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Stories From Kiribati

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Kiribati Brief History

Colonial Period: 1892 - 1978

When Captain Davies arrived in May 1892, he established protectorate government and hoisted the Union Jack at Abemama Island.

Kiribati before this time had its own traditional system of government. Each island was an independent body and was governed either by a traditional group of leaders (oldest and tribe leaders), unimwane (old men) under the mwaneaba system or under the Uea (king) especially in the Northern Kiribati and Abemama. The establishment of the British rule was made after talks with the natives.

The British influence began to be felt in the latter part of the century. They came to settle, to rule and to be the authority behind everything. They established law and order and protected the interests of the foreigners residing in the islands. They were, in fact different from the missionaries and the traders who came earlier.

The Government, at that time, was headed by a Residence Commissioner who was selected from Britain.He held the highest position.

Laws that were introduced under this colonial rule were to established peace and order, to provide for the government and to control the activities of the Europeans.Schools were started and laws were written for the establishment and maintenance of good standards of public health and welfare.

In the early years of this government, its colonial policy was a selfish and imperialistic one. When phosphate on Banaba was discovered, the British took over the management and exportation of this resource. There were then, no local people who could exercise their powers in the management of the government affairs at that time.

In the late 1960s, the British rule had disposed of Te Uea system, set up villages and appointed people to be members of island governments on all the islands. This organization was met with approval by the local people. It was during this time also that more local people became involved in the management and the affairs of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.

As more and more of the local people got involved in politics, the idea of controlling our own affairs began to grow. Our political leaders saw that this colonial rule was unfair in many ways and so great determination to become independent grew. The idea of managing ourselves was strong and moves towards self-governing were attempted. Although Britain was not so serious at first, it finally gave approval.

Kiribati and Ellice Islands Colony

When the Gilbert Islands were declared a British Protectorate in 1892, and so was Ellice Islands (now called Tuvalu). Banaba (also known as Ocean Island) was later added to the group in 1901. In 1915 the Gilbert and Ellice islands were joined together under Britain as the Gilberts and Ellice Islands Colony. There was little contact between these two races until declared as one colony. Their inter-relation increased when both were sent to Banaba to work in phosphate mining. Despite their cultural and racial differences, Gilbertese and Ellice people lived and worked together in peace and harmony.

After World War II, there was rapid expansion of administration and services and this attracted a rapid flow of Ellice people into the capital Tarawa for employment and children schooling. As Ellice people were not affected by war so their education was far better ahead of Gilbertese. As a result, more Ellice people quickly filled more of the higher positions in the civil service as well as their children whom offered more opportunities for further studies. The pressure against the Ellice began to rise especially in the area of employment. When the House of Representatives was established in 1967, the Gilbert National Party confirmed the status of the Gilbertese in the constitution.

The Ellice knew what would soon happen after the establishment of the House of Representatives. They would never become a legislative majority. They also noticed that most of the developments were carried out on Tarawa and very little on Ellice Islands. They started to fear the future of their cultural identity and their nation.

In addition Gilbert people were becoming not so friendly. Problems between the two races began to develop which brought out their cultural differences. The Ellice people had no alternative other than separation and to establish their own government. A referendum on the issue was carried out and 92% voted for separation. Separation really took place in 1976 when large number of Ellice people returned home on government ships.

Banaban Issue

The Banaban issue started off as an appeal in the British High Court by the Banabans against the British Phosphate Commission (BPC) and the British Government in regards to the mining of and Compensation for phosphate on Banaba Island. Later, it developed into a secession issue when the Banabans wanted independence from Kiribati.

The 1972 Banabans appeal against the British Phosphate Commission was for mining their land and for giving very little royalties and compensation of about 0.5% of profit it received. The company also failed to replant the land it had ruined with trees as written in the Contract of 1913. Banabans demanded $11 million.

The British Government was accused for the unfair amount of taxes and royalties given to the people of Banaba. For this they demanded $38.5 million.

Hence at the end of the hearing, BPC was made to pay only $11,000 for replanting Banaba. As with the other defendant, the British Government, only criticism was made upon its Colonial Office but made to pay not even a cent. The ruling was indeed very unsatisfactory to the Banabans.

However, the British Government offered $10 million as a gesture of moral obligation from herself and the two other commissioners - Australia and New Zealand. This ex gratia payment was to raise the issue of Secession.

Secession Issue

The Banabans who had been living in Rabi, Fiji, had all been made Fiji citizens. The Banabans refused to take the ex gratia offered by the British Government, unless Banaba was taken away from the Gilberts and made part of Fiji. But the Gilbertese leaders argued that the issue between the Banabans and the BPC and the British Government had nothing to do with them. In regards to the Secession, the Gilbertese strongly pointed out that Banabans are Gilbertese by genes, origins and culture. In addition the Gilberts did not encourage the idea of the ex gratia given to the Banabans as they saw it to be the cut in the future aid of the British to the Gilbert Islands.

Thus, British Government granted Gilberts her internal self- government in January 1977 and full Independence in 1979. Banabans remained stand by their conviction that Banaba was not part of the Independence State of Kiribati. Their two seats in the Kiribati House of Assembly remained unoccupied until 1987 when their seats were first filled by Tarieta T Headstrom and Nenem Kourabi for the Rabi council.

Traditional Ruling Systems before Colonial system

In 1892, the Gilbert of Ellice islands were declared a Protectorate. In 1901, Banaba was added to the group. These three islands were declared a Colony of Britain in 1915.

In this period, there was no central government on each island, so each island was ruled either by one of these three traditional ruling system - Kainga, Mwaneaba or Chiefly. The Kainga Ruling System involved people being ruled by the oldest and most able leaders of a kainga. The Mwaneaba Ruling System was the most common type of ruling system adopted by most islands. It involved all the old men on the island to form a ruling council inside the mwaneaba. The Chiefly System was another system of government most practised mainly on the Northern and Central islands. The King or Uea ruled the people on his island.

Colony Government

British Control, nevertheless, was kept by naval officers who regularly called onto the islands from time to time. These officers included Captain Davis (1892) and Captain Thurston (1893). In 1894, the Resident Commissioner, Charles R Swayne was instate. Swayne was responsible for the imposition of the first legal codes of law known as the Native Laws. He was replaced by William Telfer Campbell in 1895. Campbell was the first to establish Central Government. After abolishing the Chiefly regime on Butaritari, he set up an hierachy with him at the top followed by an Agent, the Chief Kaubure, the Kaubure, the police in that order.

Campbell's reign ended in 1908 when he was replaced by John Quayle Dickson who served the Colony from 1909 to 1913 to 1920. He was followed by McClure (1923-25), Aurthur Grimble (1926-1932), J.C Bailey (1923-1941), Garvey (1941-1942) and several others including H.E Maude (1946). It was during the regencey of Michale Bernacchi (1852-1961) that political developments were speeded up. It began with the setting up of the Colony Conference in 1956

Local Participation in the government Affairs

The Colony Conference was set up to involve local people in the running of the Central government. In it are, Magistrates, local Civil Servants, Mission representatives and Regional Delegates (e.g Northern Region or District.) It met biennially (once every two years) and acted as a consultant to the Reseident commissioner. It also informed the people of the works of the Central government. Up until its cessation in 1962, the Conference contributed to the instalation of nationalism and a need for the local people to participate in political affairs. However, it became an ineffective instrument for the constitutional progress and was therefore, reposed and was replaced by the Executive and the Advisory Councils.

Important Dates in Kiribati History 1892-1979


What Happened - events!


Captain Davis hoisted Union Jack on Abemama, Kiribati declared British Protectorate, Capt Davis became first Resident Commissioner.


Captain Thurston took over Capt Davis and became second Resident Commissioner.


Charles R Swayne replaced Thurston, Responsible for the introduction of Native Laws.


William Telfer Campbell became the fourth Resident Commissioner, Introduced the Central Governing Body on islands, Abolished Uea regime on Butaritari, Set up a Government Structure.


Phosphate discovered on Banaba island.


Banaba island was added to the Kiribati and Ellice group.


Contract signed for mining of phosphate found on Banaba.


Official declaration of Kiribati and Ellice Islands Colony of Britain.


British Phosphate Commission and British Government started mining phosphate on Banaba.


Uea System was totally disposed by British Rule, Villages were set up and organised, Beginning of local people appointed to take part in government.


House of Representatives was established, Constitution was written and confirmed.


Banaba Issue of Court Case and Secession.


Separation of Kiribati and Ellice islands.


Internal Self-Government granted to Kiribati.


Kiribati gained full Independence.