Odd Fighting Units: Kiribati Warrior of Micronesia

Kiribati, known formerly as the the Gilbert Islands, the tiny stretch of islands and atolls in the expansive Pacific Ocean which make up the modern day Republic of Kiribati, was home to one of the most unique and curiously armored & armed infantry forces in the history of warfare.The Kiribati warrior culture of the Gilbertise Islanders developed both as a distinct part of the proud Polynesian warrior culture, which established itself from New Zealand to the Hawaiian Islands by the 14th and 15th centuries but from the unique materials with which the inhabitants of the Gilbert Islands armed themselves with.

Early 20th century depiction of the Kiribati Warrior

For the Kiribati warrior, his armor and weapons were the products of the readily available raw materials available from the islands and from the sea, combining the two for a unique armament approach. His armor was made of coir, a strong fiber material harvested from coconut trees, woven together it forms a durable and strong material. His weapons were made from seasoned wood from the coconut tree as well, affixed with sharks teeth barbs, acting as blades for slashing, piercing, and tearing enemy armor.

The sharks teeth usefulness are seemingly two-fold, threatening in appearance but pragmatically making the war-clubs, spears, and swords of the Kiribati warrior that much more lethal. In battle with the enemy kainga, meaning village or settlement, which was literally the societal & family structure of the Gilbertese, the Kiribati warrior fought to often rout and injure his foe without necessarily killing him. Part of this seems to be established through a custom of the region in which the family of a man killed in war or in a combative dispute could seek the lands from the man who killed their kin.

As pictured below, the Kiribati warrior of the 19th century and much earlier is dressed for conventional battle; he is perhaps heavily armored compared to some of the foes he might have faced in combat. He wears a thick woven coat and trousers, all made from coir, wearing another thicker coir vest, acting as body army. A long woven back plate protects this warrior’s neck and back, particularly useful if his enemies desired to shoot and arrow or throw a spear at him unawares. This warriors most unique armament is perhaps the helm (helmet) he wears made from the dried carcass of a porcupine fish, most often incorrectly identified (though this fish was probably also used) as the deadly poisonous pufferfish.

Traditional armament of the Kiribati (Gilbertese) warrior

The Kiribati warriors’ weapon is also notable. This particular soldier is armed with a sword, the trunun (see figure 1) forged from strong seasoned coconut tree. The end of his weapon is inlaid with many razor sharp shark teeth allowing him to thrust and slash at a comfortable distance with a formidable ad fearsome looking melee weapon.

Spears, swords, daggers, and clubs were also armed with shark teeth in a similar fashion, cudgels (so called dancing-sticks), and bows & arrows were used during combat amongst the Gilbertese peoples throughout 1700 & 1800's. Later in the 19th century muskets, carbines, and even a cannon, given to some southern Tarawans by an American schooner would be used in the Civil Wars fought in Kiribati during the 1880’s.

Weapons of the Kiribati warriors

Society, Ritual, & Warfare in Micronesia

Neighboring states from Micronesia & Polynesia might have joined the fray as well during the 18th & 18th centuries battles in Tarawa and elsewhere, with invasions and raids carried out on enemy islands and atolls whenever the tides permitted. The canoe was a major asset to the Polynesian and Micronesian kainga (village, settlement) with the ruling chief controlling his warriors through mysticism and good fortune. It was used for everything, everyday transportation, hunting, diplomacy trips to other kaingas, and for times of war.

Like the great Moari warriors of New Zealand, for the Karibati fighting man, melee combat, that is close-quarters fighting, with weapons and hands, was both a ritual and practical part of life. The chief of the kainga was at the center of both aspects. It was often believed that the most successful chiefs in battle practiced the best magic. Certainly divining rituals, including seance and meditative vigils for upcoming battles was a key part of the Gilbertese religion & warfare. Indeed some of the later internal conflicts beginning in the year 1879 were directly related to religious practices involving Karibati Christian converts and their Pagan brethren in nearby islands.

Chiefs held an important role in culture of the Kiribati, they ruled the kainga supremely and often used their influence, a martial power to remove other chiefs from their positions of power. Many of the internal struggles in Gilbert Islands, especially on Tarawa, were the result of both dynastic feuding and for personal reasons. In many conflicts a chief or any Karibati warrior could call upon his in-laws to become his valuable allies in the wars against rival kaingas.

A notable example were the ten separate (but commonly connected) conflicts of the Tarawa Civil Wars c.1868-?1890. These wars involved many different chiefs and their kaingas until the end of the conflict sometime before 1892-1893, when the Gilbert Islands became a protectorate of the British Empire. Again the causes of these conflicts were both due to personal clashes (rivalry, blood-feuding) and relating to power structure and the greater hegemony of Tarawa itself. Eventually two major factions of northern and southern chiefs emerged making alliances and war against each other to appropriate additional territories and kaingas for their respective households or cliques .

The earliest inhabitants of many of the Gilbert Islands owed their root language, early customs, and most likely their earliest warfare techniques to the Fijian and other Melanesian/Polynesians who first colonized the many islands of the South Pacific throughout antiquity and the early medieval ages. Long before the first Europeans first discovered Tarawa in 1788 and long after, the Kiribati were in a constant state of static warfare with their neighbors fighting for land, revenge, and for ritual.

Suggested Further Reading

Kiribati: Aspects of History
(University of the South Pacific, 1st edition, February 1, 1979)


  1. I've seen some of these nasty shark-toothed clubs (swords?) in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Interesting article! I hope this is the start of a series on Odd Fighting Units of the World.

    1. It is already! There is one more feature on the Honolulu Hawaii (Militia) of the 1880's. But yes, more Odd Fighting Units of the World to come, so stay tuned!

      Thanks for commenting. Its odd but it seems that these were more like swords, though I originally believed the weapon to be a spear or pole-arm. Maybe even ceremonial.

      From what ive read on the Kiribati warrior & this picture it clearly denotes that the shark-tooth weapon is some sort of long-sword.

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