Appendix G
Brief History of the Gilbert Islands Before the Japanese Invasion

The first record of the discovery of the islands of the group which came to be known as the Gilberts dates back to 1765 when Commander Byron in the ship Dophin discovered the island of Nikunau. In 1788 Captain Gilbert in the Charlotte and Captain 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, the Peacock and the 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.

A British protectorate was first proclaimed over the Gilberts by Captain Davis of HMS Royalist on 27 May 1892. In 1915 the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were proclaimed a colony of the British Empire.

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 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 percent of the native population were said to be Christians. This group was divided mainly into two denominations: Congregationalists (43 percent); and Roman Catholics (35 percent). 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 percent 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.

When war came in December 1941, the Japanese occupied Makin Atoll immediately and raided Tarawa. In February, the British evacuated most of their people from Tarawa, except for missionaries who elected to remain, and coast watchers. 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.


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Transcribed and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation