Volume 62 1953 > Volume 62, No. 3 > The dynasty of Abemama, by R. G. Roberts, p 267-278
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ADMINISTRATIVE duties took me to Abemama, an atoll less than one degree north of the equator in the Gilbert chain, towards the end of 1948, and while I had anticipated camping in the rest house there for but a matter of a few days, failure of a small ketch to arrive detained me for nearly three weeks. Time lay heavily on my hands when my routine tasks were done and, as an antidote to boredom, I spent several evenings endeavouring to learn a little of the history of the chiefly family. This paper, then, is the result of those evenings, together with brief further notes, included for comparative or explanatory purposes, gathered during extensive touring of the group.

The Gilbertese people, copper skinned Micronesians, have dwelt for generations upon low coral atolls and reef islands, subsisting on the fruits of the pandanus and coconut palms and on the fish taken from lagoon and reef. Laboriously, pits have been dug in the sandy soil and in these large trenches, at the natural water table level and shaded by tall trees, a giant taro, babai (alosia indica (Schott) ) has been cultivated. Existence has been a struggle but here and there a few, by physical force, have acquired positions of local, albeit temporary, power and have united village communities, normally guided by family elders, into small kingdoms. The formation of such autocracies appears to have been limited to the northern half of the group, although it is true that legend tells of minor chieftains gaining power over either one or two village districts at Beru and Tabiteuea, but their periods of leadership were dependent upon their fortunes in battle and their abilities to sway, and to hold, public favour. It is, then, only in the northern part of the Group that feudal communities existed. Life on the island of Butaritari, and the adjacent populated reefs of Makin - 268 and Kiebu, is still influenced to a great degree by the High Chief Kaiea and his family. On the island of Marakei a man of advanced years has made recent feeble announcements that he is the rightful uea of that atoll on the grounds that he is the grandson of the winner of the last civil strife. The royal families of the atolls of Abaiang and Tarawa have been closely connected and, while on the former a woman is now assuming, with the consent of the people, the position of uea (see genealogical table), internecine troubles at Tarawa island in the latter half of the nineteenth century, between the northern and southern villages, so weakened and divided loyalties that government by Chiefs gave way to leadership by village councils of elders. At the comparatively poor atoll of Maiana a family, at the village of

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Bubutei, had virtually established a chieftainship but, after visits to that atoll by BINOKA of Abemama, towards the end of the nineteenth century, no further steps were made to consolidate its position and the ueaship died.

The rise of royal family groups, the methods by which they retained their power and the possible reasons for their downfall, is an interesting subject, and what follows is the story, briefly, of the dynasty of Abemama.

It must be explained that the inhabitants of the kingdom of Abemama, Kuria, and Aranuka are divided into five social classes. While it has been denied that, in these more enlightened times, these social distinctions are of much significance, I found, during investigations at Abemama, that there is a great shame felt by those questioned on the subject, and that any reference to the words “slave” and “labourer” causes informants to glance furtively about in fear of being overheard. The reason for this shame and fear is that many of these natives are now of mixed freeman-slave blood and, while posing as freemen, are extremely conscious of their slave ancestry. The High Chief himself dislikes speaking of slaves and labourers.

The five social classes are led by the Uea, the hereditary High Chief of the kingdom, and his eldest son. They, and other children of the Uea, including the eldest child if this be a female, and any children by them, form a class known as Ba n uea or utu n uea. A group of freemen, ancestors of whom either pleased in some way the Uea at the time, or excelled themselves in battle, are known as Inaomata, and this title, being hereditary, may be likened perhaps to the squires of England. Freemen are a class known as Aomata. These three classes are landowners of varying wealth. Persons who, while landless, are free to work for whomsoever they please, and to come and go at will, are collectively called Rang. The slaves, lowest of all in the scale, landless and compelled by custom originating from times when the kingdom was in an almost constant state of civil strife, to live upon the lands of their conquerors, and to work in return for nothing but the food those lands might produce, are known as Toro. As but two centuries ago all people of the kingdom were of equal status, the humiliating effect of serfdom is so great that, today, a native whose antecedants - 270 are unknown, can be recognised almost instantly, not only by his appearance but also by his manner, as either Toro or Aomata.

Family Tree. 1. Uea Banuea, 2. Inaomata, 3. Aomata, 4. Rang, 5. Toro.

The royal house of Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka, is of recent origin. Approximately eight generations ago in the early eighteenth century the people of these three atolls spent their lives in amity, each as rich or as poor as his neighbour. There appear to have been no persons of importance or fame at that time. It is true legends give names of both men and women, outstanding in some way, but these figures are surrounded by such mists of fantasy that they are now considered to have been more spiritual than corporeal and are known as ghost people or beast people—aomata n anti. However, a man and his wife, villagers of the area called Tabontebike, expecting a child to be born them within a few months, journeyed to where the sea has formed a curving channel through the atoll rim at Abemama and there, at Tuangaona, performed magic rites in order that their child might be a man of size and power. In due course the child was born, but so large was it that a caesarean operation had to be performed. That the mother lived says much for the primitive and unhygienic surgery of the time. This child, named TETABO, eventually became an adult of gigantic size, an aintoa, not perhaps as a result of his parents' magic, or tabunea, prior to his birth, but possibly from some glandular deficiency.

Stories are told of the strength of this, the last of the toa in the Gilbert Islands. A hundred men standing in line on the open reef were all slain by a coconut log hurled at them - 271 by TETABO. Great holes were made in the baba rock of the lagoon reef where he stamped, in rage, upon it. So great then was the strength of TETABO that all men feared him and he, being ambitious, or, as is more probable, in search of an outlet for his energy, became the first real leader of the people of Abemama. He was not given the title of High Chief but merely that of mataniwi-iaon-te-aba—the master on the land.

There had been considerable communication by canoes at this time between the island of Marakei to the north and Abemama. The magical performance of the parents of TETABO, prior to his birth, is considered by Abemamans to have been a tabunea originating at Marakei. And it was the uniting by TETABO of the majority of the people of Abemama against raiding parties from Marakei that really established his position and founded the utu n uea.

KAROTU, the grandson of TETABO, had, by his first wife, one son, TAWAIA, and although KAROTU had inherited, through his father, the title and position of mataniwi-iaon-te-aba, he made his son, TAWAIA, by proclamation the first High Chief, or Uea, and then lived, as it were, in retirement. Eventually, however, the second wife of KAROTU, Teaa, became pregnant and, as the Uea TAWAIA had no issue, an agreement was made by KAROTU, TAWAIA and Teaa that the child should inherit the title of Uea. In order that there should be little doubt of this child's right to the Ueaship, Teaa and her stepson TAWAIA copulated on four apparently well publicised occasions. The child, in reality the offspring of KAROTU and Teaa, but announced as the issue of TAWAIA and Teaa, in due course became the second Uea. This child, whose name at birth has since been forgotten, was recognized in adulthood as a marksman of some skill not, as may be expected, with a spear, but with a gun, indicating that European ships were voyaging through the Group at the time. He was named BAITEKE, (to) hit things.

Unlike, perhaps, more primitive races, the Gilbertese have never had doubts, as far as can now be ascertained, that the conception of a child “in the stomach of a woman” may coincide with, and be the outcome of the sexual act. The known union of TAWAIA and Teaa would be expected to result, therefore, in an infant and, even though the birth of this child might appear rather immediate after the - 272 announced intercourse of TAWAIA and Teaa, the gossips would have it that the affair was one of long standing.

BAITEKE had four children, two sons and two daughters. The elder of these sons, BINOKA, became the third and, perhaps, the most infamous of all Uea. There is ample evidence at Abemama that the atoll supported, some hundred years ago, a people far greater in number than the thousand now living there, and from the statements of old men it appears that the wars which swept the land prior to the advent of BINOKA, and BINOKA'S extreme cruelty, greatly decreased the population. The foundations remain at Tabontebike of BINOKA'S palace and, built of thatch and poles, it must have been a massive structure to have housed the forty wives and twenty concubines of the Uea permitted him by the Gilbertese custom that allows access by a husband to the sisters, and the female cousins in some cases, of the wife.

It is said that BINOKA employed a human cock to crow at sunrise and so awaken the royal household. This human rooster perched upon the ridgepole of the palace and, apart from his duties at dawn, would utter fowl-like noises of appreciation should he espy a female of beauty on the road that passed through the village. Whereupon the Uea would summon the girl and she, upon threat of death should she refuse. would subject herself to public sexual intercourse with the man-bird. Stories such as these, and the fact that the Uea slept upon a pillow stuffed with the pubic hairs of virgins, indicate his sexual mania and it is, perhaps, because of this that BINOKA had no child of his own. It is not suggested that BINOKA was any more cruel or violent than his predecessors, but his having lived within human memory, and his having been recorded in the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, makes him a Uea, in the minds of the Gilbertese, worth discussing.

In his book Travels in the South Seas written at Abemama towards the close of the nineteenth century, Robert Louis Stevenson records a conversation he had with one TEKOP (TEKABU) on the moonlit shores of Fu Bay. This bay, or rectangular inlet, named in memory of Stevenson's Chinese cook, is situated on the weather or opposite side of the atoll rim to the palace of BINOKA. TEKABU, “the most - 273 handsome of young men” Stevenson had met, explained that his reason for making this great detour in walking from a village south of the royal palace to his own village of Baretoa was that the Uea, jealous of his large harem, maintained a small army of aged men, armed with rifles, whose task it was to shoot on sight any male found near the palace at night. TEKABU has recalled this conversation, nearly fifty years later, and quoted it, almost word for word, as written by Stevenson. An ancient crone, with a line and alternate stars, tattooed down the inner sides of her arms, stated in 1944 that she was one of the two surviving wives of BINOKA, as the tattoo marks proved. She, in company with TEKABU, who occasionally called himself ROBATI as he and Stevenson were friends to such an extent that they exchanged names, pointed out the spot where, in the late nineties, Stevenson and his wife had lived in a thatched hut built them by the Uea. The dwelling must have been on a slight eminence formed by the heaped spoil from the excavated babai pits of the royal family and adjacent to the nei, or pond, where the numerous queens took their daily baths. The ancient crone scratched aside fallen palm fronds and revealed the stone steps leading down to the water. She chuckled and recalled the time of Stevenson's living there and how the Uea, BINOKA, had forbidden them the use of the pond lest the white man should cast glances at them. As Stevenson remained at Abemama for nine months the royal household must have been redolent of “odor equatoris” ere he departed.

BINOKA, in common with most primitive sovereigns, considered that the possession of great numbers of exotic and useless articles enhanced his prestige. Stevenson has recorded how the palace contained broken phonographs and a bedstead complete with glittering brass knobs but without a mattress. Gifts must have been given the Uea by Captain Davis of H.M.S. Royalist in 1892, when the territory was proclaimed a protectorate, as large white china bowls, of a quality and pattern now seldom seen and bearing the crest of the Royal Marines, were in the possession of Moanie, a great grand-niece of BINOKA.

Now the brother of BINOKA, TIMON, had disgraced himself and his royal family by marrying a woman, Taeia, of the Rang or labouring class. As BINOKA advanced in years he - 274 realized that he would have no son of his own and, therefore, adopted BAURO, the child of TIMON. At the adoption ceremony the feet of the child BAURO were cut in order to release the Rang, or labouring class, blood. BINOKA then announced that the youth was now pure Ba n uea and fit to accede to the throne. Fearing that the nobles might still object to this, the Uea compelled them to smear the Rang blood of the child on their heads and so make themselves, having added to their bodies a minute amount of Rang blood, inferior to the child BAURO.

Shortly after this adoption the old Uea, BINOKA, died and his brother TIMON acted as regent for the youthful BAURO. In due course BAURO ascended the throne, reigned for a brief and uneventful period, and then died without issue

During the short reign of BAURO his sister, Rita, married one TEBETINAKO. It must be remembered that Rita, having undergone no blood-letting ceremony, was a mixture of Ba n uea and Rang blood and now she had united with a man of Aomata descent. Their child, TOKATAKE, became the fifth Uea. It was at this time in the history of Abemama that European traders, having become accepted by the community, were anxious to marry their half-caste children into the wealthy families of the kingdom. A Scot, with a trading post and small estate at Kuria, married his eldest daughter Agneti to TOKATAKE.

The eldest child, the son of TOKATAKE and Agneti, was christened TEKINAITI and is now the sixth Uea of the kingdom. This TEKINAITI at the age of sixteen years was married to the daughter of a trader, who had purchased considerable land at Abemama, and a Nauruan woman.

There was a movement by a small minority during 1944, at Abemama, which sought the renunciation by TEKINAITI of his right to the Ueaship and the acclamation of TABURIMAI, the grand-nephew of BINOKA, as the High Chief. The reasons given for this were that TEKINAITI had failed to interest himself in the welfare of his subjects and had acted in a manner that did not command respect. It was said that TABURIMAI possessed more Ba n uea blood than TEKINAITI, which is true if the blood-letting ceremony at the adoption of BAURO by BINOKA can be discounted. By the rules, however, of primogeniture TEKINAITI would still appear to be the rightful - 275 Uea of the atoll of Abemama and the two satellite islands of Kuria and Aranuka.

Succession among Gilbertese normally follows primogeniture in the male line as, for example, from TETABO through NAMORIKI and KAROTU to TAWAIA. Although customs of inheritance vary from island to island it is usual for land and chattels, on the decease of the owner, to be divided among the children, regardless of sex, a slightly larger share possibly being given the eldest male child. In view of this the acceptance of TOKATAKE as uea through the woman Rita is not surprising. Further, it will be noted from the following table showing the descent of the present uea at Abaiang that a female is herself acceptable as uea, and that she has succeeded through a woman. In this case, however, possibly to avoid objection, the female uea was adopted by the former uea KAIEA III, an adoption parallel to that at Abemama of BAURO by BINOKA.


The ueaship of Butaritari and Makin, in the furthest north, has succeeded entirely through males for at least a dozen generations. It would seem then that succession, while customarily through males, can be accepted through females if convenient, or if political arrangements are made beforehand. But the woman Arirei at Abaiang, a person of great character, is the first female known to act as uea.

Today, as many of the natives of Abemama are of aristocratic descent and dislike being given orders by - 276 their peers, let alone by those of inferior birth, the task of maintaining law and order has unusual difficulties for the native magistrate, the elected kaubure or village representatives, and Island Council members which form the Island Government. This haughty attitude of the toka, a term given to the classes of nobles, in spite of High Chiefs being encouraged to take a recognized and active part in island government, has not assisted the smooth advance of those Gilbertese on “feudal” islands towards a simple form of democratic administration. The attitude of the present uea at Abemama has enabled the lower classes to realize that the days of despotism are past, and the friendly, open-handed and classless fraternization of American forces with Abemama natives during the war has had a levelling effect. The inhabitants of Kuria and Aranuka, many being of the toro and rang classes, are still humble in mien although even they are awakening to a spirit of independence.

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