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Early Christian congregation Banaba.jpg

Banaban congregation at a church service in the early 1900s  (L. Broadbent Collection 1923)


Excerpt: "Te Rii Ni Banaba - The Backbone of Banaba"

by R. K. Sigrah & S. M. King

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 First Published IPS, University of South Pacific, Fiji 2001, Second edition Banaban Vision Publications 2019.

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4 August 1885

The first missionary to land on Banaba was Captain W. Walkup, who arrived aboard the Hawaiian Board of Missions’ Morning Star on 4 August 1885. The reason for his visit was that a European in charge of the ABCFM (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions) in Hawaii had claimed that nearly all the Banabans had died in a drought or left the island. The Mission decided to visit Banaba and invite Banabans to move to Kosrae Island where it would provide them with land.

Early Missionaries on Banaba1900.jpg

Banaban converts on Banaba led by Solomon, a Missionary Pastor (Ellis 1900).

To Walkup’s surprise, he reported sighting over 200 people on the island. With the help of an old Banaban fisherman acting as his interpreter, who had picked up a limited knowledge of English during his time aboard American whaling vessels, he presented himself to a Banaban elder. The elder demanded to know the reasons for Walkup’s visit and did not seem impressed with the stranger’s talk of salvation and the introduction of a mission teacher to the island. He asked what good this business would be to his people.


Banaban girls in traditional riri dress (Williams Collection 1901-31).


Following custom, the elder called a meeting with all the people and the other elders to let them decide for themselves. The good captain urged the people to confess their sins. After much discussion, and from a list of sins he had suggested, the Banabans selected in order of gravity:


1. Stealing, which they considered the worst of all sins.

2. Quarrelling, which was frowned upon, as bad manners were not part of the usual social behaviour so were frowned upon.

3. Drunkenness, meaning the drinking of distilled coconut toddy or spirit and the behaviour is brought on, which was considered very shameful.

4. Fornication, which, depending on the circumstances, was the least of all sins.


Walkup convinced the Banabans that they could learn much from a mission teacher and from the word and stories from the Bible (Baibara) that had already been translated into the Kiribati language. Onboard Walkup’s ship was a teacher by the name of Isaac, who had come from Tabiteuea on his way to a mission posting in Nauru.


Walkup was taken with the fact that the language spoken on Banaba was more like that spoken in Kiribati than the Nauruan language and instructed Isaac to encourage the people to learn the word of God as quickly as possible. Walkup mentioned, “The natives invited us to take a run down to New Caledonia (sic) and bring some friends home.” These were probably Banabans who had fled during the droughts.

On his arrival, Walkup observed a heathen nakedness among the Banabans: ‘The men and children were destitute of clothing, but like every other place we ever visited the women were covered with the malo (a short skirt of leaves strung around the hips) this observation was confirmed by comments by Webster (1851) and Mackay (1875). Walkup noted the contrast with a Banaban who had travelled abroad: “One native had been to Nantucket and Boston. He was, of course, dressed and could speak some English.”

Early mission building on Banaba (F. Dou

Early mission building on Banaba (F. Doutch Collection Circa 1915)

From the time of Walkup’s arrival, mission influence over the Banabans affected at least half of the community. These converts embraced Christian philosophy, if not always the practices, and became known as tani Kiritian (Christians). The Missionaries soon recruited some Banabans to be admitted into their Mission school on Kosrae and made it clear they, “did not favour intellectuals but accepted men and women who were morally faithful Christians to work for the church” (Benaia, 1991).

By 1908, a new ABCFM Mission school called, the Bingham Institute, was opened on Banaba after the mission on Kosrae was severely affected by a hurricane. Maude and Maude summarised the changes in this period as follows:

“The next fifteen years passed peacefully with the Banabans gradually turning to the Christian faith, building their village churches and schools and learning to read and write with the Gilbertese Bible and other mission-produced literature to help them. Trousers for men and neck to knee (or ankle) Mother Hubbard’s for women became the preferred dress for church when they could be obtained, and they now had two ships calling more or less regularly: The Archer and the Hiram Bingham” (Maude & Maude, 1994, p. 118).

Church procession Banaba 1900s.jpg

Banabans in early 1900s marching to celebrate the arrival of Christianity (L. Broadbent Collection 1923).


The other half of the community apparently could not be swayed away from their traditional spiritual beliefs and became known as the tani Bekan (Pagans). These Banabans refused to destroy their sacred cairns and ancestral shrines, abandon their frigate birds, and purchase Mother Hubbard’s and cotton trousers.

For full details go to: "Te Rii ni Banaba-backbone of Banaba" by Raobeia Ken Sigrah and Stacey M. King  Chapter 22: The Banaban Exodus and Arrival of Missionaries

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