TUVALU MYTHOLOGY,       Memories of Funafuti







Tuvalu comprises a chain, 580 kilometres long, of nine coral islands lying between 5 and 11 degrees south of the equator, just to the west of the International Date Line. Six of the islands are built around lagoons open to the ocean. These islands are: Nanumea, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti and Nukulaelae. With the exception of Vaitupu where the sea enters the lagoon at only one point, these six are all atolls consisting of numerous pieces of land linked by a reef and arranged rather like a string of beads.

Of the other islands, Nanumaga and Niutao have completely landlocked lagoons while Niulakita has no lagoon at all, but only a swamp at its centre. Since it has never had a permanent population Niulakita, the southern most island, was not taken into account in the naming of the Tuvalu group. Tuvalu means "eight islands standing together".

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 (not 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 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.


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.

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. Today, Tuvaluan and English are both spoken throughout the islands.

Formerly called the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu came under British jurisdiction in 1877 and was made a British Protectorate as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1892. Legally separated from the Gilberts (now Kiribati) in 1976, Tuvalu became an Independent Constitutional monarchy and the 38th member of the Commonwealth on the 1st October 1978.


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 archaeologists 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, our 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 our 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 10,524.


Because of its size and remoteness, Tuvalu is off the beaten track so those who come prefer to organize their own activities and entertainment. Well worth a visit is the Women's Handicraft Centre, also the Philatelic Bureau and the National Library. You can also visit the spot where Professor Edgeworth David drilled below the surface of the island over a hundred years ago to prove Charles Darwin's theory on the formation of coral atolls.

The most popular spot is the Funafuti lagoon which is about fourteen kilometres wide and some eighteen kilometres long. It is filled with a variety of wonderful multi-coloured tropical fish and is excellent for fishing, swimming and snorkelling.


The Government-owned Vaiaku Lagi Hotel facing the Funafuti lagoon is Tuvalu's only hotel which contains 16 units, sleeps 1,2,3; Room US$ 61 to 102 per unit per night; Bar, Beach, Entertainment, Restaurant, Facsimile, Air-conditioning, Ceiling Fan, Conference Room, Laundry, Telephone, Cultural Activities, Fishing, Snorkelling, Pool Table. The hotel is situated in the centre of the town about 50 metres from the airport. Other activities and excursions to islands in the lagoon can be arranged upon request.


A number of privately owned boats are for hire. The other islands can be reached from Funafuti using the very modern inter-island ferry, Manufolau below. If you feel energetic, Funafuti's main island can be explored by bicycles as well as motorbikes which are available for hire at the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel. Mini buses run regularly around the island and a taxi service is also available.


The Vaiaku Lagi Hotel, Su's Place and the Kai Restaurant at the Filamona Lodge all have licensed bars and dining facilities. A large variety of food is served with emphasis on fish and locally grown produce.

The people of Tuvalu are renowned Polynesian dancers and their own unique dance (fatele) can be enjoyed during festive occasions, or on request at the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel. Below are images of dancers performing during the Tuvalu Independence celebrations at Funafuti, Tuvalu.







The Eel and the Flounder were once great friends. They lived in one home in the sea and shared things together. One day they made up their minds to carry home a very huge stone to test who was the stronger of them. On the way home, they began to argue, and then to fight and the Flounder was seriously wounded. He was crushed beneath the stone but fortunately escaped death. When he had freed himself he chased the Eel who at the same time was vomiting after getting a heavy blow to his stomach. As the Eel ran for his life, still vomiting, his body began thinner and thinner. At last he hid himself in a hole. While the Flounder was still looking for him the Eel said some magic words to help him escape. He said:

Wide and Flat, Wide and Flat,
To feed on you, te Ali.
Wide and Flat, Wide and Flat,
You will never, never kill me.

When the Eel had said these magic words the Flounder's body became flat and so provided a model for the flat islands of Tuvalu that would one day be placed in that part of the sea. The Eel's own thin round body became like a coconut tree and that is why we have coconut trees growing on all the islands of Tuvalu.  But the story did not end there. The Eel went back to the hole in the sea again but it was not satisfied with what he had done. So when the Flounder died he remembered the very big stone that they had carried. He decided to have a closer look at it and saw that it had three colours: black, white and blue. He took the stone and threw it high in the air. It did not fall; but stuck in space right above him then he said his magic words:

Black, white and blue,
I will always be true,
To myself and to you, too,
To make you and me friends.

The big stone then began to fall down slowly to the earth. When it landed the Eel went to see the stone. He found to his surprise that much of the blue part of it had broken off and had remained in space to become the sky. The Eel was very cross that the blue part had been left behind so again he threw the stone back into the sky. This time it stuck on its black side. There was darkness all around him. It was the night. So the Eel said some magic words and the stone fell down onto its white side breaking the darkness. And so the light came and there was day. He was then able to see that of the colours of the stone, the black and white parts had been torn completely away leaving only some of the blue part. Again he took the stone and threw it in turn to the north, east, south and west. After the last throw it did not come back. Again he uttered some magic words and he saw parts of the blue stone lying all around - it was the sea. He then went to what is left of the stone and broke it into eight pieces, one for each of the main islands of Tuvalu.


Our traditions say that the first people to settle on the sand banks now called Nunumea were two women named Pai and Vau. It is said that the neighbouring islets were formed from the sand which fell out of the women's baskets after they had been sent away from Nanumea by the Tongan warrior Tefolaha who became the ancestor of the people of Nanumea.  Tefolaha was involved in some battle between Tongan and Samoan warriors. After one of these wars Tefolaha decided to settle in Samoa. He was given some land by the Samoans for helping them fight the Tongans. But Tefolaha soon became tired of fighting so he decided to leave Samoa, hoping to meet with new adventures somewhere else. He travelled for many days, meeting with strong winds and currents until he finally arrived on the beach of Nanumea.


When Tefolaha arrived at Nanumea he thought that the island was uninhabited but he soon found some footprints in the sand which he followed until he came upon two women, Pai and Vau. They were weaving baskets and gallands when Tefolaha suddenly appeared. He ordered the women to leave the island at once on the grounds that he was the owner. The women however, insisted that Tefolaha should leave, unless he could tell them their names. In doing so they were adopting a defence that is frequently used in the mythology of the Pacific Islands. This mythology reflects the belief that to know someone's name is in some way to have power over that person. On Funafuti for instance, in a story collected by Mrs. David, four brothers named Nautiki, Nautaka, Valivalimatanaka and Naka attempted to save their house from a dwarf named Nariao by telling him that he could hav it only if he guessed their names. Craftily, Nariao climbed up onto the roof of the house and lowered a large spider onto the forehead of each brother. As he expected, each one was called by name by the other brothers to warn him of the spider. Nariao heard all this, and quickly went to the brothers and told them their names. They then departed, leaving the house to him. It was much the same on Nanumea with Tefolaha and Pai and Vau. ...


Nanumaga folk-tales concerning creation all state that in the beginning the heavens and earth were united, but there are varying accounts of how they were separated. One popular story tells how Tepuhi, a spirit with the physical form of a sea-serpent, lifted the heavens to their present positions. Finding that the earth was one massive stretch of land, he then smashed it up and formed oceans and rivers between the pieces. Tepuhi as the woman, and earth as the man, later begot the human race.

Another version tells of a substance called Te Atua o Heka which lay between earth and the heavens. As it was slippery Te Atua o Heka moved about and caused earth and heavens to shift. After some time it expanded and gradually forced them apart. The human race was also formed from this substance. The first product of it were spirits, both good and bad, who possessed supernatural powers. Over time, however, they lost these powers and eventually became human. Te Atua o Heka, meanwhile had become personified as ruler of the heavens and earth and had gone to live in the sky.

Eventually a system of clans evolved and within these clans, life revolved around the family. Traditionally, families consisted of three or four generations, all living and working together. These extended families were headed by the most senior elder, who would represent the family in clan meetings. The actual management of each family, however, was entrusted to his sons (or, if need to be, his daughters). The sons in turn would look upon the eldest among them as leader but any dispute among them would be settled by the head of the family. When the head of the family died his position was taken over the his second eldest brother, or his eldest son, not by his widow.

The island, in turn, was ruled by the representatives from each clan, who sat in the council of chiefs with the king. The king did not normally talk during these meetings, but expressed himself through the representatives of the Magatai clan, who also conducted the meetings. Decisions were based on consensus.
Besides the clans, two large social groups called Tonga (south) and Tokelau (north) have been formed on the island. Tonga and Tokelau do not have any significant positions in community affairs and are called together mainly when a large number of people is needed for a game. People are more loyal to their clans than to either of these groups.

Despite the importance of clan loyalties and the many profound changes that have occurred in their way of life the people of Nanumaga still retain their traditional respect for their leaders. This is not always to their advantage, as was strikingly shown in recent times by their enthusiastic acceptance of an ill-conceived investment scheme, which brought heavy and embarrassing losses to the island. In 1979 a salesman from a United States land-selling company, Green Valley Acres Incorporated, arrived in Tuvalu. He was Mr Bula Tikotasi O'Brien, a part-Tuvaluan. About the same time the government was investing money with another American land developer, Mr Sydney Gross. O'Brien had come to sell the islanders pieces of land in Texas, and the people of Nanumaga, urged by their elders, yielded to his persuasion. As a result they committed nearly all the funds of the island to paying inflated prices for land which is likely never to be of any use to them because it is of very poor quality, isolated and without water or other essential services. Moreover, Tuvalu people have no right of access to USA. It was an expensive way to learn how important it is to be careful when conducting business but the lesson is not likely to be forgotten.


Niutao is roughly rectangular in shape and has a tiny land-locked lagoon in the middle. It was believed in former times, and the story is still told, that the two women, Pai and Vau who made Nanumea, also made Niutao. They came from Kiribati with baskets of earth which they scattered around to form islands.  The first inhabitants of Niutao were half spirit and half human beings who lived at Mulitefao. Their leader was Kulu who took the form of a woman. The first human settlers came from Samoa in a canoe captained by a man called Mataika. He settled at Tamana on the eastern side of the island, whre winds sweep the spray of the surf over between the people of Tamana and the beings who dwelt at Mulitefao. Mataika had many children. Later, a man by the name of Faitafaga with a party of ten lesser chiefs, followed Mataika from Samoa. He, too, was accepted at Niutao where he built a village named Savaea, a little to the north of Mulitefao.

As in other islands in the Atu Tuvalu, only the first male child and the first female child of a marriage were permitted to live. Later children were held beneath the water of the small lagoon until they were dead. This was to ensure that the population did not grow out of proportion to the resources of the island. To assist them in the conduct of their affairs, the people offered prayers to, and sought guidance from, the moon and sun and the spirits of their ancestors. From these spirits certain elders, of whom Fakaua was the most famous, obtained magical power which enabled them do such things as calm the sea before fishing expeditions, cause death or insanity and to bring rain. When turtles were caught at sea or on the steep sandy beaches their heads were ceremonially presented to the chiefs, who sat at the southern end of the large fale-kaupule or meeting house.

According to our tradition the early inhabitants of Niutao enjoyed a pleasant, easy life, undisturbed by strife, although this did not last indefinitely. From the north one day came three canoes carrying Kiribati warriors determined to make war on the peaceful island of Niutao. Unskilled at arms, the people put up little opposition. In the battle the chiefs and their male descendants were slain.  Shortly afterwards the I-Kiribati departed, leaving behind a grieving people, and an unstable authority system. From among the survivors on Niutao, a man named Papau became chief. Before he died he appointed his kinsman Kiali to succeed him. His widow, however, resented the succession of a man not of her family, induced her relative, Kiolili to depose Kiali and to make himself chief. This in turn aroused the ambition of Fuatia, a man of the same line as Papau who had supported Kiali, to whom he was also related.

Since Kiolili was an unpopular chief, Fuatia sailed to Nui where he persuaded a number of warriors, to help him overthrow Kiolili. Landing at night, they joined forces with Fuatia's lieutenant, an ambitious young man with Kiribati blood called Pokia who had stayed behind when Fuatia went to Nui. While Kiolili and his family were sleeping they attacked and killed Kiolili but spared his family.

Thus being unchallenged as the leaders of the community, Fuatia and Pokia then divided the island between them. Fuatia, the elder chief claimed all lands in the interior of the island and on the eastern coast while Pokia, the younger, held the land above the western beaches.  Neither of them wanted to take an active part in the Government of the island, so each appointed a sub-chief to represent them. Following that, the people living in the hamlet of Tamana on the eastern coast moved their dwelling to the west, with the result that the settlements of Mulitefao and Savaea were merged into the one large village where everybody lived. \ Vaguna, assisted by Lito, was the ruling chief of the island when Christianity was introduced. The people had already learned something of this new religion from Mose a man from Vaitupu, but it was only in 1870 with the arrival of missionaries that they became seriously interested in it.

The chief welcomed the missionaries and after hearing them expound their message agreed that the people could become Christians. Most did so. Indeed, among all the people of Niutao only one family did not accept the gospel. This family, led by a man called Galiga continued to worship in the old way and, in defiance of a ban on nakedness, refused to wear a skirt or lavalava when swimming in the lagoon.  While much has changed on Niutao over the last century various traditional beliefs have survived. For instance, Taia Teuai, an old woman who died in 1892 was generally recognized as having inherited from her grandparents the power to make rain. Even today the people of Niutao still believe that Taia Teuai possessed this power.


Nui Island consists of eleven main islets separated by passages through which the sea passes freely from ocean to lagoon. At low tide people can walk across these passages from islet to islet. The coral reef that links the islets is about 200 metres wide. The biggest opening in it is about 2 kilometres long, stretching from Tabontebike to Tehikiai on the western side of the island. Trees such as coconuts, breadfruit and pandanus, and food crops such as babai, tauroro and bero grow abundantly there while the lagoon, reef and ocean provide the people with an ample supply of fresh fish. The permanent settlement is on the main islet of Fenuatapu.

The story is told on Nui that once a group of spirits who lived beyond the horizon decided to swim around the ocean. After they had gone hundreds of kilometres, their leader decided that they should rest. So he signalled for them to gather together in a circle. When they had rested he decided that they should mark the spot. Accordingly, they all dived down to the ocean bed and started heaping up stones, mud and sand into piles that eventually appeared above the waves. They then swam on, and marked each resting spot in a similar manner. In this way, Nui and many other islands were made. The matter in which they were made explains, it is said, why they are round in shape and have a lagoon in the middle.


The legends of Vaitupu contain many stories of how the island was created, but they differ almost as much from each other as they do from modern scientific explanation. In regard to the settlement of the island, however, they generally agree that the first settler was Telematua, who arrived by canoe from Samoa. With him were his son Foumatua and his grandson Silaga. According to some stories Telematua, who had earlier visited Funafuti, where he landed his wife Futi, placed his second wife Tupu on Vaitupu. He then divided his time between the two islands. Often the people of Funafuti would inquire why Telematua went away so often, and where he had gone. Futi would reply, in Samoan, voai ia Tupu, "to see Tupu." Eventually the phrase became shortened to one word "Vaitupu" - and that is how the island got its name.

There are six large family groups on Vaitupu that claimed descent from Telematua. In addition to their membership of these the Vaitupu people are also divided into three principal clans; namely Tua, Lotoa and Kilitai. Each clan now elects one chief to represent them on the council of three chiefs.
In the 20th century Vaitupu has been notable as the educational centre of Tuvalu. The London Missionary Society (LMS) opened a school there at Motufoua in 1905. Motufoua was not the only school on Vaitupu. In 1923 the Government Primary School was shifted there from Funafuti and the school was called Elisefou (New Ellice).
D. G. Kennedy, the first Headmaster of the school was a firm disciplinarian who often used the cricket bat to control his subjects. Elisefou continued until 1953 until the Government closed it down and shifted the students to King George V School in Kiribati. Two distinguished Tuvaluans, Sir Penitala Teo, the first Governor General and the first Prime Minister Toalipi Lauti, were both pupils at Elisefou.


Legend has it that a party of Tongans were the first people to settle on Nukufetau. It is said that when they landed there they found but one fetau tree growing there and so they called the place Nukufetau, "the island of the fetau". Shortly afterwards they sailed back to Tonga to obtain some coconuts to plant on the sandbanks of the newly discovered land, and on returning to Nukufetau settled at Fale on the western part of the island. As time passed, the population increased and there arose men of outstanding character who were recognized as chiefs.

In order to more effectively protect the island from sea-raiders the early chiefs divided the inhabitants into three main clans which live in different areas. Fialua, one of the chiefs was put in charge of Lafaga the biggest of the eastern islets. Tauasa was placed on the northern islet of Motulalo while Lagitupu and Laupapa remained at Fale. In later years, after the coming of missionaries, the whole population reassembled at Fale, before shifting to nearby Savave, an islet on the lagoon side of the Fale settlement.

Another, more recent, event that is proudly celebrated on Nukufetau is the opening of a boarding school on the islet of Motumua on 11th February 1947. Established and operated by the local community entirely at its own expense, the purpose of the school, named Tutasi, was to fulfill parents' demands that their children obtain a better education, especially in the English language.

This school lasted until 1951 when, at the request of the Ministry of Education, it was transferred to Savave and became the Government's Primary School for the whole island. Yet its service to the community was not forgotten. The new school was called Tutasi Memorial School and Seluka Resture, a grandson of Alfred Restieaux, was sent to set it up. Interestingly Seluka Resture, when he returned to open Tutasi Memorial School brought with him the first motorbike on the island. The local children would run around behind his bike and smell the tyre prints. Each year since it was opened, the 11th February has been celebrated by the students of Tutasi Memorial School, and their parents, as "Founding Day" in honour of its predecessor.


According to a oral tradition, Funafuti was first inhabited by the porcupine fish whose progeny became men and women. The accepted tradition of the island, however, and this accords with historical probability, is that the Funafuti people originated from Samoa. As was the case with Vaitupu, the founding ancestors were Telematua and his two wives Futi (meaning banana) and Tupu (meaning "holy" or "abundant").

The island is named after Futi; funa is a feminine prefix. The travellers first settled on Funafuna islet before shifting to Fogafale, where the main village is still situated. Later, leaving Futi on Funafuti, Telematua, searching for a land of greater fertility and where fresh water was more plentiful, discovered Vaitupu. There he left Tupu and henceforth he divided his time between the two islands.

The Tongans used to attack Funafuti at intervals. After each attack they would kidnap a child and take it home with them so that, as the child grew up, they could work out when the next generation on Funafuti would be old enough to fight. They would then mount another raid, and repeat their performance until they were defeated and did not return. Thereafter, Funafuti was free of foreign marauders until the Peruvian slave raids of the 19th century.  The power on Funafuti remained in the hands of the chiefs until the coming of the Samoan pastors brought the system to an end. Iakopa, the chief at the time the first pastor arrived, surrendered his place of honour to the pastor and also gave up receiving the turtle's head.  Henceforth that, too was given to the pastor. The end was then in sight. Iakopa's son, Elia, who died in 1902 was the last chief. He was also the one who allowed Captain Davis to raise the British flag on Funafuti in 1892, although it is said that before he did so the sailors had scared him by parading outside with their rifles.


According to some old men, a white-skinned man was the first person to sight the island. This man, who came alone, did not settle as there were no trees and all the land was barren. Nukulaelae, means "the land of sands".  Later, according to tradition, another man came. This was Valoa from Vaitupu, who discovered Nukulaelae while on a fishing expedition. He did not stay long but returned to Vaitupu to obtain coconut seedlings which he soon afterwards planted on Nukulaelae. Thereafter, he made many trips from Vaitupu to Nukulaelae, each time bringing more nuts to plant. At length, when the trees had begun to bear fruit he asked the chief of Vaitupu for permission to settle on Nukulaelae.

Valoa was accompanied to Nukulaelae by his two sons Moeva and Katuli and a daughter named Teaalo. Soon afterwards a warrior named Takauapa, from Funafuti raided the island and the two boys were killed in battle, but Teaalo was spared and bore children.  Others who had come with Valoa from Vaitupu included his servants Vave and Tapo. After his death these two succeeded him as chiefs and ruled the island jointly. Vave and Tapo each had one son, named Noa and Kaituloa, respectively. These two succeeded their fathers as chiefs but when they in turn died the position ceased to be hereditary. Instead, their successors were chosen by the community although one was still selected from among the descendants of Vave and the other from the family of Tapo.

In 1860 there were about 300 people on Nukulaelae, contentedly living their traditional life and honouring their spirits. In 1861 Christianity was introduced by the Cook Islands castaway Elekana and in 1863 two-thirds of the people were kidnapped by Peruvian slavers. It is said that when the vessel arrived the crew members went ashore and persuaded the islanders to come aboard for a feast. Not knowing that they were being tricked, many of them did so, among them couples with children. They were taken away to work in the phosphate mines in the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru. None of them ever returned. In 1892 Captain Davis of the "Royalist" counted only 95 people on Nukulaelae.


Niulakita is a southern most island in the Tuvalu group and has no lagoon at all but only a swamp at its centre. It was not taken into account in the naming of the Tuvalu group as Tuvalu means a "group of eight". The famous Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana was the first to discover Niulakita in 1595 and called it La Solitaria; George Bennett, a Nantucket whaler in 1821 named it Independence; while others have called it Sophia and Rocky. Niulakita has never had a permanent population of its own so it was well suited to being claimed by people from elsewhere. The American trader Harry S. Moors, of Samoa, exploited its guano deposit late last century. In 1914 he sold it to E.F.H. Allen of the Samoa Shipping and Trading Company, which also maintained a trading station on Funafuti.  The Allen's connection with Niulakita (and, indeed, with Tuvalu) ended in 1916. That year the island was purchased by Burns Philp and Co. of Sydney. They in turn, sold it in 1944 to the Western Pacific High Commission who would administer it for the benefit of Tuvalu.

In 1946 a Lands Commissioner toured the group to find out how much land each island had for its inhabitants. He discovered that Niutao had the highest population density. To relieve the pressure on the land he suggested to the old men of the island that some of their people could go to Tonga or, if they preferred, they could exploit Niulakita. They chose the latter. A more recent but less notable event in the history of Niutao has thus been its acquisition of Niulakita.

The first group of workers, with their wives and children, were sent to Niulakita in 1949 to cut copra. When they arrived they found some Vaitupu people there. These were returned to their home leaving their few cows behind. The Niutao people were rather scared of these animals which they did not have on their island. There was no school on the island in those days. Its children could not read nor write, although they were given a little instruction by a man named Loela, who had remained behind when the Vaitupuans left. A school was opened there in 1980 and operates as an extension of the one at Niutao. Similarly, the Niutao council is responsible for the labourers at Niulakita.







The early Tuvaluans, untouched by western influences and aspirations highly valued their traditional singing and dancing. Apart from simply providing entertainment, the fakanau and fakaseasea, which were formerly very popular form for dance, were composed to commemorate the reign of an aliki or toa, or to praise certain outstanding figures for their skills in canoe building, fishing, house building or for their wealth or bravery within the community.

The fakanau which has a tune that is between speech and singing was performed while dancers are standing on their feet. The rhythm of the fakanau is much quicker than those of the fakaseasea and the present day fatele. With the arrival of the missionaries, because of the wide swaying movements and actions required in the fakanau were considered to be sexually stimulating, efforts were made to put an end to this kind of dancing. At first it was difficult, but as more and more people came to accept the new religious beliefs the pastors became powerful and influential figures who ultimately dominated the rights of the aliki. Because of this the fakanau, which the pastors regarded as evil dancing, gradually declined until it disappeared completely.

The fakaseasea is said to be as old as the fakanau. This type of dancing is still performed nowadays by elders. Unlike the fakanau, the fakaseasea is sung much slower to a lovely tune and has one or two performers dancing on their feet. Normally the fakaseasea requires no uniformity of actions but the performers are free to make actions which express the meanings of the words. The survival of the fakaseasea up to the present time is due to the fact that the first pastors, fascinated by the lovely tune and the gentle slow actions of the fakaseasea, did not do anything to stop people from performing it.

However, in the early days the unique fakanau did not only play an important part in social entertainment but also in worshipping. The faleaitu (house for gods) in which the people worshipped their gods is where one could hear different rituals and fakanau. There were specially composed fakanau which could convey to the gods the worshippers' gratitude together with pleas for mercy. During communal work such as digging of pulaka pits the women sang and danced on the banks while the men were busy digging. In this way singing and dancing encouraged the men and stopped them from getting tired easily.

The status of a composer in those days was highly recognized. People had to see the composer when they wanted to comm emorate a special occasion or to perform a fakanau or fakaseasea for an outstanding figure in the community. Following the composition of the song the composer himself would call his singing and dancing group to come for practice. As the time approached for the fakanau or fakaseasea to be sung for the first time in public, the person about whom the song was composed, and his family and relatives, had to be informed, well in advance of the appointed day. This was the signal for a great deal of activity in which that particular person and his relatives would see that a good quantity of food and gifts were gathered. At the end of the singing much of this would be handed over to the composer and his group in return for their good work, and some was kept for later occasions. From that day onwards that fakanau or fakaseasea could be sung at any social gathering, and this often meant that gifts had to be offered to the performers by the relatives of the person about whom the song was made up.

Another type of singing was known as kupu. This was composed to commemorate any good work of a deceased person. The timing of the kupu is like that of the fakaseasea, but accompanied by crying sounds. When someone died the mourners would, throughout the day and night, perform a good number of kupu and fakanau in which they requested their gods to receive their dead kindly. Poor singing and performances could, it was thought, bring more evil and misfortune to the relatives of the deceased and even result in the death of someone else from the same family.




The early Tuvaluans, untouched by western influences and aspirations highly valued their traditional singing and dancing. Apart from simply providing entertainment, the fakanau and fakaseasea, which were formerly very popular form for dance, were composed to commemorate the reign of an aliki or toa, or to praise certain outstanding figures for their skills in canoe building, fishing, house building or for their wealth or bravery within the community.

The fakanau which has a tune that is between speech and singing was performed while dancers are standing on their feet. The rhythm of the fakanau is much quicker than those of the fakaseasea and the present day fatele. With the arrival of the missionaries, because of the wide swaying movements and actions required in the fakanau were considered to be sexually stimulating, efforts were made to put an end to this kind of dancing. At first it was difficult, but as more and more people came to accept the new religious beliefs the pastors became powerful and influential figures who ultimately dominated the rights of the aliki. Because of this the fakanau, which the pastors regarded as evil dancing, gradually declined until it disappeared completely.

The fakaseasea is said to be as old as the fakanau. This type of dancing is still performed nowadays by elders. Unlike the fakanau, the fakaseasea is sung much slower to a lovely tune and has one or two performers dancing on their feet. Normally the fakaseasea requires no uniformity of actions but the performers are free to make actions which express the meanings of the words. The survival of the fakaseasea up to the present time is due to the fact that the first pastors, fascinated by the lovely tune and the gentle slow actions of the fakaseasea, did not do anything to stop people from performing it.

However, in the early days the unique fakanau did not only play an important part in social entertainment but also in worshipping. The faleaitu (house for gods) in which the people worshipped their gods is where one could hear different rituals and fakanau. There were specially composed fakanau which could convey to the gods the worshippers' gratitude together with pleas for mercy. During communal work such as digging of pulaka pits the women sang and danced on the banks while the men were busy digging. In this way singing and dancing encouraged the men and stopped them from getting tired easily.

The status of a composer in those days was highly recognized. People had to see the composer when they wanted to commemorate a special occasion or to perform a fakanau or fakaseasea for an outstanding figure in the community. Following the composition of the song the composer himself would call his singing and dancing group to come for practice. As the time approached for the fakanau or fakaseasea to be sung for the first time in public, the person about whom the song was composed, and his family and relatives, had to be informed, well in advance of the appointed day. This was the signal for a great deal of activity in which that particular person and his relatives would see that a good quantity of food and gifts were gathered. At the end of the singing much of this would be handed over to the composer and his group in return for their good work, and some was kept for later occasions. From that day onwards that fakanau or fakaseasea could be sung at any social gathering, and this often meant that gifts had to be offered to the performers by the relatives of the person about whom the song was made up.

Another type of singing was known as kupu. This was mainly composed to commemorate any good work of a deceased person. The timing of the kupu is like that of the fakaseasea, but accompanied by crying sounds. When someone died the mourners would, throughout the day and night perform a good number of kupu and fakanau in which they requested their gods to receive their dead kindly. Poor singing and performances could, it was thought, bring more evil and misfortune to the relatives of the deceased and even results in the death of someone else from the same family. The following is a kupu from the island of Vaitupu:

Our steps are always turned towards it,
Like the pua trees which lean over the lagoon.
We pluck at the living present,
But we cannot reach it.
A wall comes over us
And we flutter at it like moths.
A fakanau from the island of Nukufetau commemorates the abundance of turtles in the island:
What a favourable wind
That blew from Lafaga direction.
I steered my canoe
And sailed for Melita,
And then for Kavakava,
To eat my turtle eggs,
To suck my turtle eggs.
It's a turtle head, they said,
So we go to Laleaga,
To satisfy our hunger
With a million turtle eggs.









The role of Tuvaluan women in a changing traditional atoll society is examined within the context of the traditional social structure and the factors that change the very basis of Tuvaluan society.

The aliki or chiefs were the recognised leaders of traditional Tuvaluan society. By virtue of their position, inherited from their ancestors the aliki were entitled to make demands on their people. They possessed the power to rule although this power was not theirs alone. Our ancestors believed in a mystical relationship between the supernatural world and the aliki, who were seen to be the shadow of an even mightier and more powerful being whose domain was the whole universe. To go against the rightful authority of the aliki was to disobey that all-powerful being. The aliki's decision was commonly regarded as a final judgment no matter how harsh or how wise it might be, and regardless of how people were affected by it.  A decision of an aliki was a serious pronouncement and no person or family could violate it - which at times they did - without running the risk of being punished, possibly by being forced to leave the land for the great sea. Even the penalty of death might be imposed by an aliki.

As well as being a ruler, the aliki was also the symbol of community pride and identity past and present, and was expected to protect the culture inherited from the ancestors. If he did so he would be admired by his people who enjoyed the security offered by a stable and familiar way of life. Tradition indicates that if the behaviour of any person, aliki or not, was too far removed from normal standards, then that could bring great disgrace on his family - and retribution on the offender. According to our legends, in order to ensure peaceful and trouble-free lives people were well advised to respect customs and traditions because they contain our ancestors' knowledge of how to have happiness in this land. To assist him in ruling the land, the aliki had the tao aliki, or assistant chiefs. They advised him on the state of affairs in his domain. The slightest news of a threat to the peaceful existence of his people would be reported to the aliki, and counter-measures planned.

The tao aliki were usually the mediators between the people and the aliki. They were responsible for the administration and supervision of the land and the people. They organised means of distributing land and food. They arrange communal works and fishing expeditions.  The elders of the community were male family heads. In early times they were advisors to the assistant chiefs. They could even admonish the aliki, though mainly on matters relating to the food supply and the preparation for war. Their word was always respected, and they were sometimes invited by the aliki to counsel him. Nearly all of them were given a specialised task in connection with the aliki. Some were very experienced cooks and they could cook for the aliki. Others were chiefly responsible for making the aliki ointment and for beautifying his house.

Tuvaluan women were usually led by those of noble birth. It was the work of the sisters and daughters of the aliki to ensure that the women were usefully engaged in making mats, baskets, thatch, string, fishing shoes, ointments and in other activities. The custom of those days was that every man and woman should possess numerous things of value, so as to maintain or increase their status. Those of higher birth had to ensure that they had more possessions than the ordinary people. It was customary in those days for women of common birth to try and become servants of the aliki, which was the highest position any commoner woman could obtain. It was also a thing for their children to be proud of.

Every sologa or family had a particular task (pologa) to perform for the community. Each solonga was expected to excel in developing the skills and the knowledge of the task assigned to it. Certain sologa were skilled tofuga (builders of canoes or houses). Some were responsible for fishing and farming, and others for warfare and for defence.  The usefulness of this system is shown by its survival. The various families' pologa (special tasks) are still known to most Tuvaluans. It is extremely difficult to impart the skills and knowledge of one pologa to others. It is tapu, the knowledge of which is only meant to be used for their own contribution to general well-being. No records were written, because all knowledge was passed from father to son by word of mouth. Even experts for the various pologa will not dare to record their knowledge for fear of having it stolen by people who have always been hoping that one day they will have access to the inherited knowledge of other families.



From the 1820's European traders began to visit Tuvalu and brought with them many goods which were completely new to the islanders. The European idea of trading and the use and value of money were all fascinating to our people. European traders gradually settled in most islands where they set up centres to trade their goods or money for copra, pearl shells, handicrafts and other items. They succeeded in persuading the aliki to become keen supporters of their commercial activities, although the villagers sometimes disapproved. If they saw their aliki becoming a frequent guest at the trading centre the people became confused. Their long time honoured lord was often drunk and misbehaved himself. They thought that the aliki had been robbed of his wisdom and respect for the aliki declined among their subjects.



Strong as it was, the influence of the traders was overshadowed by that of the pastors sent from Samoa by the London Missionary Society to convert the Tuvaluans to Christianity. Yet the Tuvaluans were never without religion. They believed in the existence of a most powerful force which can be understood to be God and whose power was exercised by spiritual being known as atua and aitu. When the Samoan missionaries came, they found that the people had their own religious beliefs, as shown in the legendary history of all islands. The people were fully aware of mana or spiritual power. They had their own religion which was destroyed by the Samoan pastors.

The Samoan pastors were men who were trained to face whatever formidable circumstances they met while spreading their new religion. They aimed to dominate and even rule. It was due to the dominating nature of the Samoan pastors that they were able to place their own authority above that of our chiefs. They eroded the traditional institutions of our society and even claimed that they themselves were chiefs or vicars of Christ on earth.

The Samoan pastors also introduced their own life style and even made codes of laws to replace the traditional ones of our society. This practice finally destroyed much of the wealth of the culture and tradition that were once the social machinery of our ancestors' lives. The Samoans, knowing the meaning of biblical verses, first taught the verses which said that the people should give things to the messengers of God - the pastors. This certainly increased the giving of food and valuable items such as mats and pearl shells. Having believed in the Christian doctrine, the people not only gave things but also made the pastors their masters for almost a century. Even the rightful share of the aliki from fish and the heads of turtle was given to the pastors who were the new shadows of that mightier and more powerful Being.




Memories of Funafuti

I will always have very fond memories of my unplanned visit to Funafuti, Tuvalu on 23 November 1983. At the time, I was a young search & rescue pilot in the United States Coast Guard, based at Oahu, Hawaii. I had already flown many rescue, logistic, and law enforcement missions in the Pacific, had landed on many of the small coral atolls, and had visited many places I never dreamed of. But the trip which brought my flight crew and me to Funafuti was one of the more interesting and challenging flights, and one that I will always remember.

My crew and I had just completed about a week of flying our long-range HC-130 aircraft on maritime patrols in the vicinity of Guam. We had begun our flight several days earlier on 16 November, departing Oahu and arriving at Midway Island for fuel, logging 5.7 hours flight time. On the 17th, we crossed the International Date Line on our way to Guam, logging another 9.2 hours. On the 19th, we flew a short 3.2 hour maritime patrol. Then on the 20th, we left Guam, flew to Babelthaup, Palau, and then back to Guam, logging another 8 hours of flight time.

Prior to returning to Guam, we were informed of a serious motorcycle accident on Yap, and since we just happened to be directly over Yap at that very instant, we dropped in, picked up several injured people with broken bones and head injuries, and continued on to Guam. The people on Yap were surprised that a rescue plane had arrived so quickly after the accident, but as the saying goes, "timing is everything." It was late at night, and we were quite tired, but delivered our patients safely to the hospital in Guam. On the 22nd, we flew one final mission off the coast of Guam, logging another 5.5 hours. Now that our assignment was done, it was time to take the crew and airplane back to Hawaii. On the 23rd, we flew our first leg to Kwajalein for fuel and lodging.

Our flight to Kwajalein was only 5.8 hours, but the week was beginning to wear on us; we had already put in a long day, we were tired and hungry, the sun was setting, and all we could think about was getting to the dining facility for the prime rib special. Little did I know that we would have no opportunity to rest for at least 30 more hours. As we sat down for dinner, we were informed of a serious fishing boat accident off the coast of Funafuti. The information we received was that a boat, which had been crewed by 6 or 7 Samoan fishermen, exploded and burned when one of the fishermen attempted to start their stalled engine by injecting oxygen into the engine.

Unfortunately, all of the fishermen received third degree burns over ninety percent of their bodies, and one fisherman had already died from his burns. Somehow, these fishermen had been rescued from the waters and brought to the small hospital in Funafuti. The doctor at Funafuti was doing all that could be done to keep the remaining victims alive, but knew that if they were not quickly transferred to a burn trauma center, others might die, and several might loose their limbs.

My aircraft was the closest rescue resource to Funafuti, but we had already put in a full day's work, and needed a good night's rest. Initially, the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in Honolulu told me that another military service would be sending a rescue plane from Oahu, and that my services were not needed. In addition, we had already used up our crew mission day, and were in a mandatory crew rest status. When we thought about how much time it would take to fly a round trip mission from Oahu to Funafuti and back, we became concerned that the burn victims might not survive. At that point, I told my faithful crew to get as much rest as possible, just in case the other rescue plane from Oahu was unable to do the mission, or in case the situation with the burn victims became more urgent than it already was.
At the same time, I went to the hospital on Kwajalein and requested the services of a nurse or doctor who could accompany us and provide in-flight medical assistance, should we be called to do the mission. We wanted to be prepared, and Kwajalein granted the request. Anticipation about the possibility that we might be called to do this mission prevented us from getting rest. Over the next several hours, I called RCC for updates, and each time they told me the rescue mission would be taken care of by another plane. Then, at 1 o'clock in the morning, we got the call from RCC to launch on the mission as soon as we could, and was given authorization to wave our mandatory crew rest requirements. For our flight crews, that authorization is rarely given unless the mission or situation is extremely urgent, or the likelihood of saving a life is very high. We used our best judgment under the circumstances, and did what we had to do.

We rounded up the Kwajalein medical team, loaded bags of IV fluids on the plane, and got off the ground at approximately 3 o'clock in the morning, enroute Funafuti. Only hours prior, none of us had ever heard of Funafuti. If anything, Funafuti was just a tiny dot on the flight chart, one that was almost too little to even notice. But now we were climbing to altitude, headed toward Tuvalu, drinking coffee and waiting for the sun to rise. After being airborne for an hour or so, we made contact with Funafuti's short-wave radio operator. To my knowledge, the short-wave radio was the only rapid method of communication from Funafuti at that time. There was much we needed to know before we arrived, and therefore this communication link with our aircraft was vital.

The first thing I wanted to know about was the condition of the runway. Of course, Funafuti's radio operator was quick to tell me "they are mowing the runway right now, and should be finished before you get here". After hearing that, everyone on the plane was silent for the next few minutes as we tried to visualize the runway and compute our ability to stop on a relatively short grass strip. We had departed Kwajalein without full fuel tanks, because we knew Funafuti's runway was short for the size of our aircraft, and wanted to keep the airplane light for landing. Now, we were wondering if we would have enough fuel to return to Kwajalein, or another field, if the runway was unsuitable for our plane. But we make the commitment to go.

After a 4.9 hour flight, we were on final approach, and I was pleased with the freshly mowed path. Funafuti's radio operator had done a great job providing weather and wind information, and informing us about the condition of the burned fishermen. Our next surprise, which we had not anticipated, was the Funafuti welcoming committee. It appeared that everybody on the island was lined up along the side of the runway to watch our big white and red airplane land, and they welcomed us with open arms.

The first thing we did was to go to the hospital to check on the condition of the burn victims. While our Kwajalein hospital staff worked with the doctor on Funafuti to get the patients ready for our flight to Honolulu, we began to refuel the plane. Due to forecast severe weather on our flight route to Honolulu, we needed as much fuel as we could get, about 40,000 pounds, to allow for deviations around the storms. Funafuti's refueling bowser, which was towed behind a vehicle, was quite small. The refueling hose was not much bigger than a large garden hose, and we needed something 5 times larger. In addition, the pressure supplied by the bowser's small engine-driven pump was barely sufficient to force the fuel into our plane. Since there was no aircraft electrical power cart at Funafuti, we were required to run our noisy gas turbine generator to control the aircraft's electrical fuel valves and fuel transfer pumps during the refueling process. In doing so, we were using fuel almost as quickly as it was being pumped into the wings. The airport ground crew needed to refuel the bowser 5 or 6 times, and the fuel reserve at Funafuti was nearing depletion.

From the moment we had landed, and all throughout the noisy refueling operation, curious onlookers constantly surrounded us. The young children especially were taking great interest in our plane. We had some hard candy that we passed out to them, which made them even happier. They were literally jumping with joy, and we delighted in watching their reaction. Many of the people had a chance to tour our plane, both adults and children, and we were very pleased and proud to show it. A pretty young lady who worked for the Funafuti newspaper asked me some questions about our flight, where we were from, and where we were going to take the burned fishermen. She took careful notes on a small notepad, and was very interested in what I had to say.

While the plane was being refueled, several of us walked down the streets to see the sights in Funafuti. I was interested in finding a souvenir to take home, and bought a small, hand-woven fan. It was simple, but nice, just like Funafuti. All of those whom I had the opportunity to meet appeared to be genuine, peaceful people. It sure would have been great to stay longer, but we needed to transport the fishermen to a specialized medical facility. Several of us went over to the hospital to help bring the burn victims to our airplane. Funafuti's doctor was relieved that his patients would soon be in good hands. He had sustained the lives of these fishermen throughout the night, and had done all he could do within the confines of his small hospital.

It took almost 6 hours to refuel the airplane, but it took every bit of that time for the Kwajalein medical staff, working with Funafuti's doctor, to stabilize and prepare the patients for flight. Now it was time to go. We were extremely tired, as we had been awake and working for two days now, but we started engines and waved good-bye. Our departure was just like our arrival, in that the runway was lined with onlookers. After take-off, we talked to Funafuti's radio operator for a short while, then we wished each other well and signed off. Our flight to Honolulu was a very long and exhausting 9.2 hours, and staying awake in the airplane was next to impossible. While enroute, some of the flight crewmembers worked with the Kwajalein medical team to keep IV fluids running into our patients and to keep their burned skin covered with salve and blankets.

It was very difficult to find veins in their arms and legs that were in good enough condition to insert the IV feeding tubes. My copilot and I did our best to avoid most of the thunderstorms, but due to our fuel situation, needed to take a more direct route home. That required us to penetrate several of the storms, making the flight somewhat turbulent for our patients. Finally we arrived in Honolulu, and delivered our patients to waiting ambulances. We trust the Samoan fishermen were well-cared for, treated, and then returned to their homeland when they recovered.

Twenty years have elapsed since we flew that rescue out of Funafuti. Possibly there have been other rescues since then. Now, looking at some recent Tuvalu photos, I see a paved runway at Funafuti, hotel, guesthouses, motorcycles to rent, and other attractions. Communications no longer rely solely on a trusty short-wave radio operator. I envision the hospital larger and better equipped. The beaches and lagoon still look very inviting......if only there had been time years ago for us to take a cool dip and relax. Some of the changes give it a more modern look, but at the same time, the scenes still appear to be peaceful and serene. The islanders are undoubtedly the same wonderful people I met years ago.

Funafuti is just a tiny dot on the flight chart, but I find it interesting how such a tiny dot can hold so many fond, vivid memories. JHS November 2003

by:John H. Siemens






The history of Tuvalu is complex, interesting and intriguing. It involves the interplay of forces many of which are external to Tuvalu. For many people, the history of Tuvalu is measured in terms of the European exploration and influence. To others it is measured in terms of the development of our Tuvaluan people as they migrated over thousands of years through the archipelago of Asia. To others, it is concerned with the evolvement of our people from the spirits and demi gods of our past. The history of Tuvalu would not be complete unless all these factors are considered. This Web site addresses, the first of these - the early explorers who came to Tuvalu from the early 16th century up until the Declaration of a British Protectorate in 1892.

The story of European rivalry in the Pacific began even before it was first sighted by Balboa in 1513 and since then Pacific History has been dominated by the European powers ascendant in Europe at any particular time. Portuguese discoveries of the offshore Atlantic islands, the rounding of Southern Africa in 1487 and Columbus's voyage to the Bahamas on behalf of Spain in 1492 caused conflict between Portugal and Spain over the possessions of new lands which the Pope tried to settle by a Bill issued in 1493 awarding all of those lands being newly discovered east of a line one hundred leagues west of the Azores to Portugal and those lands to the west to Spain. By the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, the dividing line was moved to a line running north and south three hundred and seventy leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The amended line awarded Brazil to Portugal, but most of the Americas and the Pacific to Spain. Portugal claimed the East Indies but Spain took the Philippines in 1564. However, as the determination of accurate longitude was impossible at this period and remained an inexact science until Captain Cook's time and the introduction of the marine chronometer disputes continue as each country tended to fix longitudes favourable to its own claims.

During the sixteenth century the history of European voyaging and discovery in the Pacific remained predominantly Spanish with the Portuguese acquiring the East Indies at the Pacific's western edge until superseded by the Dutch at the end of the century. There were a growing number of voyages, the most of which were those of Magellan in 1520 to 1522 (the first voyage around the world); Mendana's discovery of the Solomon Islands in 1576; Drake's around the world voyage in 1577 to 1580 and Mendana's second voyage in which he discovered the Marquesas and the islands of Santa Cruz.

By the beginning of the 17th century, the Dutch had taken over much of the Portuguese East Indies and thereafter continued the Portuguese policy of voyaging and discovery. It is possible that undocumented Portuguese or other voyages to part of Australia had provided the basis for some early maps of about the middle of the 16th century but the documented history of the discovery of Australia was begun in 1605 - 1606 by the Dutch although this was followed immediately by the passage of the Strait between New Guinea and Australia by the Portuguese Torres. Tasman discovered Tasmania, New Zealand, Fiji and other groups between 1642-1643. Piecemeal and incomplete discoveries continued until the improvement in European ships and navigation in the 18th century allowed the great discoveries and charting of the Pacific of that period.

The ending of the Seven Year's War in 1763 left Britain predominant in the colonial and maritime spheres, nevertheless the French were determined to take an equal share of any European expansion in the Pacific and throughout the second part of the 18th century British and French rivalry increased. Although this period is replete with famous names of voyagers - Byron, Wallace, Cook, Bougainville, Perouse, d'Entrecasteaux - and proclamations of sovereignty on behalf of the various European powers were made by ships' commanders from time to time, no actual settlements or acquisitions were made until the British settlements in Australia at Port Jackson, Sydney in 1788. By the beginning of the 19th century, the main island groups of the Pacific had been discovered and chartered by Europeans. It remained to fill in the gaps and develop trade.

Disregarding the early European conquest on the edge of the Pacific - the American coast, the East Indies and the Philippines - acquisition only began with the British in Australia in 1788, followed in New Zealand in 1840; these in turn influenced Britain in later acquisitions as the colonialists in Australia and New Zealand were anxious to monopolise Pacific Island trade for themselves and pressed Britain to acquire islands and island groups to keep out the commerce of rival European powers.
European traders and missionaries of many nationalities were establishing plantation, trade and religious interests throughout the Pacific which often led to conflict which led in turn to request for help to the European countries from their nationals.

Crimes committed by or against Europeans led to actions by warships of their parent countries. Attempts were made to control the recruitment of Pacific Islanders or labour and to restrict the sale of guns.

These factors among others built up pressure for the acquisition and control of the various island groups by the European powers and after the American Civil War by the United States of America. The French, disappointed at being forestalled by Britain in New Zealand in l840, counted by acquiring the Society Islands and the Marquesas in 1842 and New Caledonia in 1853. Germany became very active especially in Samoa, in the groups to the north of New Guinea and in the Marshall Islands. In 1874 Britain annexed Fiji; in 1884 Germany acquired New Britain, New Ireland and the Northeast Coast of New Guinea; in the same year Britain under pressure from the Queensland colonialists declared a protectorate over southeast New Guinea. In 1893 Britain declared a protectorate over part of the Solomon Islands and acquired more of them by agreement with Germany in 1900. After a war with Spain in 1898 the USA acquired Guam and the Philippines and after troubled in the Republic of Hawaii the USA annexed Hawaii also. In 1899 the remaining Spanish possessions in the Pacific - the Caroline, Palau and the Mariana Islands - were sold to Germany which also annexed Western Samoa the same year leaving the USA to take over the Eastern Samoan Islands.

After the annexation of Fiji in 1874, Britain was still faced by the problem of the control of British subjects in the other island groups of the Pacific. To accomplish this, the Western Pacific Order in Council was enacted in 1877. This applied to all islands in the Western Pacific not within the jurisdiction of any civilised power and created the officers of High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, Chief Judicial Commissioner and Deputy Commissioners. It established the High Commissioner's Court. The Governor of Fiji was appointed High Commissioner; the Chief Justice of Fiji was appointed the Chief Judicial Commissioner and various persons, in the early years mainly officers of the Royal Navy, were appointed Deputy Commissioners. This attempt to control British subjects was not very successful and left unsolved the problem of the control of non-British subjects for their punishment for crime against British subjects.

In 1886 the British and German Governments agreed to a division of the Western Pacific into two spheres of influence - the Marshall Islands and Nauru came within the German's sphere - the Gilberts, Ocean Island and the Ellice within the British. Germany immediately took over the Marshall Islands but Britain took no action in the Gilberts which had by this time become an area of intense rivalry between German, American and some Australian based trading interests.

In 1890 the British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific based in Fiji recommended the acquisition of the Gilberts by Britain, not only to forestall possible action by Germany which in 1891 itself urge Britain to declare a Protectorate to forestall the U.S.A., but also to control the recruitment of labour, the sale of guns and liquor and to end the growing turbulence within the group. In 1892 the British Government, realizing by now that failure to declare a Protectorate would probably lead to acquisition by Germany, despite the 1886 agreement, or by America which was not a party to the agreement, ordered the Commander-in-Chief, H.M. Ships, Australia, to send a warship to the Gilberts to declare a Protectorate. Captain Davis, R. N. of H.M.S. Royalist was sent to carry out this task.

In accordance with his instructions, Captain Davis talked with the old men of each island to obtain their agreement to the declaration of the protectorate and to explain what it would mean. After talks with the old men, he declared the Protectorate on all islands except on Aranuka and Kuria which were included with Abemama and on Makin which was included with Butaritari.

Captain Davis had been ordered to visit the Ellice Islands but not to declare a Protectorate there. He reported that the 'Kings' of each island had asked for a Protectorate to be declared and Captain Gibson R. N. of H.M.S. Curacao was thereupon ordered to the Ellice Islands on each of which he declared a Protectorate between the 9th and the 16th October.

Even so, their wish was soon granted. Rather than leave some other power the opportunity to take the Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu), Britain shortly afterwards decided to tidy up the political map of the area. In September 1892, therefore, Captain Gibson of HMS Curacao was sent to claim the Ellice Islands. Everywhere, he reported, the people were still willing to accept British rule. Here is his account of what happened at Niutao, which was much the same as what happened elsewhere:

"I arrived off this island about 10.30 a.m. and some canoes at once came off to the ship. I landed and, with Mr. Buckland, an English trader here, visited the King and the Missionary. I explained to the King that the object of my visit was to declare a British Protectorate. He expressed his willingness to the act, and summoned a meeting of the people in the official House. I there told the people that I had come to declare a British Protectorate. After a considerable amount of palaver (talk) I asked if they were agreeable to it, and on their replying in the affirmative, I read the act declaring the Protectorate and gave a copy to the King. After which we adjourned to the beach, hoisted a Union Jack, and the ship saluted with 21 guns."
Thus came into being the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate in 1892.




   The Cruise of the Janet Nichol, April-September 1890

The third voyage of Robert Louis Stevenson was a meandering voyage in the trading steamer Janet Nichol. The voyage set out from Sydney, Australia and followed a very wandering course, extending as far as Penrhyn in the eastern to the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific.

The literature on the voyages of Robert Louis Stevenson refer to the trading steamer the Janet Nichol. The steamer in question is understood to be the Janet Nicholl owned and operated by Henderson and MacFarlane of New Zealand. However in order to be consistent with the literature, I have continued to refer to the vessel as the Janet Nichol.
Henderson and MacFarlane had gradually sold off their sailing ships and reduced the fleet to a few small vessels among the main trading islands as the steamship trade spread into the Pacific Ocean. Harry Henderson bought the 600 ton, iron screw, topsail rigged steamer, the Janet Nichol which carried a crew of nine and was under the command of Captain Henry with orders to make a final round of the island posts to collect the cargo waiting there. The vessel was made ready to sail from Sydney on the 11th April, 1890 bound for the Pacific Islands.

Seven days later she berthed at Queen's Wharf, Auckland, to take on provisions, coal and passengers. Harry Henderson and Mr. Hird joined the ship as supercargo, together with Jack Buckland, a trader for the firm returning to his island post. Robert Louis Stevenson together with his wife Fanny and son Lloyd, who was a keen amateur photographer, joined the ship with about forty islanders from the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and eight from Niue, all returning to their island homes.

The Janet Nichol sailed on the evening tide from Auckland and as the journey progressed Mrs. Stevenson compiled notes on the voyage in her diary, later to be written as a book published in London, entitled, The Cruise of the Janet Nichol in the South Seas.  It is the diary of Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson that provides a permanent record of her impressions of Funafuti in the 1890's. I have reproduced below the essence of an extract of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson's diary of a South Sea cruise.


27th May 1890 - We expect to make Funafuti, the first of the Ellices by daybreak. At nine o'clock, there were no signs of the island. "Bad steering," growled the Captain. "We've run past it and now we have to turn around and run back." At about 2 we anchored in the lagoon. Two traders came aboard. One was a half-caste from some other island with elephantiasis, very bad, in both legs. The other trader (Restieaux) was described as not thin but very pallid; his face, hands, legs, and feet were without sunburn, smooth, and of a curious transparent mixture like wax. It seemed an over-exertion to raise his large heavy eyes when he spoke to us.
I asked him if he liked the island. "Not at all," he answered and went on to describe the people; he said he could not keep chickens, ducks or pigs; no one could, for their neighbours, jealous that another should have what they had not, would stone the creatures to death. The same with the planting of fruit trees; the soil was good, and there were a few breadfruits and bananas, but any attempt to grow more is frustrated. The young trees are torn up and even the old ones are occasionally broken and nearly destroyed.

The half-caste could remember when a poisonous fish was a thing unknown; now all outside the reef are poisonous and many inside. The worst of it was that a fish, one day innocuous, may the next become deadly.  As for Restieaux, I fear this poor man is simply dying of starvation. A steward on board the Missionary's ship, who knew a little bit about medicine had told him that he only needed iron and good food. "They gave me a bottle of iron," he said, "and I got better on that, or I'd be dead by now, but how could I get the nourishing food?" I suggested his leaving the island, but the loyal soul replied that, though he knew he could save his life by doing so, he would not desert his native wife and children.

It was the half-caste who told us about the Peruvian blackbirders. In 1886 when he was away from Funafuti, a large number of locals were kidnapped by Peruvian blackbirders. At the time of our visit, there were not more than 150 inhabitants altogether.  Restieaux had sailed with both Bully Hayes and Ben Pease, two somewhat picturesque desperados of the South Seas who were now fortunately dead.

Louis and I went with Mr. Henderson over to the island where we met the wives and children of the traders. Handsome, healthy, and with excellent manners; two young girls were quite beautiful. Restieaux's wife had but one eye and was a plain kindly old body. After awhile, Louis and I stroll across the island, becoming more and more amazed by what we saw. Everything that one naturally expects to find on a low island is here reversed. To begin with, the fact of the poisonous fish are outside the reef is contrary to what one has reason to expect.

The soil is very rich for a low island, with ferns and many shrubs and flowering plants growing. We saw a little taro and quite a large patch, considering, of bananas. There was much marsh and green stagnant pools, and the air was heavy with a hothouse smell. The island seemed unusually wide, but when we pushed through the bushes and trees to find ourselves not on the sea beach, as we had expected, but on the margin of a large lagoon emptied of its waters almost entirely by the low tide.
I found Louis bending over a piece of the outer reef that he had broken off. From the face of both fractures innumerable worms were hanging like a sort of dreadful, thick fringe. The worm looked exactly like slender earth worms more or less bleached, though some were quite earth worm colours.
The two traders dined with us and I was glad to see that Restieaux ate a large double helping of meat. Lloyd, fortunately, thought of giving him some stout and asked Mr. Henderson if the man were the sort to give stout to. Mr. Henderson thought it a good thing to do, and Louis explained to the trader that it was given him as a medicine, not as a beverage to be handed down to others asking him to promise that he would drink it all himself. He readily enough gave the promise but said in that case Mr. Henderson would have to smuggle it to him, as he must drink it in secret. I also gave him a large and small bottle of iron, all that we had, telling him when that was done to put nails in his drinking water.

Not long ago the George Noble called at this island, her destination being the island of Piru (pronounced Peru). The natives who were on board heard the word and fled incontinently, nor could they be persuaded to go back; the dread word "Peru" was enough.
May 28th 1890 - we left Funafuti early this morning.

Footnote: It has been well documented that Alfred Restieaux left Funafuti in 1888 to trade on the island of Nukufetau where he remained until he passed away in 1911. In view of the navigational difficulties experienced by the Janet Nichol in reaching Funafuti one would have to keep an open mind to the possibility that the Stevenson party may have, in fact, landed on Nukufetau rather than Funafuti.






From the early months of pregnancy certain tapu are placed on the expectant mother (faele). She is prohibited from eating raw fish which, it is said, can spoil her breast milk or delay the normal healing process of her body. She may not chew split pandanus fruit - in case she has twins, or a child with a hare lip. Nor may she cut her food with a sharp-edged instrument, again in case the child be born with a hare lip, or some other deformities. She must also refrain from eating hot food, or eating while walking, lest the child become a beggar. Nor is sex permitted during pregnancy, for fear of causing abortion.

Preparations for the birth of a child start when the woman is about five to six months pregnant. She will normally be delivered in her parents' house. Her own mother begins the preparation by choosing a midwife (tufuga faka fanau) to attend to the confinement. If there is no midwife in the family, the woman's mother will do the job herself.

A midwife is a highly respected person and in the course of her duties she receives presents of mats and food. The appliances of her calling, which she is expected to have ready at all times, include: (a) Noa - an abdominal binder, six metres long by eight centimetres wide plaited from pandanus leaves. (b) Faka fafine - a suspensory belt, one metre long by ten centimetres wide, made from the bark of the te fou tree. (c) Pulu - a pad made from the dried pith of the leafstalk of the pulaka. (d) Coconut oil. (e) A few yellow breadfruit leaves which have just fallen from the tree. (These can be collected when the woman is in labour). (f) A knife or pair of scissors - for cutting the umbilicus. (In former times the sharp edge of a Kasi shell was used).

Once chosen, the tufaga attends the expectant mother two or three times a week, mainly to massage the abdomen. Massaging over the uterus is believed to assist correct presentation of the foetus. If a midwife is unable to correct an abnormal presentation she will call on the help of a colleague who is expert at doing so.
Meanwhile, mats for the expectant mother will be prepared by the women of her own family, while her husband's cousins and sisters prepare mats for the baby. Both families will also organize food for the ceremonial feasts to be held after the birth.

The actual process of birth starts with the onset of labour pains. The midwife and her assistant prepare themselves beside the mother with their equipment - cut throat razor, a pair of scissors, umbilical ties, tampon or pads and an abdominal binder. Traditionally, mothers are delivered in either of two positions; lying prone on the back or sitting and reclining backwards.

After the placenta is expelled, the midwife measures the cord to the side of the infant's waist where it is tied and cut. She next cleaned the mother, failele, and then wraps the abdominal binder around the woman's waist to the back of this, to which she attaches one end of the the suspensory belt. The other end of the belt is then brought forward under the woman's buttocks and fastened at the front of the binder, so as to hold in place the vaginal pad, which has been wrapped in yellow breadfruit leaf smeared with coconut oil.



According to Tuvalu custom a son's choice of wife needs to be approved by his parents. His sisters and close cousins may have some influence on the decision but the final say remains with the parents.

Because courting is not done openly, as in some communities, boys and girls have to make each other's acquaintance through a third person, fai fekau. In this way they can arrange to meet without their parents knowing. Another courting practice is that of moetolo, sleep crawl in which the man illegally enters the girl's house when everyone else has gone to sleep. Such nocturnal visits are pre-arranged although the visitor is likely to be punished if he is caught, especially if the girl's family disapproves of him.

When the boy has finally chosen the girl he wishes to be his wife, he informs his parents and awaits their approval. Sometimes parents disapprove and make their own choice. Tradition maintained that boys and girls obey and respect their parents, although on occasions the boy and girl agree to elope.

Another way of getting married is through what is called potu lama (which means a torch made from coconut leaves). The men of a village may decide to light a potu lama. The young men then tell the old men about the girls they admire. The old men are then expected to go to the girl's parents on their behalf and seek approval for a marriage. When a young man's request is granted it is said that his potu lama is lighted. If he is rejected his potu lama is not lighted, and the old men approach the parents of other girls he may have mentioned.

In any marriage resulting from these proceedings, responsibility for the wedding ceremony and for the feast rest with the village that sponsored the lighting of the potu lama. Everyone from that village contributes food, mats, clothing or money, as decided by the leaders.

In the conventional marriage the two families plan their contributions together weeks before the wedding. Each has to prepare a laulau avaga or bed. The bride's one, prepared by her family is given to the bridegroom at the wedding feast while the bridegroom is given to the bride. Each also prepares food, kavega. Again, this is exchanged between the two families, who sometimes compete as to who can contribute more food.

After more than a century of Christian influence no one now knows how marriages were conducted in the past. Today, as in other Christian countries, they are performed by a pastor and are legally registered. After that ceremony comes feasting and dancing, during which the newly-married couple are given advice on what to expect in their future life.


On hearing the dirge sound out from the church bell, people know that someone had died on the island. The name of the deceased is soon known to everyone, and relatives go to mourn for their departed kinsman. The body is dressed and placed on new mats in the centre of the house. Relatives paid tributes by donating money or cloth or by praising the deceased for his achievements and for the value of his contribution to his family and to the island. The grave is usually dug by members of an organization such as Volunteers, Scouts or Boys' Brigade. They also made the caskets, usually from one of the family canoes.

While some members of the family mourn their dead kinsman, others busy themselves preparing refreshments for those who will come to console them on their bereavement. This may entail looking after about half of the island population. When the burial draws near, the pastor arrives. The coffin is then carried to the place of interment where the pastor holds the burial service.

The night of the funeral, the immediate family with their relatives assemble for prayers and supper. This period of mourning, faganoa, may continue for several days or even weeks. The eldest member of the family, the matai determines the duration. At the end of the mourning, a big feast called the aitagi is held.




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