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History of Tuvalu

Tuvalu was likely first settled in about 1800 BC by people from Southeast Asia via numerous other islands. However after these initial inhabitants, additional waves of people arrived in later history, including people from what is today Samoa. These people were Polynesian and to this day the people of Tuvalu are primarily ethnically and linguistically Polynesian.

The earliest people to arrive to Tuvalu and the later people, including the Polynesians, likely lived very basic lives. They lived off the land as hunters, gathers, fishers, and later as farmers. They seem to have had good navigational skills as the people of Tuvalu and people from other islands made frequent contact with each other, but, having no written language, the exact details of their contact is unknown.

However, some of this early history is debated by the people of Tuvalu. The country has a very strong tradition of oral history and the details of these oral histories sometimes conflict with what is commonly accepted as the country's history, for example the information stated above. However the oral histories also conflict among themselves from island to island. One piece of history that most oral traditions follow is that their ancestors arrived from Samoa in the 1100s or 1200s, although some claim Tonga as the islands of origin. Both were closely linked at this time as they, as well as Tuvalu were possibly ruled by the Tu'i Tonga Empire kings during this period.

Even if the Tu'i Tonga kings didn't directly rule over Tuvalu, they clearly made some sort of impact on the islands as there is evidence that the Tongans visited or traded with the people of Tuvalu. The Tu'i Tonga Empire became a power in the Pacific as its strength and power stretched over time, beginning in the 900s and lasting until about 1500 in Tonga (they probably first contacted the people of Tuvalu in the mid-1200s). This rule appears to be fairly decentralized, with islands being ruled over by their local chiefs, but the communication and transportation network established at this time was created by and ruled from Tonga.

Based on what is known about this empire and the evidence they've left behind, it becomes clear the people were successful navigators, diplomats, and traders. Many of these skills were likely transferred to the people of Tuvalu as well. The Tu'i Tonga Empire began collapsing in the 1400s and 1500s as their far influence had died and Tuvalu was left to rule itself. Numerous oral histories in Tuvalu claim a great battle on Niutao pushed the Tongans off their land for good in the 1400s, although the Tongans apparently tried to reassert their control in Tuvalu numerous times in the following centuries.

The arrival of people from Samoa or Tonga and the strong ties with the Tu'i Tonga Empire created a strong Polynesian culture in Tuvalu, including the art of tattooing, while also creating a people strong enough to fight and different enough to seek independence from the Tongans. This past created a very strong Polynesian culture in the islands, but in the northern islands the cultural influence is much stronger from the north and the region of Micronesia.

Tuvalu was first spotted by Europeans in the mid-1500s, likely by Alvaro de Mendana de Neira from Spain in 1568, although he didn't land on the islands. Few people stopped in these early days of European explorations because the islands were off the route for most sailors and few Europeans saw or stopped at the islands from this point on. Of these latter sightings, the most famous was that of Arent de Peyster who named the islands Ellice's Islands in 1819 after a British politician, a name that stuck for over a century.

Despite these early sightings and many brief landings, the islands weren't truly settled or colonized by foreign powers until the mid-1800s, leaving the people and their culture mainly in tact through the early-1800s. This is partly because few ships could land on the atolls, and partially because the foreign powers at the time saw little economic gain from holding these islands, which was the true reason for settlement and colonization.

The people and culture began their substantial changes in the 1860s with the arrival of missionaries and more sailors. These early missionaries forever changed the people and their culture of Tuvalu, but not only in the way of religion. These early British missionaries altered the people's belief system and in many ways unified the people from island to island. More importantly, they brought in ministers from Samoa to continue their work and these ministers vastly altered the culture as numerous aspects of Samoan culture arrived.

Also in the 1860s trade began to grow on the islands. Coconuts were the biggest export and it seemed everyone wanted a part of the production and trade of this food. The Germans, British, and Americans all sought to control the trade. Despite the fact that the Americans laid claim on many of the southern islands, including Funafuti, in 1856, it was the Germans who truly controlled this trade as British and American presence was lacking.

Despite early German dominance in the coconut trade, the British and Americans eventually gained both economic and political control over the islands. In 1892 the Gilbert Islands (today part of Kiribati) and the Ellice Islands agreed to become a protectorate of the British Empire (although the southern islands still fell under American rule for the time).

The political structure of the British claim changed as new islands (including many in today's Kiribati) were added and all of these islands were eventually incorporated into the British colony called the British Western Pacific Territories.

Under British and American rule, foreigners settled the islands of Tuvalu, but these islands were never a focus of colonization for either country and never became a significant immigration destination for foreign nationals. Because of this, little changed in the culture of the people, although numerous new technologies were introduced as communication and transportation improved.

The influence from the missionaries continued into the 1900s with the establishment of schools. Although these schools began as preparation schools for seminary students, they later evolved into the educational system that's present in Tuvalu today.

The next great change in Tuvalu occurred in the early 1940s with World War II (WWII). Although the Japanese never took control of Tuvalu during the war, they came close to the islands and this caused the Americans to build a military base in Funafuti. From this point on the islands were frequently the victims of Japanese attacks and American military build-up, both of which destroyed much of the land. These actions destroyed much of the fertile land and the construction simply took other lands from the people.

For an economy based on agriculture, this loss of land was devastating on the economy during and immediately after WWII. The war also made American presence much more apparent as they brought in new technology, communication methods, and improved infrastructure (although the latter also took much of the land). They also had a much stronger and noticeable presence on the islands as numerous soldiers were stationed there during and even after the war.

Through much of the latter half of the 1900s focus in Tuvalu was on recovering from WWII and growth, primarily in the forms of education and economics. This process has taken years and is not yet where the people want it, but it moved the country far enough forward to lead to independence.

In 1975 the British-governed islands of modern day Tuvalu decided to separate, politically, from the Gilbert Islands, which now make up a part of Kiribati. Three years later, in 1978 the Ellice Islands declared independence and the modern state of Tuvalu was born. In 1983 the remaining islands, which were previously under the protection of the United States, joined Tuvalu.

Since independence, Tuvalu has maintained a fairly stable political and economic environment. The issue the people truly unite on, and the issue the country as a whole promotes on a regular basis, is global warming. Tuvalu's highest point is only 15 feet (5 meters) above sea level and global warming could submerge the entire country. In addition to this, the country is busy trying to improve their economy and education, both of which are slowly improving.

This page was last updated: February, 2013