Traditional legend tells of the spirits moving from Samoa to the Gilbert Islands. The spirits became half human and half spirit, and then a long time later changed into human beings. Many people in Kiribati believe their ancestors to be spirits, some from Samoa, and some from the Gilberts.
Known indigenously as “Tungaru”, the modern history of Kiribati is thought to begin with the arrival of Micronesians in the South Pacific, which took place between 200 and 500 AD. However, some evidence points to migration from Southeast Asia/Indonesia area prior to this, moving into the Pacific around 3000 years ago.
Within these islands a Micronesia culture developed (though not called Micronesian until the Europeans later introduced this name), it was also infused with elements from Polynesian and Melanesian culture from invasions by neighbouring nations such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. The culture was also influenced through inter-marriages between theses countries, and later mainly from the influence of 'Polynesian' pastors.
European contact began in the 16th century, from whalers, slave traders and merchant vessels. Kiritimati Island (pronounced Christmas Island), was discovered and named “Christmas Island” by Captain James Cook on his third Pacific voyage on the eve of the 24th December 1777. In 1820 the western group of islands was named the Gilbert Islands, after a British captain named Thomas Gilbert.
The arrival of the first Missionaries also marked the beginning of Christianity in Kiribati and during the late 1850s. The first arrivals were the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) (commonly refered to as the Boston Missionary Society), who stopped in Butartari on their way to the Marshall islands in 1852. In 1857 ABCFM missionary Hiram Bingham and his wife Clarissa arrived in Abaiang. Later the ABCFM was taken over by the London Missionary Society (LMS). The Boston Missionary Society first set foot on the island of Abaiang. The second wave of Christian Missionaries were Roman Catholic priests of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who landed on the island of Nononuti in 1888.
Christianity was indigenised, and became an integral part of the Kiribati culture. The first i-Kiribati priest was ordaned in 1978 and later became Bishop of the Kiribati diocese.
In 1892, Kiribati became a British Protectorate when Captain Davis hoisted the Union Jack on Abemama Atoll. In 1916 the Ellice Islands were combined with the Gilbert Islands to form the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony; also with the inclusion of Fanning and Washington islands.
One of the notable visitors was Robert Louis Stevenson (author of literary titles ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ among others) in 1889. Setting sail for the pacific islands in 1888, after spending time in Hawaii and Tahiti, he spent time on the Kiribati atolls of Abemama and Butaritari (in the Gilbert group). Abemama Atoll is where Tyrant-chief Binoka resided, who was immortalised by Stevenson in his book “In the South Seas”. This was prior to heading to Samoa in 1890, where Stevenson spent the last of his days.
Calls for responsible government in the Gilbert & Ellise Island Colony were initiated in the 1960s. A decade later, preparation for constitutional changes towards independence began with initiatives towards internal self-government. Ethnic and linguistic differences between Ellice Islanders and the Gilbertese became evident during the 1970s and culminated in a referendum in 1974 when the Ellice Island group voted for separation. Banabans by this time had been resettled in Rabi Island, Fiji for 30 years, but were still a vocal force in independence discussions. Separation with the Ellice Islands was formalised in 1975, and in 1978, the Ellice Islands gained independence and were renamed Tuvalu.
Kiribati adopted internal self-government and a Ministerial system in 1977 and on the 12 July, 1979, with a population of less than 60 000, Kiribati achieved independence. After long negotiations and court hearing, Banaba (formerly Ocean Island) remained part of Kiribati.
The name “Kiribati” (pronounced Kiri-bas), is the local Gilbertese pronunciation of the word “Gilberts”. As part of the treaty formation, the United States relinquished 14 islands in the Phoenix and Line island groups to the new nation of Kiribati. Thus using the name “Kiribati” acknowledges those islands not considered part of the Gilbert group of islands.
In World War II, Japan seized some of the islands to form part of their defenses. In November 1943, the Gilbert Islands were scenes of bloody engagements between the American and Japanese forces. The fieriest of the battle was fought on Tarawa on the islet of Betio.
Makin, Butaritari and Abemama Atolls also experienced heavy engagements between Japanese and Americans Marines. It was on Butaritari Atoll that the US Military carried out its first ever successful raid mission from a submarine on the night of 17th August 1942. This operation was called the “Makin Raid”. World War II artefacts can still found today on Tarawa, Butaritari and Abemama. Kiribati had further military involvement in the 1950's and 1960's, with Kiritimati (Christmas) Island serving as a base for early nuclear testing.
In 1995 Kiribati moved the International Date Line, so that the entire country could be on the same day at the same time - prior this, western Kiribati was 22 hours ahead of eastern Kiribati. Due to this change, Kiribati was the first nation to see the new millenium, the 1st of January 2000.