Fabre's Polynesian Vocabularies (1847)

(collected in 1845)

One of the earliest known records of the Gilbertese language is a small vocabulary compiled by M. Fabre*, a shipboard surgeon, in the summer of 1845. His informant, a Gilbertese boy, was one of a group of natives rescued from a drift canoe, whom he had befriended on board. The list, 320 French words and their Gilbertese glosses, was published in the Revue Coloniale in June of 1847.

In his introduction to the small vocabulary, and in the brief epilog, Fabre presents geographical information which indicates that the natives were from Kuria, in the Abemama group. Eighteen years later, in 1863, virtually the entire population of this island was annihilated in an invasion by forces of Tem Baiteke, the notorious king of Abemama. However small, this vocabulary provides the earliest data for Gilbertese, and the only sample of the vocabulary of the dialect spoken on Kuria before its extinction. Historically worthy of analysis and comparison with other descriptions of the Gilbertese lexicon, it provides an appropriate vehicle for testing some new techniques of quantitative comparative analysis of linguistic lists.

(translated from the French)

Revue Coloniale

June 1847, pp 156-176


Compiled in 1845 by M. Fabre,

Auxiliary Surgeon aboard the Corvette Le Rhin.


I. Vocabulary of the southern part of the Gilbert Archipelago (Francis-Chase and Hop Islands). -- II. Vocabulary of the Mulgrave Islands. -- III. Vocabulary of the harbor of Balade and environs (New Caledonia). -- IV. Vocabulary of the Wallis Islands, usable for the Loyalty Islands and New Caledonia.

I. Vocabulary of the Southern Part of the Gilbert Archipelago (Francis-Chase and Hop Islands)

Preliminary note - July 19, 1845 at Lat 1°48' S, Long. 174°41' E, we picked up on Le Rhin six natives whom we found half-dead of hunger in a canoe about 60 leagues [240 km.] from any land. Once we had them on board, I was able to examine them at my leisure, and I recognized from their manner that they were Micronesians, which is not surprising considering that we were in the middle of the Gilberts. As I was the only one on board with any knowledge of Polynesian languages, I was able, with the aid of the Wallis and Zealand languages, to question them, and they answered that they lived in a large group of islands, and that they called their island Oneheke, and that they had been carried off by a hurricane, during which they had passed by one isle after another, until, for the past five days, they had lost sight of land. They wanted the Captain to bring them back to Oneheke, because their parents would be terribly grieved, believing them dead.

During the night, the cord which attached their canoe behind the ship broke; the Captain resolved to put them ashore as soon as possible. Since Oneheke was not marked on any chart, we set sail for Byron Island, to the northwest; but the winds refused us, and so we continued on our route, keeping the natives with us until our return to the Mulgraves, at which time we would deposit them on Nonouti, one of the Francis Islands belonging to Oneheke, which was no more than 30 miles from Nonouti.

During all the time the natives were aboard, by way of several gifts of pipes and tobacco, I was able to attach myself to one of the youngest, and at the same time the most intelligent, and it is by virtue of the conversations I had with him that I was able to form this vocabulary. I observed that the Micronesian language of the southern part of the Gilbert group, besides showing similarities in words with the languages of New Zealand and Wallis, had the same grammatical structure. This is what allowed me to converse with these people on the very same day they came aboard.

On our return to the Mulgraves, the Captain, believing that the natives were from Chase Island, made a landfall in the eastern part of that island. There he learned the position of Oneheke. On Chase Island, which the natives called Tamana, I learned, from a chief who knew English and who had sailed much, that 30 miles further south there was an island named Erorai where the natives spoke the same language as that on Tamana and Oneheke. He added that in his voyages in the southern part of the Gilbert Group, on all the islands where he had landed, the inhabitants spoke the same language as that of the people of Oneheke, Tamana, and Erorai.

NOTE: I have used the letters with their French sounds. The letter e is always the sound of the closed e.

Aboard Le Rhin, September 3, 1845.

Vocabulary list: English-Gilbertese-French

Names of the islands in the Francis group:


Chase Island, as it appears on the charts, is called Tamana by the natives; it is found a few leagues further south than the Francis Islands.

The southernmost island of the Gilbert Group is called Erorai by the natives; it is only found on English charts, under the names Hop Island or Crocker Island.

Notes on the Islands mentioned by Fabre

Fabre states that the islanders reported living in a "large group of islands", and that "they called their island Oneheke." This, and his grouping of the island names, suggests strongly that they were from the group of three islands, Kuria, Abemama and Aranuka, located just north of the Equator between 173° and 174° E. Oneheke is most likely Oneke, the eastern islet of Kuria (Kouria). Apatouk may well be Abatiku, an islet of Abemama, and Pihike is no doubt Bike, another islet of Abemama (Apemahama). Takehangaean is probably Takaeang, an islet of eastern Aranuka.

Mounouti is probably a typo for Nonouti, which Fabre refers to, the next island to the southeast of the Abemama group. He makes no mention of Tabiteuea, the large island to the southeast of Nonouti, but his Toporarai may well be Tabuarorae, an islet of Onotoa (Onotoua), the next island to the southeast.

Fabre's Francis is Beru, and Byron, as he notes, is Nikunau. Chase is Tamana, and Erorai, Arorae, the southernmost of the Gilbert group (referred to on old charts as Hope, rather than Hop).

The Mulgraves are probably Mille (Mili) atoll, in the southern Marshalls. (A check of his Mulgrave Vocabulary should clarify this.)

The longitudes seem to be off. From his position Fabre puts Nikunau to the northwest, while it should have been to the northeast. Other directions (and distances) are also somewhat distorted.

Fabre's article appeared (in French) in the Revue Coloniale, June 1847, pp 156-176. (Bishop Museum collection PL/PhilPam/203)

[translation & notes by Stephen Trussel, Honolulu, 1985]
*I received a communication from Turtle Bunbury in April, 2015, with a clarification of M. Fabre's identity. Here is the text of his explanation:


In June 1847 the Revue Coloniale published an article entitled ‘Vocabulaires Polynésiens’ by M. Fabre in which he explained how just under two years earlier he had been was serving as Auxiliary Surgeon aboard the Corvette Le Rhin when they were obliged to rescue six Gilbertese ‘natives whom we found half-dead of hunger in a canoe about 60 leagues [240 km.] from any land.’ M. Fabre, who had some knowledge of the Polynesian language, was able to establish that they came from the island of Kuria (or Oneheke, as they called it), just north of the Equator in the Abemama group. M. Fabre then befriended one of the younger Kurians, an intelligent boy from whom he learned some language. M. Fabre’s article in the Revue Coloniale included a list of 320 French words and their Gilbertese equivalents.

Tragically the inhabitants of Kuria were massacred in 1863 during an invasion by the forces of Tem Baiteke, the notoriously brutal king of Abemama. Fabre’s ‘Polynesian Vocabularies’ is the only sample of Kuria dialect spoken before its extinction and is considered the earliest data for Gilbertese.

I believe M. Fabre was Charles Fabre-Tonnere, MD. I was initially led to his conclusion when I saw this remark in ‘By-ways of history & medicine’ (1946) by David Gordon Macmillan: ‘In 1843 the surgeons of Le Rhin were le Vicomte de la Perrotiere and Fabre Tonnere.’ Fabre-Tonnere later became Health Officer of Calcutta. The Bengal & Agra Directory 1852 notes his marriage in Calcutta in March 1851 to Miss Sarah Harcourt. In 1852 he also founded the first, short-lived, Native Homoeopathic Hospital in Calcutta. As Health Officer, he experimented with the equally short-lived sewage farming, using Calcutta’s municipal sewage to grow vegetables, cotton and fodder on a small scale in the 1860s. The sewage experiment appears to have gone badly wrong because his obituary in The Homoeopathic World, Volume 19, notes how his ‘health had suffered very seriously from blood poisoning by sewage gas at Calcutta; and during his residence at Sidmouth he had several attacks of illness traceable to that cause’. The same obituary described ‘Charles Fabre-Tonnere, MD’ as ‘formerly a surgeon in the French navy, and more recently sanitary medical officer at Calcutta, where he practiced Homeopathy for several years. His last illness was caused by a cold taken the last week.’ He died at Sidmouth on 20 February 1884.

Elsewhere, M. Fabre is noted as the author of Vocabulaire du Havre de Balade et des environs, Nouvelle- Calédonie, dans son travail : Vocabulaires polynésiens composes en 1845’. The Bulletin de la Société de géographie (Paris, 1862) also notes this tome: "Statistiques médicales de l'émigration française, par le Dr C. Fabre-Tonnerre, ex-chirurgien de la marine française. Calcutta, 1861.”

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