Fun + Interesting Facts about the Micronesian Islands of Kiribati
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Every 12th July, Kiribati celebrates its independence from the United Kingdom, and in 2021 we celebrated our 42nd Independence Day.
Kiribati Independence Day tends to be celebrated across a couple of days – dance rehearsals, preparing the traditional ceremonial dress and food take precedent – culminating in a lot of traditional Kiribati dancing whilst friends, family and guests watch on over a plate of roasted pig – and even here in the UK, having celebrated in the historical village of Chedworth, we don’t hold back.
So in light of these annual celebrations, I thought I would share with you some fun and interesting facts about Kiribati.
1 | Te taetae ni Kiribati or Kiribati Language
I-Kiribati people speak Gilbertese and English. Gilbertese is a Micronesian language and only has 13 letters in its alphabet:
A, E, I, O and U
Consonants (consisting of 8 letters)
- M as in ‘number’
- N as in ‘in’
- NG as in ‘sing’
- B as in ‘be’
- K as in ‘key’
- R as in ‘tree’
- T as in ‘sea’
- W as in ‘we’
2 | How to Pronounce Kiribati
The ‘ti’ in Gilbertese is pronounced as an ‘s’. Therefore, Kiribati is pronounced Kiri-bass, NOT Kiri-bah-tee! You’ll find yourself shouting at western news presenters for getting it wrong, just like I do.
3 | There Are Many Islands in Kiribati
The Republic of Kiribati – also known as Kiribati – is made up of 33 coral islands across three groups of islands: the Line Islands, the Phoenix Islands and the Gilbert Islands.
4 | The Meaning Behind ‘Kiribati’
Kiribati is the local pronunciation of Gilberts, and although the Gilberts were named after the British Captain, Thomas Gilbert, who sighted some of the coral islands in 1788, the proper and indigenous name for this group of islands is Tungaru.
Captain Thomas Gilbert, alongside Captain John Marshall, were captains of that good ol’ corporate colonisation company, The East India Company. In charge of the companies vessels of the First Fleet, the Charlotte and the Scarborough, Thomas and John, when returning from dropping off some convicts – those bread stealing thieves – at Botany Bay, sailed through the islands, describing what is thought to have been Aranuka, Kuria, Abaiang and Tarawa.
For some unknown reason, it was in fact Russian Admiral, Johann von Krusenstern, who named the islands after Gilbert in 1820.
5 | Kiribati’s National Flower
Did you know the national flower of Kiribati is the Plumeria Frangipanis?
The name “Plumeria” is attributed to Charles Plumier, a 17th Century French botanist who described several tropical species, although according to author Peter Loewer, Plumier was not the first to describe Plumeria. That honour goes to Francisco de Mendoza, a Spanish priest who did so in 1522.
The name, frangipani, comes from the Italian nobleman, Marquis Frangipani, who created a perfume used to scent gloves in the 16th century. When the frangipani flower was discovered its natural perfume reminded people of the scented gloves, and so the flower was called frangipani. Another version has it that the name, frangipani, is from the French frangipanier which is a type of coagulated milk that Plumeria milk resembles (allthingsfrangipanis.com).
6 | Kiribati’s National Bird
Did you know the national bird of Kiribati is the Magnificent Frigatebird?
The Magnificent is the biggest species of frigatebirds, with a wingspan of over 7ft and a size of 35 – 45 inches. The males have a red throat pouch and the females can be identified by the white band across their breast. With their forked tails and long wings, they are supreme flyers – spending most of their time soaring in the air rather than on land.
They tend to feed on flying fish, squid, turtle hatchlings and it’s reported that they sometimes eat the eggs and the young of their own species (nice!).
But frigate birds – a. k. a. Man of War – also deploy their piracy and aerobatic skills when ‘hunting‘ for their food … or thieving off others.
7 | The Island Atolls of Kiribati
Did you know that 32 of the islands are atolls; coral islands shaped around a central lagoon. The 33rd island, Banaba, is the only raised limestone island.
From North to South, these are the 16 atolls that makeup Tungaru:
- Abaiang (where my mum was born)
- Tarawa (where on of my sisters were born, and most of the family live)
- Abemama (where some of my family live)
8 | The Island of Banaba
Banaba was discovered to have high-grade phosphate in its coral-based rock. Under the British Phosphate Commissioners (formerly known as the Pacific Phosphate Company) – Britain, Australia and New Zealand forcibly removed the inhabitants of this island so they could mine the phosphate. So, while the colonists got rich off the phosphate exports – turning it into fertilizer to enrich their own lands – Banaba was ravaged. Good old colonialists – taking what they want, and never apologising for their destruction.
9 | Kiribati, World War II and the Battle of the Pacific
You’ve heard of Pearl Harbour, and Midway, but have you heard of the Battle of Tarawa? As part of the Japanese Pacific defence, Japan occupied the northern islands between 1941 – 1945. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the Americans started to hunt down Japanese held territory in the Pacific. First, they targeted Midway then from 20-23 November 1943 the United States, under the command of Admiral Chester W. Ninitz, launched their offensive. Over four days of intense fighting – beginning with a heavy air raid on Betio (pronounced Ber-so) and then a 3-hour naval bombardment – 5,000 Marines attempted to land against fire from the Japanese guns whilst navigating the tricky shallow reefs. Eventually, the Marines won the battle but suffered some 1,500 to injury and death. You can still find bullet casings littered about today – I found lots in Abemama when I last visited – and the wreckages of some of the Japanese coastal defence guns are still visible (you can see one quite clearly from the back of our family home in Tarawa).
10 | Kiribati and Decolonization
After WWII the UN was formed and along with it the UN Special Committee on Decolonization, committing to a process of decolonization – setting the Pacific on the path to self-determination. In 1977, the then Gilbert Islands obtained self-government from the British and two years later, the now renamed Kiribati Islands, gained independence on 12th July 1979.
11 | Kiribati is a Nation of all Hemispheres
Kiribati is the only nation in the world that lies in all four hemispheres – north, south, east and west.
The Phoenix Islands which are comprised of 8 atolls, as well as Banaba, are found to the south of the Equator which means that they are in the Southern Hemisphere. The Gilbert Islands which consists of 16 atolls are found on both the Southern and Northern hemispheres. In 1995, the International Date Line was realigned (see fact 12) so that it does not divide the country, instead, accommodating all of the islands in the same working day.
12 | The International Date Line and Kiribati
Even though the international date line is imaginary, and is not recognised legally by any country, in 1995, Kiribati moved a chunk of the dateline to the east so that the entire country was on the same side of the line. This means that every year, Kiribati, along with Samoa, are the first to welcome in the new year, rather than the last.
Kiribati’s island chain spreads over 2,000 miles of ocean but its 33 atolls cover less area than London. Prior to 1st January 1995, Kiribati had two main island groups on each side of the dateline. Consequently, the local time difference between the two groups was 23 hours — same island chain, two different dates. To simplify business and government work — and possibly to chase the new millennium, Kiribati “bent” the international date line to include its easternmost landmass, Caroline Island, which, not coincidentally, has been renamed Millennium Island (trussel.com)
13 | Did you Know Kiribati has a Very Festive Island?
Kiribati can boast of having the largest coral atoll in the world amongst its islands – Kiritimati Island … I bet you’re now trying to pronounce that knowing the two ti’s are S’s … are you there yet? I’ll help you out … it’s Christmas Island.
Kiritimati comprises over 70% of the total land area of Kiribati with the entirety of the island being a Wildlife Sanctuary; access to five particularly sensitive areas is restricted.
14 | There are Two Kiritimati Islands
In fact, there are two ‘Christmas Islands’ – we own one, the other Christmas Island is an Australian external territory which lies in the Indian Ocean, not the Pacific Ocean.
15 | Kiribati and UNESCO World Heritage Site
Former President, Anote Tong, served three terms in office. Under his leadership, Kiribati created the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) – a 150,000 square-mile UNESCO World Heritage site off-limits to fishing and extractive industry.
In total, it encompasses 408,250 sq. km expanse of marine and terrestrial habitats in the Southern Pacific Ocean, including the Phoenix Island Group, one of three island groups in Kiribati, and is the largest designated Marine Protected Area in the world.
PIPA conserves one of the world’s largest intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems, together with 14 known underwater extinct volcanoes and other deep-sea habitats. It contains approximately 800 known species of fauna, including approx. 200 coral species, 500 fish species, 18 marine mammals and 44 bird species. The structure and functioning of PIPA’s ecosystems illustrate its pristine nature and importance as a migration route and reservoir (see UNESCO for more details).
16 | Kiribati is at the Forefront of Climate Change
Anote Tong has also been twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, winner of the Sunhak Peace Prize and the 2012 Hillary Laurate, and the Peter Benchley Ocean Award from the Blue Frontier Campaign. Since leaving office, Anote Tong has continued his climate change campaign. Watch his film, Anote’s Ark, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 which highlights the effects of climate change on Kiribati (we have already lost two islands to the rising sea levels) and how Kiribati’s fate is the fate of the rest of the world (full film can be viewed on waterbear.com and viemo).
17 | Robert Louis Stevenson and Kiribati
Did you know that Scottish Author, Robert Louis Stevenson, stayed in Abemama, Kiribati? In 1889, along with his wife and her son, they were allowed temporary residence on the island. King Tem binoka was the last and independent king of parts of the islands, at a time when Kiribati (then Gilberts) was being increasingly influenced by white settlers and traders. Tem binoka resided on Abemama and did not allow outsiders to establish a permanent presence there.
He controlled access to the islands under his control and jealously guarded his revenue and his position as monarch. He briefly accepted the presence on Abemama of Tuppoti, a Christian missionary, then deported him for attempting to set up a copra trading business.
However, he granted Stevenson and his family the right to live temporarily on Abemama, on the condition that they did not give or sell money, liquor or tobacco to his subjects.