GILBERTESE (KIRIBATI) WARS
Military training and physical feats
Just as is the case with great civilizations, the history of the islands is full of wars and massacres. Right from birth certain ceremonies destined the male to be a warrior. He must not be a coward. consequently the green young soldier was called up and made to undergo military training. It wasn't only a matter of physical exercise. Moral and religious training was given far more prominence than it is in many modern armies.
There were several Gilbertese curious customs relating to this training for war religious ceremonies, ritual bans on certain things and development of the body. It is hard to say to what extent they were practised, but certainly they must have developed before falling into disuse. When the boy was about twelve his hair was cut with a shark's tooth, to the accompaniment of incantations which would give him a true warrior's hart and in particular protect him against the attractions of the opposite sex. He must not marry until he was a grown man and after he had followed a long training in war and manly ways in general. When he was about twenty his hair was cut again at the time of year when the star Antares rose after sunset. This was a painful procedure, his father went at it smartly with his primitive cutting equipment and the boy had to keep his face turned towards a large fire lit upwind in the east. If he finished, his uncles, who helped at the ceremony, would beat him with their palm-frond fly swatters. Next they lit a torch over this head. The sparks from it fell on his naked skin. His uncles would bush away the bigger ones but let the others land and burn out. the boy could not move or complain. If he did the whole procedure had to be carried out again. furthermore the ceremony was repeated anyway after two full moons.
Four months later an even bigger fire was lit, fed with hard wood. sitting close to it on a stone and facing east the youth was given a coconut shell full of a half and half mixture of sea water and oil, mixed with a stingray's barb. doubtless it was necessary to add potency to this drink, through various incantations, to make the young man stay there without flinching, from morning to night. Now and then, just to add flavour to this endurance test, his father would stab his head with a shark's tooth. The blood had to stream down over his eyes and his cheeks. meanwhile his stern uncles fed the fire and hit him if he turned his head or so much as twitched a shoulder. this ceremony, repeated at the next two full moons, was supposed to strengthen him against all testing situations for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile his grandfather was busy making the youth's first soldier's spear. It was made from seasoned coconut wood and was twelve or more feet long, with a double row of shark's teeth at the point. These teeth were tied on to the wood by string reinforced with strands of the warrior's hair. The spear was left in his father' house while the lad underwent further trials. A month after the ceremony of hair-cutting, the young warrior was taken to a secluded hut on the eastern side o the island. he had to stay there alone until the roof began to leak - which was from two to five years. No women - not even his mother - could visit him. the men in his family brought him his food. Young people were not allowed to speak to him and he was forbidden to come to the village. His grandfather especially had charge of his training. He gave him hard tasks and difficult duties to perform - cutting down trees, clearing the bush, carrying heavy stones. The old man wouldn't joke with him or allow any relaxation. it was his aim to create a strong warrior who would bring honour to the family. the grandfather had the authority to prolong this testing period and, if he thought that nature was weakening, he would summon up magic to help him. At the end of this period, the new warrior was led to the village, armed with his spear, and taken to the maneaba for ceremonial dances in his honour. Then he became one of the warriors (rorobuaka) and could marry, something he was quick to do.
Gilbertese weapons were simple but attempted to inspire terror. the bow was unknown. the most useful weapon was the palm-wood spear, bristling with shark's teeth which made wounds more serious, as the flesh was so torn. Rather like an arrow, thee was a short wooden javelin, pointed at both ends. they also had a sort of lasso - an ordinary piece of wood on the end of a rope. they tried to wind this round their opponents' legs and bring them down by pulling on it. An impressive weapon against a naked body was a javelin four to five feet long, finishing in a tuft of stingray's barbs. sometimes the tips of these were burnt so that they would be more likely to break off in the wound. to ward off blows from this they attached three or four pieces of wood, rather like the prongs of a pitchfork, to their spears. Their best protection, however, was an original type of armour, covering them completely, with leg-pieces, breastplate and helmet, leaving only the feet and face uncovered. this coat of mail was made of coconut fibre. The helmet was sometimes made from the skin of a very prickly spiny fish.
With such well-trained and well-equipped warriors we might expect to hear of epic battles. In fact we will hear mainly about routs and massacres. The first guns were introduced by the whites about 1840. they didn't scruple to make their fortune out of gunpowder and gin. Selling these, they were quick to amass wealth.
A runaway from Abaiang became friendly with a white man in Tarawa, who had a gun. suddenly he decided to make use of this powerful aid to get his revenge. He took the white man and some friends on his expedition. Off they went to Abaiang in a launch. They rowed in close to land. Abaiang's warriors were there to prevent a landing. suddenly one of them was wrenched out of the ranks. he had been standing there, spear in hand, and yet now there he was, well set-up, yet arching his body in pain. the others thought this was told. There had been smoke over there, a cracking noise, and there was their comrade, on the ground. 'It's a trick played on us by the spirits', they decided. 'This place isn't favourable. We'll go and fight somewhere else.' they moved father away. The launch followed along the shoreline. Once again the warriors arranged themselves in battle formation. the man with the gun had only to calmly choose the largest target as victim and reload his weapon when he wished. the same scene was replayed farther on.
The Abaiang warriors eventually realized that it wasn't safe to stand along the shore opposite this tube that smoked, made a cracking noise and sent death to them. After these first emotions, interest focused entirely on ways of owning and using similar magic. They had to pay a great deal, on Abaiang and on the other islands, to obtain such initiation into modern warfare. Soon after, the kings and the great chiefs had guns and even cannons. Was warfare more bloody as a result? they claim that the defeated army ran away sooner and more quickly. by that time they wee no longer encumbered with their fibre armour.
The people have a good memory for events in the wars, but at a distance of some three hundred years it is difficult to disentangle history from legend. One thing is certain: the golden age of happiness and peace no more existed in the islands than it did for great civilizations. If an invasion from outsiders didn't chase away the islanders then they were at each other's throats. It was family against family, clan against clan, for the sake of glory, for land or for women. they always had their spears in their hands. If degenerate Christians fought amongst themselves, what could the unconverted hoe for?
The warriors of Beru: conquest of the islands
The campaign most famous by virtue of its size and its consequences is the one known as the Kautu and Uakeia war. I f we count by generations (ten or twelve) then it went on for 250 years. It started from Beru, a little island in the south, which was overpopulated. Kaitu, the instigator, was an enterprising fellow who had his way because of his energy and his presence. As for Uakeia, he was steeped in the occult and was both strategist and soothsayer. with his thirty-two round pebbles or his palm-ribs, he knew what to do. And who would have dared to contradict him?
The great war canoes put to sea. there were thirty-seven of them, if the king of Abemama's book, giving their names, is to be believed. Until recent years, it was possible on Abemama to see a relic of this fleet: the Kororimoa (first to land) - Kaitu's ship. Doubtless she had been repaired several times in the course of more than two hundred years - but her line and character had been retained, together with her name, for only one piece of wood at a time was replaced, as it decayed. she was twenty metres long and 2.10 metres high. The outrigger, which still exists, was thirteen metres long and the booms which attached this to the canoe were about eight metres long. this was only a medium-sized canoe. If we count at least twenty men to a canoe there was a force more than six hundred strong - somewhat swollen by the women who went along, for the names of several are mentioned.
The fleet set off towards Onotoa but didn't land there. The first landing was made in the south of Tabiteuea. the locals there all fled, warning the northern villages. They organized their warriors to check the invaders. Where should they hold the battle? Kaitu referred to Uakeia, who consulted his oracles. the answer was clear. the clash would be on Tabiteuea at Tabuaeroa where a piece of land between two islets was left uncovered at low tide. for a hole day and night the Beru army worked out a plan of campaign. along the edge of the passage they set up thirty stone men, to spans high, armed with multi-pronged wooden spears. they resembled Gilbertese warriors so well that the Tabiteueans would be taken in. the next morning, seeing these mighty figures among the ranks of warriors they took them for chiefs of Beru and they turned tail and fled. there were no canoes to help their escape. they had to use make-shift rafts and many were drowned.
Two northern villages, Temanolu and Tekabuibui, were spared, thanks to the intervention of Kourabi, one of the Beru chiefs, for his grandfather and uncles lived there. Another man, Tabora, spoke up. He originally came from Beru. His request that his land and the place where he got his crabs should be left to him was respected. Emboldened by this success, which cost them little, the conquerors went on northwards. Queen Tabiria of southern Nonouti, gave them a good welcome; her villages were spared. the rest of the island was conquered without a blow being struck. We can imagine the chaos, with the defeated getting away from island to island and spreading panic in the north. Abemama, Kuria, Aranuka, Maiana, Tarawa, Marakei and Abaiang were occupied in this way by the Beru warriors and it didn't cost them a single man.
Wars in Butaritari
Two of the northern islands still remained to be conquered. the army stopped at marakei, however. It was lucky for them that they did, for the people of Butaritari and Makin weren't going to allow themselves to be taken over. while Kaitu and Uakeia had been moving north they had organized their own troops who were camped between Ukiangang and Onobi (Butaritari south). At that time it would seem that these islands were well populated. they waited from day to day, ready to attack the enemy fleet when it came into sight. time went by and the enemy didn't arrive. Mangkia, a young chief, lost patience. He asked to go off and meet them farther south. he chose a company of the strongest and biggest warriors and set sail with them. to take the enemy by surprise, the canoes sails lowered, rowed southward, covering the eighty miles between Butaritari and Marakei in this fashion. Again there were no Beru warriors. Their fleet had gone off for Tarawa and was at Taratai, where the men were having a fine time. Mangkia went there with his men and faced Kaitu in the maneaba.
Mangkia was no ordinary man. he came from a lively and adventurous family. His grandfather was Rairaueana who came on the Kaburoro from Samoa and landed at Tabiteuea. In one bold stroke he had shown his forceful personality and sense of justice. He had built a village there called Matang. then he took a wife and had a son, Teimauri. He in his turn married Nei Rakentai, a widow, who must have come from an important family as she certainly knew how to organize her sons. she had three sons, both on Tarawa where she had come to live with her husband. the oldest, Rairaueana, conquered Butaritari and Makin, where his mother and brothers joined him. He made Natang, the younger, chief of butaritari, Rairaueana himself lived on Makin with his mother and youngest brother Mangkia. Later he quarrelled with Natanga and wanted to make war against him. His mother managed to keep him from doing this, but, as if born for war, he set off to conquer Mille, one of the Marshall islands. there we lose trace of him and Mangkia has the honour of halting the Beru invasion.
The Beru warriors were not the sort of men who would want to see the fruits of their victories disappear. They came from an overpopulated island and now large areas of unpopulated land were available to them. they didn't consider going back to their own island but shared out the conquered land and the slaves: most of those who hadn't escaped from them were kept as slaves. It is impossible to estimate the loss of life that was a consequence of the invasion. In the rush of getting away from the invading forces overloaded canoes hardly watertight or without sails sank or came apart, or eldest the passengers died of starvation even before being taken by the sea. In most of the Gilbertese wars the same thing occurs - very few deaths in the actual fighting, a few victims of massacres, but hordes of losses at sea. The tiny Gilbertese forests offered no refuge to the defeated. Only the sea and its treacherous wastes offered them freedom. the conquest by the Beru warriors unified the people in language and race. In the central gilberts is there a single person who cannot trace his descent from some Beru warrior? Family trees are well maintained up to the time of which we are speaking. From then on they become rather entangled and soon become lost in myth.
Butaritari and Makin avoided the invasion only to become embroiled in extremely bloody internal wars. the ancient race of Melanesians - a small dark-skinned fuzzy-haired people - seems to have been wiped out by the half-Samoan descendants of Rairaueana. In the village of Kuma only two witch doctors were spared, so that they could hand on knowledge of the magic which made good warriors at the time of the ceremonial hair-cutting. Teauoki, the final victor, was accorded the status of a hero, because of his courage and tenacity. They carried him from the battlefield positively bristling with arrows. He was scarcely treated for these horrible wounds before he was back in the fight. Once more he came off the field, in virtually the same condition and set off again to fight. Wasn't it he, who at Makin broke up the canoes that had brought him and his army, so that his soldiers had no means of fleeing? Once he had defeated his enemies he shared out the land he had gained amongst his family and friend. Like Archilles, his fatal weakness was in his heel. One day when he was working away at a dyke in front of his house, he stepped on a pointed shell which broke off in his foot. the wound became poisoned and Teauoki died.
Many of the stories of war are full of villainy. there was no lack of cowards, traitors and assassins.
Wars in Tarawa
Father Guichard has tried to unravel the history of wars on Taraw for us, after Kaitu's conquest. this is no easy task but anyone who is interested in the story of human passions can find these on an island just as much as in a continent. Here or there men would like to force their conflicts even beyond death. the quarrels are carried on from generation to generation. the Polynesian is capable of just as much pride and hatred as any Corsican. a quality of vengeful patriotism is not an exclusive attribute of people said to be civilized. After Kaitu had gone back south his warriors were scattered to occupy the islands and they found themselves somewhat vulnerable there, when they no longer had numerical strength - or were not clever enough to make their rule an accepted fact. This was the case on Tarawa. The defeated people, led by the villagers of Nauatabu, rose against the invaders, who were either massacred or made into slaves. Only two members of Teabike's family survived - and they took refuge on a rock, surrounded by lashing waves. A chief from Buariki took pity on them and sent them food and water. Then he invited them to his village. they made an alliance with the Buariki people, defeated the Nauatabuans and took over three villages. Later, under cover of a fishing expedition at the end of the island, they took the people of Nauatabu by surprise and wiped out the population of three villages. The Teabike family took over their land, but the Buariki people didn't want any part of the plunder. The former inhabitants of Tarawa must have been pacifists - they were forever being taken over. Like an octopus minus one tentacle, they sought only to enjoy their restricted life to the full. Tatimaki, a strategist on the enemy side, suggested a night attack. to avoid mosquitoes the locals slept in huts on stilts, out in the lagoon. this was a hard position to defend. the people being attacked were either massacred or became food for sharks if the tried to escape by swimming. This time all the victors had a share of the abandoned land.
Years went by and the Teabike family increased in size. then they felt strong enough they turned on their Buariki allies and defeated them. The only thing then was to quarrel among themselves and this they did in a seventh war, when the younger branch of the Teabike family came out the winners. there was no lack of other internal squabbles or sorties against neighbours. the cruiser which set up the British Protectorate came just in time to prevent another massacre. the Pacific islander of early times certainly didn't lead an idyllic existence in an enchanted spot. In the islands as anywhere else, the human being suffered most in terms of sin.
The Tabiteuea massacre
The most famous massacre took place at Tabiteuea. The circumstances and the details of it are not likely to be forgotten.
In 1868 the first Protestant ministers, natives of Hawaii, settled in Tabiteuea, under the auspices of the Boston Society. The island followed the cult of Anti Tioba, but the Hawaiians managed to gain a foothold in two northern villages - Eita and Utiroa. they brought books, materials and guns with them. Living in wooden houses and taking their walks dressed up in jackets and trousers, they represented civilization and imposed their ways strongly on the locals. They were certainly zealous though not particularly pure and lucid. their aim was to dominate everything. The cult of Anti Tioba was too slow in giving way to them. To make the Tioba worshippers pack up more quickly, Kabui and Nanim, the ministers, together with their most ardent followers, really stirred things up against the unconverted in Terikiai. They said their men would be invulnerable through any religious war. These cunning leaders had, however, reinforced their words with action. Their soldiers were to pretend to be afraid and run from tree to tree, at an oblique angle to and safe distance from the eight guns of the heathen enemy. they would then lose patience and fire too soon on these rabbits. that was the signal for attack. Surprised with only their side-arms and with no chance to reload their guns, the heathens took to their heels without the Protestant army losing a single man.
The Hawaiians' prestige went up. the whole northern part of Tabiteuea (where three-quarters of the inhabitants lived) was conquered. this was a little before 1880. Thee were still the heathens in the south. Various ultimatums regarding conversion were sent to them - but with no success. The Tioba cult had no intention of being uprooted and, to further annoy the people in the north, the south flung itself into dances, feasts and witchcraft.
Furious, the Hawaiian ministers began to talk about another religious campaign. They had a lot of influence, the northern villages joined their forces. the attraction of pillage and sharing in new land certainly counted for something in this enthusiasm for war. the southerners took these menacing signs rather too lightly. However, they all came together - men, women and children - in the maneaba at Tewai and began some fiendish dances. Near there, on the edge of the passage, they had, guarding it, a rusty old cannon. The main body of the northern army, three times stronger, were ordered to pretend to hesitate to cross the passage, which was uncovered at low tide. this was to give the two flanks time to surround the southerners, who would be taken without realizing it, so busy were they round the cannon . hey saw the danger, it was too late. Their resistance was merely token. Everybody massed in the centre, where fear had drawn together a crowd of men, women and children. realizing they were lost, the elders asked for mercy. they hoped to move their friends and relations from the north to pity. In any case, some of them had already put down their spears in the sand. Then the Hawaiians ministers, set on the Bible and taking the Judges as an example, shouted 'No mercy for the heathens. Death to God's enemies. sing your hymn.' the massacre took place. to escape the spears, the men climbed on the heads of the heaped up women and children. Spears were plunged into the pile of bodies. Anything that moved was skewered. They dragged out by the feet those pretending to be dead and smashed their heads in. the Hawaiians went amongst their men, whipping up excitement.
Towards midday the screams of terror, groans and cries of despair, were virtually at an end.
To finish things off quickly, the butchers brought the roofs of huts and piled up dead branches over the bleeding heap of southerners. they set fire to this and then more screams and groans were heard and there was movement in the mass of bodies. they could see arms waving about. But the fire was quick to accomplish complete silence. Old men can remember this horror, for the massacre took place in 1881, only seven years before the arrival of Catholic missionaries in he Gilberts. the number of victims can be reckoned at close to a thousand.
Since then the place where the massacre happened has been called 'The place of the smell of blood'. there were very few southerners who escaped. the conquerors took over their land. the two ministers responsible for the happenings were removed to Hawaii but their successors fell heir to their influence. they became virtual kings of the island, setting up laws and organizing police in the villages. the village elders only governed under their instructions. There were plenty of grumbles about this and a few attempts at rebellion. Father Bontemps; arrival in 1891 was just in time to halt a third war. four villages from Tanaeang had been arrested when drunk and, according to the ministers' laws, sentence to pay a fine of 10,000 nuts or else see fifty of their finest trees cut down.
They jibbed at this. Their village and several others converted by force, took their side. The Protestants held a big meeting at Kabuna, where it was decided to go to war against the rebels. but he Tanaeang people had time to send canoes to Nonouti to bring father Bontemps. His arrival caused a diversion. All those dissatisfied with being Protestant followed him and out of a population of 4,000 Father Bontemps gathered 3,600 for instruction. The majority of the Protestant army thus gone, there was no longer any question of war.
Binoka of Abemama
It is not possible to go into the history of each island in detail. however, one cannot really omit a description of the most famous and unusual of the Gilbertese. King Binoka of Abemama. R.L. Stevenson described him in his book In the south Seas. In 1889 the great writer saw him at close quarters, for he became Stevenson's host on Abemama. Some old men remember him and show where his house was. It stood about two hundred paces to the east of the royal palace, in the bush and was built in two days. Stevenson, accompanied by his wife, his brother-in-law and a Chinese cook, was looking for solitude and health in the sunny pacific islands. He observed the islanders with perception and a lively sympathy. He was able to talk about them in a very fair way because he both liked and understood them. Stevenson spent four months in the Gilberts: two at Butaritari and two at Abemama. Before him, only three white men had been able to set foot on the island. Binoka mistrusted the race. His experience of whites enabled him to place them in three categories: those who cheat you a little, those who would really rook you, and those who would absolutely fleece you. He was some time taking stock of Steenson before allowing him to land on Abemama. Later he said he had read from Stevenson's face and eyes that he was having to do with a good and loyal man. Stevenson's description of the king is of a Binoka somewhat sobered, rising fifty and in fact with only two more years to live. Binoka, a man of intelligence and tenacity, came from a remarkable family. Tetabo, his great-great-grandfather, was a giant of a man who had saved Abemama from invasion by an army from Tarawa. His family had become more and more important. Baiteke, Binika's father, had united Kuria, Aranuka and Abemama under his rule. A debonair character, his rule as chief was patriarchal: he had plenty of sense and ruled without being oppressive. From his youth Binoka put on all sorts of airs and graces and his father allowed him all his whims. He was soon known for his debauchery and cruelty. The people of Kuria refused to give him their tribute of young girls, so he mounted a campaign against them. Both sides were assured of the help of a ship's captain who would being arms and ammunition. Binoka's helper arrived first. On Kuria, they had some guns, a little powder, but no shot. One Taona was strongly opposed to war, against the wishes of the young warriors who had at last found wives.
'There's the man,' he said when the boat appeared. 'Stand square on to him. Be firm. there's no running away. I'm going to break the canoes. With one blow of his axe he broke a plank just above the keel. A ship then came in through Routa passage. From the shore, Tenu, the witch doctor, hurled all the evil things he had in his bag at it, when suddenly there was a shot from the ship and Tenu dropped dead. Captain Grog had been trying a new gun. The witch doctor was the only victim of the bullets. Unable to return this fire, the Kuria warriors scattered. Their canoes were now not seaworthy and one by one they sank below the waves. The victors who followed them to the north of the island came back horrified. They came across shoals of very excited sharks that crossed the wake left by their paddles, all over the place. Red water streamed from their vast mouths. The population of Kuria has never really got over such a blood-bath. The first navigators counted 3,000 people there. Let's say 1,000. although the population is increasing it hasn't yet reached 300, which is also the case for the sister-island of Aranuka.
Towards 1840, in Baiteke's reign, the first boats anchored off the islet of Bike, to fill up their barrels with the oil brought to them in coconuts. Everyone did some trading in his own way, even later, when copra replaced oil. Binoka wanted to have a monopoly on everything. He built stores, became a wholesale trader and only he could do business with the captains. Stevenson describes the scene. The sailing-ship anchored in the lagoon opposite the royal palace. soon you would see a canoe nearing it. It carried a ladder which was lashed to the rails. Binoka, a man aware of pomp and progress, would not risk his royal person on the primitive rope ladders of the times. Once ha had narrowly escaped braking his back on a rotten ladder. The king was not the largest of men, but he did rather bulge over. He was a real Polynesian monarch: a credit to the people who fed him. The captains often tired to persuade Binoka that a little physical exercise - a walk perhaps, would do him good, but this was against protocol. His majesty moved only in his launch or on his throne, carried by four soldiers.
Once the ladder was fixed, the canoe came back again and you saw four porters and a well-filled chair progressing along the empty beach. Then, pushed, pulled and hoisted, the royal trader set foot on board and it seemed that the ship listed on that side. The captains were careful to be a s courteous as possible. They scoured the ship and took great care with the menu for their ample client. those who cheated him too much the first time didn't need to come back - or if they did they didn't know their man. to get out of their clutches the royal trader even bought a schooner to take his money to the banks in New Zealand. thee he was not just thoroughly cheated, but his agents stole everything quite easily. He never saw his money again and when the ship was wrecked he found that a swindler had pocketed all the insurance money. he took this quite philosophically and continued to do business with traders who came by.
In Binoka's time thee was a man on Abaiang called Karakaua who didn't get on with Kaiea, the king of his island. He had to flee to Hawaii. There he learned to handle a gun and he became a quite remarkable shot. He was dying to show off his talents. On the way back to Nonouti in the Gilberts, he suggested to Binoka that they should mount a campaign against Abaiang. He became involved in intrigue on Nonouti too: behaved as if he were very important, gathered supporters in the south, and set the north against him. to rid themselves of this character, his enemies, who were afraid of his gun, flattered Binoka and persuaded him that he was the only man able to check Karakaua.
The king of Abemama began his campaign. a ship's captain set him ashore at Nonouti with eighty warriors. Karakaua was waiting in the centre of the island for the attack but the ship came to the southern point and when Karakaua got there, after quite a rush, the first of the troops had already landed. they didn't take the matter too seriously. When Karakaua appeared they were all sitting smoking in the Temotu maneaba. The brave Abemama warriors quickly hid themselves behind the first coconut tree they each found. the Abaiang marksman had only few helpers armed with guns. His wife, behind him passed him his cartridges. He scarcely missed a shot. Anything sticking out from behind a tree trunk was hit. Puenaua was hit in the forehead; Taubuki, Kaintangare and Tebera, hit in the stomach were left dead on the field. Korina's wife was passing cartridges to him and she had one thigh grazed by a bullet, and the other wounded. four other gallant soldiers were shot in the arm as they tried to take aim. It was a bad day for the Abemama forces. Binoka hadn't come ashore. They say his men prevented him from doing so. the gun in Karakaua's hand was good, but what a large target he'd have! Eventually Uabong had an idea. He left the foot of his tree and wriggled up the sloping shore, surprised Karakaua and broke his back. Then the bold Abemama warriors flung themselves on the wounded man and cut off his head. Binoka hadn't shone in this fight so he was in a bad temper. He worked out his wrath on the people of Nonouti who came out in canoes to meet him, by forcing them to dive. Everyone plunged in, but as soon as a head came up to breathe, Binoka's cannon picked off this target. His men, however, more humane that their king, did not cause too much damage in the villages. All this happened in 1882. The boat went back to Abemama loaded with slaves of both sexes. A little later a British warship came on the scene. Binoka had to hand over all the guns gained from Kuria and all the prisoners of war who wished to be 'repatriated.' This was a terrible humiliation for the King of Abemama, who nevertheless kept his power and later had a 17-shot gun which was regarded with awe throughout his kingdom. Rumour had it that this was all show for nothing; His Majesty wasn't happy and it would be better to keep quiet. sometimes the gun went off under the very nose of a miscreant. If such a lesson didn't help that particular person then it was useful for others. It wasn't that he was cruel as a shark is, always ready to snap its jaws. Binoka's cruelty came upon him sporadically in moments of rage or passion. he was a barbarian with a somewhat vague conscience and have never tried to control his instincts. he felt the least humiliation as sharply as a danger thrust and his reaction was swift.
'I have power,' he said to Stevenson, swaggering about. His was an absolute power and he made certain that this was known. thus his subjects assumed a cringing servility in his presence which was hard to lose.
One evening a lad about ten years old frightened the boy Binoka as he went along a path. The lad thought he was joking with a friend. He wasn't recognized, but got his face scratched. The next day all the children were examined. The guilty lad had slipped away fishing. He should have dirtied his face, for when he came back he was caught. The people drowned him like a puppy and burned his body, in order to compliment the heir apparent. Binoka had ordered a jetty built on the islet of Bike. Who was missing? Taumon. The king made a tour of the village. Taumon, lying down in his hut, got up and offered Binoka his best mat. A bullet whistled on its way. It was as a husband that Binoka had his greatest worries. How could he control so many wives in a palace with neither walls nor cloisters? He found an original solution. He moved friends and relations into the huts all around his palace. It was their job to maintain a line of fire all night and pick up a stone and throw it now and then to keep themselves awake. It was the old women on guard who were the most zealous.
Yet somehow, a way in was found, for one day the portly king was seen in a jealous rage, drunkenly chasing one of his wives through Tabiang village. the runaway wife would have been saved a hundred times over if one mean courtier hadn't held her so her husband could shoot her. The man who had provoked the royal jealousy was shot. Another, guilty of the same crime, was thrashed, rolled in excreta, tied hand and foot and flung into the full glare of the sun to be tortured by the flies. Captain Ried was there and got Binoka to give up the young man to him. the Captain then took him to San Francisco. the villagers of the three islands, in their turn, were responsible for feeding the court. In this instance, the king was very generous. His family, his servants, strangers and guests couldn't complain about him. they w4ere clothed, lodged and fed very well.
Stevenson saw penniless strangers, brought there by ships' captains, later going home much the richer, kitted out and given their fares at the king of Abemama's expense.
Protestantism had been established about seven years in his kingdom, when, about 1880, without changing his habits too much, Binoka declared he would join this new religion. the whole island had to follow his example. The king turned himself into a lay preacher. he lorded it and preached in the church alongside the minister. He set off himself to convert Maiana. this fervour lasted only a while. the islanders got bored, banned from dancing and smoking as they were. Two chiefs in the church make one too many. Also the ministers power was increasing on the island. Would he introduce riches that the royal trader could not control? In brief, everything was reversed. by royal decree the island went back to dancing and people were forced to drop religion. a few faithful souls stood firm - even preferring exile.
In May 1891, when Father Bontemps came for the first time, he was made very welcome. He was lodged and fed by Binoka. the big maneaba at Binoinano was put at his disposal for the first mass on 24 May, Trinity Sunday. Everyone was free to go. Timon, the king's brother was there with his son Paul, the heir apparent, and all his family. Binoka excused himself: 'I am too wicked'. He spent the day on his boat but he promised Father Bontemps freedom of worship and all the land he would need to install himself in his turn. When Father Bontemps came back from Butaritari at the end of the year he found the island in mourning. Binoka had died on 10 November from a stomach ulcer. Mourning was still going on the villages. the burns the men had made on their arms were not yet healed over. These elderly heathens must have had a truly save appearance, dirt-smeared, long-haired, arms slashed and venting wails of grief as they mourned their tyrant king. Brother Conrad had such a vivid memory of Abemama that he still shivered at the thought of it fifty years later.
Have I blackened Binoka? The people of Abemama don't have such a bad memory of him. In their heart of hearts they are rather proud of him. He had grandeur and a certain fascination about him. Beside him, the kings of other islands seemed very minor monarchs. he had a ship, cannons, guns: a three island empire. He governed his subjects harshly, but he treated his friends well and the kingdom of Abemama was respected by men and by the whites! Nevertheless history should be more critical of these heathen rulers who made everything a profit to themselves. They are largely responsible for the servility, the immorality and the depopulation of the island people. the acquisition of land by a few families upset the social order by creating a class of serfs with all the physical and moral burdens that go with slavery.
The average family was degraded, disorganized or prevented from increasing because of the lack of wives. consequently there was a problem of depopulation. Binoka himself had no child. so many women of his generation and the following one were sterile, that you could say it was an evil curse. Now the population is slowly building up, particularly thanks to fresh blood having been brought in. nevertheless marriages are made difficult by the existence of social classes. Serfs, free men and nobles are the three groups which make life on an island rather trying. Most of the barriers are broken, but those which prevent marriage are upheld. A free man wouldn't want a son-in-law who didn't have his own land. this social situation is particularly important in Binoka's kingdom and in Butaritari. the last kings gained from the British Protectorate, which approved the existing system. these recently established kingdoms were in a precarious state, always at the mercy of any little revolution. island tradition tends towards equality, but most chiefs who wanted to become king failed. Others, who came to power through cunning or force, didn't manage to stay in power very long. A committee of heads of families governed each island. Laws against murder, theft, rape, incest and adultery were strict. It was the executive body that acted. sometimes the criminal, supported by his family, reacted against this and then it was a case of war or impunity. Most of these quarrels didn't go far but occasionally some situation that developed out of nothing could become very bitter.
The major wars brought devastation and famine. Before setting off on campaign the people used up all their food supplies so that nothing was left for the enemy. In enemy territory they burned their villages, destroyed the palm trees and ruined the babai-pits. Yet, as we have seen, the real blood-baths came about because of sharks or cannibals in the islands to the west where the last surviving canoes were stranded. It is difficult to say whether famine caused many deaths. According to old sayings, coconut palms were once rare. They were planted after a great drought during which the palms, staff of life for the islands as they are, would have been severely depleted. Certainly the really big plantations are something more recent. they date from the time when oil and then copra began to be sold.
The people of these small islands have not, then, known a golden age; only periods of peace between one episode of slaughter and the next. they seem to have been spared one affliction: that of large-scale epidemics, isolation, sun and wind have done more for them than a regiment of hygiene experts. Between 1820 and 1870 whalers and other sea-rovers scattered their unpleasant diseases far and wide in Oceania. the gilberts, however, were relatively safe. They are a long way off the main sea routes, difficult to locate, awkward to land on and, having not much water or fruit, were not much good as a port of call. now that bacteria are so easily spread by modern transport, such as cars and planes, the Gilberts are still among the least affected of places.
Were the Gilbertese cannibals? Stories from Samoa mention hunting men. Memories preserved for some three hundred years, however, show that cannibalism was an exception. One can sense a nation-wide horror for the practice. They say that at Makin, Mangkia, who was half-Samoan, was fed on young girls. On the same island one Robuti, of the royal family, kept traps for catching human game. A piece of land near his hut was called "The place where human flesh rots'. Manrara, a chief, was ashamed of his cousin and he took him to his own house at Keuea. There, while pretending to pull a thorn out of him, he kicked the cannibal into a concealed pit where he was impaled on sharp sticks.
Another eater of human flesh was executed at Ukiangang by the same Manrara with whom he'd had a quarrel about land. An old woman from Butaritari said she remembered eating human flesh at Tarawa when she was a child. the victims came from some ambush or other. On a southern island they pointed out a man who committed murders for the same reason. he had escaped from a cannibal island where he had acquired the depraved taste. We have already mentioned the case of Tewatu-te-I-Matang. Nowadays if they say that at Nikunau Kika ate his children and their mother had difficulty saving even one - or if old Nei Tai of Abemama showed suspicious enthusiasm for burying the dead at her house - of if here and there other cases of cannibalism are mentioned, especially in times of food shortage, we can only agree that the Gilbertese abandoned cannibalism a long time ago: even if, indeed, their ancestors ever did practise it. In the Gilbertese race one can sense something very humane, sensible, sociable and polite, dating from the distant past.
Traders And The Colony Government