World Travel Guide > Guides > Oceania > Tuvalu

Tuvalu History, Language and Culture

History of Tuvalu

Formerly known as the Ellice or Lagoon Islands, Tuvalu was a slaving post a situation that, along with imported European diseases, cut the population from 20,000 in 1850 to 3000 in 1875. Two years later, the islands were taken under British jurisdiction and ruled from Fiji. In 1916, they were taken into the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and ruled as a colony, until internal self-government was granted in 1974. The islands were split from the Gilberts (which became Kiribati) in 1976, gaining independence as Tuvalu in 1978. Now the world's second-smallest sovereign state (after Nauru), Tuvalu's post-independence governments have been mostly concerned with maintaining the economy.

During the 1990s, however, as the influence of global warming on the climate started to become apparent, the very survival of the country itself has become the most pressing issue. One immediate consequence of the warming is a rise in sea levels the highest point on the island group is just 5 metres (16ft) above sea level. In the last five years, several small uninhabited islands have disappeared beneath the Pacific waves after the annual cyclone season. Many of the 10,000 population are now convinced that the island group quite literally has no future. The government has an arrangement with New Zealand, under which Tuvaluans will gradually be resettled.

Other political issues tend to pale into insignificance under such conditions. However, in the past, Tuvalu was very strongly opposed to French nuclear testing in the Pacific while, on the domestic front, there were heated debates on the country's constitutional future. A referendum in 1986 favoured the islands retaining their existing status of constitutional monarchy, rejecting the alternative option of becoming a republic. A treaty of friendship was signed with the USA in 1983. Despite the difficulties of running a country and an economy spread over three-quarters of a billion square kilometres with a land area of just 26 sq km (10 sq miles), Tuvalu nonetheless made substantial progress in education, health care and economic development.

In September 2000, Tuvalu was admitted to the United Nations, having been one of the very few sovereign states that did not belong to the organisation. Tuvalu has no political parties and under these circumstances, individual personalities have inevitably dominated the political scene. The 1990s were dominated by two such figures Tomasi Puapua (who is now Governor-General) and Bikenibeu Paeniu who vied for the premiership through most of the decade. In July 2002, Saufatu Sopoanga emerged as the new premier. However, dissatisfaction quickly accrued and, eventually, an opposition-sponsored vote of confidence in August 2004 saw Sopoanga lose by eight votes to six. He quickly resigned and a parliamentary vote saw Maatia Toafa, former deputy Prime Minister, be inaugurated. Optimism about the future of Tuvalu persists.

Tuvalu Culture

Religion in Tuvalu

Approximately 98% Protestant.

Social Conventions in Tuvalu

Traditional values continue to dominate Tuvaluan culture. Footwear should be removed when entering a church, a village meeting house (manepa) or private house. Religion plays an important part in daily life. Sunday is a day of rest and church-going for the locals, when visitors are advised to choose activities which do not cause too much disruption. There are limits imposed on the consumption of alcohol outside licensed premises. Whilst dress is usually casual, it is customary for women to keep their thighs covered and beachwear should be confined to the beach or poolside. There are procedures which should be followed by those invited to a feast and visitors should take local advice about this and other matters. It is customary not to speak a foreign language in the presence of a person who does not know it, so apparent indications of a desire to hold a private or confidential conversation should be interpreted as simple courtesy to fellow islanders. Visitors are welcome to join in the numerous local festivals and celebrations with feasting and traditional entertainment.

Language in Tuvalu

Tuvaluan and English are the main languages.

A digital image at

Book a Hotel