Gilbert Islands - Encyclopedia

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GILBERT (KINGSMILL) ISLANDS, an extensive archipelago belonging to Great Britain in the mid-western Pacific Ocean, lying N. and S. of the equator, and between 170° and 180 E. There are sixteen islands, all coral reefs or atolls, extending in crescent form over about five degrees of latitude. The principal is Taputenea or Drummond Island. The soil, mostly of coral sand, is productive of little else than the coco-nut palm, and the chief source of food supply is the sea. The population of these islands presents a remarkable phenomenon; in spite of adverse conditions of environment and complete barbarism it is exceedingly dense, in strong contradistinction to that of many other more favoured islands. The land area of the group is only 166 m., yet the population is about 30,000. The Gilbert islanders are a dark and coarse type of the Polynesian race, and show signs of much crossing. They are tall and stout, with an average height of 5 ft. 8 in., and are of a vigorous, energetic temperament. They are nearly always naked, but wear a conical hat of pandanus leaf. In war they have an armour of plaited coco-nut fibres. They are fierce fighters, their chief weapon being a sword armed with sharks' teeth. Their canoes are well made of coco-nut wood boards sewn neatly together and fastened on frames. British and American missionary work has been prosecuted with some success. The large population led to the introduction of natives from these islands into Hawaii as labourers in 1878-1884, but they were not found satisfactory. The islands were discovered by John Byron in 1765 (one of them bearing his name); Captains Gilbert and Marshall visited them in 1788; and they were annexed by Great Britain in 1892.

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