This Kiribati Language Week, we’re focusing on the origins of early printing presses and highlighting the contribution from the local people of Kiribati, or Gilbert Island as it was then known, in creating the physical books. 

Blog by Ian Brown, Collection Technician (IDEA Project)

Part of the day-to-day work that happens behind the scenes at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum, is cataloguing. Cataloguers do their best to attach the most relevant information to every specimen, object, photograph, artwork, and publication that the Museum holds. Over time, the needs of this information changes. Before the integration of computer systems, less information was included in records, with most of it used for finding the item. Oh, how things have changed. Metadata (the data about the data) is vital for keeping records fit for use. So, for the past two years, the Museum has been running its most recent cataloguing project - the Improved Documentation Enhanced Access (IDEA) project to help both Aucklanders and those further afield better connect with all the taonga held within its walls.  

As part of this project, 670 publications in over 200 Oceanic languages have had their records enriched. They range from dictionaries to religious texts to cultural histories. Among this collection of newly enhanced titles are 33 written in Gilbertese/I-Kiribati. Although printing presses arrived in Kiribati (or the Gilbert Islands as they were named at the time) with Christian missionaries as a tool for religious conversion and colonisation, the physical books themselves are products of Gilbertese hands. To place them solely as products of an outside force undercuts the work of the people who made them. Each one helps to tell the complicated story of an oral culture meeting a printed one, and the current country that was born from the two.  

The first publication written in Gilbertese/I-Kiribati was by Missionary Hiram Bingham Jr. in 1858 through the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Bingham wrote the text in Abaiang, an island atoll in the northern group of islands, but due to a lack of any press, this 1-page primer was printed at Ponape in Hawai’i. It wasn’t until 1863 when Bingham was sent his own small handpress that printing in Kiribati was able to start. Over the next two years, Bingham, with the help of W.D. Hotchkiss (a shipwrecked printer who serendipitously arrived a week after the press) printed five books of either dictionaries/language primers or religious translations. This first press ended when Bingham returned to the United States due to illness, and Hotchkiss ran out of paper in 1865. The printing press itself was moved to Ebon in the Marshall Islands.1

It took almost 40 years for the next press to arrive in Kiribati. In 1903, the Catholic Church sent its Sacred Heart Mission (SHM) in Abaiang a press and printed their first text, a 92-page arithmetic book, in 1905. Ten years later in 1913, the Protestants set up their own press in agreement with ABCFM at the London Missionary Society (LMS) mission on the island of Beru, located in the southern island group. It would be this press, started by Rev. W.E. Goward, that produced the majority of recorded texts that still survive today. Of the 33 enhanced titles in the Museum’s collection, 25 were printed on this press.  

Unlike the books printed by Bingham and Hotchkiss, Goward employed local trainee teachers as printers and bookbinders. Female students were also employed to make linocuts for the illustrations. One of the men, Ruteru (later a Reverend), was taught by Goward to compose pages, became the head printer, and worked into the 1950s.2 The images above are from 1913-1914 and show the printers outside of the LMS Press on Beru, and then inside at work on their craft.

Council for World Mission Archive, SOAS Library CWM/LMS/South Seas/Photographs/Box 4, File 14 

Local students from the secondary school were also employed to print at the SMH press. Some are acknowledged, such as with the statement 'Printed by Ten Tem’aka, Ten Teata & Te Kirimauti' on a 1912 Geography text. Unfortunately, no knowledge of their individual responsibilities or contribution has survived.2

In 1918, Reverend G.H. Eastman arrived, bringing a more liberal approach to missionary work and therefore the press. Previous missionaries such as Goward looked to curb local culture, helping to ban dancing culture and oral tradition. Instead, both Rev. Eastman and his wife believed in the value of retaining local customs, histories, and stories, albeit with the aim of furthering the work of the Church. Still, these liberal mindsets helped lay the groundwork for future publications that do focus entirely on Kiribati culture.3 During his time in Kiribati, Eastman compiled and published a vocabulary along with a number of religious works, school texts, and translations of missionary stories. These comprise about half of the LMS publications held by the museum. In addition to Eastman, his wife Winifred published her own works that focused on geography, childcare, and nature. 

Kawakinan te Ataei (Child Care), Winifred H. Eastman, 1931, L. M. S. Press, Beru, Gilbert Islands

A few years after Eastman arrived, Emily May Pateman came to Beru to head the girl’s school in 1921. She was influential in recording Gilbertese arts and customs, eventually publishing the first book in Gilbertese/Kiribati solely about Kiribati culture, 'Aia Karaki nikawai I-Tungaru' in 1942. This text is written about in more detail in a previous Kiribati language week post.

Both the Eastmans and Pateman worked closely with local i-Kiribati pastors to translate and write the texts for these works. Bataeru, the first Gilbertese pastor ordained in 1915, helped both G.H. Eastman and Pateman with separate works. He is even named on the title pages of some of the texts, an honour not given to many of the local informants who were integral knowledge holders involved with other Oceanic language texts held in the Museum collections.  

In 1938, a Gilbertese pastor named Kaitara Metai began work on updating the translation of the Kiribati Bible but was disrupted by the Japanese invasion in 1942. Worried for his manuscripts, he buried them in the sand, successfully recovering them in 1944. He and Eastman went on to continue the translation, finally publishing it in 1948 through the American Bible Society in Fiji.4

Umaia ni maeka kain Aonaba ao Ataei n Aonaba (Houses of the World and Children of the World), 1949, L. M. S. Press, Beru, Gilbert Islands

By the time of the Eastmans and Pateman, Christianity had spread almost entirely across Kiribati. It was so engrained in the people that when Pateman published 'Aia Karaki nikawai I-Tungaru', local indigenous pastors discouraged the circulation of it, with some even actively trying to get rid of it, due to fear of losing their place in the new social hierarchy.2 Additionally, many people had started to consider histories and customs from before Christianity as bain te ro - things of the dark.3 Kiribati had changed but links to their past remained. 

In 1949, five years after publishing 'Aia Karaki nikawai I-Tungaru', May Pateman published an updated and combined version of two titles originally printed in 1937. 'Umaia ni maeka kain Aonaba ao Ataei n Aonaba' (Houses of the World and Children of the World) contains a wonderful number of indigenous centric linocuts produced by the students at Rongorongo Girls’ School. Amongst the traditional houses of a few Pacific countries is a Māori whare and amongst the children, a tamaiti in traditional kakahu. 

Umaia ni maeka kain Aonaba ao Ataei n Aonaba (Houses of the World and Children of the World), 1949, L. M. S. Press, Beru, Gilbert Islands

Note the rugged lines of the hand cut images. Their imperfections wonderfully the capture the human element in the production of these books.

While they began as tools for colonisation, these publications are filled with the life of Kiribati. Even as the people quickly embraced literacy and Christianity, they did not completely lose themselves in the transition. Seeing the names of Kiribati pastors on title pages, or in the handywork of the cuts in lino illustrations, it becomes hard to separate the books as objects from their makers. Books are often thought of as just merely holders of information, but they are special as physical objects in themselves. A hundred years ago I-Kiribati hands made these books and left something precious on the covers and pages. A link to the past, from their hands to ours. 

Umaia ni maeka kain Aonaba ao Ataei n Aonaba (Houses of the World and Children of the World), 1949, L. M. S. Press, Beru, Gilbert Islands


  1. Lingenfelter, Richard E., 1967. Presses of the Pacific Islands 1817-1867. The Plantin Press, Los Angeles.
  2. Woodburn, Susan, 2003. Three Pacific mission presses. Bulletin (Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand), v.27 n.3/4:p.10-21.
  3. Uriam, Kambati K., 1995. In their own words: history and society in Gilbertese oral tradition. Journal of Pacific History, Canberra.
  4. Crowl, Lind S. Politics and book publishing in the Pacific Islands, PhD thesis, School of History and Politics, University of Wollongong, 2008.