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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

Ellice Islands

Ellice Islands

The Ellice Islands, nine atolls lying between latitudes 5°30' and 11°30' S. and between longitudes 176° and 180° E., form the most westerly Polynesian group. The native names of the islands are Nurakita, Nukulaelae, Funafuti, Nukufetau, Vaitupu, Nui, Nanomanga, Niutao, and Nanomea. Details of the islands are given in Findlay's Pacific Ocean Directory. The group is administered from Fiji as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate.

The inhabitants are Polynesians with the exception of those on Nui, which was peopled from the Gilbert Islands. The people were described by Whitmee as quiet and peaceable, and ordinary disputes were settled by their chiefs. The economy of the people is based on the coconut and on fish, as it is in other coral atolls. In language and material culture, as evidenced in bonito fishing, the people have clearly marked affinity with Samoa. Traditions also point to Samoa as their place of origin.

The individual islands have received various English names, bestowed upon them by whalers and other visiting ships. Nanomea has been identified as the St. Augustine Island seen by Maurelle in 1781. The brig Elizabeth visited this island in 1809. Captain Peyster, in the Rebecca, is credited with the discovery of Funafuti and Nukufetau in 1819. Captain Hudson of the Wilkes Expedition visited the group in 1841 in the Peacock and, regarding two of the atolls as new discoveries, named them Hudson (Nanomanga) and Speiden (Niu-tao). Hudson appears to have been the first to give any worthwhile account of the native inhabitants, as recorded in the account of the Wilkes Expedition.

The Reverend S. J. Whitmee made some valuable observations on each atoll during a missionary cruise in 1870, and Captain Moresby, R.N., added a little further information from a visit of H.M.S. Basilisk in 1872. Turner, Gill, Percy Smith, and Newell also recorded fragments which are useful. The first real contribution to ethnology was made by Charles Hedley of the Australian Museum, Sydney, who was the Australian representative on the Funafuti Coral Reef Boring Expedition of the Royal Society (London). Hedley spent two and a half months on Funafuti in 1896 and, in addition to his zoological and botanical work, made a fine record of the native customs and their material page 106culture. Another valuable study was made by D. G. Kennedy on the culture of Vaitupu. Kennedy was a resident official at Vaitupu in the service of the Western Pacific High Commission which is administered from Fiji. The technical details given in the work are of the highest standard of careful recording.

Bishop Museum has not had the opportunity so far of doing field work in the Ellice Islands. Though the individual atolls of Funafuti and Vaitupu have been well done, the other atolls should be investigated to complete the record. Hedley, in his work, included physical measurements made on 10 males by Surgeon F. W. Collingwood, R.N., but a more representative number should be made on each atoll for comparison with the work done in other parts of Polynesia.

Literature on the Ellice Islands

Early Voyagers
  • Maurelle (1780-1781)
  • Wilkes (1838-1842)
Other Writers

Findlay, A. G., South Pacific Ocean Directory, London, 5th Edition, pp. 829-835, 1884.

Gill, W. W., Jottings from the Pacific, London, 1885.

Hedley, Charles, The ethnology of Funafuti: Australian Mus., Mem. 3, pp. 227-304, 1897.

Kennedy, Donald G., Field notes on the culture of Vaitupu, Ellice Islands: Polynesian Soc, Mem., vol. 9, 1931.

Moresby, John, Discoveries and surveys in New Guinea … a cruise in Polynesia … H.M.S. Basilisk, pp. 71-80, London, 1876.

Newell, J. E., Notes, chiefly ethnological, of the Tokelau, Ellice, and Gilbert Islanders: Australasian Assoc. Adv. of Science, Rept. of the meeting, vol. 6, pp. 603-610, Brisbane, 1895.

Smith, S. Percy, The first inhabitants of the Ellice Islands: Polynesian Soc, Jour., vol. 6, pp. 209-210, 1897.

Whitmee, S. J., Missionary cruise in the south Pacific, London, 1871.

Whitmee, S. J., The ethnology of Polynesia: Royal Anthrop. Inst.Great Britain and Ireland, Jour., vol. 8, pp. 261-275, 1879.