The population of Tuvalu, formerly known as the Ellice or Lagoon Islands, is thought to have dropped from 20,000 in 1850 to 3,000 in 1875, thanks to slave-traders and imported European diseases. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate was established by Britain in 1892 (the Gilbert Islands are now called Kiribati) and the protectorate became a colony in 1916.
A referendum held in 1974 established that most Ellice islanders wanted separate status from the Gilbert Islands. The country was renamed Tuvalu, an old name meaning ‘eight standing together’ (Tuvalu has nine islands or island groups, but one has very little land above sea level). The Ellice Islands became a separate British dependency in October 1975, and gained independence as Tuvalu on 1 October 1978.
Toaripi Lauti, Chief Minister of the Tuvalu House of Assembly from October 1975, was independent Tuvalu’s first Prime Minister (1978–81). He was succeeded by Dr Tomasi Puapua from 1981. Puapua was defeated in the September 1989 elections by Bikenibeu Paeniu.
In February 2000, the UN accepted Tuvalu as the organisation’s 189th member and in September 2000 it became a full member of the Commonwealth, having been a special member since it joined in 1978.
The September 1993 elections resulted in a deadlock, Puapua and Paeniu both receiving equal support in the new parliament. Puapua withdrew from the December 1993 elections and Paeniu was defeated by Kamuta Latasi, who became Prime Minister. In December 1996, the government was removed from power after an unexpected vote of no confidence gained the support of seven of the 12 members of parliament. In a subsequent secret parliamentary ballot, Paeniu was elected Prime Minister in preference to Latasi. In the general election of March 1998, seven assembly members were re-elected, the Prime Minister among them. Former Prime Minister Latasi was defeated in his Funafuti constituency. When parliament reconvened in April 1998 the members re-elected Paeniu as Prime Minister by ten votes to two.
In April 1999 Paeniu lost a no-confidence vote, and Education and Health Minister Ionatana Ionatana was elected by parliament to succeed him. Ionatana died suddenly in December 2000 and Deputy Prime Minister Lagitupu Tuilimu acted as Prime Minister until parliament elected Faimalaga Luka to the post in February 2001. Koloa Talake was chosen to succeed Luka as Prime Minister when, in December 2001, four MPs changed their allegiance.
In 2001 New Zealand agreed to accept an annual quota of Tuvaluans wishing to emigrate as the sea level rises, starting from 2002 and continuing for at least 30 years. In 2003 discussions were under way about emigration of Tuvaluans to Niue, where the population had declined due to emigration to New Zealand.