The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a British protectorate from 1892 and colony from 1916 until January 1, 1976, when the islands were divided into two colonies which became the independent nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu shortly after. The Gilbert Islands (formerly Kingsmill Islands) are a chain of sixteen atolls and coral islands arranged in an approximate north-to-south line in the western Pacific Ocean that are recognized as part of the Micronesia subregion of Oceania and are the main part of what is now Republic of Kiribati (“Kiribati” is the Gilbertese rendition of “Gilberts”) The Ellice Islands are south of the Gilbert Islands and comprises three reef islands and six true atolls spread out between the latitude of 5° to 10° south and longitude of 176° to 180°, west of the International Date Line. The Ellice Islands are midway between Hawaii and Australia. They are recognized as part of the Polynesia subregion of Oceania.
In 1606, Pedro Fernandes de Queirós sighted Butaritari and Makin, which he named the Buen Viaje (‘good trip’ in Spanish) Islands. The Gilbert Islands were named in 1820 by a Russian admiral, Johann von Krusenstern after a British captain, Thomas Gilbert, who encountered the archipelago in 1788 while exploring an Outer Passage route from Port Jackson to Canton. 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, who sighted the islands in 1819 sailing on the ship Rebecca. 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.
A protectorate was generally established over this area (but not over these islands) by the Pacific Islanders Protection Act of 1857 and then in 1877 for the Western Pacific Territories. The sixteen islands of the Gilberts were declared a British Protectorate by Captain Davis R.N., of HMS Royalist between May 27 and June 17, 1892. The Ellice Islands were declared a British Protectorate by Captain Gibson R.N., of HMS Curacoa, between October 9 and 16 of the same year.
The British Western Pacific Territories (BWPT) were administered by a High Commissioner resident in Fiji. A Resident Commissioner, Charles Swayne, was appointed for the Ellice Islands in 1892 and for the Gilbert Islands in 1893. He was succeeded by W. Telfer Campbell in 1896, who established himself on Tarawa Atoll and remained in office until 1908. Telfer Campbell was criticized for his legislative, judicial and administrative management (including forced labor alleged to be exacted from islanders) and an inquiry was held by Arthur Mahaffy, a former colonial official in the Gilberts, resulting in a report in 1909. In 1913, an anonymous correspondent to the New Age journal described the maladministration of Telfer Campbell, linked it to criticisms of the Pacific Phosphate Company which was operating on Ocean Island, and questioned the impartiality of Mahaffy.
The first mail service to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands was ad hoc, depending on which ships were calling at the various islands. A regular service began in 1911. Edward VII postage stamps of Fiji were overprinted GILBERT & ELLICE / PROTECTORATE and put on sale on January 1 of that year, followed in March by a set of four stamps depicting a Pandanus tree, inscribed GILBERT & ELLICE ISLANDS / PROTECTORATE. These were followed in 1912 by George V stamps of the common type, inscribed GILBERT & ELLICE ISLANDS. A new definitive series came out starting January 14, 1939, featuring local scenery and a profile of George VI. These were updated in 1956 with a profile of Elizabeth II.
In 1913, the seat of government was moved to Ocean Island (now known as Banaba Island), which had been included in the protectorate in 1900, to take advantage of the improved shipping connections resulting from the Pacific Phosphate Company’s activities. The status of the islands was changed on January 12, 1916, to that of a Crown Colony by the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Order in Council, 1915. The role of the British colonial authorities emphasized the procurement of labor for the Ocean Island phosphate mining and keeping order among the workers.
Fanning Island and Washington Island also became included in the colony together with the islands of the Union Islands (now known as Tokelau); Christmas Island was included in 1919 but was contested by the United States under its Guano Islands Act of 1856, which allowed for very wide-ranging territorial claims. The Union Islands were transferred to New Zealand administration in 1926, abolishing their chiefdoms.
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony continued to be administered by a Resident Commissioner. 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. The Phoenix Islands were added to the colony in 1937.
Banaba Island (Ocean Island) remained the headquarters of the colony until the British evacuation in 1942 during the Pacific War as Ocean Island and the Gilbert Islands were occupied by the Japanese. The United States forces landed in Funafuti on October 2, 1942, and on Nanumea and Nukufetau in August 1943 and constructed an airfield on each island and other bases. The atolls of Tuvalu acted as a staging post during the preparation for the Battle of Tarawa and the Battle of Makin that commenced on November 20, 1943. Colonel Fox-Strangways, was the Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in 1941, who was located on Funafuti.
In 1947, the colony headquarters was re-established on Tarawa, first on Betio islet and subsequently on Bairiki islet. This development included establishing The King George V Secondary School for boys and the Elaine Bernacchi Secondary School for girls. By the Tokelau Act of 1948, sovereignty over Tokelau was transferred to New Zealand.
A Colony Conference was organized 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. 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.
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.
A select committee of the House of Representatives was established to consider whether the constitution should be changed 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.
The five islands of the Central and Southern Line Islands were added to the colony in 1972. In 1974, ministerial government was introduced in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony through a change to the Constitution. The Tuvaluans were concerned about their minority status in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. Ethnic differences within the colony caused the Polynesians of the Ellice Islands to vote for separation from the Micronesians of the Gilbert Islands.
A referendum was held in December 1974 to determine whether the Gilbert Islands and Ellice Islands should each have their own administration. The British conducted a formal inquiry into Tuvaluan attitudes towards secession, and announced that a referendum was to be held, in which Tuvaluans could choose to remain with the Gilberts or secede. They were told that if they separated they would not receive royalties from the Ocean Island phosphate or other assets of the colony. Despite this, 3799 Tuvaluans (92%) voted to secede, while 293 voted against secession. The Tuvaluan Order 1975 made by the Privy Council, which took effect on October 1, 1975, recognized Tuvalu as a separate British dependency with its own government.
On January 1, 1976, full administration of the new colony was transferred to Funafuti from Tarawa. Tuvalu became an independent constitutional monarchy and the 38th member of the Commonwealth on October 1, 1978. The Gilbert Islands attained independence on July 12, 1979, under the name Kiribati by the Kiribati Independence Order 1979, as a republic with Commonwealth membership. That day, the colonial flag was lowered for the last time with a parade commemorating both the newly independent state and in memorial of the intense battles fought on Tarawa in World War II. The parade included many dignitaries from home and abroad.
Banaba Island, formerly rich in phosphates before becoming fully depleted in the latter colonial years, also sued for independence in 1979 and boycotted the Kiribati ceremonies. The Banabans wanted greater autonomy and reparations of around $250 million for revenue they had not received and for environmental destruction caused by phosphate mining practices similar to those on Nauru. The British authorities had relocated most of the population to Rabi Island, Fiji after 1945, but by the 1970s many were returning to Banaba. The British rejected the Banaban independence proposal, and the island remained under the jurisdiction of Kiribati.
In the early twentieth century, private stamp issues appeared for use on Christmas Island issued by the Central Pacific Cocoanut Plantations Ltd. The company leased the island to exploit coconut plantations. Although resources differ somewhat on what stamps were issued when, it would seem the first stamps were issued in 1916 and reissued in 1924 in a denomination of 5 centimes. The proprietor of the company was French, hence the denomination in the French currency. Stamps of the same design were issued in a denomination of 10 centimes in 1926 and reissued in 1934. The stamps were valid only for local mail on the island and for mail carried to the nearest port by the vessels of the company. Ongoing mail had to be additionally franked — on most covers the additional franking is with stamps of French Oceania — Tahiti being the most frequented port of call. The private issues were withdrawn in 1939 when a Gilbert and Ellice post office was opened on Christmas Island.
Scott #40, half penny dark green and slate black, was released on January 14, 1939, as the lowest denomination in a set of 12 pictorial definitives bearing the portrait of King George VI. The engraved stamp was perforated 11½x11 and watermarked with a multi-script CA.