The Spanish were the first Europeans to see the islands in the 1500s. However, in 1819 an American ship captain, De Peyster, named the main island in the group Ellice's Island after a British politician who owned the cargo aboard his ship. In 1841, the U.S. Exploring Expedition commanded by Charles Wilkes visited three of Tuvalu's islands and welcomed visitors to his ships. Other early interactions with the outside world were far less benign--in 1863, hundreds of people from the southern islands were kidnapped when they were lured them aboard slave ships with promises that they would be taught about Christianity. Those islanders were forced to work under horrific conditions in the guano mines of Peru.
Eventually, the islands came under Britain's sphere of influence as the Pacific was divided up in the late 19th century. The Ellice Islands were administered by Britain as part of a protectorate (1892-1916) and as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (1916-74).
During World War II, several thousand American troops were in the islands. Beginning in October 1942, U.S. forces built airbases on the islands of Funafuti, Nanumea, and Nukufetau. Friendly cooperation was the hallmark of relations between the local people and the troops, mainly U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy SeaBees. The airstrip in the capital of Funafuti, originally built by the U.S. during the war, is still in use, as is the "American Passage" that was blasted through Nanumea's reef by SeaBees assisted by local divers.
In 1974 the Ellice Islanders voted for separate British dependency status as Tuvalu, separating from the Gilbert Islands which became Kiribati upon independence. Tuvalu became fully independent in 1978 and in 1979 signed a treaty of friendship with the United States, which recognized Tuvalu's possession of four small islands formerly claimed by the United States.
Beginning with the death of Prime Minister Ionatana in late-2000, Tuvaulu has had four prime ministers in 2 years. This in part reflects the pressures affecting the small nation, including the transition from an exchange economy to a money economy, an inherited system of government with only limited regard to Tuvaluan traditions of decision making, the lack of clear path to implement Tuvalu's vision for the future.
Elections held in July 2002 were, as is the norm in Tuvalu, free and fair. Six of the 15 members elected to Parliament are serving for the first time. Saufatu Sopoanga, a former civil servant, became Prime Minister in August 2002. He replaced Koloa Talake, who had replaced Faimalaga Luka after a vote of no confidence in 2001. It is expected that Tuvalu will now have a period of political stability.
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