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Tabiteuean Religious Wars

Cover Image: Masthead of Ka Nupepa Kuokoa published on December 27, 1879.

Aloha Nūhou Monday!

This week we honor Kiribati, a participating nation in the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture.

The Festival of Pacific Arts & Culture is the world’s largest celebration of Indigenous Pacific Islanders, bringing together artists, cultural practitioners, scholars, and officials from member nations of the Pacific Community (SPC).

This traveling festival is held every four years and was first launched by the South Pacific Commission in 1972 to halt the erosion of traditional practices through ongoing cultural exchange. In June of 2024, Hawaiʻi will host the 13th festival on Oʻahu.

Over the coming months, we will honor each of the previous FestPAC hosts as well as select participating countries with posts featuring those island nations and their connections to Hawaiʻi’s own history.

Image: Photo of a church on Fanning Island, Kiribati, circa 1922 by Charles H. Edmonson. Bishop Museum Archives, SP 222689

Image sharing on social media is welcome. For all other uses please contact 

Tabiteuean Religious Wars:

In 1879, two Hawaiian missionaries by the names of William B. Kapu and Henry B. Nalimu found themselves assigned to Tabiteuea, Kiribati. They were stationed there on behalf of the Hawaiian Evangelical Association. After a several-years-long mission marked by high numbers of Christian converts, these two were charged with inciting a religious massacre––one which still holds a place in the modern history of the islands.

On June 15, 1879, the Tabiteuan Christian converts, along with the Hawaiian missionaries, exchanged fire with a local “cult” known as the Buraeniman, or the Feathered People. Below is a translation of the account given directly from Kapu two months after the events transpired:

Image: He mau Lono mai Maikonisia mai,” Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, December 27, 1897, p. 4

Civil War

A brief civil war recently took place on Tabiteuea on the 15th of June, 1879, of this very year, and such was the case on Apemama, Marakei, Apaiing, Tarawa, and Butaritari. The war on Tabiteuea on the 15th of June, 1879 was an astounding war indeed. The reason for the war is this: some inhabitants of a certain village did not want for me to share the word of God with them, yet another half wanted very much for myself and H. Nahinu to share the Lord’s words. A superstitious idolator by the name of Toinako, the man responsible for making a bird-feather [idol] and compelling folks to worship it, was the one who told the villagers not to let me into the church to preach. If I were to step foot into the building, according to him, they would beat me to death, because, according to him and his conspirators, I am the one meddling with the people of this country.

  1. While I was on Oʻahu, the rain was constant in those two years I spent away, and it stayed that way until I had returned. When the Hoku Ao anchored [in Tabiteuea], there was much rain in those days, but when the Hoku Ao departed, the rain had stopped. Nine months had passed and the rain has only just begun to fall again, so, [the villagers] insist that I caused the rain to stop. They are very ignorant and misinformed.
  2. The mass conversion of people to the side of righteousness, and abandoning dance, drunkenness, and all other frivolous practices––this is another reason that they are angered with me.
  3. If I were to enter their church, their godly idol would abandon them, and they would behave like crazed ones of ignorant deeds and dancers in ignorance.

On the 8th day of June, 1879, at the conclusion of our evening prayer, I ask the congregation, “Where will we pray this coming Sabbath?” One man answers, “At Tanaeang,” and the entire congregation approved in unanimous agreement, then another man stood and stated, “Our day to depart will be Friday.” Everyone agreed, and each person returned to their own place to prepare meals for the journey.

The following Friday, news had quickly reached the inhabitants of Tanaeang village, saying, “Kapu and Nalimu will be coming here this week to pray.” In hearing [of our arrival], their anger towards my friend and followers was extraordinary. They immediately sent old men to meet me, with the intention of halting me so that I and my congregation do not continue on [to the village, stating], “If you go there, there you will die. If you stay put, you will live.” Thus were the words of the old men to us. At that moment I respond, “You folks return and share that Friday is the day of my arrival.” After I had finished speaking, their opinion of the matter was not positive in the least. At that moment I responded by saying to the old men, “It is true––the Tanaeangans truly wanted for me to come to them and spread to them the word of God.” The old men laughed and said to me, “You are truly something. They are angry with you, and have no desire for it in the slightest.” I then responded in saying, “Their desire for me to visit [is far greater], so I will go there in person.” I continued to speak with the old men, when one says, “What exactly do they [Tanaeangans] have to be upset about? This one [Kapu] will not cause any harm to the idols and totems which stand at their churches…” And another then says, “You are not wanted in the slightest. They have permitted your companions to visit, but you are not wanted in the slightest. If you do come, you will die.” To which I responded, “I have no fear of death. I had greatly desired to see my lord Jesus Christ there, that he reign above you folks. Return and share this, “This is what Kapu told us, Because of your great fondness of him, he [Kapu] will come and spread the Lord’s word to you folks.’” When they had heard [my message], they were truly puzzled, saying, “How are we meant to respond to this?”

The old men were not sent to me again, and the land was filled with rumors about a war, and about my death, should I step foot in the Tanaeanan church. It was then that I strongly forbade my people that no one may carry swords and clubs––that they leave these things to the side and take up the Bible in their hands. The man who would take up a weapon is no friend of mine, and neither is a man who would spread slander, but a man who takes up the Bible is my true friend indeed.

On Thursday evening, the men and their wives had finished, and at 7 o’clock we held a meeting, in which I had encouraged the congregation to pray to God, so that He me open the doorway for his words to reach the village, and at dawn on Friday, we gathered again for a meeting, and I again encouraged strongly that they pray.

At 7 o’clock on Friday, my people had departed, and I had stayed and waited for H. B, Nalimu folks, and when the tide rose at 10 o’clock, they arrived with boats, and at 10:30, we prepared to leave. Nalimu’s company departed first on a few rowboats, and mine left afterward. Nalimu’s rowboats sailed through a river that led directly there, and my boat would take the long route, because I wanted [Nalimu’s] boat to be seen first, and it was at that hour that I had mentioned the time at which I would arrive to the village. While we went along, Nalimu’s boat was being swamped, and mine was taking a very indirect route, though in no time, I sailed very near to the church, and when my boat was close to land, I immediately jumped onto shore and went inland. Then, old men came and and took hold of my hands––“Unhand me” [I said], though they did not listen, then Nalimu came, and his hands were seized, though he was release shortly after. My hands remained restrained. The high ground was filled with people, and as I stand among these men and my friend H. Nalimu, I asked the unseen One, “What will they do onto me in this hour? With them is Your will, or is it with us?” At that moment my hands were released, and I sat down, but some men were preparing to fetch us, restrain us with rope, and shoot us and our men. It was then that my love for my companions had shown fourth, “…God will deal with this village from now on.”

This was the 13th day of June, and while we were returning [to our village], I did not see the people following the feathered idols, the god that they worship. That day, as night fell, those people came to wage an attack on our people, but we prohibited our people from warring with them. They fled.

On the 15th of June, 1879, on the Sabbath, 10:30, our usual time of prayer, our people had come into the church to pray. I read from the Bible then finished, then began to pray––I wasn’t praying for long when a man suddenly ran [into the church], “war has come.” Everyone quickly fled in fear, and without weapons, while the traitorous side was equipped with 50 rifles and other weapons, and they were warriors waging war against us––our side was only few in number, though we are true Christians standing on the side of the Lord. During the battle, the traitorous side had aimed their rifles, though not a single fire was shot. The triggers of their guns had broken, and could not shoot. When the rifles had failed, they immediately fled, and were chased after. Fourteen members of the traitorous side had died, and one member of our side died––the battle lasted only 10 minutes until it was over, and soon after, all involved came together peacefully and they are now gathering in the warmth of love. All things are running smoothly. There is no one in disagreement among them. Pray dearly to God for this nation.

Give my regards to all our brethren.

W. B. Kapu

Image: Men from the Gilbert Islands working on Fanning Island, circa 1905. Bishop Museum Archives, SP 101206

Image sharing on social media is welcome. For all other uses please contact

Image: Reef at Tabiteuea, Kiribati ca. 1890. Bishop Museum Archives, SP 222688

Image sharing on social media is welcome. For all other uses please contact

This post is part of He Aupuni Palapala: Preserving and Digitizing the Hawaiian Language Newspapers, a partnership between Bishop Museum and Awaiaulu with assistance from Kamehameha Schools. Mahalo nui loa to Hawaii Tourism Authority for their support. Learn more about this project here.

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