The Pacific Ocean covers approximately 70 million square miles (181 million square kilometers). Geographers use the designation “Oceania” in referring to the lands within this area. While Oceania includes some large states (countries) such as Australia, it also includes many smaller microstates which occupy islands and island chains. Many of these microstates of Oceania are already being impacted by global warming and its subsequent raising sea levels.
Tuvalu is composed of 9 coral atolls along a 360 mile chain in Polynesia about half way between Australia and Hawaii. The name “Tuvalu” means “group of eight” in reference to the country’s eight traditionally inhabited islands. Tuvalu is one of the smallest and most remote countries on the planet. The country has about 9 square miles and a population of about 12,000. With regard to population it is the third least populous sovereign state in the world (only Nauru and Vatican City have fewer residents). In terms of physical land size, it is the fourth smallest country in the world (Vatican City, Nauru, and Monaco are smaller).
Six of the nine coral atolls—Nanumea, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti, and Nukulaelae—have lagoons which are open to the ocean. Two of the atolls— Nanumaya and Niutao—have landlocked lagoons and Niulakita does not have a lagoon.
Culturally Tuvalu is considered to be a part of the Polynesian Culture Area. Human settlement of this area had begun more than 3,000 years ago by people who were travelling in ocean-going canoes. Prior to European contact, there was frequent canoe voyaging from Tuvalu to other Polynesia Islands, including Tonga and Samoa.
Canoes are an important part of the Tuvalu heritage.
The oral traditions regarding the settlement of the islands vary from island to Island. On Funafuti and Vaitupu the stories tell of the founders coming from Samoa. On Nanumea the founders are said to have come from Tonga.
Modern dancers also celebrate the Tuvalu heritage.
An old photograph of a Tuvalu woman is shown above.
In 1568, the Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira may have sighted the island of Nui. Without talking to the natives (he didn’t land) he simply named it Isla de Jesus.
The next European known to encounter Tuvalu was Arent Schuyler de Peyster of York, the captain of the armed brigantine (i.e. privateer) Rebecca who was sailing under British colors. He sighted Nukufetau and Fanafuta in 1819. Typical of Europeans, he ignored the possibility of a native name for the islands and named Fanafuta Ellice’s Island after Edward Ellice, a prominent politician and the owner of the Rebecca’s cargo. Tuvalo continued to carry this new name until independence. Under the European Discovery Doctrine this sighting meant that the British could claim sovereignty over the islands.
Over the next few years there was only occasional contact with the Europeans because of the difficulties of landing ships on the atolls. From 1862 to 1865, however, blackbirders—slave raiders seeking workers to mine the guano deposits on the Chincha Islands in Peru—roamed the area. In 1863, the blackbirders took about 180 people from Funafuti and about 200 from Nukulaelae.
The Christian Church of Tuvalu traces its origins to 1861 when Elekana, a deacon of a Congregational church in the Cook Islands, became caught in a storm and landed at Nukulaelae where he began proselytizing Christianity. He had been trained in a London Missionary Society school in Samoa. In 1865, the Reverend A. W. Murray of the London Missionary Society became the first European missionary on the islands. By 1878 there were preachers on each island and the Church of Tuvalu was well established.
By the end of the nineteenth century there were European traders on all of the islands. However, during the late 1890s and the first part of the twentieth century, trading practices changed. The new business model called for the cargo manager of a trading ship to deal directly with the islanders, thus eliminating the resident traders.
Following the sighting of the islands by a British ship, Tuvalu, under the name of the Ellice Islands, was a part of the British Empire. Administratively, the British simply grouped a number of islands together with little concern for any cultural differences. By 1974 the ethnic differences between the Polynesians of Tuvalu and the Micronesians of the Gilbert Islands caused the residents of Tuvalu to vote for separation. The following year, the Ellice Islands became the separate British colony of Tuvalu. In 1978, Tuvalu obtained its independence.
At the present time, Tuvalu is still a part of the British Commonwealth and Queen Elizabeth II serves as the country’s head of state and bears the title Queen of Tuvalu. As a parliamentary democracy Tuvalu has a unicameral parliament of 15 members who are elected every four years. The Prime Minister is selected by the parliament.
The Environmental Vulnerability Index of the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission ranks Tuvalu as extremely vulnerable to climate change and environmental problems due to population growth and poor coastal management. While some commentators have suggested that the population of Tuvalu will have to be relocated to Australia, New Zealand, or Fiji because of global warming, some government officials do not regard rising sea levels as such a threat that the entire population would have to be relocated. However, in 2000 the government asked if Australia and New Zealand would take in Tuvaluans if rising sea levels were to make evacuation necessary.
In the equatorial and central Pacific, El Niño and La Niña are correlated with changes in ocean temperatures. El Niño increases the chances of tropical storms while La Niña increases the chances of drought. A weak La Niña in 2011 cooled the surface of the sea around Tuvalu and caused a drought. There are no streams or rivers on the islands and most water needs must be met by catchment systems with storage facilities. As a result of the drought a state of emergency was declared and freshwater on Funafuti and Nukulaelae was rationed. Household are rationed two buckets of freshwater per day.
Economically, Tuvalu has no known mineral resources and few exports. The islands are almost entirely dependent upon imported food and fuel. Subsistence farming and fishing are the primary economic activities. Tourism is not a major economic activity as fewer than 1,000 tourists visit the islands each year. There are few jobs on the islands and most of those who have jobs work in the public sector.