortage of drinking water for the Republic of Kiribati is global warming of the earth’s atmosphere (greenhouse effect), which causes sea levels to rise continuously (due to the melting of the polar ice masses). It is predicted that the islands of the Republic of Kiribati, which usually only protrude two to three meters from the water, will be flooded by the middle of the century.

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