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Abaiang - Republic of Kiribati


 Republic of Kiribati

The island of Abaiang is in the Northern Kiribati Group. It has a population according to the 1998 census of 3,628 and a total area of 16 square kilometres.

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Most Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) people believe that their ancestors were spirits, some created in Samoa and some in Kiribati, and that it was the movement from Samoa that populated the Kiribati Islands for the first time. Modern researchers would agree that a recent migration did probably occur from Samoa to the Gilberts about 500 to 600 years ago.

According to the legends of Beru and some other islands Te Kaintikuaba, was made from the spine of Na Atibu. It was a tree, in Samoa, which was the home of spirits who, together with Nareau the Wise, made the islands of Tungaru (the Kiribati islands). It is a legend that has many variations.

As one legend goes, Nareau the Wise was in Samoa, procreating with the spirits there. One day, he decided to trace the whereabouts of his two children who left Te Kaintikuaba. He left Samoa, heading north, and on his way he created a resting place by trampling the sea and uttering powerful magic. Behold, land was formed with spirits inhabitants on it. This land is now called South Tabiteuea. Feeling satisfied with his marvellous work, he left and went further north. At last, he sighted Tarawa. He stayed on Tarawa and started his work of creating new lands. He used his power to create Makin, Butaritari, Marakei, Abaiang, Maiana, Kuria, Abemama and Aranuka. These are now referred to as the islands of North Kiribati.



In most of the islands, north of the equator, there were several district leaders, each of whom led a group of kaainga. One chief was usually recognized as paramount. From Nonouti southwards, the unimane (old men) dominated the communities through the maneaba and provided political leadership.

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It is difficult to know how these systems of government evolved. It seems, however, that the kaainga has always been important. Oral tradition from the Northern islands suggest that a few kaainga were able, over time, to assume a dominant position over their neighbours. Sometimes this was because the dominant kaainga as a "parent" being the original kaainga from which the others had separated. Another factor was the ability of some kaainga to seize and hold the land of others, as warfare in pursuit of land and status was common in the northern Gilberts, and resulted in the emergence of petty chiefs constantly trying to dominate their islands. Civil wars, leading to the dominance of these leaders over district, or even over whole islands, became easier after the introduction of firearms as there was no adequate defence against European weapons. This is the main reason why the traditional chiefly dynasty of Abaiang was only consolidated after the arrival of Europeans. The heads of the kaainga were always consulted on matters affecting the community and could initiate action but always they were obliged to seek the approval of the chief who provided overall leadership, and regulated relationships amongst the kaainga.


Permanent traders established themselves in the Kiribati group during the 1850's and by the 1860's the European population in the Kiribati group had increased to about 50. They traded European manufactured goods for such products as coconut oil and turtle shell. The making of coconut oil and the preservation of turtle shell were not new skills to the Gilbertese. To acquire the desired European goods, they merely had to spend more time doing routine activities.

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 - however, the prize they received for the coconut oil was many times what was 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 which he liked, and rejected those things which were not acceptable to him. 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. Kaiea of Abaiang acted as a trading agent and handled all the coconut oil trade from that island.


Members of the Protestant Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions first visited Butaritari and Makin in 1852. A British coconut oil company was well established in the islands and Randell, the resident trader for the company, acted as guide and interpreter for the missionaries. At that time, the King of Butaritari and Makin did not want missionaries on his islands.

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Reverend Hiram Bingham and wife

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The first church in the Gilbert Islands,
 built at Abaiang in 1859 by Hiram Bingham.

Hiram Bingham and his wife were sent from America in 1856 to establish a mission in the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati). They stopped in Hawaii and left for the Gilberts in August 1857. Kanoa and his wife, both Hawaiians, were picked from Kusaie to help Bingham. They all arrived at Abaiang on 13th November in 1857.

When they arrived, a war was taking place between Ten Teiwaki and Ten Temaua. The missionary lived with Ten Tamaua. When Ten Teiwaki saw Mrs Bingham, he took an immediate fancy to her and made it known that he would take her as his wife if he defeated Ten Temaua. Fortunately for Mrs Bingham Ten Temaua won the war; Ten Teiwaki was killed.

Bingham tried to convert people but this was difficult because he could not speak Gilbertese. He had nobody to teach him, and he had to learn the language by pointing of objects and asking their names in Gilbertese. He experienced great difficulties in converting people because the Gilbertese still believed in their gods and spirits and, although they were curious about Christianity, they were not interested in changing their whole way of life.

The first church in the Gilberts was built at Koinawa on Abaiang. It was completed in 1859 and could seat 300 people. Bingham had to pay the people to build his church because he had no followers who were willing to work for nothing.

Even though Bingham did not convert many people, it was he who gave the Gilbertese a written form of their language. He is still remembered for this and as the pioneer of Christianity in the Gilberts. He and his wife translated the Bible and the first parts were published in 1864.


Among the people recruited in the 1870's as workers to Tahiti were Betero and Tiroi from the island of Nonouti. During their stay in Tahiti, they became members of the Roman Catholic Church. Their belief was so strong that when they returned to Nonouti in about 1880, they started to convert the people of their island. A number of people were converted and baptized by Betero and they decided to build churches in their villages; they built eight small churches altogether. When the churches were completed, Betero and Tiroi sent a request to Samoa for missionaries to be sent to Nonouti.

In response to the request, three missionaries from the Sacred Heart Mission, which had its headquarters in France were sent in 1887 and arrived at Nonouti in 1888. They were Father Joseph Leray, Father Edward Bontemps and Brother Conrad Weber. Father Leray was later appointed as the first Bishop in the Gilberts.

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Bishop Joseph Leray

After the first Catholic Mission had been established on Nonouti the priests visited other islands trying to spread their faith. Other priests and later some nuns arrived to help them. Because of the strength of the London Missionary Society in the Southern Gilberts, the Catholic Church could not make much progress there, but in the Northern and Central Gilberts, where the American Mission were reducing its efforts, the Catholic Church won many followers.

In 1898, Father Leray removed a young teacher from his pupils at the Little Order of Issouidon and brought him back to the Gilberts. This was Father Alexandre Cochet, a young man with firm ideas and clear-cut plans. Father Cochet was first landed in the Ellice Islands (Tuvalu) with a colleague. They were there for fifteen months living in a rough shelter, and they succeeded in carrying one baptism in secret. Then they were recalled to Tarawa. Father Cochet had his plans of which he reminded the Bishop "Monsignor, I came to the Gilberts to write books. Please consider this, for I have no other reason for existing or being here".

For these future books, he already had a printing press, but he needed printers. Father Cochet and Brother Etienne gathered several students together and went off to Abaiang. In a virtual desert on the southern part of the island, at Teaoraereke, they found the site. When they had cleared the land and installed several wooden boxes, Father Cochet, sitting between two open doors could see both ocean and lagoon and spit in each one on either side so he said.

At Teaoraereke, Father Cochet composed and translated books. He wrote 2500 pages in less than 15 years - nearly 30 books and brochures whose printing he supervised as well as his printing press and the school he had charge of a parish comprising about a third of Abaiang. The school was supported by the sale of books and a small grant. It was also necessary for the pupil to find some of their food. There were really more than twenty of them.

Abaiang has the disctinction of being one of the cradles of Christianity and schools both Protestants and Catholics in the Gilberts Group. It is also the place where the Bible was translated into Gilbertese in addition to the vast amount of publishing and translating undertaken by Father Cochet. The Catholic school of Tabwiroa was also founded and had its origin in the Roman Catholic Church on Abaiang.


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