Volume 58 1949 > Volume 58, No. 1 > Diets, Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony, by I. G. Turbott, p 36-46
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- 36

THE constituents of the daily routine dietary for men and women appear to be similar, the men consuming little more than the women. Two classes of foodstuffs are in evidence today:

  • (1) The average normal staple diet (see Appendices); and
  • (2) occasional delicacies, or supplementary diet, and European commodities.

Before elaborating any further I would like to make one point clear. In studying the diet of either Gilbertese or Ellice Islanders it must be realized that the general principle which applies to diet figures of most native peoples equally applies to these people; that figures and amounts as set out in diet tables at Appendices I and II are not necessarily the amounts consumed every day or week by each native, since they do not eat a little of everything each day. They are in the habit of eating whatever comes to hand, and the only foods which are always available are coconuts, in one of the three general stages of development, or karawe (fresh toddy mixed with water), kamaimai (molasses made from fresh toddy boiled and mixed with water), and kabubu (pandanus pudding mixed with water). These all keep for reasonably long periods without deterioration. Apart from these, it is purely according to the season and the success of his fishing or husbandry whether the Gilbertese or Ellice Islanders eat fish, meat, shellfish or cropped foods. Most of these natives eat pork not more than once a month, for example, while on Abemama in the Central Gilberts, where bananas are rare, the average consumption of bananas per head of population is negligible. On the other hand a Gilbertese lucky enough to obtain a bunch may eat several dozen in one session. Similarly if a native of these islands is fortunate enough to catch several tuna, he and his family may eat up to five or six pounds - 37 apiece at one meal, and for the remainder of the week see no more fish.

The general health of the Colony is good and the more serious diseases are not prevalent. There are no occupational diseases. The 1947 Census gave an average annual increase for the Micronesians and Polynesians in the Colony over the 16 years since the previous census as 8.28 per thousand per year.

The poverty of the soil, and the variability of the rainfall, are reflected in the quality of the vegetation. From the sea, most of the islands appear to be densely covered in trees and plants, but closer investigation shows that these comprise a small range of types, and that some of them do not flourish. The flora of the Gilbert Islands, rather more barren than the Ellice group, consists of only about two dozen species, and that of Funafuti, which may be taken as fairly typical of the Ellice Islands, consists of about three dozen species. Chief in numbers and importance is the coconut palm, which provides a great variety of economic products. (Contrary to popular opinion, nearly all coconut palms, even on uninhabited islands, have been planted by man.) Next in numbers and utility is the pandanus which, like the coconut, grows freely all over these low islands. Timber trees of any size are scarce, but Fetau (Calophyllum inophyllum, a pink hardwood), and Puka (Pisonia grandis) and Hornandia sp., a white softwood, are the most common on the larger islands, while Ochrosia, which has a hard heavy white wood, Barringtonia, a handsome tree with a large square fruit, and a species of Cordia are found on some islands. Other trees and shrubs include Hibiscus, occasional paper mulberry, gardenia and native fig, some mangroves in swampy areas, a kind of small casuarina on sterile tracts of coral debris, and Scaecola, with a pithy stem rather like an elder, at the margin of the sea. There are herbs, ferns and grasses adapted to the sandy soil, but their variety is small and there is hardly any climbing or parasitic plants. Very recently a green creeping plant (Convolvulus?) has appeared in the Colony and today is growing rapidly over the scars of battles and old camp sites. There is little doubt that if left to itself it will oust the remaining small green vegetation. Of food plants, apart from the coconut and pandanus, the most important - 38 is the large coarse Alocasia, an aroid allied to the taro, Taro itself (Colocasia antiquorum),, sweet potato, arrow-root, breadfruit, bananas and in some places gourds, are also cultivated, but they frequently do not grow particularly well. On some Ellice Islands such as Funafuti, in addition to the wild pandanus, another variety with a larger sweet fruit is cultivated; this is said to have been introduced from the Gilberts, where it is a common type.

The vegetation of Ocean Island comprises mainly such large indigenous trees as coconut palms, pandanus, Calophyllum inophyllum and native almond (Terminalia catappa); and introduced plants such as papaya, mango, guava, lime, jackfruit, and a coarse variety of banana. No yams or taro are grown, but sweet potatoes and tapioca are planted in small quantities.

The daily Gilbertese diet as set out in Appendix I is the result of consultations and observations generally with the “old men” and other reliable persons on Tarawa Island and Abemama in the Gilbert Group. It must be noted that the figures are not the result of a scientific survey of a number of average families over a reasonable period. It is merely the result of questioning and, therefore, liable to certain errors in quantities of food. Appendix II is the result of a two months' survey of 12 families of 52 adults and 36 children, the summary being the consumption per person irrespective of age or sex. II represents an average weekly diet scale and has been left in this form for comparison with the average daily diet as in Appendix I.

The most important basic foods are coconuts, fish, karawe (fresh toddy), kamaimai (molasses made from fresh toddy boiled) and kabubu (pandanus pudding), eaten on a daily average in the amounts given in Appendix I. As earlier mentioned, the amount of fish consumed greatly varies according to the catch. Gilbert and Ellice Islanders greatly prize fattiness in food and such fish as te baneawa (a kind of mullet), te kua (the porpoise), te rabono-ni-man (the deep sea Conger) are particularly sought after and most highly valued on account of their fatty content. Crayfish, lobsters, crabs, shellfish, turtles and a great many varieties of fish are eaten. It is interesting, however, to note that there is no evidence of seaweed ever having been eaten in any form.

- 39

Full descriptions of the preparation and value of karewe, kamaimai and kabubu appear in Sir Arthur Grimble's “The Migration of a Pandanus People,” Part 1, (6) the section relating to diet printed in the supplement to The Journal of the Polynesian Society, No. 165 of March, 1933.

Other foods eaten frequently, but in smaller quantities, are made up puddings with local names:

  • Bekei (pounded babai root boiled and mixed with kamaimai and coconut milk).
  • Tangana (pounded babai root baked and mixed with kamaimai).
  • Buatoro (pounded babai boiled, mixed with kamaimai).

The estimated amounts eaten per average daily diet have been included in Appendix I under each separate raw material.

Green leaves were not normally used in the diet but in recent years a certain amount of Chinese cabbage, pumpkin leaves, etc., have been cooked by the natives. In times of extreme drought the Gilbertese have been known to eat the leaves of the following plants:

  • Mtea (turtle grass)—a small grassy plant with thin leaves creeping along the ground;
  • Te boi—a small fleshy stemmed thick leaved green shrub—probably Portulaca oleracea.

Enquiries into the use of herbs reveal that there is no indication of their general growth or use. The juice from pandanus roots was given as a general tonic in cases of sickness among men, but otherwise nothing else seems to have been used, except the “te boi” mentioned later in connection with the Phoenix Islands.

The Dioclea bean (te riku) grows well on many islands, but even today the islanders have not discovered its edible qualities, or if they have, do not find it particularly palatable.

Livers from sharks, bonita, tuna, in fact all deep sea fish are eaten, as are those of pigs, domestic fowls and sea birds.

The relationship of these diets to disease is given in considerable detail in Dr. G. W. Bray's Dietetic Deficiencies and Relationship to Disease” (1927).

- 40

Two extremely valuable tables from Dr. Bray's article concerning the value, content and consumption of food in use in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony are here included for reference:

Table I: Furnishing an approximate percentage composition caloric value and vitamin content of the food in use; and

Table II: Translates this typical diet into the daily consumption of a certain number of grammes of protein, fat and carbohydrate and thus assesses the heat value in calories.

Foodstuff Water Protein Fat Carbo-hydrate Calories per 100 grammes Vitamins     Remarks
Coconut Milk 92.7 0.4 1.5 4.6 34   + ++  
Toddy 0.32 13.0 54 +? +   B +++ sour
Grated Coconut 14.1 5.7 50.6 27.9 608 +? +    
Fish 70.1 18.7 1.2 1.1 80       A & B deep sea
Pandanus 93.1 1.0 0.1 5.2 26   +? ++  
Biscuit 35.3 9.2 1.3 53.1 268        
Sugar 100.0 410        
Limes     ++  
White Bread 35.2 8.0 1.4 54.3 269        
Oatmeal 7.3 16.1 7.2 67.5 410   +?    
Cornflower 10.3 9.6 1.1 78.3 370        
Pawpaw 88.3 1.4 0.5 9.0 47   + ++  
Pork 50.1 15.7 33.4 375       A & B organs
Fowl 70.2 21.3 7.8 185        
Tin Meat 51.8 25.5 22.5 314        
Total Vitamin Contents           +? + ++  
Foodstuff Amount Average Total Protein Fat Carbohydrate Calories
Coconut Milk 2-4 14ozs. 50ozs. 6 24 83 580
Toddy 2 20ozs. 40ozs. 4 166 680
Grated Coconut 1 8ozs. 8ozs. 14 125 69 1,507
Fish 1 12ozs. 12ozs. 69 4 4 297
Pandanus 10 3ozs. 30ozs. 9 1 47 234
Biscuit 1 2ozs. 2ozs. 6 1 33 166
Total       108 155 402 3,464
Sugar 16-24ozs. 500-750 2,000-3,000
- 41

A cultural feature which marks off the Gilbertese and Ellice Islanders from their neighbours to the south and the east is the preparation of toddy. This is made from the sap of the coconut palm, drawn off from the budding spathe before it is allowed to flower and fruit and in this form is drunk by the Ellice Islanders, or sometimes boiled down to the consistency of molasses. The Gilbertese, however, often allow the sap to ferment, when it becomes intoxicating.

In the Phoenix Islands on Manra, Orono and Niku-maroro natives from the Gilberts have built their homes under a Government sponsored settlement scheme. Coconuts and fish provide the staple diet and only in very recent years have any papaya or pandanus grown sufficiently to add variety. One interesting feature of their settlement is the use made of the “te boi” (Gilbertese name), earlier mentioned, leaves and stems of which are pounded and boiled as an added tonic to the meagre fish and coconut diet. This addition has greatly improved the general health amongst the natives and has virtually saved the life of at least one European. At Manra, where many of the easily accessible reef fish are poisonous the people have also taken to eating boiled purslane or Portulaca oleracea, and their health has benefitted thereby. At Nikumaroro, where a group of twenty paid labourers accompanied by their families has been engaged for nine years clearing and planting the land, large numbers of coconut trees have now come into bearing. The populace is therefore no longer virtually dependent as before upon supplies of store foods, although these are still purchased in some quantity by this comparatively wealthy little community to vary the native diet. Fish is abundant as at Nikumaroro; “babai” grows well and there has been some success with bananas.

The times of meals depend to a great degree on the supply of food. Except in the case of Government employees who, through the nature of their work, must eat their meals more or less at the same time as Europeans, the average Gilbertese or Ellice Islander likes to eat at about 9 a.m., sometimes after returning from the early morning labours, and again in the evening usually after the evening supply of toddy has been cut and brought home. Some eat a further meal at midday but this is variable and usually associated with the better off families.

- 42

Even today the universal habit of waking about mid-night and making, as Sir Arthur Grimble describes it “an impromptu meal of anything remaining over from the evening's repast,” is fairly common. It is still normal for a household also to arise at any hour of the night to eat a fairly substantial meal if some members of the family arrive home with a good catch of fish.

Today, as fifteen years ago when Grimble wrote, individual inclination “plays a great part in determining meal times, and although the majority of people are seen eating at the same times indicated, there is no etiquette which binds a native either to take his meals at a particular hour, or to do so in the company of his fellow-householders. In a very general sense, however, the meal may be regarded as common to the household.”

Each patrilineal exogamous group in Gilbertese society claims descent from or connection with at least one totem. No member of such a group may eat the flesh of the totem-creature of his group. This practice has not, however, been strictly adhered to for many years. In 1933 Grimble estimated that not more than ten per cent of the Gilbertese then living could even remember the names of their totems, and as the old men of the Gilberts die out so this percentage becomes even smaller. In section 5, part 1 of Grimble's Migration of a Pandanus People, he gives a very full index of food creatures avoided, for totemistic reasons, by those who continue to respect them, and a little later in the same section he outlines the names, etc., of creatures to be avoided by pregnant women and nursing mothers. Creatures avoided by men or women or both for other reasons are also fully listed. The overall position regarding food avoidances for the above reasons has virtually remained unchanged except that today, as already stated, the ten per cent that it is said fifteen years ago did adhere to this procedure has now been reduced to nearer five per cent.

Specific information regarding the normal diet for babies was supplied by the Colony Medical Staff on Tarawa.

Most native babies are breast fed (or nursed) just so long as the mother has any milk left—the average time being approximately twelve months.

- 43

The first foods, other than breast milk, normally fed to babies are listed below. There does not appear to be any hard and fast rule for specific amounts; the proportion taken depends partly on supply and partly on the preference of the mother and the baby.

  • 1. Pawpaw juice.
  • 2. Pawpaw (mashed up) raw.
  • 3. Pawpaw steamed as a vegetable.
  • 4. Coconut milk.
  • 5. Te ranniben (grated coconut squeezed to cream).
  • 6. Grated young coconut.
  • 7. Eggs.
  • 8. Fish.
  • 9. Chicken.
  • 10. Soup made from fish and chicken.
  • 11. Pig's liver.
  • 12. Pumpkin.
  • 13. Bananas (masked).
  • 14. Cabin biscuits soaked in milk and mashed up.
  • 15. Rice.
  • 16. Bread.
  • 17. Milk (when available in store).
  • 18. Butter.
  • 19. Babai boiled and grated, mixed with te ranniben.
  • 20. Fresh toddy.
  • 21. Kumala (sweet potato) boiled and grated.
  • 22. Pumpkin leaves boiled and mashed.

They are introduced gradually and utilized in the diet of a native baby generally by the time the child has reached twelve months of age.

Many European foodstuffs are now so generally used by the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders that they may rightly be called staple foods. Rice, Navy biscuits and sugar are the main items so classified. Most families keep, if possible, at least one pig, its fat being particularly highly esteemed. Fresh mutton and beef are also eaten when obtainable and tinned meat and fish is now a favourite delicacy.

Twenty years ago, Grimble states that generally speaking the Gilbertese adult did not like tinned milk and could “not understand the white man's liking for milk puddings, considering that all food of this class is ‘te bai ni kumumuta’ (a thing to make vomit).” Today, however, although the greater proportion of tinned milk is bought for children on medical recommendation, the people themselves have developed a taste for it and do add it to their diet when money permits.

- 44

Other foreign foods used when available by the natives are:—

  • 1. Flour.
  • 2. Tea.
  • 3. Coffee.
  • 4. Jam.
  • 5. Butter.
  • 6. Dripping.
  • 7. Dhalo.
  • 8. Kumalas (sweet potato).
  • 9. Yams.
  • 10. Limes, lemons or any citrus fruit.

Items 7, 8, 9 and 10 are introductions from Melanesia and are grown in very limited quantities in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony.

The financial position of the individual would seem to be the important factor today in relation to consumption of imported foods. The islander makes a meal of tinned meat or bread because he likes them and can afford to buy them, not so much because he failed to catch any fish or has no babai in his pit.

Since the recent world war, imported foods have come more and more into fashion, particularly on the six islands in the Colony which were occupied. The present day high price of copra of £15 per ton paid to the natives on the land, together with the money disbursed by American Forces, have provided the people with the means to buy them. A comparison of copra exports in 1938, as compared with 1948, gives an indication of the amount of cash available for purchasing these goods. In 1938, 4,800 tons were exported at an average price to the grower of £3 10s per ton, while by the end of 1948 6,000 tons will be exported at an average price to the man on the land of £15 per ton. The price of imported foods, as is the case throughout the world, has risen very considerably in this ten year period, but there still remains a sufficient leeway for the islander today to be able to purchase a very much greater proportion of tinned foods than was so in 1938.

Moimoto (drinking coconuts) 2 nuts
Ben (ripe coconuts) 2 "
Riki (germinating coconuts) 1.5 "
- 45
Babai (taro root) 1.5 lbs.
Mai (breadfruit) .5 "
Ika (fish, cleaned) 1.5 "
Karewe (fresh toddy, mixed) .25 "
Kamaimai (molasses) mixed (made from fresh toddy) .75 "
Tou (ripe pandanus fruit) .75 lbs.
Pork .25 "
Chicken .25 "
Kabubu (pandanus pudding mixed with water) .25 "
Tuae (pandanus fruit pounded and dried in sun and rolled on mat) .25 "
Bananas 1
Sugar .15 "
Flour .5 "
Rice .5 "
Tinned Meat .25 "
  • (1) Mai and tou are seasonal.
  • (2) Te non (morinda citrifolia), a large leaved tree growing to 12 feet in height produces berries about the size of a ping pong ball which in season when ripe are also eaten.
  • (3) In the poorer and more densely populated Southern Gilberts the coconuts are allowed to fully mature and ripen, making the following alterations to the above diet:—
Moimoto Nil
Ben 3
Riki Nil
Food Item Weekly quantity
Drinking coconuts (moimoto) 16
Ripe nuts (ben, etc.) 9
Germinating nuts (riki) 5 Total 30
Taro root (babai) 1.5 lbs.
Breadfruit (mai) 1.5 lbs.
Rice .75 lbs.
Flour .75 lbs.
Fish (cleaned) 2 lbs.
Molasses (karewe or kamaimai) 1 pint
Sugar (in volume) .5 pint
- 46
Coconuts of all types 30
Starches of all types 4.5 lbs.
Flesh of all types 2 " plus
Sugars of all types 1.5 pints
Bananas 7 lbs. per person per week.
Canned Meat .33 lbs. per family per week.
Fresh Pork 1 lb. per family per week.
Chicken .25 lbs. per family per week.
Poi (pounded flesh of green coconut mixed with fresh toddy or kamaimai—cooked or cold) 6 pints per person per week.
  • A. (1) Breadfruit and bananas are seasonal items.
  • (2) Samoan poi is also used in the Ellice Islands. It consists of ripe bananas pounded up and mixed with coconut cream (and leaves of lime added for flavouring if available).
  • B. A recent survey by Lands Commission on Niutao (an island in the Ellice Group) confirms for that island the figures given above for quantity of coconuts consumed per week. His figures are 5 average per day.