The Gilbert Islands, (formerly Kingsmill Islands) are a chain of 16 atolls and coral islands in the Pacific Ocean. They are the main part of the Republic of Kiribati ("Kiribati" is the rendition of "Gilberts" in Gilbertese) and include Tarawa, the site of the country's capital and residence of almost half of the population.
Prehistory and discovery by Europeans
Prior to the Gilberts' discovery by Europeans, the islands had been inhabited by Micronesians for several millennia. The first European explorers to reach the islands were 1788 Captain Thomas Gilbert in the Charlotte and Captain John Marshall in the Scarborough. Messrs. Gilbert and Marshall crossed through Abemama, Kuria, Aranuka, Tarawa, Abaiang, Butaritari, and Makin without attempting to land on shore. In the years that followed, many ships ran across the little islands and atolls of the Gilberts in the course of their travels in the central Pacific.
In 1820, the islands were named îles Gilbert (in French) by von Krusenstern, an Estonian admiral of the Czar after the British captain, Thomas Gilbert, together with the neighbouring îles Marshall. Two ships of the United States Exploring Expedition, USS Peacock (1828) and USS Flying Fish (1838), under the command of Captain Hudson, visited many of the Gilbert Islands (then called the Kingsmill Islands or Kingsmill Group in English). While in the Gilberts, considerable time was devoted to mapping and charting reefs and anchorages.
A British protectorate was first proclaimed over the Gilberts by Captain Davis of HMS Royalist (1883) on 27 May 1892. In 1915, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were proclaimed a colony of the British Empire.
World War II
On the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Gilbert Islands, occupying them by December 10. On 17 August 1942, 221 U.S. Marines of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion raided Makin from two submarines. The raid was intended by the Americans to confuse the Japanese about US intentions in the Pacific. It is instead believed to have alerted the Japanese to the strategic importance of the Gilbert Islands and led to their reinforcement and fortification.
Tarawa and Abemama were occupied in force by the Japanese in September 1942 and during the next year garrisons were built up on Betio (Tarawa Atoll), and Butaritari (Makin Atoll). Only nominal forces were placed on other islands in the Gilberts.
On 20 November 1943, the United States Army and U.S. 2nd Marine Division landed on Makin and Tarawa, initiating the battles of Makin and Tarawa, in which the Japanese were defeated. The Gilbert Islands were then used to support the invasion of the Marshall Islands in February 1944.
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands became autonomous in 1971. From 1976 to 1978, the Ellices were separated, and the Gilberts became the Gilbert Islands colony, which issued stamps under that name. In 1979, the Gilberts opted for independence, becoming the independent nation of Kiribati. When Kiribati became an associate state of the ANZC, the Gilbert Islands voted in a referendum to follow suit.
The natives of the Gilbert Islands are Micronesian, similar in many respects to the natives of the Marshalls, the Carolines, and the Marianas. At the time of the Japanese invasion in 1942, they were a self-governing people, with their tribal consciousness undisturbed by the British system of colony government and administration. Loyal to the British, the Gilbertese looked with dissatisfaction upon the prospects of coming under the rule of the Japanese. During their stay in the Gilberts, the Japanese did nothing to change the opinion of the Gilbertese on this score.
At the outbreak of the war, about 78% of the native population were said to be Christians. This group was divided mainly into two denominations: Congregationalists (43%); and Roman Catholics (35%). The rest of the population were largely semi-pagan agnostics; they did not adhere to the Christian faith, nor did they retain much of their beliefs in their own ancient gods. Native diet during this time consisted mainly of fish, coconuts, pandanus fruit, babai (swamp taro), chicken, and some pork. Housing for Europeans employed in the island was simple. Their houses were constructed of both European and native materials and were generally of the bungalow type. There was no tourism.
The principal industry found in the Gilberts was the production of phosphate from the deposits on Ocean Island and Fanning Island. In addition, coconut palms were cultivated on some of the islands. All labor was supervised by the British and every effort was made to see that the wages and living conditions were fair and adequate. Sanitary inspections by the British did much to improve the general living conditions on most of the islands.
Judged to be about 84% literate, the Gilbertese responded readily to the colony's educational efforts. All education in the islands came under the supervision of the Colonial Education Department whose aims were to educate native boys for employment in government and commercial work, and to standardize the level of education throughout the colony. The bulk of the education was provided by the missions, which maintained all the village schools and trained the native school teachers.
With the availability of European-style medical care life improved. The Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme sought to provide an outlet through the development of three uninhabited atolls in the Phoenix Islands and was the last attempt at human colonization within the British Empire.
Hiram Bingham II (1831-1908) was the first to translate the Bible into Gilbertese, and also wrote hymns for the Gilbertese language.
The atolls and islands of the Gilbert Islands are arranged in an approximate north-to-south line. In a geographical sense, the equator serves as dividing line between the northern Gilbert Islands and the southern Gilbert Islands. The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) considers the Gilberts wholly within the South Pacific Ocean, however.
Another method of grouping the Gilbert Islands is by former administrative districts, the Northern, Central, and Southern Gilberts (Tarawa once was a separate district as well).
An a group of the southern Gilberts is called the Kingsmill Group, a name that in the 19th century applied to all of the Gilberts