Kiribati — History and Culture
The history of Kiribati is not all that impressive owing to its remoteness. Micronesians were here thousands of years ago, though recent history only began around the 19th century after the British arrived. The islands are best known for their raging battle between the US and Japan forces in WWII.
Fishermen had inhabited Kiribati for over 2,000 years before the British took control of the main islands towards the end of the 1800's. England’s Captain Cook stumbled upon Christmas Island in 1777 on Christmas Eve; his discovery marked by the famous Captain Cook Hotel which was built on an abandoned British nuclear military base.
Kiribati itself came a bit later, with the main Gilbert Islands—where the capital of Tarawa is—named after Captain Gilbert, and the nearby Marshall Islands (to the north) after the captain. They became a British Protectorate in 1892, controlled, at the time, by the Solomon Islands. The Line Islands and Phoenix Islands, farther east, would become US territories.
Kiribati became known to the world after the infamous Battle of Tarawa that took place November 20-23, 1943. The US defeated the Japanese occupiers on Betio, albeit with the loss of several thousand men on both sides. Japanese guns remain today and are a popular tourist attraction, along with various shipwrecks that can be explored by divers in South Tarawa. Canton (or Kanton) Island of the Phoenix Group (east of the Gilberts) was also a WWII base and later became a refueling depot for long flights across the Pacific. Kiribati made headlines in the 1950's and ‘60s as the spot where the UK and US tested thermonuclear weapons near Christmas Island.
Kiribati received autonomy from the UK in 1971, which was followed by independence in 1979, along with the Line and Phoenix groups from the USA. Today, all islands are on the western divide of the International Date Line, which was not always the case. In more recent times, Kiribati had a falling out with France due to the continued testing of nuclear bombs on the Muraroa Atoll in 1995, while rising seawater has since claimed two of the atolls.
Kiribati is westernized, but the Islands retain traditional customs, evidence of which is best seen during festival time (folk music, dancing and outrigger canoe races) and in the more remote islands, such as the Outer Islands and Banaba. Maneaba communal meeting houses showcase traditional dancing and singing and can be found in all towns and are even part of some hotels. Kiribati culture can also be discerned through its handicrafts and there are markets in every town where visitors can pick up baskets and shark-tooth swords.
The people are friendly and hospitable, and although it is a casual place, women especially should make it a point to cover up when away from the beach. Avoid wearing bikinis in town and a general rule of thumb is to always keep knees and shoulders covered.