The Polynesians colonized Tuvalu some 2,000 years ago; Samoans occupied the southern atolls, while Tongans were more active in the north. Groups of warriors also arrived from Kiribati and their language is still spoken on Nui. Polynesian migrants reached the outliers of the Solomons and the Carolines from bases in Tuvalu.
Although the Spaniard Mendaña reportedly saw some of the islands in the 16th century, regular European contact did not occur until the 19th century. Slavers kidnaped 443 people from Funafuti, Nanumea, and Nukulaelae in 1863 to work as laborers in Peru—none returned.
In 1861, a Cook Islands castaway named Elekana was washed up on Nukulaelae. He taught Christianity to the islanders, and after reporting back to Protestant missionaries in Samoa, returned in 1865 with Rev. A.W. Murray and an organized LMS missionary party. Soon, most Tuvaluans were converted, and they remained under the spiritual guidance of Samoan pastors right up to 1969. The LMS-descended Ekalesia Kelisiano Tuvalu retains the loyalty of 92 percent of the population today. To keep out American traders, Britain declared a protectorate over Tuvalu in 1892, upgrading it to colonial status in 1916.
The ensuing period was fairly uneventful, except for the American military bases established at Funafuti, Nukufetau, and Nanumea during WW II. Funafuti was home to the B-24 Liberator bombers of the U.S. Seventh Air Force, which launched raids against Japanese bases in the Gilberts and Marshalls. Warplanes en route from Wallis Island to the Gilberts were refueled here. Japanese planes did manage to drop a few bombs in return, but Tuvalu was spared the trauma of a Japanese invasion.
The United States built its airfield across the most fertile land on Funafuti, reducing the area planted in coconuts and pulaka (swamp taro) by a third. The enduring impact of this loss is reflected in the fact that pulaka is no longer a staple food of the Tuvaluans on Funafuti.
The Americans left behind a few wrecked cranes and huge "borrow" pits where they extracted (borrowed) coral. Today garbage is dumped into the stagnant lakes in the American pits, forming perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes and rats. A plan to fill the pits and reclaim the land has been under discussion for decades.
Continue to History: Independence »