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Kiribati Traditions

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The Gilberts (Kiribati) form part of that multitudinous archipelago of gemlike islets called Micronesia, which, beginning with the Palau Islands stretches eastward a full 2,000 miles above the equator, then curves away to the southeast, crossing the equator at the Gilbert Islands. The Gilbert atolls do not bulk large amid so vast a concourse, and statistics seem to render them more insignificant still.

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Map of Micronesia, 1943

Their collective area amounts to 166 square miles; not one of them rises as much as 15 feet above sea level, or exceeds in width 1,000 feet from beach to beach. They are mere ribbons of coral rock, from ten to fifty miles long, topped with a soil so sandy that it supports no useful plant save the coconuts, the pandanus palms and the taro (babai).

Yet these islands, which have neither stream nor mountain and lack the barbaric and colourful luxuriance of vegetation usually associated with the Tropics have rare enchantment. Here it is form, not colour, that charms the eye - the exquisite penciling of palms overleaning the lagoon, the rare gradations of light and shade, the matchless transparencies of atmosphere.

They enjoyed, as Robert Louis Stevenson, a one time resident and frequent visitor wrote "a superb ocean climate, days of blinding sun and bracing wind, nights of a heavenly brightness".

According to native tradition, the first white man seen in the group arrived fourteen generations ago, or, say, at the end of the sixteenth century. He is reported to have come to the island Beru, alone and nearly dead, "in a boat shaped like a box".

He was "tall as a giant, but very thin, like a lizard, with a head narrow like the blade of an adze".  His hair was red, and he had a beard "that hung in two long points below his middle". From this description the stranger seems to have been of Caucasian type, and the boat "shaped like a box" suggests a craft of European construction. Possibly he was some driftaway from a Spanish ship in these waters.

Nikunau Island was sighted by Captain John Byron (the poet's grandfather) of the British navy in 1765. Most of the middle and northern islands were next discovered by Captains Gilbert and Marshall in 1788 and the rest had become known by 1828.

In 1892, the Gilbert Islands, together with the Ellice Islands (Tuvalu) directly to the south, was converted into a British Protectorate, which in 1915 became a Crown Colony. The administrative headquarters were at Ocean Island (Banaba), which lies 250 miles west of the Central Gilberts. The Colony was under the charge of a Resident Commissioner who was at the time responsible to the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific resident at Suva, Fiji.

The only important product of the Gilbert Islands is copra, the sun-dried flesh of the coconut which is made to yield its oil to the soap manufacturers of civilisation. The copra was not grown on organised plantations, for every square foot of land is owned by the Gilbert Islanders who sold the copra to the local traders who in turn sold it to visiting ships.

Within the silver-and-green crescent dreams the lagoon, shut off from the ocean by its enclosing reef, which stretches like a bow-string from tip to tip of the land. Across the lagoon from the entrance passage, the palms are seen tenuous against the skyline, like the lashes of an enormous eye. The water under the blazing sun glows incandescent. Over the deep places burns a cobalt so vivid that it seems to be a pigment. Within the lattice shade of the palms that overlean the beach is an eternal cool. Only the sound of surf, muted by trees and distance steals through the sanctuaried stillness.

So serious did overpopulation in the Gilbert Islands become that 1938-1940 saw some 2,000 people being transferred to the Phoenix Islands. The Gilbertese are one of the few island races of the Pacific whose yearly birth rate exceeds the death rate.

The complexion of the average Gilbertese is midway between the light copper of Polynesia and the black of Melanesia; for here in the flux of race migrations, black and brown have mingled to beget a hybrid folk facially the native is aquiline. His brow is bold and intelligent, his nose salient though broad at the nostrils. There is decision in the thick-lipped but firmly closed mouth, pugnacity in the heavy jaw. He carries his head high, and looks upon the world from level brown eyes in which lurks a shrewd humour.

The ready smile of a Gilbertese girl is childish, dimpled, spontaneous; it lights up the rather broad features and exposes teeth that bespeak cleanliness and health. In the old days, infinite pain were taken to preserve the loveliness of the tawny skin. Women and girls would shut themselves up for months in screened rooms, wherein no sunlight could penetrate, for the sole purpose of improving their complexions.

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A Gilbertese young girl of about ten years of age with ready smile displaying clean
and white teeth. Her abundant hair is black and straight, and her attractive features are delicate.

Every day the whole body was massaged three times with coconut oil, washed with rain water, and then pasted over with the creamy juice expressed from coconut flesh. After six months of such treatment a girl would emerge from seclusion blanched almost white.

Sex morality in the past was high. Girls went naked until marriage, and were protected by laws of extreme ferocity. To molest a maiden was to court death by slow strangulation, or by being tied to a log and floated out to sea as food for the teeming sharks. British law has abolished the death penalty, robbing offence of its terror.

In the more remote islands, however, especially when a dance is forward, one may still see girls wearing the old national dress, a simple kilt of grass that reaches from hip to kneecap and sets off to admiration their suppleness of figure.

Gilbertese Men and Women dressed in traditional attire
Photographed by Robert Louis Stevenson

The old men still clinging to the custom of their youth, are generally clothed in a mat of beautiful texture wound about the waist and made fast with the girdle plaited of their wives' hair. The younger men use a loin cloth of trade print worn kiltwise. Shaded by palms just above the lagoon beach stands the native village. It consists of one long street on either side of which the houses are built at spacious intervals. The houses are mere thatches with eaves raised by corner posts a man height from the ground. An elevated floor of coconut leaf midribs leaves an air space of three feet under each dwelling. There are no walls to exclude the sane winds of heaven, only leaf screens which may be let down from the eaves at night. Two trees supply all the materials needed to build these rustic homes. The pandanus palm affords thatch, rafters, joists and corner post. Midribs for flooring and string for lashing the paths together are obtained from the coconut palms.

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Gilbertese dwellings are clean and open to the breezes

Walking down the village street between the lines of open dwellings, gives an impression of cool spaciousness and health. The casual stroller had no need to pry if he wished to observe the Gilbertese at home. He sees women braiding their hair, plaiting flower chains, changing garments, bathing children, weaving mats; and men taking their siesta, smoking, making nets or sails.

In these days, a Gilbertese is allowed only one wife, but formerly polygamy was the rule. A man married a whole household of sisters at a time; or, if his ceremonial bride had no sisters, he took with her all such first or second cousins on her father's side as might have been arranged in advance by private treaty. Furthermore, a man whose married brother died consider it its paternal duty to take all the widows into his own household.

The primary object of such multiplication was to guarantee a husband against childlessness. If his wife were sterile, who, argued the Gilbertese, could be a more fitting mother of his children than her own sister. If a husband died, who but his brother ought to save his widows from the reproach of barrenness. That is why infanticide, so common elsewhere throughout the Pacific, was never known in the Gilberts; and that, incidentally, was why the Gilbertese were the terror of all the surrounding islands within a thousand-mile radius.


Many precautions were taken to protect an expectant mother, for she was believed to be peculiarly susceptible to the attack of sorcery. Her nail parings, hair clippings and worn garments were carefully burned lest through these intimate things an enemy focus his magic upon her. She is festooned with amulets of leaf, porpoise tooth and human hair; and protective charms are muttered over her at sunrise and sunset.

From her diet, is excluded everything that tastes either very sweet or very bitter; she is given much coconut milk and large quantities of baked land crab, since these two foods are considered especially good for lactation. Fish she may eat sparingly, but on no account may she touch crayfish because it might cause her child to grow stiff hairs upon the face; flatfish, because having both eyes on one side, it might induce a similar distortion in the unborn; turtle and eel, because they are "crawlers", and would make a cowardly toady of the child; or any slow-moving creature of the sea, for fear its sluggishness may be imparted to the infant.

On the other hand, shark and swordfish are esteemed the best possible diet, they are fighting creatures, and their courage may be conveyed to the unborn through the mouth of the mother.


In the centre of the village surrounded by a spacious square of shingle, is the Maneaba, the general meeting house of the people, the hub of Gilbertese communal life. It is a thatch of colossal size raised on monoliths of white coral. Its eaves descend to within three feet of the ground, so that a man must stoop in order to enter. Inside, it may be as much as 120 feet long by 80 broad.

Under that vast roof is a brown coolness, a solemn gloom. The place is a whisper with the voices of sea, wind, and trees, caught up and echoed as in a mighty sounding box. Between the ranks of soaring columns that support the shadowy rafters broods the quiet of a cathedral.

The edifice is the focus of social life, the assembly hall, the dancing lodge, the news mart of the community, and the beloved resort of the aged who, daily repairing to its peaceful shade, exchange interminable mumbles of their memories of the "days that are no more".

The Maneaba is sacred. No angry words may profane its quiet, no blows may be exchanged within its precincts; its timbers may not be insulted by careless violence; even the shingled space whereon it stands must be trodden by respectful and decorous foot. Each Gilbertese clan has its hereditary sitting place in the building, its privileged function in the ordering of ceremonial. The place of honour, where sit the so-called "Kings of the Maneaba," is by the stone pillar in the middle of the eastern side. That monolith is called "The Sun" a name also given to the clan which sits beside it.

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The Gilbertese maneaba

The Sun clan is holy within the Maneaba. Outside, war and accidents of temporal life may have reduced its members to a state of serfdom; but this has not the slightest effect upon its prestige within the sacred edifice. The clan still enjoys the first share of any feast and the first and last word in all debates. It is protected by the fear of un-nameable sanctions from contradictions, interruption, discourtesy, or any violence.

There can be little doubt that the Gilbertese Maneaba is the modern, rustic representative of an ancient sun temple, and that the Sun clan is descended from a caste of priests who officiated at an altar like the Sunstone.



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