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Aspects of Makin and Butaritari

Makin and Butaritari are the most northerly islands of the Gilbert group, being three degrees north of the equator. On some maps they are called Little and Big Makin. Butaritari, the name of a large village, serves as a name for the big island of which Makin is a mere appendix. Butaritari is a stretch of land some 40 kilometers long including islets. The lagoon is 25 kilometers long, by on average, two kilometers wide. The reef, broken by two main passages, allows large cargo ships into the lagoon, and thus Butaritari is the best port in the group.

Makin, a good ten kilometers long, is made up of three small islands: One, Kiebu and Makin. A channel only four kilometers across separates One from the northern point of Butaritari. The two islands have the advantage of getting twice as much rain as the rest of the Gilberts. Drought is unknown and rarely a month passes without some rain. The locals on Butaritari have plenty of food from the breadfruit trees and the big babai pits. These do not need to be very deep to reach water.

The people are the best nourished in all of the Gilberts. They are sturdy and tall; intelligent, resourceful - and somewhat impish by nature. The speech is more rapid than usual speech and includes several expressions peculiar to the island and they have their own special accent.

These differences can be explained by the greater contact they have had with white people, by their isolation from the other islands and by their racial affiliations. During early wars, the first inhabitants, who were much more negroid were virtually wiped out. After some 300 years, Rairaiueana came in his canoe, Te Kaburoro, from Samoa. His son, Teietoa, settled on Butaritari and his descendants have been dominant from that day.

Just before 1880, a little before the arrival of the Catholic missionaries, Na Kaiea was king. Butaritari and Makin formed one kingdom, feudal in organization. There was a king, nobles and ordinary people. The king owned all the land and shared it out amongst the nobles. They paid tribute by means of their peasants, who works for them all.

The king has to stand out from his subjects. If not by intelligence and stature, which after all one can do nothing about, then at least by the girth of his belly. To achieve this, the princes had to undergo special training. From childhood, they were stuffed with food. Their food was chewed for them and fed into them by persuasion and sometimes by force. This system, added to the most pure form of idleness, gave the islands kings most fitted to arouse the envy and admiration of the whole world.

The writer Robert Louis Stevenson can describe the princess for us and give his opinions about them as they were three years before the establishment of the British Protectorate. He spent three months in Butaritari in 1889. Te Bureimoa was king then. He was the youngest of four brothers who had each in turn been ruler, after the death of their father, Te Itimaroroa. This regime of Nero-like rulers didn't produce old men - each one died before reaching fifty. Na Kaiea, the eldest son, was a big strapping chap, domineering and violent in temper but with a certain native wit about men and their business.

On the death of Na Kaiea, Nan Teiti, his younger brother, succeeded him. As he didn't have a particularly acute mind, he affected never to give an answer, so as to conceal his weakness.

Maka and Kanoa, the Hawaiian ministers, had been on Butaritari for some years. Na Kaiea had never wanted to become converted. He had even stabbed to death, before their eyes, three Hawaiian sailors who had annoyed him. Although he was rather jealous of the ministers, he allowed them to live. They had more success with Nan Teiti and this king was converted. He dismissed sixteen of his wives and only kept the seventeenth. Soon afterwards he died. The third brother, Nan Bakatokia, succeeded him although he did not reign for very long.

In 1889, Butaritari was at the height of its development. No one knows clearly who governed - the king or the Hawaiian pastors. Maka and Kanoa had become palace mayors and never left Te Bureimoa's side whenever he received an important visitor. They also undertook to answer on behalf of the lazy king.  

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(E-mail: -- Rev. 5th November 2002)