Lesson 8: Tuvalu

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Tuvalu is a small nation composed of four reef islands and five atolls [What’s a reef island? What’s an atoll?] located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Tuvalu is tiny in all ways; in land area it’s about 10 square miles, which makes it the fourth smallest nation in the world after Vatican City, Monaco and Nauru, and in population, with about 10,000 people, it’s the third least populous nation after Vatican City and Nauru. It’s so small that for a couple hundred years after European explorers first dropped by they saw little reason to colonize.

The first inhabitants of Tuvalu didn’t seem to mind the islands’ size, or relative lack thereof. Archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists don’t completely agree on when humans first made Tuvalu their home, but there is general agreement that most original settlers were Polynesian and arrived somewhere around 2,000 B.C.. (Though if that’s the case, why is there evidence of human activity in the Fire Caves of Nanumaga, currently underwater due to rising sea levels–thanks, global warming!–that may date back to 8,000 years ago..?) In any case, when Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana y Neyra happened by in 1568, he saw one of the islands of Tuvalu from afar but didn’t bother to stop. He returned a quarter of a century later, saw more Tuvaluan islands but didn’t contact any people. No Europeans returned until the year 1781 when another Spaniard, Don Francisco Maurelle, was on his way from the Philippines to Mexico when his food stocks ran low and he veered off course. He saw some islands of Tuvalu, but again didn’t stop. Throughout the 1800s a number of captains, mainly British, who named the archipelago the Ellice Islands, and Americans who were leading whaling expeditions, had relatively distant interactions with Tuvaluans, but didn’t do much in the way of colonizing. Christianity reached Tuvalu in 1861 when some members of the London Missionary Society accidentally landed on Tuvalu and returned with Samoan pastors. Unlike all the previous Western visitors, the missionaries stayed. Today most Tuvaluans are members of Ekalesia o Tuvalu, a modern descendant of the London Missionary Society.

Colonization may have finally connected Tuvalu with the outside world, but that wasn’t always good for the Tuvaluans. During the 1860s some colonizers took 400 islanders to Peru as a form of slavery called “blackbirding.” There were also reports of diseases that effected Tuvaluans after they had contact with Westerners. Bottom line–not all Tuvaluans were eager to have Westerners come to stay. Fortunately or not for Tuvalu the British declared the islands a protectorate in 1892, and in 1916 wove them into a larger colony that also covered the Gilbert Islands.

The British still held Tuvalu in World War II when the Japanese barreled through the Pacific Islands. The Japanese took the Gilbert Islands but didn’t make it to the Ellice islands before the Americans got there. The Americans used the Ellice Islands as a jumping-off point for their Pacific missions. During the war the Japanese bombed the Eliice Islands but didn’t devastate the islands as they did to others.

After World War II many Tuvaluans emigrated to the Gilbert Islands to pursue the economic opportunities there. Tuvaluans actually had a slight advantage because Tuvalu had been able to maintain their education system during the war, as opposed to the Gilbertese whose entire system shut down while under Japanese occupation. This inequality led to some tension between the i-Kiribati and the Tuvaulans. When Britian prepared to grant the Gilbert and Ellice Islands independence in 1974 the Ellice Islanders/Tuvaluans decided they would rather secede then be part of a unified Gilbertese/Ellice state, power in which they imagined would tilt heavily toward the Gilberts. When Ellice Islanders voted on the issue, 92% chose independence. In 1978 Tuvalu became an Independent Constitutional Monarchy. In 2000 Tuvalu joined the British Commonwealth and the United Nations.


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