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The Origin of the Gilbertese

To understand who the Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) are and how they came to populate the islands so far from any mainland, one must piece together their century-old traditions.

First dwellers in the islands were a small, black-skinned, large-eared, flat-nosed race, much addicted to sorcery, whose deities were the spider and the turtle. Though acquainted with fire, they probably reserved it as an object of worship, and ate only uncooked food. In very early times the spider folk were over-run by immigrants from the west.

The newcomers were utterly different from the autochthons. They were of great stature, light brown in colour, and had no knowledge whatever of magic or sorcery. They practised the cult of the ancestor. That they were essentially a maritime race may be gathered from their traditional names - "Children of the Sea," "Fierce Fish of the West," and "Fighting Sea Birds." They came from Boeroe, Halmahera, (sometimes known as Gilolo), Ceram, Waigeo, south Celebes, and other islands in this area.

This swarm of mighty men would have destroyed the puny Spider folk root and branch had it not been for one thing - the need of wives. They had left their women at home; they had to marry into the black race. Thus, their descendants were a hybrid stock, in which black and brown were equally commingled.

The tale carries us now 1,200 miles south-eastward to Samoa. Only a fraction of the big men from the west settled in the Gilberts; the rest, a great multitude, turned southward down the chain of islands, through the Ellice Group (now Tuvalu), and so on to Savaii and Upolu of Samoa. There they remained for perhaps as long as seven centuries, only to be driven out in the end. By Savea, a great national chieftain of the Samoans, they were scattered over the face of the Pacific during the 13th century of our era.


Some fled as far as New Zealand, some to the Cook Islands. A third horde came back northward, along the old migration track, to fight for a foothold in the Gilberts, where their ancestral kin had settled on the southward course so many centuries before. They overwhelmed the whole group by sheer force of numbers. The people of today reckon their descent from these warriors, outcasts from Samoa, who yet were able after such a rout to win new homes in the Gilbert Islands.

This is a race of seamen. There are still greybeards in the group who have made voyages of more than a thousand miles in canoes sewn together with string. Until 90 years ago inter-island trips of 250 miles and more were regularly made in these frail craft for the purpose of exchanging dances!

Only the night sky gives the Gilbertese man his sense of direction in the huge emptinesses of the Pacific. He navigates by the stars. He has a general knowledge of the heavens that many of the western skilled navigators might well be proud to possess.

His lessons did not begin under the stars of heaven, but in the village Maneaba (public meeting house). He was made to sit at the base of the central pillar that supported the ridgepole, facing the eastern slope of the roof. The eaves represented the eastern horizon, the upward slope of thatch the eastern sky, and the ridgepole the meridian. The summit of the central post by which he sat represented the star Rigel, and from that central point in the heavens began the boy's instruction.

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The Maneaba is the central focus of social life in the village. Standing in the centre of a spacious square,
this cathedral-like thatch - perhaps a 120 feet long by 80 feet wide - is the hub of Kiribati communal life.
Its ridge soars 60 feet high and its sides come close to the ground so those entering
must stoop. Inside, traditional places are reserved for each clan.

Just as the roof was divided by lines of rafters, so the heavens were plotted out for him in lines of principal stars. Every constellation of the Gilbertese chart was allotted its imaginary place in the thatch, according to what western navigators would call its angular distance from Rigel, and its declination north or south of that star.


Line by line he learned them: first the middle rank with its leader Rigel; then a line to the north, led by the Pleiades (Seven Sisters); and after that, a southern rank led by Antares and so on.

Before the pupil was allowed to identify a single star in heaven, he had to name word-perfectly a list of no fewer than 178 stars, constellations, and nebulae; to indicate their relative positions with precision in the rafters; and to say what height above the eaves (i.e., the horizon) any one of them might be observed at sunrise or sunset during any given season of the year.

When these elements were firmly fixed in his mind, he was made to memorise separate and individual lists of stars by which courses might be steered to the lands included in his tutor's geography. He learned, for example, how to navigate to and from Samoa, 1,200 miles to southeast; and Truk (Chuuk) in the Carolines, more than 1,400 miles to northwest. There was talk of other lands, too, the existence of which was less well authenticated. For instance, there was Naba-naba to westward, the Island of Breathing Bones, inhabitants of which were animated skeletons.

Farther still to westward was Onouna, surrounded by whirlpools, and by caves that were the gullets of man-eating hags. To southwest lay Kabintongo, the Island by the World's Edge, where ocean plunged down in one vast cataract into unfathomable abysses.

Of all these lands of tradition, Maiawa should be the most interesting to Americans. It is described in travel stories as the "Wall at the side of the world, four moons' sail to eastward." It was discovered by one Raakau, the greatest of all Gilbertese navigators, who lived in the dim ages before the coming from Samoa.


Raakau reported it as a land that stretched along the "eastern edge of the ocean, to north-ward without end, and to southward without end." "Beyond the farthest eastward islands it lies," he said, "a wall of mountains up against the place where the sun rises, standing over plains full of fertility." There is only one littoral in the Pacific that can be said to fit this description, and that is the western coast of the American Continent.

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Tabiteuea locals sail a swift 96 feet, three mastered outrigger canoe. Its width is five and a half feet, freeboard five feet, and draft three feet. The outrigger is a single log about 49 feet long and 2 feet in diameter lashed to the hull amidships by thirteen 20 foot pieces forming a scaffold. The masts are 40 feet high. Since the deck is only half covered, it is possible to "go below" at any point. A red flag floats from each masthead. Like the smaller craft,
it is constructed without metal, all parts being tied together with coconut fibre.

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From the outrigger, the huge steering oar looks small. However, for the lads who clamber out on the
framework to keep the speeding craft on an even keel clear vision of the steersman is vital.
An unexpected puff or flaw could easily fling them overboard.

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Into the sunset on the vast Pacific Ocean an outrigger canoe sails for flying fish.
Distance has no terrors for I-Kiribati navigators, who are taught in boyhood to steer by the stars.

Nowhere else in the world may travellers find a sport finer than the canoe racing in these lagoons of the Central Pacific. The craft used for racing is the veriest knife-blade of inches in beam amidships, built up of planks lashed edge to edge with string of coconut fibre, and stabilised by an outrigger. Not a nail or a piece of metal is used in its construction.

Under the pressure of its enormous triangular sail, such a vessel, on a calm day with a smart breeze, will attain a speed of 18 miles an hour. She reaches her maximum with the outrigger float poised a couple of feet clear of the water. It is the object of the man at the sheet to keep his sail just so full of wind as to heel his craft over the leeward, heave the float above the lagoon's surface, and keep it swaying there for miles at a stretch. Helping him is a special outrigger expert, whose sole duty it is to watch that float. When it rises dangerously high, out he flings himself upon the outrigger, so that his weight, acting as a lever against the sail's pull, depresses it again toward the water and thus saves the canoe from capsizing.

Before the float swings low enough to foul the wave crests and so reduce speed, back like a flash he springs to deck, leaving the wind to "pick her up" again. A dozen canoes racing neck to neck with lifted outriggers, poising, swaying, swooping like immense dragonflies in the vivid sunlight across the emerald and turquoise face of the lagoon make an unforgettable picture. To be in one of these craft as she hurls her lean hull aquiver through the crisp waves is thrilling.


A staple article of the islander's diet is, of course, fish. Though the lagoons teem with delicious flatfish and crustacea, he much prefers the reeking red flesh of the shark. Probably this esteem for shark flesh is generated less by its actual flavour than by the difficulty of getting it. To the islander, the more dangerous the species the more succulent its flesh. Good as the almost harmless bluenose is, the tiger shark is better, and best of all is that bloodthirsty pirate, the grey nurse.

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At high tide on the ocean beach Gilbertese fishermen boldly launch their flimsy canoes -
they brave the open sea without any thought of danger.

The hook whereon the Gilbertese fisherman takes his ferocious quarry is an enormous wooden affair, not less than 14 inches long. For the sake of strength, it is grown to shape on the living tree. A young branch is bent to the required curve, lashed in position, and then left to "set" for a year, after which it is cut and trimmed to hook form.

The rest of the tackle consists of a 30-fathom line of plaited rope (sennit) as thick as the middle finger. This, hitched around some projecting part of the canoe, will resist the furious struggles of the biggest shark. The heavy-barrelled tiger requires a 30-yard circle for doubling. For this reason a Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) swimmer provided with a knife will face without fear the attack of a tiger shark.

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 24th November 2004)