BUTARITARI

Republic of Kiribati

           

Butaritari is an island in the northern part of the Kiribati Group. It has an area of 13.6 square kilometres and an estimated population of 3.164. Butaritari is well known as the island where Robert Louis Stevenson lived in the late nineteenth century. Besides Tarawa and Abemama Atolls, Butaritari can boast to have one of the best harbours in the Gilbert Group.

Butaritari is one of the larger atolls in the Gilberts chain of Kiribati, located just south of Little Makin at 3° north of the equator. The atoll is roughly 4-sided and nearly 30 km across in the east west direction, and averages about 15 km north to south. The reef is more submerged and broken into several broad channels along the west side. Small islets are found on reef sections between these channels. The atoll reef is continuous but almost without islets along the north side. In the northeast corner, the reef is some 1.75 km across and with only scattered small islet development. Thus, the lagoon of Butaritari is very open to exchange with the ocean. The lagoon is deep and can accommodate large ships, though the entrance passages are relatively narrow.

The south and southeast portion of the atoll comprises a nearly continuous islet, broken only by a single, broad section of inter-islet reef. These islets are mostly between 0.2 and 0.5 km across, but widen in the areas where the reef changes directions. Mangrove swamps appear well developed in these latter areas as well as all along the southern lagoon shore. Narrow islets are somewhat characteristic of Kiribati atolls running E-W.
 
Bikati and Bikatieta islets occupy a corner of the reef at the extreme northwest tip of the atoll, bordering what may be a second small lagoon to the north of the main lagoon. Larger Bikati (2 by 0.5 km) harbours a village. The main village is Butaritari, population now probably about 1800 to 2000. This is the largest village outside of Tarawa. The total island population is 4000.

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·     Travel to and from Butaritari

Ship from Betio, Tarawa. Air from Tarawa several times per week, perhaps including direct links to other islands of the northern Gilberts (Makin, Marakei and Abaiang).

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The runway in Butaritari has been extended to the full length of the old WW2 American strip (about 5000 feet) and a service from Tarawa - Butaritari - Majuro operates. The new airport building is in the old GEIDA soft drink factory.

Canoes can travel from Butaritari to Makin through an artificial reef passage - a beautiful trip. Make sure you stop at Kiebu on the way.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of Kiribati Mwaie (Ruoia) that was performed on Butaritari: "Of all they call dance in the Pacific, the performance I saw on Butaritari was easily the best...Gilbertese dance appeals to the soul: it makes one thrill with emotion, it uplifts one, it conquers one: it has the essence of all great art: an immediate and far from exhausted appeal".

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson with wife, Fanny, and friends, Butaritari, 1889

ORIGINS

Most Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) people believe that their ancestors were spirits, some created in Samoa and some in Kiribati, and that it was the movement from Samoa that populated the Kiribati Islands for the first time. Modern researchers would agree that a recent migration did probably occur from Samoa to the Gilberts about 500 to 600 years ago.

According to the legends of Beru and some other islands Te Kaintikuaba, was made from the spine of Na Atibu. It was a tree, in Samoa, which was the home of spirits who, together with Nareau the Wise, made the islands of Tungaru (the Kiribati islands). It is a legend that has many variations.

mwaneaba

Outiside of the great dome house, Butaritari, during the competition between the
dancers of Butaritari and those of Little Makin. Robert Louis Stevenson
can be seen near the centre, just bending over to enter.

As one legend goes, Nareau the Wise was in Samoa, procreating with the spirits there. One day, he decided to trace the whereabouts of his two children who left Te Kaintikuaba. He left Samoa, heading north, and on his way he created a resting place by trampling the sea and uttering powerful magic. Behold, land was formed with spirits inhabitants on it. This land is now called South Tabiteuea. Feeling satisfied with his marvellous work, he left and went further north. At last, he sighted Tarawa. He stayed on Tarawa and started his work of creating new lands. He used his power to create Makin, Butaritari, Marakei, Abaiang, Maiana, Kuria, Abemama and Aranuka. These are now referred to as the islands of North Kiribati.

Map of Butaritari

Regarding the creation of islands, Butaritari people believe that three islets were created in the Northern Gilberts (Kiribati) at the time when the earth and the sky were separated. They also say that Samoa, Tabiteuea, Tarawa and later the rest of the Gilbert Islands, were originally clouds transformed into islands when they came into contact with the plant called Terenga, which spouted from Awaiki the core of the earth. This tree became Te Kaintikuaba which the spirits of Te Bomatemaki saw emerging in Samoan soil. They were said to have rushed to it and remained there. The inhabitants of the islands were those spirits who dispersed from Te Kaintikuaba when it was destroyed by Teuribaba, another inhabitant. The dispersals were believed to have been to the north of the Gilberts. Their descendants later returned to the Gilberts and travelled throughout the group.

PERMANENT TRADERS

Permanent traders established themselves in the Kiribati group during the 1850's and by the 1860's the European population in the Kiribati group had increased to about 50. They traded European manufactured goods for such products as coconut oil and turtle shell. The making of coconut oil and the preservation of turtle shell were not new skills to the Gilbertese. To acquire the desired European goods, they merely had to spend more time doing routine activities.

Because of the greater fertility and larger rainfall in the northern islands greater production was possible there. This, plus the fact that the best anchorage in the group were at Tarawa, Abemama and Butaritari made the northern Gilberts the centre of the coconut oil trade.

The first resident traders in the Gilberts were Randell and Durant. Both landed at Tikurere, an islet of Butaritari in 1846. Randell remained there but Durant soon left for Makin. Randell and Durant set themselves up as independent traders - however, the prize they received for the coconut oil was many times what was returned to the Gilbertese in trade goods.

argonaut.

Click on the above for the background history of USS Argonaut.

Another reason for Randell's success as a trader on Butaritari was his ability to adapt to and understand the Gilbertese way of life. Randell was typical of many European traders. He adopted into his way of life those things from Gilbertese culture which he liked, and rejected those things which were not acceptable to him. Randell married four Gilbertese women and is said to have fathered over forty children.

THE GODS AT WAR IN THE ATOLLS

Japanese military interest in the Gilbert Group dated from the earliest days of the war. The primary strategic object of the Japanese expansion at the beginning of the war was the occupation and development of what was called the southern resources area which was considered vital to Japan's economic welfare as it contained most of the essential raw materials. It was also believed necessary to maintain free lines of communication with the Japanese homeland to cripple naval strength in the Pacific, and to establish a strong defensive perimetre to protect the homeland and its new economic adjunct to the south.

The first bombs dropped in the colony were by the Japanese on 8th December 1941 when a four-engined flying-boat dropped six on the Government Headquarters at Banaba (Ocean Island).

click here World War 2 - Banaba

The first island to be occupied by the Japanese were Makin and Butaritari on 9th December 1941. The force consisted of 200 to 300 troops from the 51st Guard Force based on Jaluit. At Butaritari, the troops landed at Ukiangang. The Commissioner, Mr. H. C. Williams, went to meet them. They held him prisoner and he was sent to Tokyo. The troops advanced north and settled at Butaritari's village. They chased the traders away, took all the things from their stores, and turned On Chong's store into their barracks.

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Carlson's Raiders exercising on the deck of the submarine

The people of Butaritari village did not move out of their homes. Both the Japanese and islanders however were well aware that sooner or later the island would be attacked. The people were encouraged by the Japanese to leave Butaritari village.

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The cover for the 2nd Raider Bn. and the raid on Makin Island on 17th August 1942
cancelled on the USS Saipan 17th August 1992 the 50th anniversary of the raid.

On 20th November 1943, the American invasion began. The marines landed with little opposition from the Japanese guns which killed only two marines, though as they advanced inland the marines were troubled by Japanese snipers hiding among the coconut fronds.

Makin Bombing      Makin bomb damage.

At Ukiangang village, the local people rushed into bunkers which they had made to avoid the US naval bombardment, but three drunken Gilbertese were killed.

Butaritari Lagoon

Coral outcrops rise slightly above the surface
of  Butaritari lagoon

The next day many of the Japanese positions were overrun and the remainder who fled to Tabonuea village were pursued by the Americans. The Japanese forced the people of Tabonuea village to move north but they disobeyed the warning and moved back without the Japanese knowing, and stayed between the Japanese and the American sectors. As the Americans came nearer to the Japanese positions, one man misunderstood the American warnings and told the villagers to stay inside their houses instead of telling them to hide in foxholes. In the heavy crossfire between the Americans and the Japanese, one Gilbertese was killed and others were wounded.

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Click on the above image for a full size photograph.

Navy Photograph of the USMC 2nd Raider Battalion, returning from a mission in the Gilbert Islands.

On August 17-18,1942, a force of 221 marines from the 2nd Raider Battalion, named "Carlson's Raiders", landed from two submarines on Butaritari Island, Makin Atoll. The raid inflicted heavy damage and forced the Japanese to divert troops from reinforcing Guadalcanal.

Photo: Marine Raiders line the deck of the U.S. Submarine from which they conducted their surprise raid to receive the "well done" accolade from their commander-in-chief in the Pacific, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN.

After three days, Butaritari was secured. The American casualties were 18 killed and 476 wounded. The Japanese casualties were estimated as 550 killed.

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