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Tabiteuea comprises two parts, Tabiteuea North and Tabiteuea South with the total area of 38 squared kilometres. In 2001, the population of Tabiteuea North was 2,990 and Tabiteuea South, 1,293.

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The Tabiteuea people claim that their island was the first to be created. Creation took place at Tabiteuea South. They also believed that a tree called The Tree of Kings was grown there and one of its roots emerged at Samoa to become Te Kain Tikuaba. The tree of Kings was inhabited by many spirits who often argued as to who was to be the chief of the island. Nareau the Creator forbade anyone to become chief, so everyone remains equal, and the name Tabiteuea means the chiefs are forbidden.There was also the story of one migrant from Samoa who married Nei Batiauea who had left the Tree of Kings. After meeting, and being married in the ocean, they landed on Tarawa and became its first inhabitants. There were also other migrations of spirits from Tabiteuea to the rest of the Gilbert Islands.


Of the many wars last century, one of the main ones was the religious wars on Tabiteuea. Before the coming of Europeans, Tabiteueans had no knowledge of mass war. In fact, it was impossible to conduct a real war since every individual regarded fighting for others as a form of slavery. Also it meant making someone higher or more important than others.

Fighting between individuals was common, but not war. A person guilty of murder was punished by death, when the relatives of the deceased person would try to take his life. To avoid this drastic punishment he could ask the avengers to take one of his pieces of land instead. These individual struggles were mainly over land ownership and jealousy about wives and mistresses. Although fighting was recognized as a way of solving a dispute, fighting that resulted in the loss of a life was not socially acceptable, and killing a person was a crime. Fighting should, therefore be carried out according to traditional ethics and with respect. A man fighting as to inflict pain on his enemy by spearing and cutting him on the body without damaging vital organs in a way that would cause death. However, deaths occurred during many fights and compensation in land had to be claimed or another life had to be taken.

As there were no chiefs on Tabiteuea, it was impossible for anyone to wage a large scale war. Everyone on the island, from end to end, believed that he was a "King" in his own right. No-one is a servant or slave. Everyone was a free person and this still is the attitude of the people of Tabiteuea.

According to legend, war was forbidden on Tabiteuea. Nareau the Creator did not allow anyone to subdue the island or its inhabitants. He wanted people to live happily with equal status in their villages, as part of a group and as individuals. No person was allowed to conquer others to suit his end.

The only time when the whole of Tabiteuea could declare a war when there was a common enemy. Even then, this could only be carried out after the old men had met and reach a unanimous decision. It is obvious, then, that the religious war of 1881 was contradictory to the general beliefs of the Tabiteueans of the time. They were swayed by a new faith, Christianity, and influenced by new concept and weapons introduced by foreigners, and consequently they declared a merciless was against each other. The Christianised people of Tabiteuea North fought the pagans of Tabiteuea South.

The religious war of 1881 was mainly caused by Kapu and Nalimu, two Hawaiian pastors who tried to convert the Tabiteueans to Christianity. They came with the Reverend Hiram Bingham from the American Board of Commissioners for foreign missions. They landed in 1868 at Eita and Utiroa, the two most populace villages, where they successfully obtained land on which to camp and build their headquarters. Pleased that his Hawaiian pastors were well established to start converting the Tabiteueans, Bingham left for Abaiang where he concentrated on his major task of translating the Bible into Gilbertese. Kapu and Nalimu were now on their own and proceeded with their task. The people of Eita and Utiroa were gradually converted to Christianity.

Soon after Bingham's landing at Eita, the villagers learned the purpose of his coming. At this time, the people worshipped many gods, one of them was Auriaria whose very sacred ground was the spot where Bingham and his party were camping.

All Eita people met in their maneaba to consider what to do with Bingham and his pastors. Finally they agreed that the strangers should be attacked and chased away. However, on the night preceding the planned attack, the leaders dreamt that as he and his warriors approached Bingham's place intending to attack, they saw a line of fire stretching from the Ocean side to the lagoon side of the island. They could not cross this fire by any means, so they returned. When, the next day, he told his fellow villages about this dream everyone believed that Bingham's Gold was far more powerful than their own gods and the decision was reversed. Bingham was not to be hurt; everyone should protect him.

Eita and Utiroa became the strongest supporters of Christianity. After Bingham left for Abaiang, Kapu and Nalimu carried out their campaigns from the villages. All other villages in Tabiteuea North readily accepted the new religion, except for the people of Tanaeang who, under a man called Tanako, worshipped a god called Tioba. When Kapu sent words that they should accept the new religion, the Tanaeang people refused. Both sides prepared for a war, the Christians against the followers of Tioba. The Tioba people were more aggressive for they were the ones who urged and pushed the war to the Christian side. They were only about a mile from Kapu's headquarters at Eita when they were challenged by a Christian group led by a man called Kaeka from Utiroa. In this first religious war,which took place in May 1879, fourteen people at Tanaeang village were killed. The first took place at Taboaine near Eita, and the Tioba people were defeated. This event marked the "conversion" of Tabiteuea North.

The fight between the Christians of Tabiteuea North and the pagans of Tabiteuea South at Tebaukia passage is generally regarded as the main religious war on Tabiteuea. This war took place near Tewai village on Tabiteuea South soon after the people in the north accepted Christianity. The main organiser for the Christian army was Kapu, who was a more aggressive evangelist than Nalimu. At Tetabo Kapu's headquarters at Eita village, the Christians held a meeting and decided that the people of Tabiteuea South should be challenged in war.

After the meeting at Tetabo the army decided to proceed south. Kapu gave orders that Aiwa would be a gathering place for final preparations before the attack. When the Tewai people realised that the Christians were coming to fight them, they quickly sent word to the other villages of Tabiteuea South and urged everyone to come and confront the Christian army at a passage called Tebaukia. This was agreed to and soon Tewai was occupied by warriors determined to defeat the Christians.

Kapu calculated that the best time to attack would be on a clear day at low tide. He marched his army south and planned his strategies. He put his men into a straight line, from the ocean side to the lagoon side, spacing them out, with the bulk of his army behind the middle section that would face the main impact of the enemy charge. The crowded middle section was manned by the men of Eita and Utiroa and the other heavily populated villages in Tabiteuea North. The less populated villages manned the lagoon and the ocean end of the line. Smaller in number and inferior in military organisation, the South Tabiteueans fought bravely and attacked the Christian army at its middle section, its most heavily armed point. They were quickly encircled by the Christian army from the right and left wings. The Christians did not waste a moment and quickly struck as the South Tabiteueans faced annihilation, everyone fell and very few escaped alive.

Before this religious war, the distribution of land among Tabiteuea inhabitants was fairly even. No one had an excessive amount of land and no one had too little. This war brought change as it allowed the people of the north to take the land from the Southern people. Following their victory at Tebaukia, the Christians marched further south killing any who had escaped, burning houses and claiming possessions over large areas of land. The people from the North then owned most of the land in both the Northern and Southern districts.

After 1892, the British government tried to return more land to the people of Tabiteuea South. Swayne, the first residence, was commissioned to carry out this task, which he did with limited success. During the Lands Commission of the 1950's the old men met and discussed the possibility of returning to the people of Tabiteuea South the land that had been taken from them during the religious war of 1881. After much thought the old men agreed that no more land should be returned.

Tabiteuea's social structure did not change after the war. The old men were still the leaders of the villages and the maneaba system was still maintained throughout the island. Traditionally, Tabiteuea is regarded as a place where all men are equal, where chiefs are forbidden, and the old men ruled the villages through the maneaba meetings. Of course the Northerners gained more land but this did not change their social standing. They still went to fish and cut toddy.

trader store

A traders store at Tabiteuea in 1897

When Captain Davis visited the island in 1892, Kapu had resigned from the mission and was a trader on Tabiteuea. Davis made an investigation and deported Kapu. Thus the main initiator of the war left Tabiteuea at the time when the British took over responsibility for the government of Tabiteuea. The people of the North and South may still be rivals over some things but they have lived in peace ever since.

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 13th February 2004)