The I-Kiribati people settled what would become known as the Gilbert
Islands between 1000 and 1300 AD. Subsequent invasions by Fijians and Tongans
introduced Micronesian and Polynesian elements to the Micronesian culture,
but extensive intermarriage has produced a population reasonably homogeneous
in appearance and traditions.
European contact began in the 16th century. Whalers, slave traders,
and merchant vessels arrived in great numbers in the 1800s, fomenting local
tribal conflicts and introducing often fatal European diseases. In an effort
to restore a measure of order, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (the Ellice
Islands are now known as Tuvalu) consented to becoming British protectorates
in 1892. Banaba (Ocean Island) was annexed in 1900 after the discovery
of phosphate-rich guano deposits, and the entire collection was made a
British colony in 1916. The Line and Phoenix Islands were incorporated
piecemeal over the next 20 years.
Japan seized the islands during World War II. In November 1943, U.S.
forces assaulted heavily fortified Japanese positions on Tarawa Atoll in
the Gilberts, resulting in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific
campaign. The battle was a turning point in the Central Pacific.
Britain began expanding self-government in the islands during the 1960s.
In 1975 the Ellice Islands separated from the colony and in 1978 became
the independent country of Tuvalu. The Gilberts obtained internal self-government
in 1977, and formally became an independent nation on July 12, 1979, under
the name of Kiribati.
Post-independence politics were initially dominated by Ieremia Tabai,
Kiribati's first president, who served from 1979 to 1991, stepping down
due to Kiribati's three-term limit for presidents. Teburoro Tito's tenure
as president, 1994-2003, also was curtailed by the three-term limit, though
in his case his third term lasted only a matter of months before he lost
a no confidence motion in Parliament. (Note: See the next section for an
explanation of Kiribati's unique presidential system.) In July 20003, Anote
Tong defeated his elder brother, Harry Tong, who was backed by former-President
Tito and his allies. An ensuing court challenge which alleged violations
of campaign finance laws could have unseated President Tong. However, in
October 2003, a judge specially brought in from Australia to ensure strict
neutrality, ruled in President Tong's favor.
An emotional issue has been the protracted bid by the residents of Banaba
Island to secede and have their island placed under the protection of Fiji.
Because Banaba was devastated by phosphate mining, the vast majority of
Banabans moved to the island of Rabi in the Fiji Islands in the 1940s.
They enjoy full Fiji citizenship. The Kiribati Government has responded
by including several special provisions in the Constitution, such as the
designation of a Banaban seat in the legislature and the return of land
previously acquired by the government for phosphate mining. Only 200-300
people remain on Banaba.