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The Gilbertese people are Micronesians of medium stature with straight hair and brown skin. They speak a language of the Austronesian family, which extends across Southeast Asia and most of the Pacific Islands. Their way of life is much influenced by their environment of low-lying coral islands scattered in the Central Pacific.


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Traditional Gilbertese maneaba

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Inside the maneaba at Utiroa, Tabiteuea, 1841

Before European times, the main social group in Gilbertese society was the kaainga, a small group of extended families (utu) related through a common ancestor. The twenty to a hundred members of each kaainga shared a piece of land on which all member families built their homes (mwenga or tekateka), thus forming a kaainga hamlet. The land of the kaainga usually extended from the ocean side of the atoll to the lagoon side, including the adjacent section of ocean reef (maran) and lagoon reef (nama). In the reef islands, the land of the kaainga extended from one maran to the other right across the island. Access to this area was confined to the kaainga members.

When the number in the kaainga became too large, a group of closely related families would establish another kaainga nearby. For most purposes this kaainga would operate as a separate entity, but it would acknowledge the pre-eminence of the original kaainga, which would still be headed by he man regarded as the most senior leader of the various related kaainga.

On most northern islands the various families that made up the kaainga shared one maneaba, the meeting house and focal point where issues of social, political and economic significance were discussed, and visitors were entertained. On most of the southern islands, a kaainga did not possess a maneaba of its own but had however, a boti (sitting-place) in the district maneaba (maneaban te kawa).

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There was also usually a kitchen for the kaainga as a whole, a storehouse for coconuts, and a bleaching house where young girls were kept away from the sun so that their skin might become as light as possible, either for marriage or to make them more attractive when they danced. Each family within the kaainga would have its own sleeping house with its floor raised several feet above the ground to make the inhabitants safe from attacks at night. Just below the roof of the sleeping houses there was another floor where produce like te kabubu (a kind of flour made from pandanus fruit), te tuae (a preserved food also made from pandanus fruit), te kamaimai (coconut toddy syrup), and dried fish were stored. This produce was put aside for future use at ceremonies and maneaba gatherings.

Some kaainga in the northern islands had managed to achieve dominance, usually through superior magical powers, especially this was interpreted in the outcome of wars. In the southern islands the unimane (old men) of each maneaba dominated decision-making which affected more than one kaainga.

Each kaainga was generally self-sufficient and relied on its two major resources - he land and the sea. There were ceremonial exchanges of food on such occasions as marriage feasts, but no evidence of trading between kaainga.


Customarily the leadership of the kaainga went to the oldest male who was given the title of the batua, or in some kaainga, atun te kainga (head of the kaainga) or te ikawai (the old one). In recognition of his leadership he ate before all other members of he kaainga. In the case of disobedience or an offence against generally accepted standards of behaviour the batu could reprimand the offender or expel him or her from the kaainga. Usually the person expelled would go or stay with his or her mother's family. The batua organised the distribution of work and generally resulted affairs within the kaainga.

The batua also represented the kaainga in its dealings with other kaainga in the district. He would, for example, arrange marriages and adoptions, negotiate with other batua for the services of specialists in such matters as canoe building, house building or medicine and lead his kaainga in meetings and ceremonies organised on a district basis.

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The other members of the kaainga were his wife, their children, grandchildren, and adopted children and often his brothers and their families. Under the leadership of the batu, the adult males cultivated babai (not unlike a coarse type of taro), fished, cut toddy, and gathered food from the land. They were also responsible for the construction of buildings and canoes. The batua's wife, helped by her daughters-in-law and unmarried daughters, cooked, made kabubu and kamaimai, wove mats and taught these skills to the young.

Every Gilbertese 'belonged' to a kaainga through both his father and his mother. Children most commonly lived in the father's kaainga. Women moved to their husbands' kaainga at marriage. If the mother's parents had only a small family, or a family of daughters and a large land holding, a male child from a large family might be sent to live with them. In this case a younger son could assume a position of importance in his mother's kaainga.


Most kaainga would include a small number of adopted children. Childless couples often adopted the children of the brothers or sisters of either partner. In some cases a family would adopt non-relatives. The prospective adoptive parents would approach the parents early in the pregnancy, and even if they were not in favour of the adoption they would be shamed if they rejected the approach, as it was customary to accept such offers, especially from outside the kinship circle. The adopters would attend the birth to see the child and to give it the name of one of their ancestors. The adoptive parents usually took the child after the ceremony marking its first birthday or later, if the baby was not yet able to eat solid food. After the adoption, the real parents and the adoptive parents treated each other as close kin.


Each kaainga anticipated visits from non-relatives and for marriage negotiations or the marriage negotiations or the arrangement of adoption from the married women of the kaainga. Visitors were regarded as very important people. Everyone had to be respectful towards them and to excuse themselves whenever they walked near the visitors. The food provided for the guests was to be more carefully prepared than usual and to include special dishes. Food that had been stored in the upper floor of the house was now used; babai was uprooted and fresh fish had o be caught every day. The guests, whether male or female, would always eat first with the batua and then the other members of the kaainga would eat what remained.


A woman was expected to become pregnant as soon as possible after marriage. When it became known that she was pregnant, she was confined to the house because people believed that wandering spirits could take the baby from her belly if she went walking in the bush. Certain foods were forbidden to her because of the effects which they might have on the unborn child. For example it was believed that the flat fish called the babai would distort the eyes or sight of the child. Food which had been partly eaten by rats, it was thought, would make the child a trouble maker, while the remnants of fish used for bait would twist the limbs of the child.

As soon as she knew she was pregnant, the woman left her husband's home and lived with her own parents to await the birth. It was usual for a woman to continue to rely heavily on her own mother and to be less shy to ask for unusual foods that she might want during pregnancy or to tell them of the tasks she wished to avoid.

At the time of labour the woman was given medicine to drink. Some women used roots of special plants which were scraped, left in water, then squeezed. The solution obtained was given to the woman to drink. Others used leaves of plants in the same way. This medicine would give the woman strength and help to promote swift birth. Sitting beside the patient was the deliverer, usually her grandmother or her aunt, if they knew the art, but if there were no expert from the family circle, they would ask an expert from another kaainga. There could also be others to help her during labour. If the labour was protracted the patient was given repeated doses of the medicine.

When the child was born, a clean mat was provided by a grandmother on which to put the new-born baby. If the child was a boy, the father or n expert in cutting the umbilical cord, was called to perform the operation which he did with a toddy cutting 'knife' made from shell. At the same time he performed magic rituals to ensure that the baby would be a brave warrior and a strong man. In the case of a girl, a woman was called to cut the cord and to perform rituals which would ensure the baby would be industrious and attractive when grown up. When the father's relatives heard of the birth, they came to celebrate it by drinking kabubu (a drink made from pandanus 'flour' especially for such ceremonies). This ceremony was called te kauraura.

After three days the mother and the baby moved from the mother's kaainga back to the father's. When the cord fell off, one of the baby's grandfathers wore the cord on his right wrist for three days. It was then carefully wrapped and put away in a safe place. It was believed that if a rat ate it, for example, then the boy would be mischievous in later life. In the case of a baby girl, the cord was worn by one of her grandmothers. This was done so that the child would follow in the footsteps of its elders. Feasting also took place on this occasion.

The first birthday of the first born child was celebrated with feasting as was also the case with the first son, even if daughters had been born before. Some families cut the hair of the child on its first birthday and some of them would leave part of the hair to grow; a way of ensuring that in the future the child would be very careful in the way in which he consumed his produce.


A boy was brought up to become a provider for the family and a warrior. After his first birthday, he was trained in ways that would make him a strong and brave warrior. Each kaainga had its own way of feeding and bathing the boy and its own rituals to ensure that this happened. On some islands the boy's diet was restricted to the best foods available; the flesh of the coconut closest to the stalk, and always excluding the bottom part; the flesh from the upper part of the fish, and the middle part of babai. At about the age of twelve, further steps were taken to develop his mind and physical strength. At the time of the spring tides, when the se was usually rough, the boy was awoken at dawn and taken to the ocean side of the island where his chest was tapped by an oldest male relative and magic rituals were said. The boy was made to swim as far as he could in the rough seas and then return. This was done for three consecutive days at the same time each month until he could reach the point near the edge of the reef where the waves break.

Girls were brought up according to the methods associated with their kaainga. Girls who underwent bleaching (usually after the age of ten) were put in the bleaching house and subjected to magic rituals. Their skin was massaged and anointed with coconut cream. When a girl emerged from he house day or two before marriage or before dancing, her complexion was fairer than before.

When he girl reached puberty, she was seated in the kaainga's maneaba while her aunts provided her with skirts made of chewed coconut leaves to absorb the menstrual flow. The girl would use several of these skirts in a day. The girl only ate dry coconut and drank water at this time. At the end of her first menstruation a great feast was held, attended by her father's and mother's kaainga.


Parents arranged marriages for their children. They would approach the family of the girl they wanted their son to marry. On some islands, children were betrothed at a very early age, sometimes even before birth; but others after puberty. All marriage negotiations were conducted by the parents, brothers, sisters or first cousins of the couple. Usually the first choice was a girl whose parents were from a kaainga that owned many lands. The negotiation would have less chance of being accepted by a girl's parent if the boy came from a family of low class, or was the youngest of a large family and thus unlikely to inherit much land. The girl's parents would be pleased to accept if the boy's parents had a small maneaba, a baurua (a large sailing canoe) or a maa (fish trap), as they knew the boy would inherit considerable property.

The boy and girl would live in the boy's kaainga from the time the negotiation was accepted, and the marriage would take place soon after the girl reached puberty. The wedding ceremony was celebrated with a large feast attended by the two kaainga. The girl's relatives would provide sleeping mat and the highly processed oil that was used for anointing. On some islands, when a girl left her parents to live with her husband, the girl was given a coconut grater, a grating mat, and a mallet for pounding pandanus leaves used in weaving sleeping mats. These were the tools used by women in their daily work. And on some islands, Maiana for example, the mother's biggest land was transferred to the daughter. On other islands, the girl's kaainga gave a large number of coconuts and, in exchange, the boy's family provided baskets of fish.

The first night of marriage concerned the relatives of both the groom and the bride. The mats provided by the bride's kaainga were spread in the house where the newly-weds were to sleep. Soon after feasting, and while the men of the kaainga were yarning, the boy and girl were called by the boy's mother to go to bed and she remained nearby to report the result of the newly-weds' first meeting. As soon as the boy called his mother, she would look for blood marks, and shout to the members of the kaainga that the girl was a virgin. The uncles of he boy would all rush and rub a little of the virgin's blood upon their cheeks. The girl's body was hen massaged by one of her husband's uncles to relax her muscles. If the girl was not a virgin, her parents would take her back and cancel the marriage. Cases of this sort were rare as families were strict in controlling their daughters.

Polygamy was accepted. On some islands when a man married the eldest daughter of a family, her younger sisters also became his consorts after reaching puberty. These younger sisters were called taua ni kai (concubines). In the northern islands, where chiefly systems existed, a chief could have several wives from different families.


Our ancestors believed that death was not the result of ill health but was a punishment from the gods and spirits for disobeying them. Those who lived to a very old age were regarded as loyal to the supernatural forces. When somebody died, all the relatives of the kaainga held a mourning ceremony. The body was anointed with coconut oil which had been scented with sweet smelling flowers.

The body was left in the centre of the maneaba while it decomposed, and as the flesh fell away it was carefully wiped off the bones. While this was taking place the elderly relatives of the dead person would usually keep a vigil beside the body. Sometimes the near relatives expressed their sorrow by mixing some of the liquid which dripped out of the body with their food before eating it. After all the flesh had been removed from the bones, these were placed in a burial ground near the kaainga. In some cases the skull would be kept separate and displayed in the house.

The Gilbertese people believed that at death the spirit left the body and proceeded northwards to the place where Nakaa waited making nets. Some spirits were trapped and others were able to return, eventually, to hover near their ancestral lands.


Nareau was the god who was credited with creating the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars. After Nareau came an era of spirits (anti), then an era when the inhabitants of the earth were half-spirit, half human (anti ma aomata) and humans evolved from them. The spirits - Auriaria, Tabuariki, Tarurimai, Terakunene, Kaobunang, Nei Tituabine and Temamang - were the most important figures in Gilbertese worship. Each kaainga would worship one of these spirits, and on others a number of spirits was recognised. Sometimes the same spirit was given different names on different islands. A totem - the shark, turtle, stingray, black noddy or various other kinds of fish and birds - was recognised by each group of worshippers, who were forbidden to kill or eat their totem.

The relative importance of the various spirits differed from island to island and from kaainga to kaainga. Often, one spirit would be the principal subject of a kaainga's worship while others would be regarded as lesser gods associated with more specialised functions, for example with fishing, fighting, strength, love affairs, or predicting the future.

The main objectives of Gilbertese worship were to obtain assistance from the spirits for special occasions like fighting, as well as for day-to-day matters, and to obtain protection from the anger of the spirits or from spells cast by enemies or rivals. It was believed that misfortunes and death were often the result of failure to behave properly towards the gods.

Each kaainga usually had a baangota where the spirits were worshipped. It was usually, but not always, located on the side of the kaainga closest to the ocean amongst trees and bush. The baangota was a few yards square and fenced with boulders. Within the fenced area the ground was covered with gravel, and in the centre there was usually one to three trees. Beneath the trees there was usually a large block of coral and beside this a clam or other shell in which offerings to the spirit were placed. It was believed that the spirit could move around, even beyond the island, but that he would come to his baangota when called by his followers.

There was one main ibonga or priest, responsible for each baangota. Other members of the kaainga, usually chosen from the ibonga's family, might become his helpers. This practice ensured the continuation of the priest's art and knowledge. Early in the morning and in the evening, and on special occasions, determined by the phases of the moon, the ibonga and his followers would gather in the baangota to worship. At most ceremonies there would be offerings to the spirits - usually valued foods like te korokoro (a special type of food made from kabubu mixed with kamaimai). In more recent times this was supplemented or replaced by tobacco. The ibonga would call the spirit and, after he had made contact with him, would make requests for the people. The spirit would make his instructions known by signs - especially in weather changes, movements of leaves or dreams - which only the ibonga could interpret. At the end of the worship the ibonga would collect the offerings, place a small amount under the large stone, and either distribute the rest or deep it for his own use.

Belief in tabunea, or sorcery, was universal. The general purpose of spells and incantations was to obtain the support and protection of the supernatural in matters not covered by the usual worship at the baangota. When spells were directed against another person, any misfortune which befell him would be attributed to them, but if the person was unaffected it would be assumed that his own magic had made him immune. Examples of Gilbertese magic include saying incantations over a boy by one of his older male relatives, associated with exercises designed to strengthen his body. This combination of physical training and magical rituals would make him grow into a powerful warrior and a strong worker for his kaainga.

There was also magic used by both males and females to win the heart of a loved one. The name of the person desired would be recited as part of the incantation, and the magical power made to reach him or her in a number of ways. The most common was to say the spell over some object or food that would be worn, touched or eaten by the person concerned. If two people were directing spells at the same loved one, and this became known, each would try to eliminate the other by magic. There was magic for composing too, and one who wanted to compose a love song, or a song for mourning or for a special occasion, sought supernatural help. Finally, there was magic for killing an enemy or a rival (especially for love or power). The person cursed was expected to suffer from an accident or a disease. If the magic failed to kill the rival, it was believed that he was protected by more powerful magic. This type of magic was often used by politically ambitious men in an attempt to overcome their rivals for leadership.


Nature endowed these islands with limited resources, but the Gilbertese were content and developed ways of making the best possible use of them. There was a limit to the number of people the islands could support, so population control was commonly practised. The sandy coral soil of the atolls contains very limited nutriment for plant growth. Consequently, there were very few indigenous plants and those that grew well were used to the full.

The coconut was the most important. It was a natural store providing almost every need. The milk from the green nuts (moimoto) was sometimes used for drinking but in the drier southern islands using the nut in this way was regarded as shameful because of the waste involved. The flesh of the mature nut could be used in a multitude of ways. It could be eaten as it was, or grated for use in cooking; it could also be grated and then squeezed and boiled to make oil for cooking and lighting. This oil could be refined further and made fragrant for use on the body as protection against the weather or for ceremonial anointing. The fibre from the husk was used to make string, for fishing lines or the construction of houses, canoes, or maneaba. In addition, the spathe of the coconut palm could be bound and cut and the sap, called sweet toddy or karewe, was collected in a coconut shell. Karewe could, if necessary, substitute for breast milk for feeding young children and was commonly used as a drink by people of all ages. The karewe could be boiled to make a syrup (kamaimai) which could also be mixed with water for drinking and cooking. In post European times the art of fermenting karewe to make kaokioki (sour toddy), and intoxicating drink, was learned. Coconut timber was used for house-building and for making weapons. The roots and parts of the young leaves had medicinal uses as well.

The pandanus was also exploited to the full. The ripe fruit was used to make kabubu and tuae - both foods for either immediate consumption, or to store for future needs, especially in times of drought and special occasions. Pandanus leaves were used for making mats, for thatch, for making the kabae, a mat worn by men. Its timber was particularly important in maneaba construction. It also had medicinal qualities and was used for making dyes. The other important food crops were babai, not unlike a coarse type of taro, which had to be cultivated in pits dug down to the water table and took several years to mature, and the bero, a tree which produces small fig-like fruit.

There are no mineral resources, apart from the phosphate rock which is found on Banaba (Ocean Island). In fact, the most important natural resources in the Gilberts were the land and the sea, which together satisfied the subsistence requirements of the inhabitants.


Land, to a Gilbertese, is of high value and far-reaching importance. Apart from being the basis of subsistence, it also has social, political and legal significance.

Land everywhere indicated wealth, prestige and social security, but this attitude was particularly marked in the chiefly societies of the central and northern Gilberts. Politically, land was an underlying factor in all levels of warfare prior to the arrival of the British Government. Fighting might be caused by a party wishing to consolidate its landholdings, while the other defended and secured its rights. Despite differences in social and political system, such conflict was common.

The confiscation of land in the traditional Gilbertese legal system was a punishment for murder and other offences. Te aba n nenebo was a compensatory land claimed by one or more relatives of the deceased and transferred to his estate from the possessions of the killer.

The kaainga was originally the major land-holding group. The land of the kaainga was further distributed among separate families within the kaainga. The same lands were again further sub-divided into lands held collectively by groups of brothers and those held by individuals. This principle was common to all these islands irrespective of their political and social organisation.

The Gilbertese held various rights to lands, babai pits, fish traps and fishing areas by virtue of their membership in a particular kaainga or utu. Where property involved the creation of new relationships either through marriage or adoption or as compensation for offences.

Members of the kaainga in those days had to be on the alert to defend their property from unexpeted aggression or encroachment from other kaainga. A land-grabber would sometimes lead his kaainga members to the land he intended to acquire, clear it as if it were his own, and then wait. When the rightful owner showed up, there would be fighting until one party was defeated. The victors would then take or retain the land. But if anyone from either side was killed, the others would have to give the nenebo.

Both men and women could inherit land rights, and from both parents. In most cases, the best land went to the eldest son (karimoa) but there were exceptions, such as occurred if the eldest son was seen in his parents' eyes as negligent towards their welfare in old age. In that case the best land together with the tekateka (place or residence), would go to a junior member of the family.

In Maiana, there was an exception whereby the eldest daughter would inherit her mother's best land. Usually, when there was not much land to be shared among the children, the daughters apart from the eldest might only inherit a babai pit.

When a person died without children, his nearest kin would inherit his lands. This form of inheritance is known as the mwiniti.

People could also acquire lands by means other than inheritance - for example, as gifts in appreciation of personal favours, for adoption or care-taking, as compensation, or as a result of such special relationships as those between a woman and her husband's uncles. The aba n tinaba was land transferred in appreciation of a favour arising from an in-law relationship. This involved the lady anointing her husband's uncle or garlanding him in the presence of the other old men or at a public gathering outside the maneaba. This was indeed a privilege, a high honour for the woman's uncle-in-law. In return for such an honour, the old man would immediately offer the woman a piece of land. The ultimate form of this was te bora, where a man would give a piece of land after he had actually slept with his nephew's wife.


Te aba ni kuakua transfer in appreciation of a personal favour, was a reward given by old men and women to someone, apart from their children, who looked after them in sickness and old age. Land could also be used to 'pay' for special skills, especially healing.

An adopted child received land from its adoptive parents as confirmation of the adoption. This is known as aba n tibu (adopted grandchild's land) or aba n nati (adopted son's land). The former practice was common to almost all islands while the latter is mostly found in the central and northern islands.

The real parents of the adopted child could give the adoptive parents land to help provide for the child. This piece of land was known as te nii ni marai (a palm from which coconut flesh for the child's food is obtained) in the southern Gilberts, or the ba n uri (napkin) in the northern islands. Generally, such a gift was not subject to reversion. There was, however, an exception Beru where the nii ni marai was returned to the original owners once the child reached maturity.

The aba n nenebo was a classic example of compensation in land for personal damage and loss. To prevent transfer of a piece of land from the property of kaainga or utu. The culprit could consent to have himself killed by the party who had suffered a loss. This was common to most islands, but especially so in the southern Gilberts. Land disputes were prevalent before the arrival of the British Colonial Administration. The people had their own procedures for settling disputes. There were two main categories:

(i)  Disputes between utu or kaainga. This occurred when one kaainga or utu challenged the right of another usually in warfare. It could occur between neighbouring owners, particularly over a disputed boundary.

(ii) Disputes within the utu or kaainga. These were usually between kinsmen who were not satisfied with the kakaraoi (distribution). Trouble could also occur over the mwiniti (estate of a childless person). This was where the closeness of relationships to the deceased could be disputed.

Land disputes of both types could involve bloodshed, which carried on until one party  submitted to the other and acknowledged defeat. Or the dispute could be resolved by a compromise negotiated or imposed by a chief or by the unimane of the maneaba.

The sea abounds with various species of fish and sea-life. The techniques of its exploitation varied from simple gathering and collection (te rikoriko) to the use of both simple and elaborate indigenous technology such as the maa (stone fish-trap). In Makin and Butaritari, for example, the utu whose land lay adjacent to that section of the reef had full rights to the resources of the area, the right to distribute the flotsam, and to regulate the access of others to the area. At the lagoon-side, ownership rights also extended over the reef area. Infringement of sea rights, like land rights, could be punished by death. The kaainga no longer has legal rights over the maran or the lagoon. However, the right of the individuals or kaainga who build a stone fish-trap on the maran adjacent to their land is observed and recognised and access is confined strictly to the builder's kinsmen, who in most cases have contributed labour to the trap's construction. A stone fish-trap built by an individual is, after his death, jointly owned by his children.


There was no surplus for trading purposes and any that accumulated was stored for special occasions such as births, marriages and other family and maneaba gatherings. There was some specialisation; such skills as toddy-cutting, babai cultivation, fishing, canoe building, and house construction were common at a basic level. For each of these skills, however, there were particular families known to have special expertise. These particular skills were regarded as family secrets and would be used for the benefits of others to return for other skills or, in some cases, after marriage links had been established.


The division of labour was on the basis of sex and, to a lesser degree, of age. General housework was done by women, while the heavier tasks such as toddy-cutting, babai pit digging, and construction work was carried out by men. Cultivation was generally performed by both sexes.

In exploiting the sea, there was also a clear division of labour. Fishing on the maran, particularly the collection of seafood, was confined to the women, while deep-sea fishing was done by the men. Torch fishing on the maran at night was undertaken by both sexes.

The young men and women did similar tasks - especially fetching and carrying for their elders - in their early years. However, as they grew up they began to learn more specific roles; the girls from their mothers and boys from their fathers.

The environment was limited, the soil was poor, few trees and plants would grow, water was always a precious commodity and droughts were common. Because of this, all resources, many of them disregarded in more fortunate countries, were carefully used. To remain alive the Gilbertese people had to live in harmony with their environment. This lack of resources also meant that there were not many attractions for Europeans, and only a few came to live in the Gilberts in the 19th century.

There were three basic types of government. In most of the islands north of the equator there were several district leaders, each of whom led a group of kaainga. On Butaritari-Makin, Abemama-Kuria-Aranuka and, to a lesser extent, Abaiang, one chief was usually recognised as paramount. From Nonouti southwards, the unimane (old men) dominated the communities through the maneaba and provided political leadership.

It is difficult to know how these systems of government evolved, but it seems that the kaainga has always been important. Oral traditions 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 was acknowledged 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 lands 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 districts, 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 dynasties of Butaritari-Makin, Abaiang, and Abemama-Kuria-Aranuka were 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.

In the southern Gilberts the basic units of political organisation were the extended family (utu), the kaainga and the district (which was composed of a number of kaainga). As well as his responsibilities within the kaainga its leader was the main representative of his kaainga in the maneaba (meeting house) which was the centre of district government.

A maneaba is a rectangular meeting house usually located at a central point within the district community. The basic construction was of pandanus and coconut logs bound with coconut fibre. The roof-frame rested on low pillars of rock around the perimeter, and was supported inside by parallel rows of coconut pillars. The measurements were in nga (arm-spans of about two metres) and the average size was twenty thirty nga by ten to twenty nga.

The origins and history of the maneaba are much disputed but according to most Gilbertese legends the maneaba system was brought to the southern Gilberts by migrants from Samoa, who settled on the various islands, built their maneaba and divided their area amongst the kaainga of the district. Each kaainga therefore had its boti or sitting place in the maneaba.More recently, probably in the 17th century, the construction and boti arrangement of most southern maneaba were brought into conformity with the Tabontebike maneaba of Beru. This was achieved by the military conquests of Kaitu and Uakeia, two great warriors from Beru. Actually, Uakeaia came from Nikunau and joined Kaitu in Beru. In the northern Gilberts the chiefly systems remained largely untouched, but the maneaba now played a more important role.

There were very few district maneaba in the north, where the maneaba of the chief of the dominant kaainga of the district tended to serve for general gatherings.The campaigns of Kaitu and Uakeia did not reach Butaritari-Makin or Banaba, although subsequent contact led to some modifications on these islands as well.

In addition to the Tabontebike type of maneaba there are two other important types: the Taribo type, which had its origins at Tabiang on Beru, and the Maungatabu type, which is now mainly associated with Nikunau and Onotoa. Contrary to the general trend of Gilbertese legends, the people of Tebanga on Maiana claim that this type had its origin at their village, and this may well be correct since in the southern Gilberts it is held that the first Maungatabu type maneaba was built by a chief who came from the northern islands.


The boti was the sitting place in the maneaba allocated to a given kaainga or group of kaainga and these boti were ranged around the perimeter of the maneaba. As the population increased a number of the original boti were divided until there were an average of perhaps twenty or thirty boti in most maneaba. As the population further increased two or more kaainga might occupy a single boti. At any meeting the elders sat in the front of the boti and other members behind the line of the boutabu or sacred pillars. When an unimane died, his eldest son would take his place in the front of the boti on behalf of his utu but his role would still be subordinate to his elders in the boti. Usually sons sat in their father's boti but it was permissible for them to enter the boti of their mother.

Because marriage was prohibited between couples who could remember a common ancestor, marriage always took place outside the kaainga and often between different islands. This, and the fact that genealogies were well remembered, meant that extensive and well known kin networks existed throughout the group, and even to some persons having land rights on more than one island. It was possible, therefore, for a visitor to go to an island that was not his usual place of residence and to trace his descent to one or more boti to the maneaba and thus legitimately take his place. If a visitor could not trace his descent in this way, or until such time as he had justified his claim to the satisfaction of the unimane, he was obliged to occupy the boti reserved to strangers.

Specified roles in maneaba protocol and maintenance were allocated to the members of a particular boti. One boti provided the ceremonial head of the maneaba, who was also the first speaker at any function, to open proceedings and announce the subject to be discussed. Another was expected to answer. There was then a further speech and reply from two other boti, after which decision of the unimane pronounced by the first speaker. Another boti was responsible for tasting and assessing publicly the quality and quantity of food presented by each kaainga to a maneaba gathering.

When repairs to the maneaba were necessary, a number of boti had particular responsibilities; to repair the roof-capping, or to provide tools for the sewing of thatch, or to arrange the mats when the flooring needed to be replaced, and so on. The provision of the building materials was a collective responsibility and it was customary for the elders to specify the nature and quantity to be provided by each kaainga. Those who had no specific responsibilities were expected to provide food for those working on the maneaba.


Although matters of concern to a particular family would be settled within the kaainga, all matters that affected the district and most of those which affected two or more kaainga would, in the southern islands, be considered in the maneaba. When there were land disputes between kaainga, for example, the collective decision of the maneaba would have to be observed. The unimane would reach a consensus after discussing all aspects of the case. As well as arbitrating in disputes, and deciding matters which affected the community as a whole, the maneaba would, where necessary, enforce accepted standards of behaviour.

In the northern and central islands disputes could be settled by negotiation between kaainga, or the chief or district leader could intervene to bring about a settlement. The main difference was that in the north the chief could over-ride a decision made by the elders. In spite of these differences, however, laws throughout the Gilberts did not vary a great deal. The three most serious punishments, before the arrival of the missionaries and colonial rule, were death, banishment, or compensation (usually land). 


When a man was killed in a fight his family would seek immediate revenge and try to kill the killer. If they failed, or if the killer was able to reach a sanctuary on those islands which had them, they would seek compensation in the form of land. It was not possible to pursue vendettas for a long time, however, because the punishment had to be inflicted within a few days or it would itself be liable to the same compensation as the original killing.

In the case of theft - especially of coconuts or babai - the landowner could, if he was able, kill the thief on the spot. Failing this he would tell the thief's kaainga as his relatives had the first responsibility for punishing him. Because theft brought shame on the family, the thief would usually be killed or banished. Then the kaainga would negotiate compensation. In the event of a disagreement this would be referred to the maneaba or the chief.

A man who had sexual relations with the wife, betrothed wife or future consort of another man was often made to pay compensation in land. On some islands, the punishment would be death; on others the two men would fight to the death. The offending woman could be beaten, disfigured (usually by having her nose bitten, or bitten off), or sent away, depending on the wishes of her husband or future husband.

Incest was ideally settled within the kaainga. As incestuous relationship was one between any couple who could remember a common ancestor. Couples committing incest, would usually be killed if they were very close relatives, or set adrift if their relationship was more distant. In many cases couples who wished to marry against this custom would take their chance in a canoe rather than await the punishment of their relatives. If they landed at another island they might be left in peace. An exception was found in the northern Gilberts where intermarriages amongst members of the chiefly families were permitted.

There were various punishments, beating, for example, that could be inflicted on those who failed to observe the usual standards of behaviour. Persistent annoyance to the community would usually result in banishment to another district or island.

In general, crime was seen as a personal matter between the parties concerned and this was the reason for the payment of compensation to, or the taking of life by those who had suffered. The most precious resource, the land, was most commonly taken in compensation. When people from different maneaba were involved, punishments tended to depend on the importance and support of the two parties, and offenders who had the powerful backing of well-armed relatives and friends were sometimes able to escape without a penalty for offences committed against a person without such support.

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