Gilbert and Ellice Islands

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Gilbert and Ellice Islands
British colony



"God Save the Queen"
Location of Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Capital Tarawa
Languages English
Political structure Colony
Monarch George V (first)
Elizabeth II (last)
High Commissioner List of High Commissioners
 -  Protectorate 1892
 -  Colony 1916
 -  Disestablished 1 January 1976
Currency Pound sterling

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a British protectorate from 1892 and colony from 1916 until 1 January 1976, when the islands were divided into two colonies which became independent nations shortly after. A referendum was held in December 1974 to determine whether the Gilbert Islands and Ellice Islands should each have their own administration.[1] As a consequence of the referendum, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony ceased to exist on 1 January 1976 and the separate countries of Kiribati and Tuvalu came into existence.[2][3]


The Gilbert Islands[4] (formerly Kingsmill Islands[5]) are a chain of sixteen atolls and coral islands in the western Pacific Ocean that are recognised as part of the Micronesia subregion of Oceania. The Gilbert Islands are the main part of what is now Republic of Kiribati ("Kiribati" is the Gilbertese rendition of "Gilberts"[4]) The atolls and islands of the Gilbert Islands are arranged in an approximate north-to-south line. In a geographical sense, the equator serves as the dividing line between the northern Gilbert Islands and the southern Gilbert Islands. The Ellice Islands are south of the Gilbert Islands.[6] The Ellice Islands comprises three reef islands and six true atolls spread out between the latitude of to 10° south and longitude of 176° to 180°, west of the International Date Line.[7] The Ellice Islands are midway between Hawaii and Australia. The islands are recognised as part of the Polynesia subregion of Oceania.


The Gilbert Islands were named in 1820 by a Russian admiral, Johann von Krusenstern after a British captain, Thomas Gilbert, who crossed the archipelago in 1788. French captain Louis Duperrey was the first to map the whole Gilbert Islands archipelago. He commanded La Coquille on its circumnavigation of the earth (1822–1825).

Funafuti atoll was named Ellice's Island after Edward Ellice, a British politician and merchant, by Captain Arent de Peyster,[8] who sighted the islands in 1819 sailing on the ship Rebecca.[9] Ellice owned the cargo of the ship. The name Ellice was applied to all nine islands, of what is now Tuvalu, after the work of English hydrographer Alexander George Findlay (1812–1876).[10]

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were formerly designated an ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 country code "GE" until 1977.


The protectorate was generally established on this area (but not on these islands) by the Pacific Islanders Protection Act[11] of 1857 and then in 1877 for the Western Pacific Territories. The protectorate on the Gilbert group and on the Ellice group was formal and effective only from 1892, and a Resident Commissioner was appointed in 1893. The islands became a Crown Colony on 12 January 1916. The colony's capital was established on Banaba Island (Ocean Island) after 1902 as the operations of the Pacific Phosphate Company resulted in good shipping connections to Ocean Island. After World War II, the capital was established on Tarawa, first in Betio island then near Bairiki.

The sixteen islands of the Gilberts were declared a British protectorate by Captain Davis RN, of HMS Royalist between 27 May and 17 June 1892.[12] The Ellice Islands were declared a protectorate by Captain Gibson RN of HMS Curacao between 9 and 16 October of the same year;[13] Banaba Island (or Ocean Island) was included in the protectorate in 1900 and then in the colony in 1916. In the same year, Fanning Island and Washington Island were included in it together with the islands of the Tokelau or Union Islands; Christmas Island was included in 1919 but was contested by the US. Tokelau was transferred to New Zealand administration in 1926, abolishing the islands' chiefdoms. By the Tokelau Act of 1948, sovereignty over Tokelau was transferred to New Zealand. The Phoenix Islands were added in 1937 and the five islands of the Central and Southern Line Islands were added in 1972.

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

British Western Pacific Territories[edit]

SS Tokelau: Government Steamer Gilbert & Ellice Islands Protectorates (30 April 1909)

The British Western Pacific Territories (BWPT) were administered by a High Commissioner resident in Fiji, with a Resident Commissioner in the colony's administrative centre that was established on Banaba Island (Ocean Island). The Resident Commissioners were: C. R. Swayne (appointed 1893) followed by William Telfer Campbell (1896–1908).[13]

In 1916, the administration of the BWTP ended and the islands became a Crown Colony on 12 January 1916.[14]

Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony[edit]

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony continued to be administered by a Resident Commissioner. The colony's capital was on Banaba Island (Ocean Island) and after World War II on Tarawa, first in Betio island then near Bairiki.

In 1930 the Resident Commissioner, Arthur Grimble, issued revised laws, Regulations for the good Order and Cleanliness of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, which replaced laws created during the BWTP.[13]

Transition to self-determination[edit]

The formation of the United Nations Organisation after World War II resulted in the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization committing to a process of decolonisation; as a consequence the British colonies in the Pacific started on a path to self-determination.[15] The initial focus was on the development of the administration of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. In 1947 Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, was made the administrative capital. This development included establishing The King George V Secondary School for boys and the Elaine Bernacchi Secondary School for girls.[15]

A Colony Conference was organised at Marakei in 1956, which was attended by officials and representatives from each island in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, conferences were held every two years until 1962. The development of administration continued with the creation in 1963 of an Advisory Council of five officials and 12 representatives who were appointed by the Resident Commissioner.[15][2] In 1964 an Executive Council was established with eight officials and eight representatives. The representative members were elected in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Advisory Council election held in 1964. The Resident Commissioner was now required to consult the Executive Council regarding the creation of laws to making decisions that affected the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony.[2]

A Constitution was introduced in 1967, which created a House of Representatives for the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony that comprised seven appointed officials and 23 members elected by the islanders. Tuvalu elected four members of the House of Representatives. The 1967 Constitution also established the Governing Council. The House of Representatives only had the authority to recommend laws; the Governing Council had the authority to enact laws following a recommendation from the House of Representatives.[2]

A select committee of the House of Representatives was established to consider whether the Constitution should be changes to give legislative power to the House of Representatives. It became apparent that the Tuvaluans were concerned about their minority status on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, and the Tuvaluans wanted equal representation to that of the I-Kiribati. A new constitution was introduced in 1971, which provided that each of the islands of Tuvalu (except Niulakita) elected one representative. However that did not end the Tuvaluan movement for independence.

In 1974 Ministerial government was introduced in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony through a change to the Constitution.[2]

Elections and the transition to parliamentary government[edit]

The 1967 constitution created a parliament; whose members were elected in the following elections:

  • Gilbert and Ellice Islands general election, 1967
  • Gilbert and Ellice Islands general election, 1971
  • Gilbert and Ellice Islands general election, 1974[16]

Dissolution of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony[edit]

1911 stamp of Gilbert and Ellice Isalnd Protectorate

A referendum was held in December 1974 to determine whether the Gilbert Islands and Ellice Islands should each have their own administration.[1] As a consequence of the Ellice Islands self-determination referendum, 1974, separation occurred in two stages. The Tuvaluan Order 1975 made by the Privy Council, which took effect on 1 October 1975, recognised Tuvalu as a separate British dependency with its own government. The second stage occurred on 1 January 1976 when separate administrations were created out of the civil service of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony.[2] Kiribati attained independence on 12 July 1979 by the Kiribati Independence Order 1979 made by the Privy Council.

Postage stamps[edit]

The Islands used their own postage stamps from 1911.


  1. ^ a b Nohlen, D, Grotz, F & Hartmann, C (2001) Elections in Asia: A data handbook, Volume II, p. 831, ISBN 0-19-924959-8
  2. ^ a b c d e f Tuvalu: A History, Chapter 20, Secession and Independence, pp. 153–177
  3. ^ McIntyre, W. David (2012). "The Partition of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands". Island Studies Journal 7 (1): 135–146. 
  4. ^ a b Reilly Ridgell. Pacific Nations and Territories: The Islands of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. 3rd. Ed. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1995. p. 95.
  5. ^ Very often, this name applied only to the southern islands of the archipelago. Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam Webster, 1997. p. 594.
  6. ^ "Agreement between Tuvalu and Kiribati concerning their Maritime Boundary". 29 August 2012. 
  7. ^ "Maps of Tuvalu". Retrieved 21 October 2011. 
  8. ^ Miscellanies: by an officer, Volume 1, Ch. LXXX By John Watts De Peyster, A.E. Chasmer & Co. (1888)
  9. ^ Laumua Kofe, Palagi and Pastors, Tuvalu: A History, Ch. 15, Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific and Government of Tuvalu, 1983
  10. ^ Findlay Alexander George, A Directory for the Navigation of the Pacific Ocean: With Description of Its Coasts, Islands, Etc. from the Strait of Magalhaens to the Arctic Sea
  11. ^ Other acts on the same subject: Pacific Islanders Protection Act 1872; Pacific Islanders Protection Act 1875; Pacific Island Labourers Act 1880; Pearl-Shell and Bêche-de-mer Fishery Act 1881; Native Labourers Protection Act 1884
  12. ^ Resture, Jane. "TUVALU HISTORY – 'The Davis Diaries' (H.M.S. Royalist, 1892 visit to Ellice Islands under Captain Davis)". Retrieved 20 September 2011. 
  13. ^ a b c Noatia P. Teo, Hugh Larcy (ed) (1983). "Chapter 17, Colonial Rule". Tuvalu: A History. University of the South Pacific/Government of Tuvalu. pp. 127–139. 
  14. ^ Annexation of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands to his Majesty's dominions : at the Court at Buckingham Palace, the 10th day of November, 1915. Great Britain, Privy Council, Gilbert and Ellice Islands Order in Council, 1915 (Suva, Fiji : Government Printer). 1916. 
  15. ^ a b c Teo, Noatia P. & Larcy, Hugh, ed. (1983). "Chapter 19, Post-War Development". Tuvalu: A History. University of the South Pacific/Government of Tuvalu. pp. 146–152. 
  16. ^ General election, 1974 : report / Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. Tarawa: Central Government Office. 1974. 

Further reading[edit]