Gilbert Islands, group of 16 islands, central Pacific, one of the island groups that form the Republic of Kiribati. The group includes Tarawa, Butaritari, Makin, Little Makin, Marakei, Abaiang, Maiana, Abemama, Kuria, and Aranuka in the north; Nonouti and Tabiteuea in the central region; and Beru, Nikunau, Onotoa, Tamana, and Arorae in the south. The total land area is 102 sq mi (260 sq km). The equator runs through the center of the group. Nikunau was explored by British Commodore John Byron in 1765; other islands were explored by captains Thomas Gilbert and John Marshall in 1788, and the remainder were visited between 1799 and 1824. The British made the islands a protectorate in 1892 and a colony in 1915–16. Tarawa, Butaritari, Abaiang, Marakei, and Abemama were occupied by the Japanese in 1941 and liberated by U.S. forces in 1943.