Portrait of a native of the Makin islands, drawn by Alfred Thomas Agate (1841)
There are different stories told as to the creation of Butaritari and the other islands in the Southern Gilberts. An important legend in the culture of Butaritari is that spirits who lived in a tree in Samoa migrated northward carrying branches from the tree, Te Kaintikuaba, which translates as the tree of life. It was these spirits, together with Nareau the Wise who created the islands of Tungaru .
The Spanish expedition led by Pedro Fernandes de Queirós sighted the Buen Viaje Islands (Butaritari and Makin) on 8 July 1606.
Traditionally, Butaritari and Makin were ruled by a chief or Uea who lived on Butaritari Island. This chief had all the powers and authority to make and impose decisions for Butaritari and Makin, a system very different from the southern Gilbert Islands where power was wielded collectively by the unimwane or old men.
The people of Kuma village had the power to call dolphins or whales, and used this ability on special occasions to provide meat for important feasts such as the opening of a new maneaba.
The islands were visited as part of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1841. Any possible Guano Islands Act claim by the United States to Butaritari and Little Makin was renounced in the 1970s.
The first traders resident in the Gilberts were Randell and Durant who arrived in 1846, Durant moved on the Makin, while Randell remained on Butaritari. The earliest trading companies on Butaritari were the Hamburg-based Handels-und Plantagen-Gesellschaft der Südsee-Inseln zu Hamburg (DHPG) with Pacific headquarters in Samoa, and On Chong (Chinese traders with Australian connections via the goldfields). These traders helped Butaritari became the commercial and trading capital of the Gilbert Islands until Burns Philp, a powerful trading company, moved to Tarawa, following the seat of political power.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Fanny Vandegrift Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne visited Butaritari from 14 July 1889 to early August. At this time Nakaeia, was the ruler of Butaritari and Makin, atolls, his father being Tebureimoa and his grandfather being Tetimararoa. Nakaeia was described by Stevenson as “a fellow of huge physical strength, masterful, violent … Alone in his islands it was he who dealt and profited; he was the planter and the merchant” with his subjects toiling in servitude and fear.
Nakaeia allowed two San Francisco trading firms to operate, Messrs. Crawford and Messrs. Wightman Brothers, with up to 12 Europeans resident on islands of the atolls. The presence of the Europeans, and the alcohol they traded to the islanders, resulted in periodic alcoholic binges that only ended with Nakaeia making tapu (forbidding) the sale of alcohol. During the 15 or so days Stevenson spent on Butaritari the islanders were engaged in a drunken spree that threatened the safety of Stevenson and his family. Stevenson adopted the strategy of describing himself as the son of Queen Victoria so as to ensure that he would be treated as a person who should not be threatened or harmed.
The last Uea was Nauraura Nakoriri who was in power both before and after the Gilberts became a British Protectorate in 1892.
Butaritari Post Office opened on 1 January 1911.
The Japanese trading company Nanyo Boeki Kabushiki Kaisha established operations in Butaritari Village. W. R. Carpenter & Co. Ltd was established in 1922. Through the 1920s On Chong experienced gradual decline in its operations as the result of low copra prices. Eventually On Chong was taken over by W. R. Carpenter & Co.