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The arrival of Europeans led to a variety of social cultural and economic changes that are too complex to deal with in detail. This Web Page concentrates on trade, which was perhaps the most important single force of change in that period, but also gives some glimpses of other forces and their consequences.

Although European vessels had visited the Gilberts earlier, the 1830's was a most important period because it was from then on that whalers began to visit the islands frequently, thus bringing about the first real changes in the way of life of the people. Since the Gilberts are poor in resources, there was little to attract foreigners to the islands, so any earlier contact between Europeans and Gilbertese was brief and infrequent.


The geographical knowledge of the Gilbertese people in those early days was very limited. They knew there were islands in the north, south, east and west but they did not know of a wider world with completely different peoples and cultures. Since they seldom ventured beyond their own islands, it is not surprising that they were bewildered by these strange people and the new goods they brought with them.

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The following story from Makin is an amusing example of the way people today view the period of first contact between Europeans and Gilbertese. It is said on Makin that the coming of the I-Matang was foretold many days before the actual arrival by old men who could interpret signs in the rafters of the village maneaba which was then under construction.

When the strange sailing ship approached the island, the people were frightened and called upon Tabuariki (the god of Thunder) to cause a great storm to blow the ship away. It is said that Tabuariki succeeded two times in preventing the ship from approaching Makin, but the third time the ship arrived safely and anchored off the island.

The people of Makin were both frightened and astounded at what they saw. They had their weapons ready, but were mostly curious about the strange objects. Because of its U-shape, they called the boat 'te ruarua' (babai pit), and when several boats were lowered into the sea they exclaimed, "te ruarua has given birth." When several oars came out from the sides of the boats, the bewildered people shouted, "Look, its fingers are falling off." They hid when the boats landed and the men inside came shore.

According to the story, the people were even more astounded at what they then saw. The gleaming white bodies with something that, when mixed with water, made white foam like the waves breaking on the shore. Then they wrapped their bodies in clothes - very strange to the Gilbertese since they were used to going naked. When the strangers put on their shoes the people later compared them to hermit crabs - they hid their feet inside things that looked like shells.

Curiosity finally overcame the Gilbertese. They came out of their hiding places to investigate more closely these new beings and the strange things that they had brought with them. As the story goes, they were especially interested in the slippery, fragrant substance that formed white foam when wet. It is said that several people started biting bits off and soon several became sick. Thus this first contact with the Europeans had a dramatic ending - the soap victims became the patients of these strange beings.

The little drama at the end was something very important to the people and especially to the Europeans for it no doubt established a closer relationship between the two sides. The ship with no name went away with its crew unharmed, leaving a still bewildered island population. That was an unforgettable day and it is not surprising that the memory of it has been passed on from generation to generation, probably with bits and pieces of elaboration added as time has passed.


The 1840's 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.

As more and more whalers came to the area, the Gilbertese acquired a reputation for being cunning and treacherous. There are numerous accounts of whaling ships and their crews being attacked. Traditionally, Gilbertese believed that anything which came to the shore of their island belonged by right to the island people. Furthermore, if a stranger came to an island it was thought that he was coming as an enemy to attack, or was feeling his home island for some reason. In the former case, a battle would be fought; in the latter, the visitor would most probably be taken as a toro (a servant) of a high chief or king. If he were luckier, a family might adopt him.

Because of their guns, the whalers were often considered enemies. At first the Gilbertese were ignorant of the power of the gun but they soon came to realise how futile it was to fight them. However, this did not totally wipe out opposition by the islanders; and they continued to oppose the whalers. It only made them more wary and cunning when they attacked the ships. When they succeeded in attacking and plundering a ship, they shared the loot among themselves with very little concern for the strangers who had dared enter their waters. Despite the difficulties encountered ashore, contact was still made, especially because of the desire for women and food. It was hard for the whalers to make themselves understood, and in trading transactions it was easy for disagreements to arise. Such things as iron hoops and beads were traded for coconut or other food. The iron hoops were cut into six-inch pieces and traded for about a dozen coconuts. In addition to pieces of iron, tobacco was an extremely important trade item. The need for tobacco became so great that whenever a ship was close to shore the cry that was often heard from canoes was "te baakee". This was repeated constantly until their need was replenished. A song describing this has been composed.

Sexual favours were also sought by the whalers. On some islands the women, most probably the nikiranroro (single women who were not virgins and married women who were not living with their husbands) were made available for the tobacco that was so much in demand. The usual price was one stick of tobacco but it varied from island to island. In Nikunau, each woman charged one stick of tobacco for her services, while at Kuria the women demanded one and a half sticks. These women would be taken on board while the ship cruised around for several days. When the crew were satisfied the women were returned to their island. There were cases reported, however, when either the current prevented their return or the captain did not bother to return them.

Constant contact at some islands allowed the islanders to gain access to axes, knives, nails, cooking pots, beads and other items which may seem trifling to us today, but were extremely desirable and very useful to our forefathers. Also the contacts presented a good opportunity for some Gilbertese to see more of the world by serving on board the whaling vessels. When they returned to their own islands they were a major source of information about the outside world. With little spoken English many had managed to learn a great deal about I-Matang ways and became mediators between the Europeans and islanders. Also during this period, several whalers became residents in the islands. An example was 'Baoba' or Robert Wood (alias Grey) a young man who was put ashore at his own request on Butaritari in 1835. He landed at Tabononobi at Ukiangang and was adopted by a family. He had to conform to their ways of life. He learned to live very much as a Gilbertese and was even tattooed with the 'Tekitoko' used for dancers. Beachcombers like 'Baoba' were important as teachers and mediators in Gilbertese society. For example he taught the people on Butaritari to make and drink sour toddy, and to use coconut oil for lighting lamps.

The whalers were much criticised and blamed for having increased prostitution in the islands and also for teaching the Gilbertese how to smoke, drink liquor, and use guns. Also venereal disease was said to have been more widespread in the islands after whaling contacts. However, they also introduced a new technology into Gilbertese society that the people readily accepted.


During the time the whalers were active, permanent traders were starting to establish themselves as well. By the 1860's, the European population in the Gilberts had increased to about fifty. They traded European manufactured goods for such products as coconut oil, beche-de-mer and turtle shell. The whalers had also traded for such items, but it was with the permanent, resident traders that a regular exchange was established.

The making of coconut oil and the preservation of turtle shells were not new skills to the Gilbertese. To acquire the desired European goods they merely had to spend more time doing routine activities. Beche-de-mer required the learning of a new process, that of drying and curing. It was the coconut oil trade, however, which became the most important.

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A trader's store on Tabiteuea in 1897

Because of the greater fertility and larger rainfall in the northern islands, greater production was possible there. This, plus the fact that the best anchorage in the group were at Tarawa, Abemama and Butaritari, made the northern Gilberts the centre of the coconut oil trade.

The first resident traders in the Gilberts were Randell and Durant. Both landed at Tikurere, an islet of Butaritari in 1846. Randell remained there but Durant soon left for Makin. Randell and Durant set themselves up as independent traders and made their profits by playing unfairly on the ignorance of the people. The price they received for the coconut oil was many times what they returned to the Gilbertese in trade goods.

Another reason for Randell's success as a trader on Butaritari was his ability to adapt to and understand the Gilbertese way of life. Randell was typical of many European traders. He adopted into his way of life those things from Gilbertese culture that he liked, and rejected those things which were not acceptable to him. Polygamy, for example, was widely accepted by resident traders, but apart from that their other ways of life were changed very little. Randell married four Gilbertese women and is said to have fathered over forty children.

It should be noted that not all trading agents were foreigners. Nakaiea at Butaritari, Kaiea at Abaiang and Binika at Abemama all acted as trading agents and handled all the coconut oil trade from their islands.


The main period for labour recruiting was from the 1860's. Most recruitment was carried out in the southern Gilberts where population density was greater and the problem of drought prevailed year in and year out. Recruits mainly went to Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa and Hawaii to work in plantations, and a few went to work on plantation in Central and South America. At first kidnapping was common but, later, people understood recruiting and there was also Imperial control of the trade. Missionaries also intervened and force was eventually eliminated. As time went on many people curious about the wider world, and with hopes of gaining material goods, were willingly recruited.

The experience of Uaititi, of Makin, is a good illustration of he labour trade. In the 1870's, many people of Makin were invited to a dance on board a labour ship. Among the guests was Uaititi, a body of twelve. They were taken to the hold and asked to dance. They were given 'te kiraoki' (grog) to drink. They drank too much and at the end of the day, all were tired and slept. The ship slowly slipped away and when a new day dawned their beloved island was nowhere in sight. With no knowledge of English to permit any form of communication, all thought they were being taken for a cruise to be returned later. After a few days, they realised they were not going to be returned later. After a few days, they realised they were not going to returned and many became homesick and afraid for they did not know what was to happen to them. They were eventually assigned to plantations where they worked usually under quite favourable conditions, compared to other parts of the Pacific where island labour was employed, and after several years returned home.

Once back in the Gilberts they were usually accepted back into their family circles. However there were some noted cases where the labourers were not accepted so readily. There was one case in Marakei, where the relatives of the returned labourer refused him his land. In another case, at Tabiteuea, a woman who returned had to stay with the nuns because she was not really accepted into her family. Some returned labourers were a source of attention as they know about the wider world and could often speak broken English and thus acted as interpreters. It gave a certain pride to be labeled as a person who had been to Tahiti or Honolulu or Samoa or Fiji.

After the first recruits returned, they were a focus of attention among the island people. Others having heard of these experiences were prepared to leave their homes to see a different world. In some cases, the recruits when returned wanted to sign on again for a further term while others were willing to stay home and begin their life again with their family.

Recruitment was seen by Gilbertese as a means of gaining European wealth and many people were very disappointed when they found out that this was not so. Of course, they managed to get some things, for example, a few firearms, some pieces of material, axes, nails, tobacco, etc.; but not as many as they hoped to get. Some younger people found it more of an adventure. Some found it a source of pride to be able to have reached those parts of the world and to be envied by others. Some found it a welcome change and an escape from family commitments. Some returned to become missionaries.

Not all recruits returned. Many died and others remained in Fiji, Hawaii, Tahiti and elsewhere, and intermarried with the local people. One ship load of over a hundred recruits was sent back from Peru by the Government without any going ashore there; they were landed on Tongareva in the northern Cook Islands and probably fathered most of the next generation of children there as most Tongareva men were away as labourers. Most of them eventually returned to the Gilberts from Fanning Island. In these ways Gilbertese blood was spread throughout much of the Pacific, and many people today trace Gilbertese ancestry from such circumstances.

The period from 1830 to 1890 was a very important one in the history of the Gilberts. Four groups of people intruded into the area at different times; firstly the whalers, next the beachcombers, followed by the resident traders, and lastly the labour traders. All four groups contributed to the changes in Gilbertese society.

As a result of these constant contacts, the Gilbertese people gained access to a different technology through trade and learned to rely on these new goods. Many had seen and learned about the outside world. Many foreign diseases were introduced which affected the population at first. It was also during that period that the Gilbertese came to live and understand some of the ways of life of the Europeans who lived with them. When Britain took over the islands in 1892, the islands were already depending much on European goods and many had also accepted a new religion brought by the Europeans and by Pacific Islanders who had been converted.

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