Volume 86 1977 > Volume 86, No. 3 > Social individualisation on Tabiteuea atoll, by William H. Geddes, p 371-392
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The Gilbert Islands lie in a “border” area of the Pacific between the Micronesian islands of the United States Trust Territories in the north and the Polynesian islands of Tuvalu in the south. Their traditional social and political organisation differed throughout the group. In the northern islands of Butaritari and Makin, society was divided into aristocratic and commoner classes and the islands were ruled by a single hereditary chief. 1 In the central islands, from Marakei to Abemama, island government was in the hands of despotic chiefs who, through the support of their descent groups, ruled the islands by force of arms. 2 It appears that these islands had been politically reorganised early in the eighteenth century by a group of invaders from Beru atoll and that since that time control tended to be based on military strength. In the southern islands, both villages and islands were organised along more “democratic lines”. The central political feature of each village was the meeting house or maneaba, to which each major residential descent group in the village had right of access and at which village meetings were held to decide village disputes and organise activities. Villages, similarly, were able to send representatives to the island maneaba where matters affecting inter-village co-operation and harmony were discussed.

Although the traditional organisation of islands of the group differed widely, during the past 140 years they have all been similarly subjected to European domination and to a consequent drastic reorganisation of their political, economic and religious institutions, and have all, to some degree, failed to adequately adapt the organisation of the past to the requirements of the present. In this article the traditional social and political organisation of one island in the group, Tabiteuea atoll, is outlined and those pressures which contributed to rapid social and political change are examined. The word “change” is used in this context simply to imply that what exists now differs from what existed in the past, not to imply that traditional institutions have been altered to suit new conditions. The term may well be far less appropriate than one such as “disruption”. I hope to show that the process which has occurred on Tabiteuea atoll is one of individualisation rather than adaptation. Institutions have been displaced - 372 rather than altered; integrative functions have been progressively stripped away, while those functions which traditionally maintained the discreteness of social and political units have been retained. With the increasing isolation of social and political units co-operation between households and between larger kin units has become increasingly difficult to initiate and sustain. New forms of co-operative organisation, stimulated by the central Government Co-operatives Department, have arisen, but these are based on individual rather than group membership and as such provide a means for independent individual activity and association, thereby emphasizing


the separate identity of household members.

Inhabitants of Tabiteuea atoll see their island as divided into three distinct areas on both geographical and political grounds.

  • 1. Tabiteuea North or Anikai includes the whole northern strip of land and most people also include the islets of Tauma and Kabuna in the area (Fig. 1).
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  • 2. Abamokoro ‘islets’ is made up of a large number of very small islets (about 45) strung out between Kabuna in the north and Tewai in the south. The only islets of any significance are those of Tenatorua, Bangai and Aiwa on which small villages are established. Many of the inhabitants of these villages are now resettling in the north because they want their children to attend school and there are none in this central area.
  • 3. Tabiteuea South or Tabonteaba includes the seven larger islets from Tewai in the north to Taku in the south and forms the southern administrative region of the atoll (Fig. 2).

Firth, speaking of Polynesian descent groups, suggests that,

An ambilateral system provides for variant group membership and presumably a more flexible group structure. This flexibility is seen, for example, in the Tongan situation where, taking advantage of the possibilities of choice, persons of relatively low status realign themselves with those of higher status. . . . But the flexibility of Polynesian - 374 descent groups has its limitations. For the most part, while an individual may choose fairly freely the descent group in which he wishes membership, once his choice is made he tends to abide by it. Only rarely does he change. His ties with other groups remain dormant and in succeeding generations they tend to atrophy. 3

Tabiteuean descent groups closely reflect the description given by Firth for Polynesia. The system was, and still is, ambilateral, very flexible in terms of the individual's ability to choose the group to which he will belong, and the possibilities of affiliation inherited through more distant ancestors tend to weaken with genealogical distance. It appears, however, that in the past the possibility of affiliation was in itself important, whether exercised or not. Through linking land inheritance to rights of group affiliation, ties between an individual and a range of kin groups on the island could be maintained for political purposes. Where an individual had potential affiliation rights in two groups, he could support neither in a quarrel with the other but was in the ideal position of mediator; thus, the wider the potential affiliation rights held by members of a group the fewer were the possibilities of feud. Since potential affiliation was a major means of ensuring political stability, it is not surprising that ownership of land on a kainga (descent group site in this context) was considered sufficient grounds for claiming potential affiliation rights to a kainga (descent group), even where the particular ancestor through whom the rights were inherited was either genealogically very distant or perhaps even forgotten.

Although potential affiliation rights in descent groups were politically important, the actual exercise of those rights was rather limited. Firth's description of Polynesian possibilities of affiliation closely approximates those of Tabiteuea. The residence of male children, in most cases, coincides with the residence of the male parent; women live with or near their husband's parents. This made for stability of the descent group in each village yet allowed a wide set of political alliances to be maintained through time as children inherited lands from both parents.

Pouwer, speaking of New Guinea kinship, says,

A spatial arrangement of kin makes a wide knowledge of actual and putative genealogically interpreted intergroup relations superflous and rather dysfunctional. Even within a localised kin group the exact genealogical relations between its members may be of less interest. Being a member of the domiciled core constitutes sufficient proof of being a relative. Sometimes people even point to their domicile in order to “prove” their genealogical relationship with a certain group. 4

Most Tabiteueans could give their genealogical relationship to other members of their immediate descent group, or utu, comprising three generations of individuals, but could not do so for any wider set of kin. Elders claimed that this had always been the case and that specialists, who kept the genealogies of kainga, were the only ones who could expand individual genealogies beyond the utu. Even the genealogies kept by - 375 specialists, however, were limited to those who had exercised residential rights on the kainga; they did not establish links with other descent groups. Kinship relations (between kainga) were established on the basis of rights of landholding (on the kainga) rather than by recourse to genealogical connections. The map of Tabiteuean landholdings was a map of political integration.

Despite drastic alterations in the twentieth century, many of the attributes of the traditional kinship system are still apparent in the contemporary system. However, Tabiteuean rationalisations of their presence are in terms of present necessity rather than past requirement. The political integration of the island was based on a web of descent group alliances requiring the constant division of lands into ever smaller parcels. Administrative reorganisation of the atoll following the advent of European rule has made many of the integrative functions of the traditional system superfluous and, in some of the most crucial areas, the two systems have come into direct conflict.

Traditional Social and Political Organisation

The southern islands of the Gilbert group were traditionally organised into villages made up of major kin groups opposed to each other. Such major groups had spokesmen who held their positions through male primogeniture. The major kin groups of each village could trace their connections to a single common ancestor. This ancestor had established the maneaba ‘(village) meeting house’, from which the village gained its identity, and had decreed the particular relations which were to exist between the kin groups of the village. In any examination of social and political organisation, the maneaba and the relations determined through it is central. Just as the major kin groups within a village were unified within the maneaba organisation, so too were villages united within it. All villages on Tabiteuea were able to trace their descent from a common group of ancestors and, should the need arise, each village held a position within the maneaba in relation to all other villages on the atoll. Consequently, island meetings could be held in which all villages took part. Positions of villages within the island maneaba were also based on the legendary instructions of the ancestral group who first established the maneaba on Tabiteuea.


From earliest times, according to mythic tradition, Tabiteuea has been divided into a number of separate villages. These villages were politically autonomous; consequently, no village would interfere in the internal organisation of another village. Each village was organised around its own maneaba. Within a village were a number of major kin groups, kainga, living on their traditional land, also called kainga. Each kainga was identified by the land in the village and across the island which was owned and occupied by its members and by the position it occupied in the village maneaba. This position was called the inaki or, less commonly on Tabiteuea, the boti of the kainga. Each kainga in the village had certain rights and obligations, defined by its position in the maneaba, toward all other kainga. - 376 These specified rights and obligations both distinguished kainga from one another and ensured co-operation and communication between them. Should two kainga quarrel, the matter would be raised in the maneaba before all the assembled kainga; members of the village there assembled could then voice an opinion on the matter and decide the rights and the wrongs of the issue. In this way intra-village cohesion was maintained. However, just as no village had the right to interfere in the internal organisation of another village, no kainga had the right to interfere in matters internal to another kainga. The maneaba was used for settling disputes and arranging co-operative activities between kainga, not for settling disputes within a kainga. Although the maneaba organisation and procedure was justified on the basis of common ancestry between participants, it was primarily a political entity and a means of holding together groups whose ancestral ties were too weak to be used as the basis for common interest.

The following accounts relate to the establishment of maneaba in the southern Gilberts and to the organisation of the maneaba in the Tabiteuean village of Buota.

Tabiteuean Myths of the Establishment of Maneaba in the Southern Gilbert Islands

This first myth was collected from Tongaia of Buota who received the story from Tekina, whose father was Teanaua. Tekina received the story from Boua of Buota village, whose father was Tiwaewae.

The Story of the Canoe called Tekabangaki

The canoe Tekabangaki journeyed from Tamoa to Nikunau. The people of the canoe all came from Tamoa. In the front of the canoe sat a man named Taburimai, in the middle of the canoe sat the man Riki, and at the back of the canoe sat the man Taburitongoun.
After sailing for a long time the canoe finally reached the island of Nikunau and the people beached the canoe in the kainga of Rawa where they decided to build their village.
When they were about to commence work on their maneaba, they began to prepare the site where the maneaba ought to stand, they decided that the maneaba should stand in the centre of the island of Nikunau. In order to discover where the centre of the island was, they decided that one man should run from the south end of the island and another should run from the north end of the island and where they met would be the middle of the island where the maneaba would be built. When these decisions had been made Taburimai went to the north end of the island to run from there and Taburitongoun went to the south end of the island but, as it was a long way to the southern end, he decided to turn round again when he was half way there and he ran north again.
Taburimai and Taburitongoun met in the village which is now called Umanriki, between the villages of Buariki and Teikatabunawati. The - 377 meaning of Umanriki is ‘the navel of Nikunau’ for in the middle of this village they built the maneaba.
Where the maneaba was built, the most wonderful thing about it was that the builders used no trees or sticks, but they used people from the canoe called Takabangaki and directed these people in the following way: You Naboua and Nabouriki and Nabounaba and Naboutabu, all of you must stand in position (the root bou means ‘pillar or column’). You Natatanga must place yourself on top of them. You Naoka put yourself on Natatanga. You Nakaukau put yourself on Naoka and you Nabanikakari put yourself on Nakaukau. You Narau put yourself on Nabanikakari and you Nakabaraki put yourself on Narau. You Nabaebae put yourself inside Narau and lie down so that you can hold on to Nabanikakari and you Nakainibuti lie underneath your relatives also.
When it was finished all the people of the maneaba were in their right place where they had been told to go and the finished maneaba was named Te Maungatabu.

This myth very clearly spells out one of the most important functions of the maneaba, to positionally define kin groups, and therefore individuals, in terms of each other and then limit the possibilities of redefinition.

With the maneaba completed it was divided into boti. Taburimai's place was the whole north side facing south of the maneaba. Taburitongoun's place was the whole south side of the maneaba. Riki's place was the whole side facing east. The land was divided in the same way. Taburimai owned all the north of the land, Riki owned the middle and Taburitongoun owned the south.

After several other incidents recounted in the myth it finally says that,

the three men decided to live on their land so each built a separate maneaba on their own land into which the others could enter in the positions they owned.

The names given to the people used in constructing the first maneaba are the names given to the various parts of a house or maneaba to the present.

As can be seen from the above myth, the west side of the maneaba was allotted to nobody. This is not explained in any part of the myth used above. In another myth, however, the way in which the west side of the maneaba was used is recounted. (It would be irrelevant to give the whole of this next myth so only that part which relates to the use of the west side of the maneaba will be given.) This myth was obtained from the same sources as the one above.

The first maneaba which was built on Beru was built by Temata-warebwe and his friends Tabuariki and Tabeaua when they first landed on that land. Before long this maneaba was too small and they had to build another bigger maneaba.

There follows an account of the building of this new meeting house, from timber this time, and several incidents connected with the building are recounted. Then comes the division of the maneaba into inaki or boti. - 378

When the maneaba was finished and they were about to divide it into inaki for their relatives, the man Teimone who was the child of Bakua appeared and he bubuti ‘asked as of right’ a place for himself in the maneaba. He obtained the place which is in the middle alongside the stone on the south side. Tematawarebwe and his relatives took the north side, Tabeaua and his relatives took the west side and Tabuariki and his relatives took the east side.

A great deal of other material follows, and then an explanation of the peculiar position of the west side of the maneaba is given.

When the maneaba was being divided up it was heard that there were visitors on the reef on the east side of the island and they were brought

Maneaba in Buota village. The name of the maneaba was changed early in this century. The new name, Te Ririere, was taken from a village on Nonouti atoll. During a very severe drought the people of the Nonouti village helped those of Buota village. To emphasise the new relationship both village and maneaba names were exchanged.
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to the maneaba. Now the person who brought these visitors into the maneaba was Tabeaua and he brought them into the west side of the maneaba, into his inaki. When he did this he was instructed by the others in the maneaba that he was to let his visitors enter into the maneaba first and they were to be seated first and Tabeaua was to stay behind them and look after them. . . . From that time onward the west side of the maneaba is where people who are visitors, or those who come from the sea, are seated.

The Organisation of Te Ririere (or Atanikarawa) Maneaba in Buota Village (Fig. 3)

The ancestor from whom all kin groups in Buota village on Tabiteuea are descended and through whom the maneaba is organised is Akau and his descendant Obaia. As illustrated in the accompanying genealogy (Fig. 4), Obaia had four sons: Naibaba, Taoroba, Beiatau and Kobuti.

Family Tree. Nei Kautu, Tewakauea, Nei Boto, Kourabi, Nei Teikawainimone, Baretoka, Tematawerebwe, Akau, Tabuariki, Nainginouati, Nei Kabwebwe, Nei Beia, Kirata te Reirei, Beia, Nei Kirirere, Nei Buarung, Tebooi, Obaia, Tiong, Nei Rakentai, Nei Teora, Nei Raetete, Nei Raeteuna, Naibaba, Taoroba, Beiatau, Kobuti, A genealogy from the Kainga of Routa in Buota village showing ancestors who organised Te Ririere Maneaba. This is a section of a far more extensive genealogy which ends with men who were in their sixties in 1972. (Note: Nei denotes female; thus Nei Kautu and Nei Boto are wives of Tewakauea, the former producing a son and the latter a daughter.)

The original organisation of the maneaba around Obaia's four sons was disturbed by the entry into the maneaba of a man called Kourabi (supported by Kaitu and Uakeia, two warrior leaders from Beru atoll). Kourabi displaced Beiatau.

Each inaki has a separate position and task to perform in the maneaba. The following are the tasks allotted to the inaki in Te Ririere maneaba:

  • 1. The inaki of Kobuti, called Tekokona, has the task of being the first speaker in the maneaba or the te tia taetae. The representatives of this inaki are therefore responsible for initiating activity and opening discussion in the maneaba.
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  • 2. The inaki of Kourabi, called Kabubuarengana, holds the position of answerer or te tia kaeka in the maneaba. The representative of this inaki is responsible for making the first reply to the statements of the first speaker.
  • 3. The inaki of Obaia, called Tebaona, has the position of supporting the inaki of Kabubuarengana in its statements, thus providing a balance between the large inaki of Tekokona and that of Kabubuarengana.
  • 4. The inaki of the other sons of Obaia, called Timmunang, Karawaititi and Tetoatoa, have the right to speak after the first speaker and answerer. In addition, the inaki of Timmunang occupies positions which require it to round off discussion in the maneaba and to protect the interests of any visitor to the maneaba, in much the same way Tabeaua was instructed in myth.
  • 5. The other inaki are “service” inaki. Each has the duty of supporting the chief inaki on its left. On ceremonial occasions, the “service” inaki supply food to the chief inaki and support it in any dispute. The inaki of Tebunanti serves that of Tebaona and is the only “service” inaki not serving to its left. The small inaki of Tebutaeni-kiriri is the position to which guests of the village are taken, where they are cared for by the inaki of Timmunang.

Thus, each inaki has a traditional position in the maneaba which limits its role in relation to all other inaki. No inaki may step outside the position within which it is placed. However, an individual, by virtue of potential affiliation rights, may take his place in another inaki, though rights of realignment with another inaki are strictly limited.

Each inaki has its recognised first speaker, not always the oldest or most prestigious man as this position is inherited from father to oldest son. Where an older, more prestigious, man is not the first speaker in the inaki, the right to speak first becomes a formality; after the opening words the older man will take over the discussion. In any discussion all parties voice their opinions and the argument is maintained until a consensus decision is reached. The maneaba is, therefore, the place where the main kin segments of a village can meet to iron out differences and plan co-operative ventures. The inaki is not simply a seating position for a kainga ‘kin group’, it also defines the rights and obligations of kainga toward each other.


Goodenough defines kainga as “a nonunilinear descent group based on parental residence”, 5 while Lundsgaarde and Silverman define the term as “a residence group [where], in most cases, residence is patrilocal”. 6 Differences between these definitions and that given here arise from the common views expressed by a number of Tabiteuean elders.

Traditionally, all kainga members both owned land in one place and exercised residential rights in the land. The term kainga therefore referred - 381 both to a physical area of a village and to the kin group which occupied that area. According to informants, land has, from the earliest times, been inherited individually on Tabiteuea and it has always been possible for a man to own land in a kainga area without exercising the residential right inherited with the land. In such situations, the man was a potential member of the kainga, but belonged to the kainga in which he actually resided. He could not, however, support any other group in a quarrel with a kainga in which he held residential rights, even if they were not exercised. Potential kainga members were, therefore, politically important for the residential members.

Because land was inherited through both mother and father, an individual could inherit rights in kainga of both parents, as well as in other kainga in which his parents owned land. Lands were not shared among offspring; rather each parcel was subdivided and each child received a portion of each parcel so that political rights were inherited as widely as possible. While it was most common for a man to live on his father's land and for a woman to live with her husband, it was possible, and sometimes happened, that a man would exercise his rights in his mother's kainga rather than his father's. More rarely, a man might also exercise rights inherited by his wife or through an adoptive relative.

Although it appears that usually an individual exercised his right of entry into an inaki in the maneaba on the basis of actual residence within the associated kainga, it was at least theoretically possible for a man who was only a potential kainga member to claim entry into its inaki. A man could however claim entry into only one inaki and, having made his decision, he could not then revert to another at his pleasure, unless members of the other inaki clearly invited him to do so.

All members of the kin group living on a kainga traced descent from a common ancestor who was directly related to the founding ancestors of other kainga in the village. Each of these ancestral figures had gained rights in a tract of land extending across the island from lagoon to ocean reef and including the lagoon beach and the ocean reef. Descendants had then settled on that land and kainga were formed. At the turn of the century, the living members of kainga of Buota village were some seven generations removed from their founding ancestors.


The term utu has several meanings in Gilbertese. The most important of these meanings is the use of the term to denote common identity, as in the use of the English word “family”, for example, ‘the family of all birds’. In this classificatory sense, the word may be applied to any group of living things and is also used to refer to the set of all kin tracing descent from a common ancestor, no matter how remote that ancestor may be. The most precise meaning of the term relates, however, to a limited kin group of three generations depth, that is, descended from a grandparent of ego. According to informants, this group traditionally lived together on a portion of the kainga land. Only those who exercised residential rights were regarded as actual utu members, though any person related through - 382 either biological or adoptive ties held potential membership in the utu. Potential utu membership served much the same function between these limited kin groups as potential kainga membership served between kainga. A child could live in the utu of either his mother or father. Though patrilocal residence was the most usual, it was apparently not uncommon for a child to live in the utu of his mother. It was also possible for men to live in the utu of their wives, but this was unusual.

Lundsgaarde and Silverman point out two aspects of utu relationships: common identity and code of conduct. They suggest that these aspects are separable though they are usually combined. This is true to an extent on Tabiteuea atoll. The more distant the relationship between utu members the less significant are the rights and obligations between them. At a certain point in time, when two utu members no longer recognise an utu responsibility toward each other, the identity fades. It is possible, however, for two individuals who are distantly related to behave toward each other as if they were utu kin. In such a case the code of conduct is similar to that between utu kin, though both will recognise that in fact such a relationship does not exist. Tabiteuean elders claimed, probably idealistically, that in the past identity and code could not be separated, and that where common identity was not recognised the behavioural code could not be invoked.

Marriage was the conjoining of two utu. A marriage which produced no offspring was thus an abortive merger since it produced no future potential kainga and utu members for the two groups involved.

Each utu recognised one person as head and spokesman for the group. This person represented the interests of the utu in regard to other groups and directed the day-to-day activities of utu members. However, the households comprising an utu appear to have had some autonomy.

Possessions, including knowledge, held by individuals within an utu, could be borrowed by any other utu member simply on request. No request of this sort could be turned down unless the object or skill was being used by the individual possessing the item at the time of asking. When an article was given to another individual as a result of bubuti ‘legitimate request’ it became his possession until another individual obtained it from him. In this way all possessions, other than land, babai (a form of pit cultivated taro) pits, canoes and houses, and some ceremonial objects, could be used by any utu member as required. Those possessions which could not be requested, which were peculiar to an individual, were those that marked his position within the utu. An individual was identified by his land and babai pit holdings; he gained respect and deference through his knowledge of traditional skilled activities and technologies. Thus, within the framework of an utu each individual maintained his separate identity.


This group was not traditionally distinguished from the utu. It must be reckoned as one of the basic building blocks of the kinship system, but was not recognised as an independent unit. A mwenga was a co-residential nuclear family, sometimes extended through the inclusion of grandparents or grandchildren in the household. Each mwenga owned and occupied a - 383 house in the residential area of the utu and the head of the mwenga was instructed in his activity by the utu head. All senior heads of mwenga participated in any discussions concerning the utu and reached most decisions through consensus. According to all informants, a mwenga was necessarily tied to an utu and could not function independently.

Goodenough 7 includes a further group in his delineation of types of kin groups on the atoll of Onotoa. This fifth type he describes as “an unrestricted descent group including all the persons descended from a common ancestor, regardless whether through men or women. This group functions only in relation to property.” No person with whom I spoke on Tabiteuea had heard of this grouping which Goodenough labels an ooi. There is a general term o, which literally means ‘a barrier’ and is applied to any site surrounded by a wall, ditch, fence or some other boundary marker, but this term is not used to denote a kin grouping. Sometimes, where a house is surrounded by a boundary marker, people will refer to the people who live there as “those in the o”, but this is a description of the place in which they live and does not imply any special kin group. Lundsgaarde and Silverman 8 suggest that Goodenough's category is based on an extension of the root word oi ‘the essence of the thing’. No such meaning was given on Tabiteuea and the term oi is best glossed as ‘genuineness’.

The traditional social and political organisation of Tabiteuea atoll has been profoundly affected by the activities of two religious groups and the colonial administration. The following account of the development of religious organisation and administrative machinery on Tabiteuea atoll highlights the effects of these developments on the social and political organisation of the island and suggests that the direction of change has been toward individualisation and the loss of socially integrative functions.


Although attention is given here to the activities of external agents for change, I do not assume that all change which has occurred between 1850 and the present is due directly or solely to these agents. In line with W. E. Moore I accept that,

In all situations other than effective insulation, the relations between mutually exclusive groups are strain-inducing and thus probably change-producing. This is clearly true of competitive and conflict groups, but even those that are apparently complementary are likely to display elements of competition and conflict. 9

As Sahlins says,

The position of the household in these primitive societies is one of constant dilemma and continuous manoeuvre, temporizing always between domestic welfare and the broader obligations toward kinsmen in the hope of satisfying the latter without menacing the former. 10

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The social and political changes which have occurred on Tabiteuea atoll are the result of two interacting sets of agents. First, the old social and political forms were directly challenged by outside agents, new religious forms and British administration demands. Second, in response to these challenges, and in the interests of protecting the mwenga, the basic element of society, the strain-inducing relations between mutually exclusive elementary kin groups were given greater prominence than those relations producing co-operation and mutual support between groups.

Firth, 11 discussing the impact of strong environmental pressures on social and political groups on Tikopia, says that these acted to “reveal the solidarity of the elementary family” over the solidarity of larger kin units. On Tabiteuea the pressures were those of encroaching civilisation but they, no less than the environmental pressures on Tikopia, revealed the solidarity of the elementary or nuclear family and its importance in economic affairs over larger kin-based units. Not only this, but, unlike the environmental pressures exerted on Tikopia, the pressures experienced on Tabiteuea developed over time to produce a separation between basic groupings which has continued through more than 70 years and has grown more pervasive through time. Coulter, as long ago as 1847, 12 stressed the individualism of Tabiteueans, an individualism which appeared to him as curbed by membership in a hierarchical social and political structure. With these “curbing” structures now either completely undermined or seriously weakened, the individualism of Tabiteueans has become more obvious than ever. This individualism makes it difficult for inhabitants to accept any form of direction from others without rebelling, and effectively undermines any community development or restructuring of society in terms of hierarchical units.

New Religious Forms

About 1855 two Tahitians landed at the village of Tanaeang on North Tabiteuea from a trading vessel. These men, known locally as Tanako and Baiketa, remained on the atoll for many years. Soon after their arrival they began teaching a new religion to the people in the northern villages of Tekamen, Tanaeang and Buota. They gave this religion the name Anti-ntiopa, 13 which apparently meant ‘Spirit of Jehovah’. Its central symbol was a cross adorned with the blood and feathers of a rooster. One of these symbols was placed outside the house of each adherent. The new religion was a mixture of external religious ideas and indigenous practices. By 1865 most of the inhabitants of the three northernmost villages had converted to the religion and these villages began to exert pressure on the villages of Terikiai, Eita and Utiroa to accept the new faith also.

This pressure was growing strong by the year 1868 when a missionary sponsored by the American Board of Foreign Missions (Congregational affiliate), Dr Hiram Bingham, arrived at the village of Utiroa. He was quickly successful in making a large body of converts in the villages of - 385 Eita and Utiroa, partly because of the pressures being applied to these villages by those from the north. After a short period of consolidation, Dr Bingham placed the work in the hands of two Hawaiian missionaries, known locally as Kabu and Nanim, and left the atoll. The two missionaries in charge soon established themselves in the two converted villages and organised them into a strong political unit. Laws were drafted, policemen appointed, and a committee of elders established to rule the villages.

Tensions between the two religious groups on the atoll soon flared into open strife as each tried to make inroads in the territory of the other. On one trip to the northern villages the two Hawaiians, with some of their followers, destroyed Anti-n-tiopa symbols outside each house they visited. This action sparked off the first of two serious religious wars on the atoll.

Under the leadership of the two Tahitians, the adherents of Anti-n-tiopa decided to avenge the insult and invaded the small village of Terikiai and the northern half of the village of Eita. The Protestant villages were, however, both more populous and better organised than the invading villages, and Anti-n-tiopa adherents were routed. The firm adherents of that religion fled south to escape the vengeance of the victors and the Protestant council extended its authority over the whole of North Tabiteuea. Policemen were appointed in each of the northern villages to enforce the rulings of the council and, for the first time in the history of Tabiteuea, villages lost their autonomy and were governed by a central island council, which assumed the right to interfere in the internal organisation of villages and make rules of conduct which could be enforced by an island authority. This encroachment on village autonomy was deeply resented by the northern villages, though there was little they could do about it at the time.

This first religious war occurred about 1875. For the next six years the Protestant council busied itself consolidating its control over the vanquished villages of the north. In the south the adherents of Anti-n-tiopa had also been busy and by 1881 most of the inhabitants of South Tabiteuea had been converted. In this year, the Hawaiian missionaries decided to extend their authority over the southern part of the atoll, so a group of followers were-sent to convert southerners to the faith. They were met by a committee from the south who refused to allow them entry. Deciding they had been insulted, the villages of North Tabiteuea raised a force and invaded the south to compel the inhabitants to convert. In the ensuing war the southerners were routed, the firm adherents of Anti-n-tiopa killed, and the rest of the population compelled to convert to Protestantism. As punishment for having opposed the Protestant council southerners forfeited all their lands to the council, which returned two lands to each individual and redistributed the rest among the faithful in the north. This redistribution is still apparent in the landholdings of northerners.

With the entire atoll now under its control, the council proceeded to strengthen its rule. Regulations imposed on the more reluctant villages grew steadily more restrictive as resistance revived through time. By 1891 the villages of Tekamen, Tanaeang and Buota could finally take no more and refused to comply with a ruling of the council. The council reacted - 386 by imposing a fine of 10,000 coconuts on them. Knowing that they could not hope to win a war against the council, and yet not prepared to accede to its demands, the northern villages sent emissaries to a European Roman Catholic priest, who was working on the atoll of Nonouti, asking him to come to Tabiteuea and work in the northern villages. The missionary agreed, arriving in the village of Buota early in 1892. The Protestant council, as the elders of the northern villages had hoped, did not attempt to enforce their rulings with a European on the side of the rebels because they were afraid of European reprisals. Tabiteuea had first experienced the impact of European reprisal in 1841 when the Wilkes Expedition bombarded villages in the north in retaliation to acts of hostility by islanders. 14 This fear was made even more real by the appearance of a British warship in the middle of 1892 under the command of Captain Davies, who proclaimed the British Protectorate on Tabiteuea and supported the Roman Catholic missionary in many of his demands to the council. From this time the Protestant council rapidly lost prestige and support on the atoll, and by the end of 1892 Fr. Bontemps was able to report that 3,600 converts had been baptised on the atoll. 15

Soon afterwards the Hawaiian missionaries were withdrawn from the island, the Protestant council was disbanded and many Roman Catholic converts reverted to Protestantism when they found that, in fact, the priest was not supported by British warships.

By the time the first British administrator was appointed to the atoll, about the year 1900, the three northernmost villages were almost entirely Roman Catholic, the remaining villages in North Tabiteuea and those in the central region were Protestant with enclaves of Roman Catholics, and the southern district was Roman Catholic. The situation has remained much the same to the present.

Twentieth Century Developments

George Murdoch, who had been a trader in the Gilbert group for some 20 years, was appointed British Administrator of Tabiteuea atoll about 1900. By the time of his appointment, the island had already earned the reputation for being a difficult and dangerous place to administer and he set out to gain the upper hand. First, he bought the land of a small village called Bakokoia, situated between the present villages of Eita and Utiroa. Second, he made a ruling that all Tabiteueans were to give two days labour each week to public works and, using this labour, he built a gaol, cemeteries near each major village and a road which ran the length of the atoll.

In the interests of establishing law and order on the atoll Murdoch appointed village policemen who were required to patrol their villages and ensure that the lengthening list of regulations issued by Murdoch were being obeyed. Traditionally villages had been built across the island on the kainga land of the major kin groups; therefore, the road built down the lagoon side of the atoll passed through only a small section of each village. This made villages very difficult to patrol from the road. Murdoch decided - 387 that villages should be reorganised to simplify patrol duties. Therefore, he issued a decree that all houses in a village were to front on to the road and that houses which did not do so were illegal dwelling places. The effect of Murdoch's decree was far reaching. Since only a very limited number of house sites on each kainga fronted on to the road, a large number of kainga members were no longer able to live on kainga land but had to use land owned in other parts of the atoll as building sites. Since no one wanted to move from their home village, innumerable disputes arose over land ownership within kainga and utu. Kin groupings which had once been solidly unified against outside forces were now divided among themselves. Ownership disputes quickly reached crisis proportions and Murdoch, to circumvent the problem, declared all land fronting on to the road the property of the Administration, which had the right to allocate building sites at its discretion. Very soon, however, he struck another snag. People who were given building rights on a piece of land claimed the land as their own because they owned the house on it. Murdoch, therefore, broadened his ruling and declared all houses on Tabiteuea atoll the property of the government. Since the new law was enforced rapidly, people erected shacks rather than houses; so Murdoch further decreed a standard size and design for houses to be erected in all villages. 16 These regulations tore at the very fabric of Tabiteuean community life. For the first time since Gilbertese arrived on the atoll, Tabiteueans were being directed in matters which were traditionally the province of the head of the utu.

The flood of disruptive regulations imposed on Tabiteueans did little to ensure their co-operation and, with unrest mounting, Murdoch was forced to impose a curfew on the atoll. No villager was allowed out of his house after 10.00 pm at night or before 6.00 am in the morning. This curfew remained in effect from 1906 to 1947. To relieve himself of some of the responsibility incurred by his reorganisation of the island, Murdoch appointed a council composed of representatives of each village on the atoll. He intended this council to consist of elders from the villages, but these men declined appointment so he appointed less prestigious men. Realising that his council was being opposed by village councils, Murdoch moved to undermine the position of these village councils. He increased the powers of the appointed Island Council, centralising all island government in their hands. Village policemen were given full responsibility for all village matters, including the enforcement of curfew and house standards, and were made responsible for the upkeep and supervision of the village meeting houses which were deemed government property. He thus effectively removed many areas of traditional responsibility from village councils and made them largely superfluous; they no longer had the power to decide village activities but had to defer to the policemen.

With the withdrawal of Murdoch from Tabiteuea in 1915 the Native Magistrate, appointed by Murdoch as president of the Island Council, became a virtual dictator with complete control over every facet of life. Villages or individuals who rebelled against his directives found themselves brought before the visiting European District Officer who invariably - 388 backed the appointed officers on the atoll. The only election of Council members between 1904 and 1947 was on the occasion of a visit by Arthur Grimble in 1917. 17

From 1904 to 1947, the strict regulations imposed by Murdoch remained in force, though the effectiveness of the Council declined rapidly and by 1947 administrative conditions on many parts of the atoll were “chaotic”. 18

Although Murdoch, by reorganising villages and removing responsibility from village councils, had undermined traditional life in the villages, he had not actively opposed the use of maneaba and their associated traditional custom, ritual and organisation within the villages. Active opposition to these was to come from an entirely different quarter.

Bishop Terrienne

In 1931 a French priest, Fr. Terrienne, was appointed to North Tabiteuea to supervise Roman Catholic activity there. He proved to be extremely zealous, opposed to every form of paganism, real or imagined, which he saw on the island. Not only was he opposed to paganism, but he also considered the Roman Catholic church necessarily opposed to the Protestant church on the island. In the 1930s, the conflict between the two churches flared into open hostility and the priest moved to separate Roman Catholics from Protestants in all villages on the atoll. In 1936 he was appointed Vicar apostolique of the Colony, making his headquarters at Tanaeang village on North Tabiteuea. He saw maneaba custom and the performance of rites related to it as “pagan vestiges” and decided that they should be stamped out. He therefore decreed that no Roman Catholic could enter a village maneaba or take part in any customary ceremony on pain of excommunication. This decree was rigorously enforced. He also acted to prevent Roman Catholics from associating with Protestants by claiming that, since Protestants continued to use the maneaba, they were in truth pagans and Roman Catholics were to have nothing to do with pagans. 19

For Tabiteuea the catalogue of impositions from without was great and their influence could not help but seriously disrupt the pattern of life which the atoll had enjoyed prior to 1900. Old men's councils lost their effectiveness; residential kin groups were split up and scattered all over the island. Maneaba ceased to function, because Roman Catholics no longer participated and the maneaba could only operate if all the inaki were represented. Villages became split between religious groups and ceased to operate as units; the authority of household and utu heads was superseded by that of the village policeman. In short, Tabiteuea was in danger of losing all effective kin and village controls from the past.


The disruptive influences of religious organisations and government have resulted in great changes in the social and political groupings of the - 389 island. The decrees of George Murdoch forced residential kin groups on Tabiteuea to disperse throughout the villages; as a result, kin groups took on a new form. The basic criterion for membership in a kin group prior to 1900 was residence. An individual might have right of entry into a number of groups, but could not exercise those rights simultaneously. If a young man entered the utu of his mother, leaving his father's house, he could not simultaneously claim membership in his father's utu. He had potential membership in that group, but it only became activated when he lived with the group.

In making his rulings Murdoch assumed that mwenga could be treated as independent units, and that the responsibility for the acts of their members could be placed on the shoulders of the heads of the households. Perhaps his most disruptive regulation was the one which required that every house be built fronting on to the newly constructed road. Since the road cut through every kainga on the island, every kainga was directly affected by this ruling. Prior to 1900 houses had been built 10 or 15 deep across kainga land, each utu tending to be strung out from the lagoon beach inland so that utu on any one kainga ran parallel to each other across the island. Murdoch's decree that all houses must front on to the road meant that only houses which were closest to the road in each utu could be used. All other members of the utu had to find alternative house sites on the roadside. In order to do this most kainga and utu members had to use land owned elsewhere on the island, often outside recognised village boundaries. Suddenly the ownership of the right piece of land in a kainga became important. Some households had to move six or seven miles from the home kainga in order to find a suitable building site, so that the residential requirement for membership in a kin group could no longer be met. It was now unlikely that more than two or three mwenga living in close proximity would share an utu relationship, while the kainga now consisted of a mere fraction of the number of households in each prior to the decree.


Once kainga ceased to be residential units, they lost most of their significance. It had always been possible for a person to be a potential kainga member without exercising his right of residence. Now, since it was impossible for most members to exercise their right, there was no means for distinguishing between potential and actual members. Those kainga members who could not find a house site inside the village boundaries lost their right of entry into the maneaba, since it was an established tradition that no person living in another village had right of entry into the village maneaba unless invited in by a village member. Kainga could not, therefore, be perpetuated through regrouping around the associated inaki in the maneaba. In 1973 kainga had lost all significance and their names were used simply to distinguish various areas in each village.


In much the same way as kainga, utu lost their residential requirements. Present utu relationships are a compromise between the traditional - 390 residential and potential membership categories. Rights and obligations between utu members depend on genealogical distance. The more distant the ties, the fewer are the rights and obligations of members toward each other. With the residential requirement lost, there was no longer any means for differentiating between actual and potential membership and the term came to refer to any relative who shared a grandparent with ego. The relationship thus had a two generation span. For purposes of marriage, some Tabiteueans insist that the utu extends back to the third or even the fourth generation, though many others now claim that it is acceptable for a young adult to marry a person with whom they are related through the third generation. In all other matters, however, the most important rights and obligations of utu membership refer only to those related through grandparents; less importance is attached to relationships through great grandparents and there is little or no acceptance of either rights or obligations to individuals more distant than this. Utu rights and obligations apply equally whether membership is through male or female links; consequently children are seen as important not only to the biological parents but also to both parental utu. For this reason a child readily finds a place within either utu should its parents be unable to care for it.


The most important effect of the government rulings was on the position and importance of the individual household. Traditionally mwenga were subsumed within utu. With the dispersal of the kainga and utu, however, mwenga became independent units which could be held alone accountable for their actions. Individual households began to act independently of each other and, consequently, relations between mwenga belonging to an utu became more distant. Under the government administration, heads of mwenga were held accountable for the conduct of individual members of their households and often mwenga were too widely separated for the heads of the households to seek the counsel of utu heads before acting.

However, while the links between mwenga in each utu became more tenuous with time, links between mwenga in close residential proximity strengthened as less mature household heads sought the advice and support of the more mature people of the residential area in which they lived. This development brought into existence what appears to be an innovation of the twentieth century.

As If Kin

Since in most localities households were grouped together along the road, many of the co-operative activities such as fishing, building, cooking and weaving, which were traditionally done together by members of an utu, came to be common activities of neighbouring mwenga. Utu members were still regarded as being the correct partners in a co-operative venture but, where they were too far away for regular co-operation, they were replaced by non-utu mwenga in the residential area. This development has resulted in close ties being established between mwenga in close residential proximity. Although these ties are nowhere as strong as those between recognised - 391 utu households, they do approximate them. A limited form of bubuti ‘legitimate request to borrow’ operates between such households, though an individual may not presume to ask for large items or to exercise his right too frequently. Food is shared between women in a common area; adults find their friends and helpers from among their residential group. On several occasions when non-utu neighbours were attending some festive occasion where membership was supposed to be restricted to utu members, the mwenga at the centre of the occasion would explain their presence by saying, “They are the same as kin.” By this they meant that, in at least superficial matters, residential neighbours were included as kin in any festive gathering.

The definition of utu as given by Lundsgaarde and Silverman accords well with that existing on Tabiteuea atoll, because the code of behaviour required of utu members towards each other has been adapted for use between members of mwenga in close residential proximity. Going beyond this, however, it should not be assumed that utu members are any less firmly bound by the required forms of behaviour or that common residence is taking precedence over utu relationships. Co-operation between neighbouring households is only dominant when utu kin all live at two or more miles distance from the mwenga. Otherwise all the most important skilled activities are done in the company of utu kin.

On Tabiteuea atoll the integrative institutions have all been seriously eroded while those functions which traditionally maintained the discreteness and separate identity of the basic social and political units have remained intact. Individual ownership and the personal possession of traditional skilled knowledge remain important, while the means of pooling these resources for the good of others in the community have been considerably weakened. The net result is that individual households act more and more frequently on their own and the number of co-operative activities requiring the imvolvement of other households is small. The lasting impression gained through working on the island is of a large number of small independent units, still retaining some links with other units but maintaining their identity by defining an increasing number of other households as ‘not kin’. Today, the obligations and rights toward kin are becoming still weaker.

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  • GOODENOUGH, W. H., 1955. “A Problem of Malayo-Polynesian Social Organization.” American Anthropologist, 57:71-85.
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  • LUNDSGAARDE, H. P., and M. G. SILVERMAN, 1972. “Category and Group in Gilbertese Kinship: An Updating of Goodenough's Analysis.” Ethnology, 11:95-110.
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  • POUWER, J., 1966. “Toward a Configurational Approach to Society and Culture in New Guinea.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 75:267-86.
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  • SAHLINS, M. D., 1974. Stone Age Economics. London, Tavistock.
  • Western Pacific Archives, Suva.
  • WILKES, C., 1845. Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838-1842. Philadelphia, Lea and Blanchard.
1   Lambert 1966:641.
2   Maude 1970:201.
3   Firth 1957:5.
4   Pouwer 1966:275.
5   Goodenough 1955:75.
6   Lundsgaarde and Silverman 1972:108.
7   Goodenough 1955:73.
8   Lundsgaarde and Silverman 1972:101.
9   Moore 1963:64.
10   Sahlins 1974:127.
11   Firth 1959:84.
12   Coulter 1847.
13   The spelling used by Sabatier (1939) has been retained.
14   Wilkes 1845.
15   Sabatier 1939:113.
16   Western Pacific Archives: F3/16/24, Vol. I.
17   Western Pacific Archives: F22/3/11, F22/8/11, F29/3/13, F3/16/24, F49/49/1.
18   Co-operative Society Officer's Travelling Diary (Tabiteuea): March-May 1948.
19   Western Pacific Archives: F9/49/1, F3/16/24.