Since somewhere between 3000 BC and AD 1300, the region now known as Kiribati has been populated by Micronesians speaking the same Oceanic language. Invaders from Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji subsequently brought Polynesian and Melanesian cultural elements, respectively, to the region. Intermarriage blurred cultural distinctions and resulted in considerable cultural homogenisation.
Chance visits by European ships happened throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, when these ships attempted globe circumnavigations or explored sailing routes from the south to north Pacific Ocean. During the nineteenth century, a passing commerce, whaling the On-The-Line grounds, and labor trade ships visited the islands in great numbers, with positive, negative, and indifferent social, economic, political, religious, and cultural repercussions.
From the 1830s, the passing commerce brought European, Chinese, Samoan, and other inhabitants, including beachcombers, castaways, merchants, and missionaries. In 1892, the Gilbert Islands’ local authority (uea, atun te boti) consented to Captain Davis RN making them part of a British protectorate alongside the neighboring Ellice Islands. They were governed by a resident commissioner stationed in Butaritari (1893–95), Tarawa (1896–1908), and Banaba (1908–1941), all of which were part of the Western Pacific High Commission in Fiji. Banaba, also known as Ocean Island to Europeans, was annexed to the protectorate in 1900.
W. Telfer Campbell’s behavior as resident commissioner of the Gilberts from 1896 to 1908 was criticized for his legislative, judicial, and administrative administration (including accusations of forced labor exacted from islanders) and became the focus of Arthur Mahaffy’s 1909 report. In 1913, an anonymous writer to the New Age magazine highlighted W. Telfer Campbell’s mismanagement and questioned Arthur Mahaffy’s bias since he was a former colonial officer in the Gilberts. The anonymous letter also criticized the Pacific Phosphate Company’s activities on Ocean Island.
In 1916, the islands were designated as the Crown Colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The Line Islands, which included Christmas Island (later spelt Kiritimati) and Fanning Island (Tabuaeran), joined the colony in 1919, while the Phoenix Islands joined in 1937.
Sir Arthur Grimble was a cadet administrative officer stationed in Tarawa from 1913 to 1919 before being appointed Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony in 1926.
In 1902, the Pacific Cable Board completed the All Red Line, a series of telegraph lines circumnavigating the globe entirely within the British Empire, by laying the first trans-Pacific telegraph cable from Bamfield, British Columbia to Fanning Island (Tabuaeran) in the Line Islands and from Fiji to Fanning Island. Fanning Island, one of the closest landforms to Hawaii, was annexed by the British Empire in 1888 because to its proximity. Due to a dearth of suitable landing places, nearby possibilities such as Palmyra Island were ruled out.
The Northern Line was ultimately integrated into US territory, as were the Phoenix Islands, which lay between Kiribati and the Line Islands, including Howland, Jarvis, and Baker islands, resulting in a territorial conflict. This was ultimately settled, and they were included into Kiribati as part of the Treaty of Tarawa. This treaty, negotiated soon after independence and ratified in 1983, relinquishes the United States’ claims to the thinly populated Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands, which are part of Kiribati territory.
During World War II, Japan controlled Tarawa Atoll and adjacent Gilbert group islands from 1941 until 1943. Betio was converted into an airstrip and supply station. The fight to expel the Japanese troops in late 1943 was one of the deadliest in US Marine Corps history. Marines arrived on Tarawa in November 1943, sparking the Battle of Tarawa.
Further military intrusions into the colony occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the United States and the United Kingdom utilized Christmas Island for nuclear weapons testing, including hydrogen bombs.
Internal self-government institutions were created on Tarawa about 1967. In 1975, the Ellice Islands were split from the rest of the colony and given their own internal self-government institutions. Tuvalu gained independence from the Ellice Islands in 1978.
On July 12, 1979, the Gilbert Islands declared independence as the Republic of Kiribati.
Although the original Gilbertese language name for the Gilbert Islands proper is “Tungaru,” the new state selected the name “Kiribati,” the I-Kiribati enunciation of “Gilberts,” to recognize the inclusion of Banaba, the Line Islands, and the Phoenix Islands. The latter two were never inhabited by I-Kiribati until they were relocated there by British authorities, and subsequently by the Republic Government, through resettlement programs.
Overcrowding has been an issue in the post-independence period, at least in the perspective of British and humanitarian organizations. In 1988, it was announced that 4,700 inhabitants of the main island group would be relocated to less populous islands.
Teburoro Tito was elected President of Indonesia in 1994. Kiribati courted controversy in 1995 when it unilaterally shifted the international date line far east to include the Line Islands group, so that the country would no longer be split by the date line. The change, which fulfilled one of President Tito’s campaign pledges, was designed to enable companies throughout the vast country to maintain the same business week. This also allowed Kiribati to be the first nation to witness the beginning of the third millennium, a significant event for tourism. Tito was re-elected President in 1998. Kiribati became a member of the United Nations in 1999.
Kiribati enacted a contentious legislation in 2002 that allowed the government to shut down publications. The law was enacted in the aftermath of the successful launch of Kiribati’s first non-government-run newspaper. President Tito was re-elected in 2003, but was deposed by a no-confidence vote in March 2003 and replaced by a Council of State. In July 2003, Anote Tong of the opposition party Boutokaan Te Koaua was chosen to replace Tito. In 2007, and again in 2011, he was re-elected.
Kiribati authorities requested Australia and New Zealand in June 2008 to accept Kiribati people as permanent refugees. Kiribati is projected to be the first nation to lose its entire geographical area due to global warming. Kiribati President Anote Tong said in June 2008 that the nation had reached “the point of no return.” “It’s terrible to prepare for the day when you don’t have a nation,” he said, “but I believe we have to do it.”
The Kiribati government acquired the 2,200-hectare Natoavatu Estate on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second biggest island, in early 2012. It was widely rumored at the time that the government intended to relocate the entire Kiribati people to Fiji. President Tong started encouraging people to leave the islands and move elsewhere in April 2013.