The Recent Gilbertese Settlement of the Line Islands

Map of KiribatiIt is difficult to convey the immensity and emptiness of the Republic of Kiribati. The country extends across more than 3.5 million square kilometers (1,351,000 sq mi) of oceanic space, an area considerably larger than India. The distance between its western and eastern islands is comparable to the distance across the United States. Yet Kiribati contains only 800 square kilometers (310 sq mi) of land, an area slightly larger than the city-state of Singapore, and considerably smaller than the city of Los Angeles.

With some 103,000 inhabitants (in 2010), Kiribati has only a moderately dense population. Its 135 people per square kilometer of land (350 per sq mi) places it in the 73rd position among the world’s 244 sovereign states and dependent territories, well below Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But such figures are misleading, as the population of Kiribati is by no means evenly distributed over its far-flung expanse. Most of its residents live on the 16 atolls of the Gilbert Archipelago in the west. Here more than 85,000 people are crowded into roughly 281 square kilometers of low-lying land. On the main atoll of Tarawa, a fast-growing population of some 55,000 is limited to 31 square kilometers. Tarawa’s highest point is three meters above sea level.

The Phoenix Islands in central Kiribati are a different matter. These islands contain 84.5 square kilometers of land but their population is negligible. Only Kanton Island is inhabited, and its population in 2010 was all of 24, having declined from 61 in 2000. Although archeological remains indicate that some of the Phoenix Islands had once been settled, they had no human inhabitants when they were first sighted by Europeans. In the late 1930s, major efforts were made to populate the Phoenix Islands, described by the Wikipedia as “the last attempt at human colonisation within the British Empire.” Imperial agents wanted to reduce over-population in the southern Gilbert Islands and to forestall potential U.S. attempts to gain territory under the Guano Islands Act. The colonization project was abandoned in 1963, however, with the settlers returning to the Gilbert Islands. Low prices for copra, the islands’ only significant export, along with recurrent drought, undermined the scheme.

Pacific Rainfall MapDrought is also a problem in many of the Line Islands, which form Kiribati’s eastern archipelago. The central and southern Line Islands fall within the low-rainfall region of the eastern Pacific, which is generated in large part by the cold waters of the Humboldt Current that are deflected into the equatorial region by the shape of the South American landmass. Partly as a result of meager and uncertain precipitation, the Line Islands—which themselves stretch over 2,350 kilometers of sea-space—were also uninhabited at the time of European discovery. They were all claimed by the United States under the Guano Islands Act, but the U.S. relinquished all of its claims in 1983, with the Congressional ratification of the Treaty of Tarawa (more formally known as the “Kiribati, Treaty of Friendship and Territorial Sovereignty, September 20, 1979,” with a subtitle reading “Treaty of Friendship Between the United States of America and the Republic of Kiribati”).

Line Islands Population growthToday, three of the Line Islands are inhabited: Teraina, or Washington Island, with 1,155 residents (2005), Tabuaeran, or Fanning Island, with 2,539 residents (2005), and Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, with 5,115 residents (2005). The populations of all three islands have increased rapidly in recent decades, owing in part to official Kiribati relocation schemes designed in part to reduce crowding in the Gilbert Islands. Teraina Island was first settled after WWII through the agency of the Burns Philip Copra Company, but its population expanded significantly only after 1990. As noted in an official publication of the Republic of Kiribati:

The population of Teeraina in the 2010 census was 1,690. Compared to the 2005 population of 1,155 and the 2000 population of 1,087, the population is growing very rapidly. The population of Teeraina grew by 535 people between 2005 and 2010, an annual population growth of 7.9%. In percentage terms, Teeraina is the fastest growing island in Kiribati, although the growth is much less significant in terms of absolute numbers.

Kiritimati Island MapGrowth on Kiritimati Island, the giant of not only the Line Islands but also of Kiribati as a whole, has been even more dramatic, its population jumping from 3,431 in 2000 to 5,115 in 2005. With some 388 square kilometers of dry land, Kiritimati Island has a larger terrestrial extent than any other coral atoll in the world.

The vast majority of the people now living in the Line Islands are originally from the Gilbert Archipelago and speak Gilbertese, also known as the Kiribati Language.* As noted in the Wikipedia, “Unlike many in the Pacific region, the Kiribati language is far from extinct, and most speakers use it daily. 97% of those living in Kiribati are able to read in Kiribati, and 80% are able to read English.” Gilbertese has also expanded into nearby countries, with some 5,000 people speaking the language in the Solomon Islands and perhaps another 1,000 doing so in Vanuatu.

Kiribati Fertility LevelThe expansion of the Gilbertese-speaking area has been driven largely by population growth. Although Kiribati’s fertility rate has declined in recent years, it is still well above the replacement rate. Given the small size of the Gilbert Islands, migration to other areas is not surprising. The government of Kiribati is also keen to establish permanent populations in its distant islands in order to cement its control over areas that had been tenuously held. Kiribati also views Kiritimati Island as a potential refuge in the event of a catastrophic sea-level rise. The European Union agrees, and has thus pledged substantial development funds. As noted in a February 2015 article in Radio Australia:

The European Union has just announced a 23 million Euro grant for Kiribati, money that will be used to develop the nation’s largest atoll, Kiritimati Island.

Although it makes up 70 per cent of the country’s landmass, Kiritimati Island was virtually uninhabited for decades and is relatively undeveloped.

By improving facilities on the island, the EU Ambassador to the Pacific Andrew Jacobs says the aim is to reduce the threat posed by climate change to the main population centre of Tarawa.

Kiribati is also concerned about its elevated fertility level. As noted in a World Culture Encyclopedia article on the country:

Population has been growing rapidly since the early 1900s, and overpopulation is a serious concern of the government. While family-planning methods were introduced in 1968 and are delivered free, fertility remains moderately high and large families are culturally valued. Despite government efforts to maintain and improve life on the outer islands, there has been substantial migration to the capital on South Tarawa. There are several thousand I-Kiribati in other countries, most serving as temporary workers.

* The word “Kiribati” itself means “Gilberts” in the Gilbertese language. It is unclear what the indigenous word for the archipelago is, although “Tungaru” has been suggested. Note that in Gilbertese orthography, a “ti” is pronounced as an “s” sound, giving the preferred pronunciation of the country as “keer-ə-bahss.” By the same token, the island of “Kiritimati” is rendered as “kuhris-muh s” or “kəˈrɪsmæs,” the local pronunciation of “Christmas.” It is unclear why the “s” sound in Gilbertese is written as “ti”; I dimly recall reading that the first missionaries brought a typewriter with a broken “s” key, and hence used “ti” as a substitute symbol, but I have been unable to find confirmation


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The Anomaly of Banaba Island: Part of Kiribati, But Administered from Fiji


Revised-Map-Of-Geopolitical-AnomaliesFor some time I have been making a list of “geopolitical anomalies,” loosely defined as existing arrangements that defy the standard model of sovereign states exercising completely control over unambiguous, clearly delimited territorial realms. Until recently, however, one of the world’s more interesting geopolitical anomalies had escaped my attention: that of Banaba Island (also called Ocean Island) in the Pacific island country of Kiribati. Banaba definitely belongs to the country of Kiribati, yet it is administered by a legal body based in another country, Fiji. The “body” in question is the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders, which administers both Rabi Island (in Fiji) and Banaba Island in Kiribati, although it maintains its main office in Kiribati Banaba MapSuva, the capital Fiji, located on the island of Viti Levu. The people of Rabi Island are Fijian citizens, but they also hold passports from Kiribati. More importantly, they maintain ownership of Kiribati’s Banaba Island, which gives them they authority to administer it. One of the eight members of the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders, moreover, sits in the parliament of Kiribati in order to represent the community.

Kiribati mapBanaba covers only 6 km2 (2.3 sq mi), but is still one of the larger islands of Kiribati, a country mostly composed of tiny coral atolls scattered across an enormous expanse of oceanic space. Only 335 people Banaba Island Maplived on the island as of 2012. Rabi Island is considerably larger in regard to both area and population, covering 67.3 km2 (26.0 sq mi) and counting some 5,000 inhabitants, 95 percent of whom are ethnic Banabans.

The unusual geopolitical situation of Banaba is rooted in the island’s extraordinarily rich phosphate deposits, a resource that was also extremely abundant on the near-by island of Nauru, a sovereign state in its own right. The phosphate deposits are now largely mined out, leaving both Nauru and Banaba in precarious situations. Although the people of Nauru mostly remained on their own mined-out island, those of Banaba were mostly relocated just after WWII to Rabi Island in Fiji. As historian Gregory T. Banaba MapCushman explains in his award-winning book, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World, the Banaban people were not exactly forced to relocate to Rabi Island, but there were severely misled in several ways (pp. 128-129). The indigenous people of Rabi Island were similarly relocated, in their case to nearby Taveuni Island. But as the Wikipedia notes, “The original inhabitants still maintain their links to the island, and still use the Rabi name in national competitions.” The Wikipedia article on Rabi also provides a good description of the relocation process:

The Banabans came to Fiji in three major waves, with the first group of 703, including 318 children, arriving on the BPC vessel, Triona, on Fiji Rabi Map15 December 1945. Accompanying them were 300 other I-Kiribati. The Banabans had been collected from Japanese internment camps on various islands; they were not given the option of returning to Banaba, on the grounds that the Japanese had destroyed their houses – this was not true. They were told that there were houses waiting for them on Rabi: in fact they were given tents to live in and food rations which lasted for only two months. It was the middle of the hurricane season, and they were still weak from years of Japanese imprisonment: 40 of the oldest Banabans died. They were joined by a second wave between 1975 and 1977, with a final wave arriving between 1981 and 1983, following the ending of phosphate mining in 1979. Recognizing the lack of opportunities for Banabans in their homeland, the Rabi Council assisted the remaining population to move to Rabi after 1981.

But not all of the Banaban people relocated to or remained on Rabi Island; as noted above, some 335 do live on their home island today. Not surprisingly, geopolitical tensions persist. Rabi islanders are angry that only people living on Banaba are eligible for proceeds from the 614-million (Australian dollars) trust fund established from phosphate mining. In 2006, the representative of the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders in the Kiribati parliament called for Banaba to secede from Kiribati and join Fiji. Other local leaders have called on Banaba to declare its own independence. Proposals to reopen the phosphate mines have generated considerable discontent among the Banaban people.

Kiribati is, of course, keen to retain Banaba Island. Not only does its government view the Banaba as an intrinsic part of its own territorial domain, but it also sees the comparative lofty island (with a high point of 81 m [266 ft]) as a potential place of refuge in case rising sea-level inundates the county’s atolls.

Janice Cantieri posted a preliminary report on the plight of the people of Banaba as part of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling initiative in July 2015. Evidently, more of her stories will be forthcoming.

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