A Brief History of Tuvalu

The Islands

The formation of coral islands was a topic of considerable scientific argument in the 19th century. The question that particularly bothered scientists was this: since corals grow only at shallow depths in the sea (rarely below 80 metres), how is it that coral rock, formed from their remains, often extends for hundreds of metres beneath the sea?

In 1842 the famous scientist Charles Darwin, who visited the Pacific in 1835-6, put forward the theory that coral islands had been built on slowly subsiding volcanic rocks. As the volcanic foundation sank, it carried the dead coral down to greater depths. Meanwhile, new deposits of coral were being added to the top of the pile, near the surface, so that the upward growth of the coral kept pace with the subsidence. At some later date another volcanic movement occurred, and pushed some of the coral up to form islands. Thus it was, said Darwin that a solid mass of coral rock could be found above the surface of the sea, and extend from there, through the waters in which it had been formed down to depths at which the coral had never lived.

After many years of discussion on the structures of atolls, the Royal Society of London decided to bore down into the coral and obtain a sample of it from far beneath the surface to see if these samples would contain traces of shallow water organisms. In 1896 an expedition was sent to Tuvalu (Funafuti) which managed to bore to a depth of 33 metres. In 1897 another party of scientists led by Professor Edgeworth David of the University of Sydney carried the boring to a depth of 200 metres while the following year a third group managed to obtain a sample from a depth of 340 metres. All the samples obtained were found to contain traces of shallow water organisms, but the drilling was never able to reach the volcanic base of Funafuti. Another attempt was made in 1911, which was also unsuccessful. The boreholes can still be seen to this day, at the site now called David's Drill.

Mrs. David, the wife of Professor Edgeworth David wrote a book describing her experiences in Funafuti. It was published in 1899 and called Funafuti, Or Three Months on a Coral Island.

Nukufetau Atoll

Edgeworth David and team

H.M.S. Porpoise with drilling rig

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3d Graphic showing the formation of Funafuti Atoll

Arrival of the Tuvaluans

According to the evidence of linguists, who can work out how old a language is, and hence for how long people had been speaking it, the language of Tuvalu - and hence the settlement of the country - goes back about 2,000 years. The traditional stories and genealogies, however, mostly go back only about 300 years. It seems, therefore, that the story we have today came to us not from the earlier ancestors but from later arrivals in Tuvalu.

It is generally believed that the earlier ancestors came mostly from Samoa, possibly by way of Tokelau, while others came from Tonga and Uvea (Wallis Island). These settlers were all Polynesians with the exception of Nui where many people are descendants of Micronesians from Kiribati.

In 1986, off the northern shore of Nanumaga, scuba divers investigated a local legend of a "large house under the sea". They found and underwater cave more than 40 metres down the wall of the coral cliff. Inside the cave there was evidence of ancient human occupation more than 8,000 years ago, which is sharply at odds with the general view that the Pacific was settled just 4,000 years ago. Climatic evidence of a massive rise in the see level that began 18,000 years ago and stopped 4,000 years ago may have drowned most of the evidence of much earlier human migration to Tuvalu and other Pacific islands. Link: The Caves of Nanumaga

There are three distinct linguistic areas in Tuvalu. The first area contains the islands of Nanumea, Niutao and Nanumaga. The second is the island of Nui where the inhabitants speak a language that is fundamentally derived from I-Kiribati. The third linguistic group comprises the islands of Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti and Nukulaelae. Today, Tuvaluan and English are both spoken throughout the islands.

According to modern scholars the population of Tuvalu before 1900 was never more than 3000. These opinions are based on early missionary reports and on careful estimates of the population-supporting capacity of Tuvalu food resources. Although they may well be correct these views should not be accepted uncritically, for the written records come from people who were not intimately acquainted with life in Tuvalu. Moreover, there is always a danger that foreign commentators could impose a meaning of what they learned about Tuvalu which is quite different from those who live here.

There are suggestions from archeologists that the ancient population was possibly higher than the scholars will allow. For instance, at Niutao in the early 1930's one of the pastors organized the people to level the village malae. In doing so, they uncovered large numbers of human skulls buried about a metre below the surface. Similarly at Nukufetau numerous human graves can be counted, especially on the islet of Fale.

Further evidence comes from the huge holes that were dug in the ground to grow pulaka. These pits were dug to different depths. Most were from one-third of a metre to six metres deep, but some are deep as twenty metres from the base to the highest point of the soil thrown up. If the population was not above, say, 3000 why did the people build such numerous and deep pits which far exceeded their needs? How could our forefathers, if only a few hundred in number, have dug such pits? Looking at these huge pits it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that there were many thousands of people who needed to be fed from them and who were required to build them.

Moreover, Tuvaluan traditions do not contain any accounts of vast population losses. Certainly many people were killed in wars. Others probably died as a result of droughts or hurricanes. It is of course possible that their  ancestors, over centuries, thought it prudent to provide for the possible future needs of their descendants by digging more than they needed for themselves. Apart from that, if there was a massive decline in population, the reason for it is not readily apparent. In 1979 the population of Tuvalu was estimated to be 7349.

The present population of Tuvalu is estimated to be 10,500, and there are growing communities in other countries, mainly Australia, New Zealand and Kiribati.

Woman in traditional skirt, 1894

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The Caves of Nanumaga - Evidence of the Earliest Tuvaluans?

Nukufetau man, 1831

Nanumea woman

European Exploration

The first European Explorer to make contact with Tuvalu was Alvaro de Mendana y Neyra, a Spanish explorer. He sailed westward across the Pacific in 1567-8 to discover, explore and name a substantial part of the eastern half of the Solomon Islands. On January 16, 1568 Mendana, with his ship Capitana, sighted his first island, which turned out to be Nui, and named it the Isle of Jesus. Mendana himself reported on Nui “…we found it so small it was not more than six leagues in circumference. The island was very full of trees like palms; towards the north it had a reef...” Although islanders ventured out to the ship no contact was made with them. Gallego, the Chief Pilot, merely recorded that they were “naked and mulattoes” and Sarmiento, the captain of Magellan's flagship, observed that the island "had a large fishery".

A quarter of a century later Mendana once again obtained ships and men to make a second exploration of the Pacific. On August 29, 1595 the atoll of Niulakita was discovered and named La Solitaria. Once again no contact was made and Mendana sailed off in search of the Solomons where on Santa Cruz, he died in October 1595.

Such was the first and only European contact with Tuvalu for almost two centuries. The atolls were ignored until 1781 when the Spanish trader Don Francisco Maurelle was forced well south of the Equator by unfavourable winds on a routine journey from Manila to Mexico.

With inadequate provisions (since cockroaches ate most of the stores) he was forced as far south as the Tongan archipelago. Sailing north, on May 5, 1781 he discovered an island which he called Isla del Cocal, the atoll of Nanumanga. It was impossible to land although islanders who also came onboard attempted to tow his frigate, La Princesa by tying lines to the bows. Maurelle eventually abandoned the attempt and set sail northwestwards, sighting Nanumea, which he named San Augustin, but passing no closer than six leagues. Once again Tuvaluan atolls had been discovered by accident, and once again they provoked little or no interest in their discoverers.

Captain Arent de Peyster, an American, is given credit for the rediscovery of Tuvalu. He was in command of the British brigantine Rebecca, who in May 1819 discovered a group of fourteen islets which appeared to be inhabited. The first atoll was discovered when the Rebecca was only three times her length from the shore. That he avoided shipwreck was fortunate whilst the problem of visibility, plus the isolation of Tuvalu, indicates very clearly the reason for its belated discovery. The atoll was Funafuti and de Peyster called it Ellice's Group after Edward Ellice, the Member of Parliament for Coventry and the owner of the Rebecca's cargo. Ellice was also a London merchant, a financier of wide imperialist interests and a leading figure in the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada. The next morning de Peyster sighted Nukufetau, which he called de Peyster's Group. Eventually, the name Ellice was applied to all nine islands by the English hydrographer A. G. Findlay.

In the next decade more traders and whalers briefly visited Tuvalu, especially after the discovery of the Central Pacific whaling grounds in 1818. Captain George Barrett in the Nantucket whaler Independence II, was the first to sight Nukulaelae, and rediscovered Niulakita on November 6, 1821. Four years later, 1825, Obed Starbuck in the whaler Loper, discovered Niutao and Vaitupu, and Captain Eeg of the Dutch ship Pollux sights Nui again, more than 250 years after Mendana's first voyage

Although few left record of their journey, they did serve finally to establish the location of the atolls on the map of the Pacific. Inadvertent discovery gave way to almost inadvertent incorporation. By the middle of the nineteenth century Tuvaluans had obviously become quite familiar with the unfortunate medical impact of the arrival of increasing numbers of Europeans, so that in 1853 when Captain Pease of the Planter became one of the first Europeans to visit the atoll of Nanumea he was washed and various propitious ceremonies were carried out before he was allowed to step ashore.

Tuvalu's waters are frequented by American whalers in the 1800's. Seamen occasionally deserted and settled ashore, while some of the more adventurous islanders became crewmen. Some Europeans beachcombers become traders and agents for firms in Australia, Germany and the US, and organised the export of coconut oil or copra.

During the 1860s slave traders, or "blackbirders", carried off about 400 islanders, mainly from Funafuti and Nukulaelae, to work in Peru. None of them ever returned. Others were later recruited for plantations in Fiji, Samoa and Hawai'i. European diseases caused many deaths among the islanders.

Alvaro de Mendana

Brigantine Rebecca, 1819

Whaler Independence II, 1821


Christianity and European Traders

Christianity was introduced in 1861 when some adherents of the London Missionary Society from Manihiki in the Cook Islands accidently drift to Nukulaelae in a canoe. In May 1865 the Reverend A. W. Murray of the LMS visited Tuvalu from Samoa and installed Samoan pastors on the various islands. To this day the vast majority of Tuvaluans are devoted members of Ekalesia o Tuvalu, the modern resultant of the LMS.

The German Company of Godeffroy and Son of Hamburg were first island traders in Tuvalu. As the locals were not very enthusiastic about copra-making, they devised the system of establishing agents, many of whom were American and British beachcombers, at likely points in the islands to trade European goods supplied by Godeffroy to the natives for coconuts which they dried. This system was the basis of the life of a considerable number of traders who spread throughout the islands at this time.

In 1892 Captain Davis of the H.M.S. Royalist identified the following traders in the Ellice Group: Duffy (Nanumea); Buckland (Niutao); Nitz (Vaitupu); John (also known as Jack) O'Brien (Funafuti); Alfred Restieaux and Fenisot (Nukufetau); and Martin Kleis (Nui).

The names of these traders are still very evident throughout the islands of Tuvalu even to this day.

Alfred Restieaux (later abbreviated to Resture) was a soldier of fortune who travelled the world, including South Africa, Australia, South America and the United States before settling in Tuvalu. He was eventually employed by the John Caesar Godeffroy Company that was taken over in 1879 by the German Firm of Samoa, Der Deutschen Handels-und-Plantagen Gessellschaft der Sudsee-Islen zu Hamburg, commonly dubbed the "Long Handled" firm to trade for them in the Ellice (Tuvalu) Islands. In 1881, George Westbrook who traded for Henderson and Macfarlane joined Alfred at Funafuti Island. Westbrook, described by Julian Dana in Gods who Die as Samoa's Greatest Adventurer also hailed from Brixton, in London. He and Alfred became firm friends during their time as traders in Funafuti, being the only two white men on Funafuti. In spite of the limited amount of copra on the Island, there was never any enmity between the two traders. In 1888, Westbrook left Funafuti intending to return to London, and a few years later Alfred went to settle in Nukufetau. Restieaux died on Nukufetau in 1911.

Jack O'Brien was of Australian-Irish descent and came to Funafuti in the 1850's. Jack O'Brien was the first white man in Funafuti and the Ellice Group, preceding the other white traders by some thirty odd years. He married Salai, the daughter of the then King of Funafuti and became the matriarch of an extensive Tuvaluan family. The O'Brien name is synonymous with Funafuti with the extended family evident in many countries throughout the world.

A well known Australian author, George Lewis "Louis" Becke, spent time as a trader in Tuvalu. Before he took to writing, he travelled extensively in the South Pacific, finding employment in may areas. In early 1880, he took up a position with trader Tom de Wolf on Nanumanga, and eventually opened his own store on Nukufetau in February 1881. There he married native Nelea Tikena.

Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny visited Funafuti in 1890, travelling on the trader steamer Janet Nichol. They stayed for only two days, but Fanny Stevenson recorded the visit in great detail in her diary.

Jack O'Brien (with flag)

George Lewis "Louis" Becke

The Amazing Life of Alfred Restieaux

Robert Louis Stevenson in Tuvalu

By Jane Resture


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