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Kiribati - Phoenix Settlement

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In the 1930s the Kiribati Government recognized the problems of overpopulation and land shortages in the Kiribati Group and decided to do something about it. Administrative Officer, H. E. Maude (later Land Commissioner and, after the War Resident Commissioner), recommended that some people from the more crowded islands should be resettled where land was available. The Government accepted this recommendation because it saw that the problem was a consequence of European contact and colonial rule.

Amongst the proposed resettlement schemes, the Phoenix Islands settlement scheme was the first. It was planned and administered by Maude. Orona, the Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) name for Hull Island, was one of the islands in the "new group of islands". Maude had chosen the group for various reasons. Firstly, the Gilbertese people were naturally atoll dwellers and it would cause problems if resettlement was attempted on high volcanic islands. In such an environment, the atoll pioneer nature might be lost.

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The Phoenix Islands were similar to the Gilberts, being coral atolls, with similar atoll vegetation and climate and also near the equator. They were uninhabited. Sydney Island, according to archaeological remains, was once inhabited by Polynesian people. This showed that the island could support life.

Before any recruitment could be made for the Phoenix, Maude was ordered to inquire into overpopulation problems in the Gilberts (Kiribati). Then he was to recruit delegates from islands which suffered most from overpopulation. Two delegates were to accompany him to investigate the suitability of the Phoenix. After the inquiry, most of the southern islands were regarded as being overpopulated. Delegates were then recruited from Tamana, Beru, Onotoa and Arorae. There were also delegates from Niutao and Nanumea in the Ellice Islands (Tuvalu).

From this investigation, only three islands, Hull, Gardner and Sydney were found to be suitable for resettlement. McKean, Birnie, Phoenix, Enderbury and Canton were all rejected for various reasons. The most impressive thing about these islands, as one delegate from Onotoa said, was that he had never seen such a sight with birds in hundreds and even thousands, crabs all over the place in various sizes while the reef and the lagoons were filled with fish. Such experiences made a favourable impression on the delegates.

During the investigation, wells were dug on each island to determine the suitability of the water for drinking. All except Sydney had well-water poorer than that normally found in the Gilbert and Ellice Groups. The wells dug on Sydney, Hull and Gardner were later used by the settlers. When all the reports were received by the colony government, recruitment was planned.

There were two waves of migrants. Most of the settlers would be recruited from the island regarded as overpopulated. The first wave of migrants was to build houses and plant coconut, pandanus, and breadfruit trees. They were also to build cisterns for fresh water and make other preparations for the major group of settlers to follow.

Recruitment for the Phoenix took place between 1938 and 1940. Families who were short of land were recruited together with others who volunteered. There were however difficulties especially with water. As one of the delegates who settled in the Phoenix Islands said, had there been good well-water, they would all have been prepared to settle there permanently. Another worry was that the settlers felt they were losing their ancestral lands. But, as the delegates said, this feeling would have been drowned by good well-water. Water was the main problem: it was too saline. Livelihood was also limited because the food trees were immature and the soil was too salty for babai.  

The settlers also experienced isolation from each island as well as from their relatives in the Gilberts. Communications were difficult because it was not economical to have regular shipping to the Phoenix Group. World War 2 increased the difficulty of communication, and administration was in chaos. In particular, land disputes could not be settled.

In 1952, the Phoenix scheme was officially declared a failure. The settlers either returned to the Gilberts or were resettled in the Solomon Islands.


In 1952 when it was clear that the Phoenix scheme was not going to meet expectations, a proposal first made in 1945 by the colony government to recruit Gilbertese to work in the Solomon Islands where there was a labour shortage, was again brought to the attention of the Government. This time it was examined more thoroughly, but instead it was then decided to settle a number of Gilbertese on Crown Lands in the Solomon Islands. After negotiations with the Solomon Government, Gizo and Wagina Islands were chosen for settlement because they have abundant coconuts, good fishing reefs and the settlers would be able to obtain employment on coconut plantations.

Solomon Islands Map

Click on the above map for a larger and detailed map

Settlers on these islands were from the Phoenix Group and from other islands in the Gilberts, especially from the south. Some were private settlers, that is, they paid for their own transport and lease or purchased their own land.

But before any permanent settlers were sent, a pilot party was settled on a trial basis in 1954. They were also to prepare the area for later settlers if the scheme was successful. It was, so the first settlers built houses and prepared grounds for gardening for the later ones. Full-scale recruitment for the Solomon Islands Settlement Scheme then started in 1955. Between 1955 and 1958 a total of 564 settlers went to Wagina and Gizo, most of these from the Phoenix Group.

Following is one of the songs composed on Tamana Island for the Phoenix Group settlers:

We are about to sail to Orona,
Goodbye O people of our homeland;
We have got our lands,
In the new Group of Islands.
We shall step ashore at Orona,
We shall dig our wells;
We shall build our dwelling houses,
So that we may live well.
Stand up, O people of the Gilberts,
Grasp your working tools;
We shall stand up and clear
the undergrowth and plant coconut trees.
We are happy, for we shall now live.
Do not forget us, O people of our homeland.

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(E-mail: -- Rev. 16th November 2004)