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The Gilberts had been inhabited by Micronesians for several centuries before they were discovered by Europeans.
The first recorded discovery of the islands dates back to 1765 when Commander Byron in the ship Dophin discovered the island of Nikunau . In 1788 Captain Thomas Gilbert in the Charlotte and Captain John Marshall in the Scarborough discovered Apamama , Kuria , Aranuka , Tarawa, Abaiang, Butaritari, and Makin. 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. Two ships of the United States Exploring Expedition, Peacock and Flying Fish, under the command of Captain Hudson, visited many of the Gilbert Islands. While in the Gilberts, considerable time was devoted to mapping and charting reefs and anchorages.
The natives of the Gilberts 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.
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.
Native diet prior to World War II consisted mainly of fish, coconuts, pandanus fruit, babai , chicken, and some pork. Accommodations for Europeans employed in the island were simple. Their houses were constructed of both European and native materials and were generally of the bungalow type. There were no hotels or accommodations for tourists.
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 semipagan agnostics; they did not adhere to the Christian faith, nor did they retain much of their beliefs in their own ancient gods.
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.
World War II
When war came in December 1941, the Japanese occupied Makin Atoll immediately and raided Tarawa. In February 1942, the British evacuated most of their people from Tarawa, except for missionaries who elected to remain, and coast watchers.
On 17 August 1942, 221 marines of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion were landed on Makin from two submarines. The raid was intended by the Americans to confuse the Japanese about US intentions in the Pacific. However, it had the effect of alerting the Japanese to the strategic importance of the Gilbert Islands and led to their reinforcement and fortification.
Tarawa and Apamama 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.
The colony 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.
The atolls and islands are arranged in an approximate north-to-south line. In alphabetical order, they are:
- Butaritari (formerly Makin)
- Makin (formerly Little Makin)
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