History of Tuvalu: First People, British Rule and Independence

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Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands) is nation made up of a cluster of nine low coral atolls, plus islets and reefs, situated in the western-central Pacific Ocean just south of the Equator and west of the International Date Line. These islands are situated about 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) northeast of Sydney, Australia and 1,050 kilometers (650 miles) north of Suva, Fiji, and extend in 595-kilometer (370-mile) -long chain in a remote 1,300,000 square kilometer (500,000 square mile) area of the Pacific Ocean. The islands of Tuvalu only have a total land area of 26 square kilometers (10 square miles), about a tenth of the size of Washington, D.C. Tuvalu has a coastline of 24 kilometers (15 miles).

A tiny nation with a tiny economy, Tuvalu spent much of its history under the control of foreign powers. Formerly a British colony, Tuvalu declared independence in 1978 as a member of the British Commonwealth. The population is approximately 11,000, and the official languages are English and Tuvaluan. The chief of state is the British monarch, represented locally by a governor general. The head of state is a prime minister, who presides over a 12-seat House of Assembly. The capital is the atoll of Funafuti.

None of the islands of Tuvalu rise more than 4.6 meters (15 feet) above the Pacific, making them vulnerable to rising sea levels. Poor soil restricts vegetation to coconut palms, breadfruit, and bush. The population survive by subsistence farming, raising pigs and poultry, and by fishing. Copra is the only significant export crop. A significant amount foreign exchange is obtained from selling elaborate postage stamps. The population is less than 12,000, making it one of the smallest and least populated. Nations on Earth. [Source: World Encyclopedia, Oxford University Press 2005]

Tuvalu Names and Identity

Tuvalu has no official like Republic of Tuvalu. It is simply called Tuvalu, both locally and internationally. It was formerly known as the Ellice Islands."Tuvalu" means "group of eight" or "eight standing together" referring to the country's eight traditionally inhabited islands. Name of the People: noun: Tuvaluan(s); adjective: Tuvaluan. Inhabitants assert their identity as members of distinct societies, referred to by the name of each of the eight traditionally inhabited islands. [Source: CIA World Factbook 2023]

For most of the nineteenth century, Western navigators referred to this archipelago as the "Lagoon Islands," a name gradually supplanted by the "Ellice Islands." This latter term became official in 1892 when Great Britain created the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate (later Colony). The name and its Tuvaluan rendition (Elise) remained in use until the group separated from the Gilberts in 1975. [Source: Michael Goldsmith and Niko Besnier, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The name "Tuvalu" is apparently traditional and refers to the original "cluster of eight" islands. It was adopted as the national name when the group achieved self-governing status in 1975, after breaking away from the Gilbert Islands with which it had been administered by Britain since 1892. The name "Ellice Islands" was initially given only to Funafuti in 1819 by Captain de Peyster of the Rebecca in honor of the owner of his cargo, Edward Ellice, an English member of Parliament. [Source: Michael Goldsmith, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

First People in Tuvalu

The islands of what is now Tuvalu were first populated by voyagers from either Samoa or Tonga in the A.D. first millennium. It was probably settled as part of the backwash by which Polynesian Outliers in Melanesia and Micronesia were populated after the main eastward historical wave of Polynesian migration. A lack of archaeological investigation research has made it difficult to determine original settlement dates. Ethno-historical evidence suggests that the islands maintained sporadic contacts with one another, as well as with invaders and other visitors, principally from Samoa, Tonga, and Kiribati. [Source: Michael Goldsmith and Niko Besnier, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

About 3000 B.C. speakers of the Austronesian languages, probably from Taiwan (Formosa), mastered the art of long-distance canoe travel and spread themselves, or their languages, south to the Philippines and Melanesia and east to the islands of Micronesia. The Polynesians branched off and occupied Polynesian Triangle to the east.

Some have theorized that these people traveled first to the Philippines and Indonesia. Then they made it the coast and islands of New Guinea. After that they moved eastward towards Fiji and the Pacific islands in that area and possibly westward to Madagascar. The last place to be reached were New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.

Dates and routes are uncertain, but they seem to have started from the Bismarck Archipelago, went east past Fiji to Samoa and Tonga about 1500 B.C.. By A.D. 100 they were in the Marquesas Islands and A.D. 300-800 in Tahiti, west of the Marquesas. After this they reached what is now Tuvalu and other remote islands and atolls in the Central Pacific Ocean.

Early Inhabitants of Tuvalu

When Polynesians colonized Tuvalu, Samoans settled the southern atolls, while Tongans settle in the north. Micronesians from Kiribati occupied Nui. Tuvalu provided stepping stones for various Polynesian communities that subsequently settled in Melanesia and Micronesia. Tuvalu eventually came under Samoan and Tongan spheres of influence although proximity to Micronesia allowed some Micronesian communities to flourish in Tuvalu, in particular on Nui Atoll. The islands are likely to have been most widely settled between the 14th and 17th centuries by Polynesians drifting west with prevailing winds from Samoa and other large islands. Michael Goldsmith wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Prehistoric Samoan cultural influence was undoubtedly strong, as the linguistic affiliation suggests, but this influence also may have been retrospectively enhanced by religious and administrative links in the modern era. Precontact history is difficult to reconstruct, since there has been very little archaeological investigation. Moreover, local traditions, while essential for a proper historical understanding, often contradict each other as political charters for descent groups within local status hierarchies. [Source: Michael Goldsmith, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

Different island communities claim different founding ancestors, some indigenous and some hailing from Samoa, Tonga, East Uvea, and/or Kiribati. Funafuti is also cited as the immediate homeland of some of the other islands. Evidence from material culture, comparative linguistics, and culture history all indicate relatively recent settlement dates from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Skeletal remains from Vaitupu, however, may point to a slightly longer time scale of 500 to 800 years.

First Europeans in Tuvalu

The first European to lay eyes on some of the islands that now make up Tuvalu was the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendaña. It is believed he spotted Nui in 1568 and and Niulakita in 1595.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Tuvalu was visited by a series of American, British, Dutch, and Russian ships. Capt. John Byron visited the islands in 1764. Sustained contact did not take place until the early nineteenth century.

The islands were named the Ellice Islands in 1819. That year, Captain De Pey-ster, an American in command of the British merchant ship Rebecca named the main island in the group Ellice's Island after a British politician who owned the cargo aboard his ship. In 1841, the U.S. Exploring Expedition commanded by Charles Wilkes visited three of Tuvalu's islands and welcomed visitors to his ships. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009]

Traders and Missionaries in the Ellice Islands (Tuvalu)

In early18th century, explorers, traders, and whalers charted the Ellice Islands. As time wore on, White traders and beachcombers settled on some of the islands.In the 1880s, European traders establish a post on Tuvalu in order to acquire copra.

The first Christian missionaries arrived in Tuvalu 1861, eventually converting most of the population. One of the first to arrive was Elekana, a Cook Islander castaway, he showed up first in 1861 and returned with a Congregationalist missionary, A. W. Murray. From 1865 to the mid-1870s, Samoan missionaries from the London Missionary Society (LMS) established Christian churches on each island,

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The most intensive phase of contact began in 1865 with the arrival of (mainly) Samoan teachers and pastors sent by the London Missionary Society. Their version of evangelical and congregationalist Protestantism continues to be a major sociocultural influence to the present day, though the Tuvalu church is now autonomous. Other churches and religions have obtained footholds but remain minorities in a society that emphasizes individual conformity with communal ideology. [Source: Michael Goldsmith, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

Slave Traders in the Ellice Islands (Tuvalu)

Between 1850 and 1875, the islands were raided by ships forcibly recruiting plantation workers for Latin America, Fiji, Hawaii, Tahiti, and Queensland in Australia. Some were kidnapped by people purporting to be missionaries and sent to work on plantations in Peru and Hawaii. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023; Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

In 1863, slave traders took 450 Tuvaluans from the southern island as slaves to work in the guano mines of Peru. They were lured aboard slave ships with promises that they would be taught about Christianity and forced to work under horrific conditions in the guano mines.

Slave traders from South America and Europeans abducting workers for Pacific plantations. reduced Tuvalu's population by nearly 80 percent. Between 1850 and 1880, the population was reduced from around .20,000 to just 3000. To help suppress such abuses, the Office of British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific was created in 1877.

British Colonization of the Ellice Islands

Efforts to harvest copra (dried coconut meat which produces coconut oil) and mine guano (seafowl excrement used as fertilizer) led the United States to claim the four southern islands in 1856 and the British to claim the northern territory in 1892 as part of its Gilbert Islands Protectorate.

In 1877, Tuvalu came under British control in part to reign in the slave trade there. 1892, in an effort to forestall American expansion in the area, Britain declared a protectorate over the northern islands. In 1916, Tuvalu became a formal British colony.

In 1892, Britain declared a protectorate over the Ellice Islands and merged it with the Micronesian Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati). The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate became a colony in 1916. They were administered by Britain as Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony until 1974.

Michael Goldsmith and Niko Besnier wrote: While the Congregationalist ethos and limited resources of the LMS left each island largely to its own devices, British administration fostered a sense of commonality among the inhabitants of the group, encouraged by and in contrast to the often absent colonial officers, but also in contrast to the Gilbertese. The founding of a boys' secondary school on Vaitupu in 1922 brought together children from around the group. [Source:Michael Goldsmith and Niko Besnier, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Tuvalu in World War II

In 1943, after Japan captured many of the northern Gilbert Islands, the UK transferred administration of the colony southward to Funafuti. Around the same time, U.S. forces occupied the Ellice Islands to begin their order to drive the Japanese from the Gilberts. While Tuvalu was used as a forward base for U.S. forces it largely escaped direct fighting.

During World War II, several thousand American troops were in the islands. Beginning in October 1942, U.S. forces built airbases on the atolls of Funafuti, Nanumea, and Nukufetau. The presence of large numbers of servicemen on the three island groups had a substantial impact on the local people there. The bases brought islanders into contact both with one another and with Americans.

Friendly cooperation marked the relationship between the local people and the troops, mainly U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy SeaBees. The airstrip in the capital of Funafuti, originally built by the U.S. during the war, is still in use, as is the “American Passage” that was blasted through Nanumea's reef by SeaBees assisted by local divers. Among other things the presence of the Americans helped local to put British authority into perspective. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009]

Road to Independence for Tuvalu After World War II

Britain continued to rule the Gilbert and Ellice Islands after World War II. Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands was once again made the colony’s capital, placing the center of power was firmly in the Gilbert Islands, including the colony’s only secondary school, not the Ellice Islands. Amid growing tensions with the Gilbertese, Tuvaluans voted to secede from the colony in 1974. They were granted self-rule in 1975, and gained independence in 1978 as Tuvalu. In 1979, the U.S. relinquished its claims to Tuvaluan islands in a treaty of friendship. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

After World War II, many Tuvaluans emigrated to the larger Gilbert Islands to find employment. Ethnic differences between the Micronesians of the Gilberts and the Polynesians of the Ellice Islands played a part in demands by Tuvaluan for separation. Michael Goldsmith wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ As Great Britain moved to divest itself of its Pacific possessions in the 1960s, Tuvaluans decided against remaining tied to the Gilbertese (who were culturally different, negatively stereotyped, and much more numerous).

A referendum held during August-September 1974 resulted in overwhelming majority of 3,799 to 293 favoring separation. Britain reluctantly allowed the Ellice Islanders to secede. On October 1, 1975, the Ellice Islands were established as the separate British colony of Tuvalu. in 1975. The newly renamed Tuvalu became independent in 1978. The Gilbert Island became independent as Kiribati in 1979.

In a poll held in 1985, Tuvaluans rejected the idea that Tuvalu should become a republic. In 2000, Tuvalu becomes a member of the United Nations and a full member of the British Commonwealth.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2023

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