Beru is another of the fascinating islands in the Republic of Kiribati. It is the cradle for many of the significant aspects of Kiribati culture. This includes the first mwaneaba or maneaba (public meeting house), Tabontebike, and the Kiribati ancestor Nareau who is said to have originated from Beru.
Beru is a reef at 1 degree 20' S latitude and is 15 kilometres long (NE-SE) and 4.75 kilometres wide at the widest point (NE-SE). The centre of the reef is a shallow depression, Nuka Lagoon, and resembles Aranuka in being between a reef island and a true atoll. As part of the Southern group of the Gilberts (Kiribati) with Tabiteuea (96 kilometres west) and Nikunau either side, and 426 kilometres Southeast of Tarawa Atoll.
The land mass occupies fully a third or more of the shallow reef structure and is positioned mostly towards the Northeast edge of the reef. The lagoon which is mostly towards the north end, is 12 miles long and 3 to 4 miles wide and mangroves are present here. A small lagoon or barachois at the northern tip is surrounded by man-made fishponds, and is a similar feature at the south end of the islet. A 3 kilometre long barachois with extensive mangroves occupies the interior south of Nuka lagoon. A causeway is present across the inlet mouth and a landing strip is present on the interior flats.
The 1990 census shows there are nine villages of Beru; shown below with their population:
There is a total area of 17.7 square kilometres for its 1909 population which was 4.2% of the Republic of Kiribati's citizens. There were 539 households with 1,560 of the population over eighteen years of age; or 165 people per square kilometre. Most islanders are Protestant (2,130) and Catholics are the next largest religious group (700). At the time of census there were 4 Tuvaluans, 5 Europeans, and 3 of other nationality. 197 Islanders were employed and 465 were listed as self-employed. Beru is represented by two elected Members of Parliament.
The population seems to have been a fairly static. H.E. Maude considers that the estimate given by trader Handy to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1855 was probably accurate. He reported Beru with a population of 2,500 to 3,000. In 1901, Captain Tupper of HMS Pylades gave the population as 2,248 and in 1973 the provisional census was 2,418.
MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF BERU
According to the stories of the unimane (old men), there was a giant, Tabuariki, and his footprints can be found at several locations, none of which are in Beru. However, he is said to have chosen Beru his home island in his later life and many claim that Beru lagoon was his personal property.
Girl wearing dance regalia for ruoia, Beru, 1930
In a traditional story of the creation, Nareau having created Samoa then created people on Beru represented by Taburimai and Riki who were the first man and his wife. Settlement of Beru could have sprung from the disastrous war in the 3rd century AD when Savea, a great Samoan chief drove out the navigators and migrants who had settled there in earlier centuries. They scattered across the Pacific, some along the old migration route to the Gilberts told in the story of the 'Tree of Life'. The story implies the migrants met with a people of similar ancestry so implying that the Gilberts were inhabited at the time of their arrival. Traditionally told story of the coming of Tematawarebwe to Beru in AD 140 was related by the elders of Beru.
Very large numbers of families in the Gilberts can trace ancestry from Beru. It was from this island that its leader, Kaitu set out on a mission of blatant conquest sometime around 1550. He took his strategist and divinator Uakeia from Nikunau and an army of 600 men travelling in 37 large canoes accompanied by quite a few women and food. (Kaitu's own canoe was 60 feet long and 7 feet high with an outrigger 40 feet long. This canoe was described as "moderate size" and preserved at Abemama into the 20th century). The expedition made its first landing at the southern end of Tabiteuea. There, the islanders fled north to give warning and gather forces. Kaitu consulted Uakeia who consulted his oracles. These were probably 32 round coral stones or a collection of palm leaves stalks; however, Uakeia was clever and advised a strategy that put the battleground at the gap between the two islets or motus. Then Kaitu's army spent an entire day and night making 30 stone men who were over twice the height of an ordinary man. The stone men "armed" with spears and placed to "defend" the islet, looked like warriors of colossal stature across the gap. As dawn came, Kaitu's army made as much of a din as they could and the Tabiteueans could see the terrifying sights of the Beru "chiefs". They fled to their canoes and Kaitu continued his advance up the atoll. One of the Beru chiefs, Kourabi, had a grandfather and uncle who lived at Temanoku and Tekabwebwe and these two northern villages were left undisturbed. Another man from Beru named Tabora had his land and the place where he caught crabs untouched.
Next the invaders went to Nonouti where rumours of the Beru giants had preceded them. Tabiria, queen of the southern part welcomed the invaders and was spared any plunderings. Further north, people fled in terror and the army took what they wanted. Within a few weeks, Kaitu helped by Uakeia and his men took every island as far north as Abaiang and Marakei without loss of a single warrior.
The story is told that the northernmost atolls of Butaritari and Makin combined forces and made elaborate plans to resist invasion. Such a united force might well have defeated Kaitu but he did not advance. Mangkia, a young man of Butaritari, got tired of waiting and took a single large canoe and some hand-picked men across 80 miles of open ocean to Marakei only to find that Kaitu had returned to Tarawa. Mangkia continued onwards and found Kaitu's army enjoying themselves in the maneaba at Taratai. Gilbertese formality meant that he was admitted to the maneaba to speak and he boldly asked if Kaitu meant to war against Butaritari and if the matter could be settled "here and now". The men at Beru could see they were surrounded by Mangkia's hand-picked companions standing just under the eaves of the maneaba. They did not wish to see a victory celebration spoiled by death and admiring the bold Mangkia, they agreed not to invade. Mangkia demanded a "pledge" of proof and asked for Abemama which was granted and he became the ancestor of the Kings of Abemama. On the conquered islands, a large percentage of the men were dispersed and lands were divided among Kaitu and his chiefs. This invasion may account for the uniformity in tradition and the social organization throughout the region's scattered atolls. Kaitu is also credited with conquering Nui in the Ellice Group (Tuvalu) and may account for a Gilbertese "patoist" noted there early in the 20th century.
THE DESCENDANTS OF AURIARIA ON BERU
Nei Tearia of Banaba
When Auriaria had cut off all the branches of the Tree of Tamoa, he left that land and went North to Beru. There lived Nei Anginimaeao, the child of Nareau, at Tabiang on the northen end of this land.
Auriaria lay with Nei Anginimaeao: two children were born. The first-born was called Te Antimaomata (the half spirit half man); the second was called Na Boborau (the Traveller).
After those children were born, Auriaria said to his wife, 'Woman, let us go to my kainga (house-place) which is at Banaba'. She prevented him not: they arose and got up on their canoe named Tabera-ni-kai-ni-buti-ni-Beru (Summit-of-tree-of-swiftness-of-Beru).
When they arrived at Banaba, these were the ancestors who landed with them - Nan Tebubu, Kouteba, Namakaina, Nang Kabutia, Nei Teborata, Na Manenimate; and their leader (mataniwi) was Nei Anginimaeao. It was these who portioned out the land, and lived in the three places Tabiang, Uma and Buakonikai. Their children live there to this day; and the fourth place is Tabwewa, where live the children of Tabakea and Tituabine, who remained on Banaba when Auriaria and Nareau went voyaging.
The first child of Nei Anginimaeao was Te Antimaomata. His seed was Te Bunanti (the Breed of Spirits) who had mastery over the wind, and some over the rain, and some over the sunshine. These spirits are forever at variance between themselves, and thus it is that sometimes the rain wins the victory on Banaba and sometimes it is conquered by the drought.
From the Breed of Spirits sprang the Breed of Birds, which live in the branches of the Kanawa tree (Cordia subcordata). From the Breed of Birds sprang the Breed of Men.
TABWEWA ACCOUNT OF THE COMING OF THE BERU SETTLERS
Nei Teotintake of Banaba
Auriaria was about to rest upon his land of Banaba, so he began to set it in order. He overturned it, and threw it away to eastward; it fell in the sea, and lo, it became the islands of Tamana.
And after that, Auriaria set a fence around his land (i.e. the fringing reef); he set a guard of canoes about it. Not a strange canoe must come near the land; if one appeared, it perished; if another appeared, it perished.
But after a time, a canoe from Beru appeared, and the people on it were Na Kouteba, and Na Manenimate; and Nei Anginimaeao, and Nei Teborata.
That canoe did allow Auriaria to approach; he brought it to shore, for he wished to make his land more populous.
And at the first coming of the people of that canoe, they had no wives. They were able to marry only when they met with the people of Auriaria, even the Bun Anti (the Breed of Spirits), on Banaba. And the man Na Kouteba got his wife from Tabwewa from among the people of Auriaria, after he had fixed a date to meet them on the marae of Tabwewa.
And this was what the canoe from Beru did, when first it came to Banaba from over the sea; it came to shore, and its people hasten to measure out the foreshore in a circle around the island. Each man was master of his portion. And while they were busy measuring out the foreshore, Auriaria watched them encircling the island. Then he parted from them and went to his own place of Tabwewa; and they came ashore, and they sought their wives from among the inhabitants of Banaba. And afterwards, they again met together with Auriaria at the place called Aurakeia, and they made a council with him.
And this was the judgment made in that council. Each man who came from over the sea should be master of his portion of the foreshore. But as for those of Tabwewa, the first people of Banaba and the true inhabitants of the land, they abided their time, and their time arrived.
HISTORY OF BERU
On July 1606 Pedro Fernandez de Quiros discovered Makin. About this time, shipwrecked or a fugitive, tradition says a white-skinned and red-haired man was washed ashore on a craft "like a chest" in poor condition. He is credited with fathering twenty-three children on Beru. Certainly this Atoll is among the last noted by European explorers and whalers. The first European credited with calling at Beru was Captain J. Clerk of the English whaler, John Palmer sometime in 1826 when it was known as Maria Island. A Samoan pastor arrived in 1870. Another European, Louis Becke, became a prominent novelist in the 1890's with his stories of South Pacific Islands. He lived on Beru for a time after he was shipwrecked in the 1880's. He also wrote non-fiction including a book about the fauna of Beru. Captain Davis of the HMS Royalist visited in connection with the Protectorate proclamation of 1892 (June 2).
In the late 1870's several Islanders from Beru had been at the French mission in Samoa and returned home with a fair understanding of Catholicism. A Gilbertese dictionary and grammar was prepared and printed in French around 1888 when the first Catholic French fathers, Bomtemps and Leray, reached the area.
Father Joseph Leray
They were given a tremendous welcome at Nonouti and Beru and visited each atoll in the group. The more "enlightened" Roman Catholic attitude towards dancing, singing and other entertainment did impose some 'moral precepts' but not the fines imposed under the Congregational influence.
Mrs. Goward's women's school. Wives of students, Rongorongo, Beru, 1913
Beru was headquarters of the London Missionary Society from 1900 to 1960 when it moved to Tarawa. The Mission Secondary School for boys and girls remained at Rongorongo. Early in the 20th century, the Reverend G.H. and Mrs. Eastman headed for the "Rongorongo" Training Establishment of the London Missionary Society. This mission has possessed a wireless set from 1927.
Dispensary with staff and patients, Rongorongo, Beru, 1913
Beru served as the administrative centre at various times for the Gilberts. When the District Officer arrived at Beru in 1921, he found that the Government house had been dismantled and removed to another island. He decided a traditionally built structure would be appropriate and quicker than retrieving materials from elsewhere. The new house was completed and admired and pronounced strong enough to withstand Gilbertese weather but not the particularly strong winds that a few days later took the roof off.
Printing Press, Rongorongo, Beru, 1913
In 1933, the Eastmans returning from fellow travelled on the John Williams with a young Cambridge graduate, Alfred Sadd, who was joining the mission at Rongorongo. He was involved in most activities, even operating a dispensary and doing minor surgery (his degree was in physiology). He studied Gilbertese but admitted he possessed only one prepared sermon in that language.
Carpenter's shop, Rongorongo, Beru, 1913
In 1941 when Europeans were advised to evacuate, Alfred wrote to his brother saying that he had no intention of leaving unless the Board of the London Missionary Society told him to go or the Japanese took him by force. In the end, it was the Japanese that acted. His last letter bears the date of June 1942 which did not reach England until August 1944 after news of his death had been received.
BERU AND WORLD WAR 2
Early in 1942, bombs were dropped on Rongorongo and the Church was destroyed but the tower remained. The Japanese made several visits to Beru. Pastor Itaia in his letters described a visit in August 1942 when the Japanese came to Beru and took Alfred Sadd prisoner. The Union Jack was spread on the ground but Sadd saluted it and refused to tread on it. As he was taken to the Government station, Taburei, by the soldiers he walked so fast they couldn't keep up; then when they bacame angry and shouted, he walked very slowly. As they reached the station, the Union Jack was again spread on the ground in front of him. Alfred gathered it in his arm and kissed it, then presented it to the Japanese commander. They took him off Beru to Tarawa. The wireless operators had not been found on this visit and the commander told the native Government officials that he would return in a week's time for them. The New Zealanders, A.L. Taylor and P.C. Murray, were afraid of retaliation against the islanders if they escaped. The following week the two operators, the Catholic priest and two Chinese were taken to Tarawa.
All the Gilberts coastwatching stations were silent by the end of 1942 so it was a surprise to operators at the Funafuti station when they began to receive a signal from Beru on 21st December 1943. Falavi, a Tuvaluan posted to Beru as a radio operator, took a battery radio receiver from the local school and the remains of the smashed equipment the Japanese had left. He amazed everyone by making a transmitter and receiver and was able to make regular broadcast. He was decorated for outstanding service.