The present inhabitants are descended mainly from Samoans who migrated to Kiribati at some time between the 11th and 14th centuries. Traces of later contact with other Pacific Islanders and a Chinese influence remain in the population and culture. Social structure was diverse, chiefs ruling in the northern islands and councils of elders having authority in the south.
The islands were sighted by 16th-century Spanish seamen, but settlement was not attempted, and Europeans did not arrive in any numbers until after 1765. Between the late 18th century and 1870 the waters of Kiribati were used by European sperm-whaling ships; deserters from the ships sometimes settled on the islands. Trade in coconut oil began about 1860, followed by trade in copra. By the second half of the 19th century about 9,000 Kiribati people were working overseas, thanks to energetic labour recruitment.
Christian missionaries first arrived in the northern Gilberts in 1857. In 1870 Samoan clergy, sponsored by the London Missionary Society, arrived at Arorae, Tamara, Onotoa and Beru. In 1888 Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the Gilberts, which are today predominantly Roman Catholic.
In 1892 a British protectorate was proclaimed at Abemama by Captain Davis of HMS Royalist on behalf of Queen Victoria. The headquarters were established at Tarawa, district magistrates were assigned to the islands and a code of law was drawn up. Phosphate-rich Banaba (Ocean Island) was annexed by Britain in 1900. In 1915, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were annexed by a British order in council which came into effect on 12 January 1916.
The Japanese army occupied the Gilbert Islands (1942–43) until driven out by the US army in some of the Pacific War’s fiercest fighting. In 1957 three hydrogen bombs were detonated in the vicinity of Kiritimati, as part of the UK’s atmospheric testing programme.
In 1975 the Ellice Islands seceded to form the separate territory of Tuvalu. Internal self-government was given to the Gilbert Islands, renamed Kiribati, on 1 January 1977. At a conference in 1978 it was agreed that Kiribati, with other islands appended to the territory by the colonial authorities, should become fully independent as a republic. On Independence Day, 12 July 1979, Kiribati became the 41st member of the Commonwealth.
Ieremia Tabai became the first President of Kiribati in July 1979. He was re-elected in April 1982, but the following December his government was defeated in a vote of no confidence. Re-elected President in February 1983, he went on to win the election of May 1987. Prevented by the constitution from standing for a further term, he was succeeded after the 1991 general election by his former Vice-President, Teatao Teannaki.
There were no political parties before September 1985, and candidates continued to stand for election as independent individuals, though loosely structured parties – for example, Teatao Teannaki’s National Progressive Party, Teburoro Tito’s Maneaban Te Mauri, and Boutokaan Te Koaua – emerged thereafter.
In May 1994, President Teannaki’s government lost a vote of no confidence. A general election held in July 1994 brought 18 new members into parliament. The majority of the 39 seats were won by an opposition grouping and in the presidential election that followed in September 1994 Teburoro Tito was elected from a list of four nominations.
In March 1998, among the main recommendations of the first review of the constitution since independence in 1979 was that foreign husbands of I-Kiribati women should have the same automatic rights to Kiribati citizenship as foreign wives of I-Kiribati men.
On 23 and 30 September 1998, elections were held for the House of Assembly. In the first round of voting the government won six seats, and the opposition eight seats. In the second round, the government won a further 14 seats (making 20 in all) and the opposition nine seats (17 in all); the remaining two seats were won by independents. In November 1998, President Tito was re-elected. He defeated opposition members Amberoti Nikora and Harry Tong.
Phosphate mining has made Banaba almost uninhabitable. The inhabitants were moved to the Fijian island of Rabi in the mid-1940s; in 1970 they became citizens of Fiji, but kept the ownership of land on Banaba. In 1981, after ten years of discussion and litigation over phosphate royalties and environmental damage caused by open-cast mining, they accepted A$14.58 million compensation from the British government. The Banabans have special rights of residence and representation in Kiribati.