Archaeological evidence indicates that the islands now known as the Gilbert Islands were settled by Austronesian-speaking people long before the 1st century ad. Groups from Fiji and Tonga arrived about the 13th century and intermarried with the islands’ inhabitants to form the Micronesian people known as the I-Kiribati.
In 1606 Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros sighted Butaritari, an atoll in the present-day Gilbert Islands. In 1788 British naval captains John Marshall and Thomas Gilbert, for whom the Gilbert Islands were later named, came upon several of the other islands while sailing from Australia to China. Between the 1820s and 1860s American and British whalers hunted sperm whales in the surrounding waters, and some deserted their ships to settle on the islands. These early residents began dealing coconut oil and then copra with European, Australian, and American trading ships.
American Protestant missionary Hiram Bingham arrived in 1857 and began spreading Christianity through the northern Gilbert Islands with the help of Hawaiian pastors. In 1870 the London Missionary Society placed Samoan pastors on several of the southern Gilbert Islands. Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in 1888. Over the following decades, Catholicism became the dominant religion of the northern Gilbert Islands, while some of the southern Gilberts remained Protestant.
In 1892 British captain E. H. M. Davis declared 16 of the Gilbert Islands and 9 of the Polynesian-inhabited Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu) to the south a British protectorate. After phosphate was discovered on Ocean Island (now Banaba) in 1900, the British placed this island under the protectorate’s jurisdiction as well. In 1916 Britain formally annexed the area as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (GEIC). In the years that followed, several of the present-day Line Islands were added to the colony. Britain added the present-day Phoenix Islands to the GEIC in 1937. In 1939 the British agreed that Kanton and Enderbury—two Phoenix Islands strategically important to the United States—would be administered jointly by the United States and Britain.
Japan occupied the Gilbert Islands in 1942, during World War II (1939-1945). Most European residents evacuated the islands, and the colonial administration established temporary headquarters in Sydney, Australia, which it later moved to Fongafale (now in Tuvalu). In one of the major battles of the war in the Pacific, U.S. military forces invaded Tarawa and drove the Japanese off most of the islands in 1943. The Europeans returned, and colonial officials set up a new headquarters on Tarawa. The Japanese continued to hold Banaba until 1945. During their occupation, they deported most of Banaba’s residents to Tarawa, the island of Nauru, the Millennium Islands, and the Marshall Islands. The Japanese massacred nearly all remaining Banabans before surrendering the island. After the war, the British resettled deported Banabans on the Fijian island of Rabi.
Movements towards self-government in the GEIC began in 1963, when island residents gained a political voice through a local council created to advise the colonial government. In 1967 an elected house of representatives replaced this council, and in 1974 the House of Assembly was created. Because the Polynesian people of the Ellice Islands wanted to maintain cultural distinctiveness from the Micronesians of the Gilbert Islands, the Ellice Islands separated from the GEIC in 1975 and formed the nation of Tuvalu. In 1977 the colony achieved complete self-government, and in 1979 it declared formal independence under a new constitution. The new nation became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and adopted the name Kiribati, a rendering of the word “Gilberts” in the Gilbertese language.
In September 1979 Kiribati signed a treaty of friendship with the United States in which the United States gave up its claims to Kanton and Enderbury islands; the two islands were formally ceded to Kiribati in 1983. In 1981 the Banabans won compensation from the British government for revenues from phosphate mining over the previous 50 years. In 1992 Kiribati’s legislature approved a proposal to seek compensation from Japan for damage caused during World War II.