Additional Oddities of Kiribati’s Line Islands

Before moving on from the current series of posts on Kiribati, it is worth exploring a few additional aspects of this intriguing country.

Triangle Polynesia Map 1The first of these points may be somewhat trivial but is still worth mentioning: The recent Gilbertese colonization of the Line Islands undermines the stock idea that Polynesia can be delimited within a vast triangle, with apexes situated in New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

Historically speaking, “Triangular Polynesia” is still a useful heuristic devise. The indigenous peoples of this vast area all speak closely related languages and have traditionally followed similar ways of life. Admitted, the triangular shape of the Polynesian cultural region was never perfect, as the Polynesia Melanesia Micronesia Mapwestern side of the triangle must make a jog to avoid Fiji (classified as part of Melanesia) and to take in Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands). Careful cartographers, moreover, also append a westward extension to encompass a number of small Polynesian “outliers,” such as Rennell and Ontong Java, that belong politically to Melanesian or Micronesian countries but are themselves unambiguously Polynesian in culture.

The notion of “Triangular Polynesia” has also been compromised by massive non-Polynesian migration into its two largest island groups, New Zealand and Hawaii, but it is also true that both New Zealand and Hawaii still retain substantial Polynesian communities. The Polynesian population of New Zealand, moreover, is growing rapidly, due in part to migration from the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau. The residents of these political dependencies of Wellington all hold New Zealand citizenship and can thus migrated to New Zealand without restriction.

At one time, the Line Islands also fell within the Polynesian realm. Although none of these islands had been permanently settled by Polynesians, many had been visited, especially during the period when a tenuous connection was maintained between Tahiti and Hawaii. Some of the Line Islands, moreover, had evidently been settled by Polynesians for several generations before they were abandoned.

revised polynesia mapToday, however, the Line Islands are politically bound to the Micronesian country of Kiribati, and the people of the three inhabited islands in the chain are almost all ethnic Gilbertese (or I-Kiribati). As such, they are Micronesians, not Polynesians. The Gilbertese language, for example, belongs to the Micronesian family, and is thus closely related to the tongues of the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.* As a result of the Micronesian settlement of the Line Islands, contemporary Polynesia has only a vaguely triangular shape, as I have indicted in the map posted here.

Spanish Pacific MapA related issue concerning the geographical classification of the Line Islands is the fact that Spain apparently maintains a potential claim to some of these specks land based on the historical authority of the Spanish Empire over parts of Micronesia. After experiencing defeat in the Spanish American War of 1898, Spain sold Palau, the Caroline Islands (today, essentially the Federated States of Micronesia) and the Northern Mariana Islands to Germany. Some Spanish researchers, however, have argued that Spain maintained rights to other “Micronesian” islands, especially Christmas Island (Kiritimati), that were not passed on to Germany. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Emilio Pastor Santos, a researcher of the Spanish National Research Council, claimed in 1948 that there was historical basis, supported by the charts and maps of the time, to argue that Kiritimati (or Acea as in the Spanish maps) and some other islands had never been considered part of the Carolines. Thus Kiritimati was not included in the description of the territory transferred to Germany, and therefore was not affected on the part of Spain to any cessation of transfer and theoretically Spain should have the only jurisdiction and right to this island.

Pastor Santos presented his thesis to the Spanish government in 1948. In the Council of Ministers of Spain on 12 January 1949, the Minister of Foreign Affairs declared on this proposal that it has passed to the first stage of public attention. The Cabinet of Diplomatic Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs circulated the following note:

“The Minister of Foreign Affairs informed the Council of Ministers of the situation in which we find ourselves in view of information and public commentary in the press and because of the requests made of the Spanish administration. The Ministry recognises that it is a certain fact and historic truth due to Article 3 of the Treaty of 1 July 1899, that Spain reserved a series of rights in Micronesia and for another thing, the specifications of the territories which Spain ceded in 1899 leaves apart certain groups of islands in the same zone.”

However, no Spanish government has made any attempt in this respect, and this case remains as a historical curiosity related to Kiritimati.

Teraina IslandAnother noteworthy aspect of some of the Line Islands is their unusual physical geography. This is particularly so in the case of Teraina or Washington Island, which was settled after WWII and now has some 1,700 inhabitants. Although Teraina is a coral atoll, its central lagoon has been cut off from the ocean and now forms a (mostly) freshwater lake and series of bogs. (A somewhat similar situation is encountered in the Polynesian Outlier of Rennell Island.) Abundant fresh water is available because Teraina is located to the north of the dry zone that encompasses most of the Line Islands. As a result, it receives abundant rainfall. The Wikipedia description of its physical geography is worth noting:

[Teraina] is a raised coral atoll, but it has not filled up with sand and soil, yet still retains a significant remnant of the former lagoon. The lake, however, is only just barely perceptibly brackish, as its only significant source is the plentiful rain. The lake is only a few feet (around 1–2 meters) deep for the most part, though the supposed maximum depth is nearly 10 meters (33 feet). …

The western inland is made up by peat bog, which is still flooded much after heavy rains, and constitutes infilled former lakebed. It is not clear in what way the western lake or lakes – there are now 2 main areas of bogland, which may correspond to former lake basins – were connected to the remaining waterbody. One bog is immediately adjacent to the lake’s western end, the other is halfway between that and the island’s NW tip. Canals have been cut into the bogs, for punting, rowing and motor boats transporting people and produce. There is some removal of peat and sediments to stem the lake’s ongoing infilling; in addition it seems that in recent times, the lake’s level is slowly rising again so that the eastern bog’s area has receded somewhat. The peat reaches thicknesses of about 1-1.5 meters (some 3–5 ft), much of which is located above sea level.

International Date Line MapAs a final note on these islands, the International Date Line was given a major adjustment in 1994 so as to place all of Kiribati on the western side of the line. As a result, its uninhabited Caroline Island (not to be confused with the Caroline Islands of the Federated States of Micronesia) is now, in terms of time, the “easternmost” land on Earth. As explained yet again in the Wikipedia:

Caroline Island now is at the same time as the Hawaiian Islands (Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time Zone), but one day ahead. This move made Caroline Island both the easternmost land in the earliest time zone (by some definitions, the easternmost point on Earth), and one of the first points of land which would see sunrise on January 1, 2000 — at 5:43 a.m., as measured by local time.

The stated reason for the move was a campaign promise of Kiribati President Teburoro Tito to eliminate the confusion of Kiribati straddling the Date Line and therefore being constantly in two different days. However, Kiribati officials were not reluctant to attempt to capitalize on the nation’s new status as owners of the first land to see sunrise in 2000. Other Pacific nations, including Tonga and New Zealand’s Chatham Islands, protested the move, objecting that it infringed on their claims to be the first land to see dawn in the year 2000.

In 1999, in order to further capitalize upon the massive public interest in celebrations marking the arrival of the year 2000, Caroline Island was officially renamed Millennium Island. Although uninhabited, a special celebration was held on the island, featuring performances by Kiribati native entertainers and attended by Kiribati president Tito. Over 70 Kiribati singers and dancers traveled to Caroline from the capital Tarawa, accompanied by approximately 25 journalists. The celebration, broadcast by satellite worldwide, had an estimated audience of up to one billion viewers.

Giant ClamCaroline island is also noted for its nearly pristine ecological conditions, and for its “incredible density of Tridacna, the colorful giant clams.”

*Strictly speaking, Micronesia as a whole, unlike Polynesia, does not form a clear-cut cultural-linguistic category, as the languages of Palau, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, which are geographically classified as parts of Micronesia, do not belong to the Micronesian family.

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