Tuvalu comprises a chain, 580 kilometres long, of 9 coral islands lying between 5 and 11 degrees south of the equator, just to the west of the International Date Line.  Six of the islands are built around lagoons open to the ocean.  They are Nanumea, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti and Nukulaelae.  With the exception of Vaitupu where the sea enters the lagoon at only one point, these six are all atolls consisting of numerous pieces of land linked by a reef and arranged rather like a string of beads. Of the other islands, Nanumaga and Niutao have completely landlocked lagoons while Niulakita has no lagoon at all, but only a swamp at the centre.  It has never had a permanent population and has not been taken into account in the naming of the Tuvalu group. Tuvalu means "group of eight". 


The different islands of Tuvalu are all unique in these respects. In most of the islands of Tuvalu people believe that the Eel and the Flounder were the first creators of Tuvalu and so strong is this belief that nearly all the islands regard the Eel as tapu among the many fish that are edible.  In some places the people believed that the spirits of their great grandfathers were the creators of their islands. In other islands they believe that a woman who once lived on the moon was the creator. 


The Eel and the Flounder were once great friends. They lived in one home in the sea and shared things together.  One day they made up their minds to carry home a very huge stone to test who was the stronger of them.  On the way home, they began to argue, and then to fight and the Flounder was seriously wounded. He was crushed beneath the stone but fortunately escaped death. When he had freed himself he chased the Eel who at the same time was vomiting after getting a heavy blow to his stomach.  As the Eel ran for his life, still vomiting, his body began thinner and thinner. At last he hid himself in a hole.  While the Flounder was still looking for him the Eel said some magic words to help him escape.   He said:

Wide and Flat, Wide and Flat,
To feed on you, te Ali.
Wide and Flat, Wide and Flat,
You will never, never kill me.

When the Eel had said these magic words the Flounder's body became flat and so provided a model for the flat islands of Tuvalu that would one day be placed in that part of the sea. The Eel's own thin round body became like a coconut tree and that is why we have coconut trees growing on all the islands of Tuvalu. 

But the story did not end there.  The Eel went back to the hole in the sea again but it was not satisfied with what he had done.  So when the Flounder died he remembered the very big stone that they had carried.   He decided to have a closer look at it and saw that it had three colours: black, white and blue.  He took the stone and threw it high in the air.  It did not fall; but stuck in space right above him then he said his magic words:

Black, white and blue,
I will always be true,
To myself and to you, too,
To make you and me friends.

The big stone then began to fall down slowly to the earth. When it landed the Eel went to see the stone.  He found to his surprise that much of the blue part of it had broken off and had remained in space to become the sky.  The Eel was very cross that the blue part had been left behind so again he threw the stone back into the sky. This time it stuck on its black side. There was darkness all around him. It was the night.  So the Eel said some magic words and the stone fell down onto its white side breaking the darkness. And so the light came and there was day.  He was then able to see that of the colours of the stone, the black and white parts had been torn completely away leaving only some of the blue part.  Again he took the stone and threw it in turn to the north, east, south and west.  After the last throw it did not come back.  Again he uttered some magic words and he saw parts of the blue stone lying all around - it was the sea. He then went to what is left of the stone and broke it into eight pieces, one for each of the main islands of Tuvalu.         


Our traditions say that the first people to settle on the sand banks now called Nunumea were two women named Pai and Vau.  It is said that the neighbouring islets were formed from the sand which fell out of the women's baskets after they had been sent away from Nanumea by the Tongan warrior Tefolaha who became the ancestor of the people of Nanumea. 

Tefolaha was involved in some battle between Tongan and Samoan warriors. After one of these wars Tefolaha decided to settle in Samoa. He was given some land by the Samoans for helping them fight the Tongans. But Tefolaha soon  became tired of fighting so he decided to leave Samoa, hoping to meet with new adventures somewhere else. He travelled for many days, meeting with strong winds and currents until he finally arrived on the beach of Nanumea.

When Tefolaha arrived at Nanumea he thought that the island was uninhabited but he soon found some footprints in the sand which he followed until he came upon two women, Pai and Vau. They were weaving baskets and gallands when Tefolaha suddenly appeared. He ordered the women to leave the island at once on the grounds that he was the owner. The women however, insisted that Tefolaha should leave, unless he could tell them their names. In doing so they were adopting a defence that is frequently used in the mythology of the Pacific Islands. This mythology reflects the belief that to know someone's name is in some way to have power over that person.  On Funafuti for instance, in a story collected by Mrs. David, four brothers named Nautiki, Nautaka, Valivalimatanaka and Naka attempted to save their house from a dwarf named Nariao by telling him that he could hav it only if he guessed their names. Craftily, Nariao climbed up onto the roof of the house and lowered a large spider onto the forehead of each brother. As he expected, each one was called by name by the other brothers to warn him of the spider. Nariao heard all this, and quickly went to the brothers and told them their names. They then departed, leaving the house to him. It was much the same on Nanumea with Tefolaha and Pai and Vau.

Tefolaha was known in Samoa as "Folasa-Aitu" because he was able to turn himself into a spirit.  As he was keen to know the names of the women he turned himself into a spirit so that he could easily get up into the rafters of the hut to observe them.   Then he took a piece of string, tied a wooden hook to the end of it and, having climbed onto the roof of the house, lowered the hook down close to one of the women.   When the other woman saw it she called out "Pai look out. There is a hook above your head." Tefolaha then knew the name of that woman was Pai. He now wished to know the name of the other woman so he pulled up the hook and then lowered the hook close to the other woman's head.  Pai called out "Vau, look out the hook is over your head." Now Tefolaha knew for certain the names of both women. Using his magic powers he turned himself into a man again and walked towards the two women.

"Why have you come to my island without my permission?" he asked.  One of the women said "It is our island.   We were the first to live here."  To this Tefolaha said, "There is, as we have already discussed, only one way to sort out who owns this island.  If you can tell me my name you can have the land.  If I can tell you what your names are, I can have the land." The two women agreed.   They asked Tefolaha to tell them their names.  Tefolaha paused for a little while and then pointing to one of them, he said, "You are Pai."  He then pointed to the other and said "You are Vau."  The two women were very surprised because the man knew their names. 

Tefolaha then said, "Now, it is your turn to tell my name." They thought and thought. They gave him this name and that but none was correct. Tefolaha had now the right to be the owner of Nanumea.  He asked the two women to leave the island and they picked up their baskets of sand and left spilling sand as they went.  From the sand they spilled the islets of Lefogaki, Te Afua-a-Taepoa and Lakena were formed. The two women then landed in Kiribati where they stayed.

Having won the island, Tefolaha then married a woman named Loukite. They had five daughters.   Four of the daughters were fierce cannibals with beaked fish mouths, so Tefolaha had to kill them.  The fifth, named Koli, did not eat people and so was allowed to live. Some time later Tefolaha returned to Samoa for a visit.  On this trip he also visited Tonga, where he acquired a new wife named Puleala. The children he had by her were all fully human and it is from their three sons, Tuutaki, Fiaola and Lavega that most Nanumeans traced their descent. 

There are other things too, which swerve to remind Nanumeans of the heroic Founder of their community. One is the belief, still strong among them, that they are the rightful owners of Tefolaha's land in Samoa, although that is now claimed by the Samoan Government. Another is, or what is at least thought to be, Tefolaha's grave. In 1978 this was dug up near the residence of Tepou, one of his descendants. A huge flat stone was found in the grave, together with pieces of decayed bone believed by the people to be the founder's remains.

According to tradition, soon after the first settlers were established on Nanumea their peace was disturbed by visitors from Tonga. The first of these is said to have been a lone voyager, a prince named Lupo, who came from Nukualofa. He was first seen by Kaimoko, as inhabitant of Nanumea, who was fishing on the reef. Observing Lupo trying to come up on the reef, Kaimoko broke the long handle off his tae fagota (a round fishing net with a very long handle used for catching reef-fish during low tide) and threw it at Lupo. The prince was struck in the eye. It is said that Lupo immediately turned back for his homeland with the handle still stuck in his eye. He completed his journey, only to be found lying dead on the beach with the handle of the tae fagota still there in his eye. His countrymen tried to pull it out while uttering the names of different countries but they could not do so until the name Nanumea was mentioned. The Tongans then learnt that that was where the prince was killed. Because of the death of Lupo, successive raiding parties from Tonga visited Nanumea to exact revenge for their dead prince. One of the parties was led by a giant called Tuulaapoupou. It is said that Lapi, a Nanumean warrior fought the giant on the southern reef of the main island and killed him with the Kaumaile, the powerful spear which belonged to their warrior ancestor Tefolaha. Tradition tells us that Lapi was aided in the fight by Tefolaha from the spiritual world.

In yet another attempt to subdue Nanumea, a raiding party from Tonga was destroyed by the combined magic of the powerful spirits of Nanumea - Tagaloa (the chief spirit), and Maumau and Na Kaa, (the eel and the octopus). The occupants of only one of the eleven war canoes were allowed to live. It is said that the crew of this particular canoe were all octopus worshippers and that, consequently, the octopus who was responsible for cutting the anchors off the war canoes left their canoe alone. Noko and Ila, the Tongan women who were with the survivors of the spared canoe, warned the Nanumeans to avoid eating the leve, a poisonous fruit which they would be given to eat by the Tongan warriors. The two women also informed the Nanumea warriors where to find the weapons of the Tongans.

Another raid was notable for the presence of Laukava, a son of a Nanumea woman who had been kidnapped by the first raiders, a generation before. Despite fighting bravely, this party of Tongans, too, was defeated, but when the battle was over Laukava's Nanumea ancestry was discovered by the victors. He was spared, and allowed to live on the island. It was a wise decision, for when the nest generation of Tongan warriors returned, Laukava defeated them single handed. Moreover, he then persuaded the survivors that a Tongan victory was no longer possible, and so they agreed never to return. This ended the intermittent fighting and the raids that had regularly killed many Nanumeans and disturbed island peace.

Meanwhile, despite the raids, Nanumea society continued to function along the lines laid down by Tefolaha. He gave to his sons by Puleala various responsibilities and privileges which they in turn passed on to their children. Tuutoki was given the task of cutting up fish offered to the chief by his people. His descendants are called Kau a te Nifo (the 'dividers'). Fiaola was given the task of passing food to the chief. His descendants are called Kau o te Tufa (the 'distributors'). The youngest son, Lavega was given a much greater task. He was to guard and protect his father, the chief, on his journeys at sea and on land and to carry out his orders. It is said that he was also given power to alter the directions of the wind so that the chief's journey could be safely completed.

So well did Lavega perform his duties that eventually he was appointed aliki by his father. Mopreover all subsequent alike claimed descent from him. Thus the Te Aliki a Mua, one of the two aliki clans (aliki maga) which traditionally ruled (hopo) the island, traces its descent back tohim through a notable ancestor named Teilo. Leadership by a member of this clan is supposed to be marked by successful ocean fishing and abundant coconut production. The name of the branch means 'the front chief' and refers to the fact the Teilo was older than his half-brother, Tepaa. They were sons of the same mother. The other leading clan, Te Aliki a Muli, meaning 'back chief', claims descent from Tepaa. The rule of this line is characterised by an abundance of easily caught reef fish.

In addition to the two leading maga there are five other chiefly branches which developed later. Normally the ruling chief was selected from the main branches alternately but occasionally he might be chosen from one of the other. These others are as follows:

Te Tuinanumea. An offshoot of Aliki a Mua, this branch, which is said to have provided carpenters for the aliki.

Te Aliki o Tai or Tuumau. The function of this branch, which was supposed to care for the welfare of the aliki, has been well described by Anne Chambers. Its members would organize and form the crew for canoe voyages of the aliki (hence the word ocean, tai, in the name Tuumau ('stand fast') marks this maga as having been descended from the aliki Logotau, who stayed to fight the I-Kiribati invaders when when all the other aliki fled. The role of this maga as leoleo (guardian) of the aliki stems from Logotau's assumption of that role, and members of the branch lecture men who have been chosen to hopo (reign) on their duties and appropriate behaviour before they take office. Traditionally the group is not supposed to rule but one of its members did so in 1960 when he was told to do so by Government officials from Tarawa.

Te Paa Heiloa. The name means having no paa, or defects. Paa is normally applied to mis-shaped wood, which the members of the maga are skilled at carving into beautiful canoes. They also have a reputation for being physically beautiful and for being skilled in the use of magic, which enables them to catch very large numbers of fish. Sometimes they are called Kau o te toki or adze holders.

Taualepuke and Pologa. Both these maga are said to have done 'the work of the aliki' but their specific functions have been forgotten.

Before the arrival of the Europeans the ruling chief was chosen from the two chiefly branches. In later years some from other lines were chosen. When a ruling chief was appointed he had to be well behaved. Traditional belief tells that misfortune would befall the island if the chief's behaviour was not appropriate to his position. The ceremony of appointment would occur the day after the meeting of the chiefly members to decide who was suitable to be chosen. The festivities of the day included the ceremonial fighting called tualapalapa, in which the appointed chierf's guardians symbolically protected, and also hand fed (fakapuku), the new chief in deference to his high status.

The ruling chief used to get a share of food prepared by the chiefly members. This share, called faagaiga, has long since been passed over to the pastor by the consent of chiefly clans.

At one time the various aliki controlled all the land on Nanumea, but this changed as they gradually handed over much of it to the tuaatina (their mothers' brothers) who cared for them, to the toa (warriors) who defended the island and to the fakaalofa (new comers) who were adopted into the kopiti or land-holding extended family groups. By 1900 there were about seven or eight such groups although by that time they were already dying out. Their decline followed from the destruction of the old religion, since people approached many of the aitu as members of a particular kopiti. The death-blow came with the registering of lands in the names of individual owners by D.G. Kennedy in the 1930's. Meanwhile the aliki families, as a result of their ancestors' generosity, were relatively impoverished, although they still owned most of the matafenua (that is, the ends of the islets). Thus it is that some of the descendants of Taitai, a later migrant from Kiribati, have more land than some members of old chiefly families.

The colonial government aimed to reduce the powers of the aliki. The Native Laws of the Ellice Islands in 1894 recognised the High Chief as the main member of the island government. Then in 1916 he was the main member of the island government. Then in 1916 he was replaced by a magistrate and a lesser ranking Chief Kaupule, while in 1968 the establishment of a system of elected Island Councils means that the aliki of Nanumea would no longer participate officially in government. Chief Kaupule were supposed to be elected by the island people from among the aliki but in practice they were often appointed, and summarily dismissed, by touring colonial officials.

The last ulu aliki ('head aliki') to serve on Nanumea, held his position for about five years, until 1968. Most Nanumea people believe that this malo fou ('new government') put an end to their traditional aliki leader, as well as to the Famasino and Chief Kaupule combination that had ruled them since 1894. Nevertheless in 1970 they reorganized the aliki system to the concerns to form a group of twelve men called the kau aliki. This was to attend to the concerns of the island in a non-governmental way. It would, for instance, organise island events, set rules for wedding feasts, and care for the ahiga or meeting house. Despite the important of such functions in the life of the community the kau aliki did not last long. It was disbanded in July 1973 because its members felt that their duties were below their dignity, and so degraded further their traditional status. The functions of the kau aliki were then taken over by the Island Council. The final blow to the old chiefly order came in 1974 when the leader of the former kau aliki attempted to register the group as a club with the Island Executive Officer (IEO) and was refused. The IEO said that the aliki had no place in modern life, and therefore should not be recognized.

However, much had happened on Nanumea that must be recorded before that point was reached.

After the Tongans, people from Kiribati (or Tungaru) started invading the Tuvalu Islands. Thus Uakeia and Kaitu, two warriors well known throughout the Tungaru group, conquered Nui but are said to have passed by Nanumea due to the powerful magic of the Nanumea priests in making currents too strong for them to land.

Nanumea traditional history tells that about 1700-1750 Taitai, Uakeia's son, was more successful and landed on the island together with his sister Teputi and a fellow warrior from Onotoa named Temotu. Tradition says that Teputi warned her brother not to land on Nanumea as she had seen, through her magic, the danger they would face if they tried to land. But Taitai was a great warrior. He despised the warning, and his confidence was rewarded. The three were accepted and apparently adopted into island families since both Taitai and his sister were both married on Nanumea. Still, Taitai planned to dominate the island. Gradually, he killed Nanumea warriors secretly as they worked alone in the bush. Taitai even terrorised the island's chiefs into fleeing to neighbouring islands of the group until he virtually ruled the island himself. Logotau was the only young chief remaining on Nanumea. He hid himself in the bush with Matio's assistance. Matio was one of the island's warriors. He, with the young chief, plotted to kill the usurpers. The plan was successful. They killed Taitai by luring him to dig a post-hole for a new ahiga and stabbed him fatally. Temotu, who was with a party of dancing girls, was killed when he tried to escape. Teputi, with all the descendants of the Tungaru immigrants, was allowed to live. The exiled chiefs, meanwhile, used magic visions to keep abreast of developments at home and decided to return. They agreed that the first of them to return would rule. Logotau, who had never left, was there to greet them as they arrived and mocked them for their cowardice. Ashamed, they all agreed Logotau should rule, but he refused, preferring to uphold whoever was made chief and to use his strength to provide continuity as the chief changed from time to time.

Though Taitai was killed by the people of Nanumea his struggle to settle there was at least partly a success. Today his exploits are recalled by his descendants who still live on the island. One of them is named after Taitai's father - Uakeia. Remembered, also, is a grandson of Taitai named Poepoe, who planned to avenge the killing of his grandfather.When he was forbidden by his father to fulfil his intention Poepoe sent out ina canoe with his uncle Pikia to folau, or commit suicide at sea. No one heard about what happened to them until nearly 200 years later, in the 1960's, when some Tuvaluans living in the Solomon Islands heard a local tradition of Poepoe's canoe arriving safely at tiny Anuta Island. An account of this voyage was also collected by the anthropologist Raymond Firth in 1929.

Not all fighting on Nanumea was against attackers from outside. Occasionally our people fought among themselves. The most famous such conflict was the 'taro pit war' which occurred about 250-300 years ago. Probably because of a prolonged drought, the inhabitants of the island had split into two groups, one living on Lakena and the other on the main island of Nanumea. They were forbidden to travel to each other's residence. Then, as today, there were no taro pits on the main island of Nanumea. The people living there resented their lack of taro to eat and decided to plant some on Nanumea, even though that would attract mosquitoes to the island. Accordingly, they secretly raided Lakena to get taro shoots to plant, and then returned to Nanumea and started digging a pit. The Lakena people ambushed the Nanumeans while they were at work. Each side then took up positions at rock outcrops (pae) along the lagoon shore, the Lakena people at Pae and Kamu and the Nanumeans at Pae Hoopuu. Rocks, and spears carved out of coconut wood, were the main weapons used by each side. The leader's names of this war are forgotten but evidently the Lakena people were victorious. If the Nanumeans had defeated the people of Lakena, it is likely that Nanumea would today suffer from the stings of the mosquitoes, as Lakena still does. As it is, the inhabitants of Nanumea, where the whole population again lives, are proud of their mosquito-free island and prefer the long trip to Lakena to obtain pulaka to being pestered by mosquitoes.

This was strikingly shown in the 1950's when they forbade the Samoan teacher of the new village school to dig taro pits at Matagi, just across the lagoon from the main village.

The last fighting between large groups of Nanumeans occurred about 1840, before the missionaries put an end to such activities. It involved the members of two extended families, one led by a man called Keli and the other by Laukava, who was seeking to avenge the attempted abduction of his wife. About half of the ten men who fought on each side were killed.

Violence, exercised by one or two of the leading warriors, was also used as a means of ridding the community of undesirables. The last time this happened was about 1874, when a man called Kalihi was killed. He was supposed to be killed by a toa named Moulogo. Instead Moulogo's younger brother Tepou, hearing of the plan, decided to do the job himself. So he met Kalihi one night and stabbed him fatally in the stomach with a sharp-pointed club. Kalihi took the club and broke it but before he could do anything more Tepou and men of Nanumea grabbed him and tied him up. They then put him in a leaking canoe without a paddle and pushed him away from land, which was another way of disposing of trouble-makers.

The next morning Moulogo arrived from Lakena ready to fight Kalihi, only to learn that he was already dead. Tradition tells us that Moulogo was furious at the news. He then threatened to kill Tepou, but was persuaded by some of his relatives to leave brother alone and to join them in accepting the new religion - Christianity. Moulogo agreed, and not only urged others on the island to become Christians but announced his own wish to be a deacon.

Christianity had a difficult beginning on Nanumea. It was introduced by a man named Tumumuni, who converted his brother Teuhie, a powerful toa. Eventually they managed to persuade the aliki, Lie, to accept a teacher, but only after Captain Moresby of the Basilisk in 1872 had demonstrated the frightening power of a naval bombardment. A few months later Tuilouaa, the first teacher, arrived. In 1874 the Nanumea people showed that they had accepted Christianity by ceasing to practise the traditional purification ceremonies for strangers. These ceremonies, which could last all day, were a religious activity, intended to counter any hostile aitu, or tapu. Yet they were also useful in a practical way in that the ritual washings reduced the risk of strangers bringing harmful infections to the island.

In 1922 (on the last day of the New Year celebrations) the people decided to commemorate the golden jubilee of the introduction of Christianity by Temumuni. They had no time to prepare a great feast. Instead they decided to complete the conversation those families who had retained their old beliefs, and named the day Po'o Tefolaha, 'the day of Tefolaha'. Some years later a Samoan pastor changed the name to Pati, a word formed from the first letters of Po Alo Tefolaha Iesu, 'the day of Tefolaha and Jesus'. This is now the day on which new members are admitted in the Church of Tuvalu. The church bell is rung as each member is accepted.


Nanumaga folk-tales concerning creation all state that in the beginning the heavens and earth were united, but there are varying accounts of how they were separated. One popular story tells how Tepuhi, a spirit with the physical form of a sea-serpent, lifted the heavens to their present positions.  Finding that the earth was one massive stretch of land, he then smashed it up and formed oceans and rivers between the pieces.  Tepuhi as the woman, and earth as the man, later begot the human race. 

Another version tells of a substance called Te Atua o Heka which lay between earth and the heavens.  As it was slippery Te Atua o Heka moved about and caused earth and heavens to shift.  After some time it expanded and gradually forced them apart.   The human race was also formed from this substance.  The first product of it were spirits, both good and bad, who possessed supernatural powers.  Over time, however, they lost these powers and eventually became human. Te Atua o Heka, meanwhile had become personified as ruler of the heavens and earth and had gone to live in the sky. 

Eventually a system of clans evolved and within these clans, life revolved around the family.   Traditionally, families consisted of three or four generations, all living and working together.  These extended families were headed by the most senior elder, who would represent the family in clan meetings.  The actual management of each family, however, was entrusted to his sons (or, if need to be, his daughters).  The sons in turn would look upon the eldest among them as leader but any dispute among them would be settled by the head of the family. When the head of the family died his position was taken over the his second eldest brother, or his eldest son, not by his widow.

The island, in turn, was ruled by the representatives from each clan, who sat in the council of chiefs with the king.  The king did not normally talk during these meetings, but expressed himself through the representatives of the Magatai clan, who also conducted the meetings.   Decisions were based on consensus.

Besides the clans, two large social groups called Tonga (south) and Tokelau (north) have been formed on the island.  Tonga and Tokelau do not have any significant positions in community affairs and are called together mainly when a large number of people is needed for a game.   People are more loyal to their clans than to either of these groups.

Despite the importance of clan loyalties and the many profound changes that have occurred in their way of life the people of Nanumaga still retain their traditional respect for their leaders. This is not always to their advantage, as was strikingly shown in recent times by their enthusiastic acceptance of an ill-conceived investment scheme, which brought heavy and embarrassing losses to the island. In 1979 a salesman from a United States land-selling company, Green Valley Acres Incorporated, arrived in Tuvalu. He was Mr Bula Tikotasi O'Brien, a part-Tuvaluan. About the same time the government was investing money with another American land developer, Mr Sydney Gross. O'Brien had come to sell the islanders pieces of land in Texas, and the people of Nanumaga, urged by their elders, yielded to his persuasion. As a result they committed nearly all the funds of the island to paying inflated prices for land which is likely never to be of any use to them because it is of very poor quality, isolated and without water or other essential services. Moreover, Tuvalu people have no right of access to USA. It was an expensive way to learn how important it is to be careful when conducting business but the lesson is not likely to be forgotten.


Niutao is roughly rectangular in shape and has a tiny land-locked lagoon in the middle.  It was believed in former times, and the story is still told, that the two women, Pai and Vau who made Nanumea, also made Niutao.  They came from Kiribati with baskets of earth which they scattered around to form islands. 

The first inhabitants of Niutao were half spirit and half human beings who lived at Mulitefao.   Their leader was Kulu who took the form of a woman.  The first human settlers came from Samoa in a canoe captained by a man called Mataika. He settled at Tamana on the eastern side of the island, whre winds sweep the spray of the surf over between the people of Tamana and the beings who dwelt at Mulitefao. Mataika had many children. Later, a man by the name of Faitafaga with a party of ten lesser chiefs, followed Mataika from Samoa. He, too, was accepted at Niutao where he built a village named Savaea, a little to the north of Mulitefao.

As in other islands in the Atu Tuvalu, only the first male child and the first female child of a marriage were permitted to live. Later children were held beneath the water of the small lagoon until they were dead. This was to ensure that the population did not grow out of proportion to the resources of the island. To assist them in the conduct of their affairs, the people offered prayers to, and sought guidance from, the moon and sun and the spirits of their ancestors. From these spirits certain elders, of whom Fakaua was the most famous, obtained magical power which enabled them do such things as calm the sea before fishing expeditions, cause death or insanity and to bring rain. When turtles were caught at sea or on the steep sandy beaches their heads were ceremonially presented to the chiefs, who sat at the southern end of the large fale-kaupule or meeting house.

According to our tradition the early inhabitants of Niutao enjoyed a pleasant, easy life, undisturbed by strife, although this did not last indefinitely.  From the north one day came three canoes carrying Kiribati warriors determined to make war on the peaceful island of Niutao.  Unskilled at arms, the people put up little opposition.  In the battle the chiefs and their male descendants were slain. 

Shortly afterwards the I-Kiribati departed, leaving behind a grieving people, and an unstable authority system.  From among the survivors on Niutao, a man named Papau became chief.  Before he died he appointed his kinsman Kiali to succeed him.  His widow, however, resented the succession of a man not of her family, induced her relative, Kiolili to depose Kiali and to make himself chief.  This in turn aroused the ambition of Fuatia, a man of the same line as Papau who had supported Kiali, to whom he was also related. 

Since Kiolili was an unpopular chief, Fuatia sailed to Nui where he persuaded a number of warriors, to help him overthrow Kiolili.  Landing at night, they joined forces with Fuatia's lieutenant, an ambitious young man with Kiribati blood called Pokia who had stayed behind when Fuatia went to Nui.   While Kiolili and his family were sleeping they attacked and killed Kiolili but spared his family. 

Thus being unchallenged as the leaders of the community, Fuatia and Pokia then divided the island between them.  Fuatia, the elder chief claimed all lands in the interior of the island and on the eastern coast while Pokia, the younger, held the land above the western beaches.

Neither of them wanted to take an active part in the Government of the island, so each appointed a sub-chief to represent them. Following that, the people living in the hamlet of Tamana on the eastern coast moved their dwelling to the west, with the result that the settlements of Mulitefao and Savaea were merged into the one large village where everybody lived. 

Vaguna, assisted by Lito, was the ruling chief of the island when Christianity was introduced. The people had already learned something of this new religion from Mose a man from Vaitupu, but it was only in 1870 with the arrival of missionaries that they became seriously interested in it. 

The chief welcomed the missionaries and after hearing them expound their message agreed that the people could become Christians. Most did so. Indeed, among all the people of Niutao only one family did not accept the gospel.  This family, led by a man called Galiga continued to worship in the old way and, in defiance of a ban on nakedness, refused to wear a skirt or lavalava when swimming in the lagoon. 

While much has changed on Niutao over the last century various traditional beliefs have survived. For instance, Taia Teuai, an old woman who died in 1892 was generally recognized as having inherited from her grandparents the power to make rain. Even today the people of Niutao still believe that Taia Teuai possessed this power.  


Nui Island consists of eleven main islets separated by passages through which the sea passes freely from ocean to lagoon. At low tide people can walk across these passages from islet to islet.  The coral reef that links the islets is about 200 metres wide. The biggest opening in it is about 2 kilometres long, stretching from Tabontebike to Tehikiai on the western side of the island.  Trees such as coconuts, breadfruit and pandanus, and food crops such as babai, tauroro and bero grow abundantly there while the lagoon, reef and ocean provide the people with an ample supply of fresh fish. The permanent settlement is on the main islet of Fenuatapu. 

The story is told on Nui that once a group of spirits who lived beyond the horizon decided to swim around the ocean.  After they had gone hundreds of kilometres, their leader decided that they should rest. So he signalled for them to gather together in a circle. When they had rested he decided that they should mark the spot. Accordingly, they all dived down to the ocean bed and started heaping up stones, mud and sand into piles that eventually appeared above the waves. They then swam on, and marked each resting spot in a similar manner. In this way, Nui and many other islands were made. The matter in which they were made explains, it is said, why they are round in shape and have a lagoon in the middle. 


The legends of Vaitupu contain many stories of how the island was created, but they differ almost as much from each other as they do from modern scientific explanation.  In regard to the settlement of the island, however, they generally agree that the first settler was Telematua, who arrived by canoe from Samoa.  With him were his son Foumatua and his grandson Silaga.  According to some stories Telematua, who had earlier visited Funafuti, where he landed his wife Futi, placed his second wife Tupu on Vaitupu. He then divided his time between the two islands.  Often the people of Funafuti would inquire why Telematua went away so often, and where he had gone.  Futi would reply, in Samoan, voai ia Tupu, "to see Tupu."  Eventually the phrase became shortened to one word "Vaitupu" - and that is how the island got its name.

There are six large family groups on Vaitupu that claimed descent from Telematua.  In addition to their membership of these the Vaitupu people are also divided into three principal clans; namely Tua, Lotoa and Kilitai.  Each clan now elects one chief to represent them on the council of three chiefs.   

In the 20th century Vaitupu has been notable as the educational centre of Tuvalu.  The London Missionary Society (LMS) opened a school there at Motufoua in 1905.  Motufoua was not the only school on Vaitupu.  In 1923 the Government Primary School was shifted there from Funafuti and the school was called Elisefou (New Ellice).

D. G. Kennedy, the first Headmaster of the school was a firm disciplinarian who often used the cricket bat to control his subjects. Elisefou continued until 1953 until the Government closed it down and shifted the students to King George V School in Kiribati.  Two distinguished Tuvaluans, Sir Penitala Teo, the first Governor General and the first Prime Minister Toalipi Lauti, were both pupils at Elisefou.   


Legend has it that a party of Tongans were the first people to settle on Nukufetau.  It is said that when they landed there they found but one fetau tree growing there and so they called the place Nukufetau, "the island of the fetau".   Shortly afterwards they sailed back to Tonga to obtain some coconuts to plant on the sandbanks of the newly discovered land, and on returning to Nukufetau settled at Fale on the western part of the island.  As time passed, the population increased and there arose men of outstanding character who were recognized as chiefs. 

In order to more effectively protect the island from sea-raiders the early chiefs divided the inhabitants into three main clans which live in different areas.  Fialua, one of the chiefs was put in charge of Lafaga the biggest of the eastern islets.  Tauasa was placed on the northern islet of Motulalo while Lagitupu and Laupapa remained at Fale.   In later years, after the coming of missionaries, the whole population reassembled at Fale, before shifting to nearby Savave, an islet on the lagoon side of the Fale settlement. 

Another, more recent, event that is proudly celebrated on Nukufetau is the opening of a boarding school on the islet of Motumua on 11th February 1947.  Established and operated by the local community entirely at its own expense, the purpose of the school, named Tutasi, was to fulfill parents' demands that their children obtain a better education, especially in the English language.

This school lasted until 1951 when, at the request of the Ministry of  Education, it was transferred to Savave and became the Government's Primary School for the whole island.   Yet its service to the community was not forgotten.  The new school was called Tutasi Memorial School and Seluka Resture, a grandson of Alfred Restieaux, was sent to set it up. Interestingly Seluka Resture, when he returned to open Tutasi Memorial School brought with him the first motorbike on the island. The local children would run around behind his bike and smell the tyre prints. Each year since it was opened, the 11th February has been celebrated by the students of Tutasi Memorial School, and their parents, as "Founding Day" in honour of its predecessor.


According to a oral tradition, Funafuti was first inhabited by the porcupine fish whose progeny became men and women. The accepted tradition of the island, however, and this accords with historical probability, is that the Funafuti people originated from Samoa.  As was the case with Vaitupu, the founding ancestors were Telematua and his two wives Futi (meaning banana) and Tupu (meaning "holy" or "abundant"). 

The island is named after Futi; funa is a feminine prefix.  The travellers first settled on Funafuna islet before shifting to Fogafale, where the main village is still situated. Later, leaving Futi on Funafuti, Telematua, searching for a land of greater fertility and where fresh water was more plentiful, discovered Vaitupu. There he left Tupu and henceforth he divided his time between the two islands. 

The Tongans used to attack Funafuti at intervals.  After each attack they would kidnap a child and take it home with them so that, as the child grew up, they could work out when the next generation on Funafuti would be old enough to fight. They would then mount another raid, and repeat their performance until they were defeated and did not return. Thereafter, Funafuti was free of foreign marauders until the Peruvian slave raids of the 19th century. 

The power on Funafuti remained in the hands of the chiefs until the coming of the Samoan pastors brought the system to an end.   Iakopa, the chief at the time the first pastor arrived, surrendered his place of honour to the pastor and also gave up receiving the turtle's head. 

Henceforth that, too was given to the pastor.  The end was then in sight.  Iakopa's son, Elia, who died in 1902 was the last chief.  He was also the one who allowed Captain Davis to raise the British flag on Funafuti in 1892, although it is said that before he did so the sailors had scared him by parading outside with their rifles.


According to some old men, a white-skinned man was the first person to sight the island.  This man, who came alone, did not settle as there were no trees and all the land was barren.   Nukulaelae,  means "the land of sands". 

Later, according to tradition, another man came.  This was Valoa from Vaitupu, who discovered Nukulaelae while on a fishing expedition.  He did not stay long but returned to Vaitupu to obtain coconut seedlings which he soon afterwards planted on Nukulaelae.  Thereafter, he made many trips from Vaitupu to Nukulaelae, each time bringing more nuts to plant.  At length, when the trees had begun to bear fruit he asked the chief of Vaitupu for permission to settle on Nukulaelae. 

Valoa was accompanied to Nukulaelae by his two sons Moeva and Katuli and a daughter named Teaalo.   Soon afterwards a warrior named Takauapa, from Funafuti raided the island and the two boys were killed in battle, but Teaalo was spared and bore children. 

Others who had come with Valoa from Vaitupu included his servants Vave and Tapo.  After his death these two succeeded him as chiefs and ruled the island jointly.  Vave and Tapo each had one son, named Noa and Kaituloa, respectively. These two succeeded their fathers as chiefs but when they in turn died the position ceased to be hereditary.  Instead, their successors were chosen by the community although one was still selected from among the descendants of Vave and the other from the family of Tapo.

In 1860 there were about 300 people on Nukulaelae, contentedly living their traditional life and honouring their spirits.   In 1861 Christianity was introduced by the Cook Islands castaway Elekana and in 1863 two-thirds of the people were kidnapped by Peruvian slavers.  It is said that when the vessel arrived the crew members went ashore and persuaded the islanders to come aboard for a feast.  Not knowing that they were being tricked, many of them did so, among them couples with children.  They were taken away to work in the phosphate mines in the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru.  None of them ever returned.   In 1892 Captain Davis of the "Royalist" counted only 95 people on Nukulaelae.


Niulakita is a southern most island in the Tuvalu group and has no lagoon at all but only a swamp at its centre.  It was not taken into account in the naming of the Tuvalu group as Tuvalu means a "group of eight".

The famous Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana was the first to discover Niulakita in 1595 and called it La Solitaria; George Bennett, a Nantucket whaler in 1821 named it Independence; while others have called it Sophia and Rocky.  Niulakita has never had a permanent population of its own so it was well suited to being claimed by people from elsewhere. The American trader Harry S. Moors, of Samoa, exploited its guano deposit late last century. In 1914 he sold it to E.F.H. Allen of the Samoa Shipping and Trading Company, which also maintained a trading station on Funafuti. 

The Allen's connection with Niulakita (and, indeed, with Tuvalu) ended in 1916.  That year the island was purchased by Burns Philp and Co. of Sydney.  They in turn, sold it in 1944 to the Western Pacific High Commission who would administer it for the benefit of Tuvalu.

In 1946 a Lands Commissioner toured the group to find out how much land each island had for its inhabitants.  He discovered that Niutao had the highest population density.  To relieve the pressure on the land he suggested to the old men of the island that some of their people could go to Tonga or, if they preferred, they could exploit Niulakita. They chose the latter. A more recent but less notable event in the history of Niutao has thus been its acquisition of Niulakita.

The first group of workers, with their wives and children, were sent to Niulakita in 1949 to cut copra.  When they arrived they found some Vaitupu people there.  These were returned to their home leaving their few cows behind.  The Niutao people were rather scared of these animals which they did not have on their island. 

There was no school on the island in those days.  Its children could not read nor write, although they were given a little instruction by a man named Loela, who had remained behind when the Vaitupuans left.  A school was opened there in 1980 and operates as an extension of the one at Niutao.   Similarly, the Niutao council is responsible for the labourers at Niulakita. 

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 9th February 2005)