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The history of Tuvalu is complex, interesting and intriguing. It involves the interplay of forces many of which are external to Tuvalu. For many people, the history of Tuvalu is measured in terms of the European exploration and influence. To others it is measured in terms of the development of our Tuvaluan people as they migrated over thousands of years through the archipelago of Asia. To others, it is concerned with the evolvement of our people from the spirits and demi gods of our past. The history of Tuvalu would not be complete unless all these factors are considered. This Web site addresses, the first of these - the early explorers who came to Tuvalu from the early 16th century up until the Declaration of a British Protectorate in 1892. 

The story of European rivalry in the Pacific began even before it was first sighted by Balboa in 1513 and since then Pacific History has been dominated by the European powers ascendant in Europe at any particular time. Portuguese discoveries of the offshore Atlantic islands, the rounding of Southern Africa in 1487 and Columbus's voyage to the Bahamas on behalf of Spain in 1492 caused conflict between Portugal and Spain over the possessions of new lands which the Pope tried to settle by a Bill issued in 1493 awarding all of those lands being newly discovered east of a line one hundred leagues west of the Azores to Portugal and those lands to the west to Spain. By the treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, the dividing line was moved to a line running north and south three hundred and seventy leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The amended line awarded Brazil to Portugal, but most of the Americas and the Pacific to Spain. Portugal claimed the East Indies but Spain took the Philippines in 1564. However, as the determination of accurate longitude was impossible at this period and remained an inexact science until Captain Cook's time and the introduction of the marine chronometer disputes continue as each country tended to fix longitudes favourable to its own claims.

Hondius's Map

Hondieus's Map, 1595.
Click on the above Map for a larger Map.

During the sixteenth century the history of European voyaging and discovery in the Pacific remained predominantly Spanish with the Portuguese acquiring the East Indies at the Pacific's western edge until superseded by the Dutch at the end of the century. There were a growing number of voyages, the most of which were those of Magellan in 1520 to 1522 (the first voyage around the world); Mendana's discovery of the Solomon Islands in 1576; Drake's around the world voyage in 1577 to 1580 and Mendana's second voyage in which he discovered the Marquesas and the islands of Santa Cruz.

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By the beginning of the 17th century, the Dutch had taken over much of the Portuguese East Indies and thereafter continued the Portuguese policy of voyaging and discovery. It is possible that undocumented Portuguese or other voyages to part of Australia had provided the basis for some early maps of about the middle of the 16th century but the documented history of the discovery of Australia was begun in 1605 - 1606 by the Dutch although this was followed immediately by the passage of the Strait between New Guinea and Australia by the Portuguese Torres. Tasman discovered Tasmania, New Zealand, Fiji and other groups between 1642-1643. Piecemeal and incomplete discoveries continued until the improvement in European ships and navigation in the 18th century allowed the great discoveries and charting of the Pacific of that period.

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Sir Francis Drake.

The ending of the Seven Year's War in 1763 left Britain predominant in the colonial and maritime spheres, nevertheless the French were determined to take an equal share of any European expansion in the Pacific and throughout the second part of the 18th century British and French rivalry increased. Although this period is replete with famous names of voyagers - Byron, Wallace, Cook, Bougainville, Perouse, d'Entrecasteaux - and proclamations of sovereignty on behalf of the various European powers were made by ships' commanders from time to time, no actual settlements or acquisitions were made until the British settlements in Australia at Port Jackson, Sydney in 1788. By the beginning of the 19th century, the main island groups of the Pacific had been discovered and chartered by Europeans. It remained to fill in the gaps and develop trade.

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Disregarding the early European conquest on the edge of the Pacific - the American coast, the East Indies and the Philippines - acquisition only began with the British in Australia in 1788, followed in New Zealand in 1840; these in turn influenced Britain in later acquisitions as the colonialists in Australia and New Zealand were anxious to monopolise Pacific Island trade for themselves and pressed Britain to acquire islands and island groups to keep out the commerce of rival European powers.

European traders and missionaries of many nationalities were establishing plantation, trade and religious interests throughout the Pacific which often led to conflict which led in turn to request for help to the European countries from their nationals.

Crimes committed by or against Europeans led to actions by warships of their parent countries. Attempts were made to control the recruitment of Pacific Islanders or labour and to restrict the sale of guns.

These factors among others built up pressure for the acquisition and control of the various island groups by the European powers and after the American Civil War by the United States of America. The French, disappointed at being forestalled by Britain in New Zealand in l840, counted by acquiring the Society Islands and the Marquesas in 1842 and New Caledonia in 1853. Germany became very active especially in Samoa, in the groups to the north of New Guinea and in the Marshall Islands. In 1874 Britain annexed Fiji; in 1884 Germany acquired New Britain, New Ireland and the Northeast Coast of New Guinea; in the same year Britain under pressure from the Queensland colonialists declared a protectorate over southeast New Guinea. In 1893 Britain declared a protectorate over part of the Solomon Islands and acquired more of them by agreement with Germany in 1900. After a war with Spain in 1898 the USA acquired Guam and the Philippines and after troubled in the Republic of Hawaii the USA annexed Hawaii also. In 1899 the remaining Spanish possessions in the Pacific - the Caroline, Palau and the Mariana Islands - were sold to Germany which also annexed Western Samoa the same year leaving the USA to take over the Eastern Samoan Islands.

Map of Sir Francis Drake's voyage around the world.
Click on the above map for a larger map.

After the annexation of Fiji in 1874, Britain was still faced by the problem of the control of British subjects in the other island groups of the Pacific. To accomplish this, the Western Pacific Order in Council was enacted in 1877. This applied to all islands in the Western Pacific not within the jurisdiction of any civilised power and created the officers of High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, Chief Judicial Commissioner and Deputy Commissioners. It established the High Commissioner's Court. The Governor of Fiji was appointed High Commissioner; the Chief Justice of Fiji was appointed the Chief Judicial Commissioner and various persons, in the early years mainly officers of the Royal Navy, were appointed Deputy Commissioners. This attempt to control British subjects was not very successful and left unsolved the problem of the control of non-British subjects for their punishment for crime against British subjects.

In 1886 the British and German Governments agreed to a division of the Western Pacific into two spheres of influence - the Marshall Islands and Nauru came within the German's sphere - the Gilberts, Ocean Island and the Ellice within the British. Germany immediately took over the Marshall Islands but Britain took no action in the Gilberts which had by this time become an area of intense rivalry between German, American and some Australian based trading interests.


In 1890 the British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific based in Fiji recommended the acquisition of the Gilberts by Britain, not only to forestall possible action by Germany which in 1891 itself urge Britain to declare a Protectorate to forestall the U.S.A., but also to control the recruitment of labour, the sale of guns and liquor and to end the growing turbulence within the group. In 1892 the British Government, realizing by now that failure to declare a Protectorate would probably lead to acquisition by Germany, despite the 1886 agreement, or by America which was not a party to the agreement, ordered the Commander-in-Chief, H.M. Ships, Australia, to send a warship to the Gilberts to declare a Protectorate. Captain Davis, R. N. of H.M.S. Royalist was sent to carry out this task.

In accordance with his instructions, Captain Davis talked with the old men of each island to obtain their agreement to the declaration of the protectorate and to explain what it would mean. After talks with the old men, he declared the Protectorate on all islands except on Aranuka and Kuria which were included with Abemama and on Makin which was included with Butaritari.

Captain Davis had been ordered to visit the Ellice Islands but not to declare a Protectorate there. He reported that the 'Kings' of each island had asked for a Protectorate to be declared and Captain Gibson R. N. of H.M.S. Curacao was thereupon ordered to the Ellice Islands on each of which he declared a Protectorate between the 9th and the 16th October.

Even so, their wish was soon granted. Rather than leave some other power the opportunity to take the Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu), Britain shortly afterwards decided to tidy up the political map of the area. In September 1892, therefore, Captain Gibson of HMS Curacao was sent to claim the Ellice Islands. Everywhere, he reported, the people were still willing to accept British rule. Here is his account of what happened at Niutao, which was much the same as what happened elsewhere:

"I arrived off this island about 10.30 a.m. and some canoes at once came off to the ship. I landed and, with Mr. Buckland, an English trader here, visited the King and the Missionary. I explained to the King that the object of my visit was to declare a British Protectorate. He expressed his willingness to the act, and summoned a meeting of the people in the official House. I there told the people that I had come to declare a British Protectorate. After a considerable amount of palaver (talk) I asked if they were agreeable to it, and on their replying in the affirmative, I read the act declaring the Protectorate and gave a copy to the King. After which we adjourned to the beach, hoisted a Union Jack, and the ship saluted with 21 guns."

Thus came into being the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate in 1892.

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