Map Courtesy CIA World Factbook
Kiribati, officially the Republic of Kiribati, is an island nation located in the central tropical Pacific Ocean. The country's 33 atolls are scattered over 1,351 square miles (3,500 km²) near the equator. Its name is pronounced ['kiribas] and is a Kiribati language rendering of "Gilberts," the English name for the main group of islands: the former Gilbert Islands. In Gilbertese there is no letter 's,' the sound being represented by 'ti.' That is why the Pacific Island known as Christmas Island is known in the language of Kiribati as Kiritimati Island. This island should not be confused with the Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, which is administered by Australia.
Kiribati was inhabited by a single Micronesian ethnic group that spoke the same Oceanic language for 2,000 years before coming into contact with Europeans. The islands were first sighted by British and American ships in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The islands were named the Gilbert Islands in 1820 by a Russian admiral, Adam von Krusenstern, and French captain Louis Duperrey, after a British captain, Thomas Gilbert, who crossed the archipelago in 1788 ('Kiribati' is the islanders' pronunciation of plural 'Gilberts').
The first British settlers arrived in 1837. In 1892, the Gilbert Islands became a British protectorate together with the nearby Ellice Islands. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands became a Crown colony in 1916. Kiritimati (Christmas Island) became a part of the colony in 1919 and the Phoenix Islands were added in 1937.
Tarawa Atoll and others of the Gilbert group were occupied by Japan during World War II. Tarawa was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. Marine Corps history when Marines landed in Nov. 1943, the Battle of Tarawa was fought at Kiribati's former capital Betio on Tarawa Atoll.
The Gilbert Islands and Ellice Islands gained self-rule in 1971, and were separated in 1975 and granted internal self-government by Britain. In 1978, the Ellice Islands became the independent nation of Tuvalu, and Kiribati's independence followed on July 12, 1979. In a treaty signed shortly after independence and ratified in 1983, the United States relinquished all claims (previously asserted under the Guano Act) to the sparsely inhabited Phoenix Islands and those of the Line Islands that are part of Kiribati territory.
Overcrowding has been a problem, and in 1988 it was announced that 4,700 residents of the main island group would be resettled onto less populated islands. In 1994, Teburoro Tito was elected president. Kiribati's 1995 act of moving the international date line far to the east to encompass Kiribati's Line Islands group, so that it would no longer be divided by the date line, courted controversy. The move, which fulfilled one of President Tito's campaign promises, was intended to enable Kiribati to become the first country to see the dawn on January 1, 2000, and welcome the date popularly, but incorrectly, taken to be the start of the third millennium AD — an event of significance for tourism. Tito was reelected in 1998. In 1999, Kiribati gained UN membership.
In 2002, Kiribati passed a controversial law enabling the government to shut down newspapers. The legislation followed the launching of Kiribati's first successful nongovernment-run newspaper. President Tito was reelected in 2003, but in March 2003, he was removed from office by a no-confidence vote, and replaced by a Council of State. Anote Tong of the opposition party, Boutokaan Te Koaua, was elected to succeed Tito in July 2003.
Many of the islands of Kiribati especially in the remote Line Islands, were formerly used by the United States and Great Britain for atomic bomb testing. According to Kiribati: A People's History, Kiribati was the testing sites for many of the new H-Bombs in the 1960's.