Ellice Islands

Ellice Islands

Ellice Islands or Lagoon Islands: see Tuvalu.

Island country, west-central South Pacific Ocean. Area: 9.9 sq mi (25.6 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 9,700. Capital: Vaiaku, Fongafale islet (of Funafuti atoll). The majority of the people are Polynesian. Languages: Tuvaluan; English is widely used. Religion: Christianity (predominantly Protestant). Currency: Tuvalu dollar (equivalent to the Australian dollar). Tuvalu is an island group comprising five atolls and four coral islands, all of them low-lying, with maximum elevations below 20 ft (6 m), and covered mainly with coconut palms, breadfruit trees, and grasses. The economy is based on subsistence agriculture and livestock raising. Tuvalu is a constitutional monarchy with one legislative house; its chief of state is the British monarch represented by the governor-general, and the head of government is the prime minister. The original Polynesian settlers probably came mainly from Samoa or Tonga. The islands were sighted by the Spanish in the 16th century. Europeans settled there in the 19th century and intermarried with Tuvaluans. During this period Peruvian slave traders known as “blackbirders” decimated the population. In 1856 the U.S. claimed the four southern islands for guano mining. Missionaries from Europe arrived in 1865 and rapidly converted the islanders to Christianity. In 1892 Tuvalu, then known as the Ellice Islands, joined the British Gilbert Islands, a protectorate that became the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony in 1916. Tuvaluans voted in 1974 for separation from the Gilberts (now Kiribati), whose people are Micronesian. Tuvalu gained independence in 1978, and in 1979 the U.S. relinquished its claims. Elections were held in 1981, and a revised constitution was adopted in 1986. The government subsequently has tried to improve Tuvalu's economy, including finding overseas job opportunities for its citizens.

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The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a British protectorate from 1892 and colony from 1916 until 1 January 1976 when the islands were divided into two different colonies which became independent nations shortly after. The Gilbert Islands have been the major part of the nation of Kiribati since 1979, and the Ellice Islands became Tuvalu in 1978.

The protectorate was generally established on this area (but not on these islands) by the Pacific Islands Protection Act of 1857, and then in 1877 for the Western Pacific Territories, but the protectorate on the Gilbert group and on the Ellice group was formal and effective only from 1892, and a High Commissioner was appointed in 1893. The islands became a Crown Colony on 12 January 1916. The colony's capital was mainly on Banaba Island (Ocean Island) and after World War II on Tarawa, first in Betio island then near Bairiki.

The sixteen islands of the Gilberts, declared a protectorate by Captain Davis, R. N. of HMS Royalist between 27 May and 17 June 1892, were discovered intermittently from perhaps as early as 1537 up to 1826. The Ellice Islands were declared a protectorate by Captain Gibson, R. N. of HMS Curaçao between 9th and 16 October of the same year; Banaba (or Ocean Island) was included within the protectorate in 1900 and then in the colony in 1916. In the same year, Fanning Island and Washington Island were included in it together with the islands of the Tokelau or Union Islands; Christmas Island was included in 1919 but was contested by the USA. The Tokelaus were detached in 1925 (but not formally until just after WWII); the Phoenix Islands were added in 1937 and the five islands of the Central and Southern Line Islands were added in 1972.

In 1974, ethnic differences within the colony caused the Polynesians of the Ellice Islands to vote for separation from the Micronesians of the Gilbert Islands (later Kiribati). The following year, the Ellice Islands became the separate British colony of Tuvalu.


The islands were named the Gilbert Islands in 1820 by a Russian admiral, Johann von Krusenstern, and French captain Louis Duperrey, after a British captain, Thomas Gilbert, who crossed the archipelago in 1788.

The Ellice Islands were named after Edward Ellice, a British politician and merchant, by Captain Arent de Peyster, who sighted the islands in 1819 sailing on the ship Rebecca. Ellice owned the cargo of the ship.

Postage stamps

The Islands used their own postage stamps from 1911; see postage stamps and postal history of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands for more details.


Barrie Macdonald, Cinderellas of the Empire: towards a history of Kiribati and Tuvalu, Suva, Fiji : Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 2001, ISBN 982-02-0335-X (Australian National University Press, first published it in 1982).

Sir Arthur Grimble: "A Pattern of Islands". A sympathetic and often amusing account by a British official sent to the islands in his early 20's who stayed to become Commissioner. Not in print but available second hand. US title: "We Chose the Islands"

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