The I'Kiribati people are Micronesians, but recent archeological
evidence indicates that the islands were originally settled by
Austronesians thousands of years ago. Around the 14th century A.D.,
the islands were invaded by Fijians and Tongans. Intermarriage led to
a population reasonably homogeneous in appearance and traditions.
The first recorded European encounter with Kiribati was by the
Spanish explorer Quiros in 1606. By the 1820s, all of the islands had
been charted. At that time, the Russian hydrographer A.I. Krusenstern
gave the group the name Gilbert Islands. Until about 1870, many
British and American whaling vessels sought sperm whales in
Gilbertese waters. Starting in 1850, trading vessels passed through,
seeking first coconut oil and then copra. In the 1860s, "black-birders"
(slave ships) carried off islanders to work on plantations in Peru and,
later, in Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, and Australia. Not only did this practice
reduce the number of men on the islands, it also introduced European
diseases, such as measles, against which the islanders had little
resistance. With the people's consent, the Ellice groups (now Tuvalu)
and the Gilbert Islands became a British protectorate in 1892, in the
hope of eradicating slave raids and incessant tribal warfare.
In 1900, phosphate was discovered on Ocean Island. A surge of British
interest in the area resulted, and more islands were placed under the
British protectorate. Phosphate was the predominant source of income
for Kiribati until 1979, when deposits were exhausted.
Japan seized the islands in 1941. On November 21, 1943, American
forces launched their first penetration of Japan's ring of island defenses
by attacking the Tarawa islet of Betio. Tarawa Atoll was the setting for
one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific and was a major turning point
in the war for the Allies.
One of the most important post-war moves in the main islands was the
strengthening of the cooperatives. New rules made it unprofitable for
overseas trading firms to reestablish themselves. Kiribatians gained a
stronger voice in the affairs of the colony during the 1950s and 1960s,
when an advisory council and, later, a house of representatives with
powers of recommendation were created. In 1974, the colony moved
forward to a ministerial form of government. In 1975, the Ellice
Islands seceded from the colony and became the independent nation of
Tuvalu. On July 12, 1979, Kiribati obtained its own independence
from the United Kingdom and became a republic within the
source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1996