When misfortune strikes a TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro we often jokingly lay the blame on Nei Manganibuka, “the island goddess.” That’s not quite right. “Island goddess” is a Western construct for what, in the traditional culture of Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands), might be more accurately described as a “spirit ancestor.” Spirit ancestors are often female and have great wisdom and power. In Tungaru, the language of Kiribati, “Nei” is roughly the equivalent of “Ms.” “Manganibuka” means “old woman of the Buka trees.” In Gilbertese mythology, Nei Manganibuka taught the people of the Gilbert Islands the art of long-distance canoe navigation. According to some, her home was “Nikumaroro,” a beautiful island far to the southeast that was covered in Buka trees (Pisonia grandis, massive softwood trees that can grow to a hundred feet tall).
In October, 1937, British Lands Commissioner Harry Maude and Cadet Officer Eric Bevington led an expedition from the over-populated Gilbert islands to the uninhabited islands of the Phoenix Group to assess their suitability for future settlement. Sailing far to the southeast, the first atoll they visited was Gardner Island. When the expedition’s delegation of Gilbertese elders beheld a beautiful atoll covered in Buka trees they immediately concluded that they had discovered Nikumaroro.
When going ashore at Nikumaroro we follow Kiribati tradition and dab some beach sand on our faces. That breeze we feel on our cheeks is Nei Manganibuka sniffing us. We want her to say, “Ahh, these are people of the island. I will not molest them.” (It doesn’t always work.)
Kiribati, by the way, is pronounced “Kiribas.” It’s the local pronunciation of “Gilberts.” The strange spelling has an interesting history. Tungaru, the Gilbertese language, was first transliterated by the American linguist Hiram Bingham II in the late 19th century. Bingham’s typewriter had a broken “s” key so he used “ti” (as in nation) instead. As a consequence, there are no “s”s in the written language. Christmas Island is Kiritimati (Kirismas).
When the first settlers arrived at Nikumaroro in late December 1938 the New Zealand Pacific Islands Survey Expedition was camped on the island’s northwest end. The settlers named that part of the atoll Nutiran (newseeran – New Zealand). The main lagoon inlet is Tatiman (tasman) Passage. The village area was named Ritiati (reesas, after British High Commissioner Richards). Another district was called Noriti (noris, after the Norwich City shipwreck). So it’s all really not as mysterious as it looks.
Click HERE for a detailed ethnohistory of Nikumaroro in the TIGHAR Ameliapedia.