The British Empire Library

Atoll Politics: The Republic of Kiribati

Edited by Howard Van Trease

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Kenneth Bain (Palestine. Fiji. Tonga, Comm. Secretariat, British Virgin Islands 1946-1985)
"And then", continued the visiting speaker to the assembled Gilbertese on the equatorial island of Tarawa, "we have at Westminster what is known as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition". He paused for the interpreter, who took longer than expected. There had been a buzz of conversation. "Is anything the matter?" the speaker asked.

The interpreter was embarrassed. "I have a problem of translation", he replied. "You see, in our language, the only word for 'opposition' means 'enemy'. And the chiefs want to know how it is that the Queen can have a loyal enemy".

How, indeed. It was the mid-1960s. A British parliamentary delegation had come to the scattered Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony to expound the democratic advantages of the Westminster parliamentary system. The constitutional implant that came about in due course understandably reflected adjustment for local custom and concepts.

With the Polynesian Ellice Islands hived off to become Tuvalu, the Micronesian Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribaas) was bom in 1979. Now a new and comprehensive survey looks back over the perceived successes, failures and lessons of a dozen years of independence; and, before that, the preparations and strains that preceded the end of 87 years of colonial administration.

This is a singular oceanic national entity. Its 36 atolls have a total land area of 281 square miles. Some of the tiny flat islands are connected by causeways, open when the tide is low, submerged when it is high. They are .spread over an astonishing two million square miles of tropical ocean. No wonder the parochialism of Atoll Politics is inescapable; but so is global warming, a potential oceanic danger to the coralline islands of the Maldives, Kiribati and Tuvalu.

Atoll dwellers world-wide who have stuck it out and not departed still await the magic recipe for economic development and horizon expansion. Unless they decide to have a shot at offshore banking, flag of convenience ship registration, philatelic versatility or a bit of end-of-line tourism, all that is left, it .seems, is coconuts, copra and the products of the encircling seas and reefs. For Kiribati, the phosphate royalties of Ocean Island (Banaba) are no more. The Government raised international eyebrows when it signed an exclusive fishing agreement with the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. The three-term first President explains it away now. What a fuss about nothing, he appears to argue in retrospect; it seemed to be a good idea at the time.

This is a comprehensive portrait of - post-war Grimble apart - a little known island seascape. Considerably more than atoll politics can be found within its 400 pages. There are wide-ranging contributions by 30 different writers of whom 27 are I-Kiribati. That in itself is a singular organisational achievement of the editor, Howard van Trease. The quality of the contributions varies and there are obvious constraints in some cases; but the voices of leading indigenous interpreters of life in present-day Micronesia are there to be heard. The book is well-documented and elegantly produced and has a picturesque cover design. That does the whole thing no harm at all.

British Empire Book
Howard Van Trease
Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies