Colonial boundaries of the nineteenth century seldom coincided with anthropological reality. In Africa they more commonly cut across existing cultural boundaries whereas in the Pacific, with notable exceptions, their effect was the opposite. A case in point is the former Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony which incorporated two culturally distinct peoples within a common colonial boundary. In 1892 Britain declared protectorates over these two groups of equatorial coral atolls and reef islands. Although technically separate protectorates they were, for administrative convenience, treated as a single entity. This procedure was both formalized and emphasized in 1916 with the establishment of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu). The Ellice Islands (now called Tuvalu) separated from the Colony in 1976 and both groups have since achieved independence. One result of their long and artificial association is that the two groups have tended to be lumped together instead of being recognized as distinct cultural and geographic entities. Or, more precisely, the Ellice Islands have commonly been regarded as an appendage of the Gilberts. This tendency is illustrated by examining the creation of (separate) protectorates in 1892. Previous explanations have either focused on the Gilberts or have seen events in the Ellice as being part of that process. In reality, the declaration of the Ellice Islands Protectorate involved separate issues which have never been satisfactorily told. More importantly, the inauguration of the two protectorates represents a significant - and overlooked - shift in the British concept of protectorates.
These Cinderellas of the Empire, as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands have so aptly been termed, were improbable objects of interests to Britain in the early 1890s. Yet Britain raised the flag over the two groups at a time when her avowed policy was to avoid further colonial entanglements and in the absence of compelling local circumstances. The Gilbert Islands were unimportant from both a strategic and commercial standpoint with British trading interests running a poor third behind those of German and American firms. The Colonial Office therefore had no prior interest of '15 or 16 islands with a teeming population estimated at between 50,000 and 80,000 of natives, occasionally cannibal and generally wholly naked, when anchorage is mostly dangerous and water usually bad'.
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In the case of the Ellice Islands, over which a protectorate was declared the following month, there were even fewer local reasons to warrant the move. While British interests were predominant within the group, those interests were small and not under threat - a few hundred tons of copra for the Auckland firm of Henderson and Macfarlane and 3,000 adherents for the London Missionary Society. there were no plantations to protect, no labour recruiting of any consequence to maintain or regulate, and no problems of disorder which might otherwise have invited imperial intervention. The group was strategically unimport6ant: though a coaling station had been established at Funafuti atoll for royal Navy vessels during the Russian war scare of the early 1880s, that threat had since passed and the facility had been dismantled. the decision to raise the flag was quite unrelated to events within the group beforehand. Rather it flowed on from the declaration of a British protectorate over the adjacent Gilbert Islands to the northwest the month before which, in turn, was a function of great power diplomacy.
The origin of these wider diplomatic manoeuvres lies in the 1886 convention by which Britain and Germany agreed to carve the Western Pacific into respective spheres of influence. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands fell within the British sphere along with Papua and the southern Solomons. As Bernard Porter not4es, the two powers responded to their agreement quite differently, whereas Germany regarded the accord as a means by which she could annex the islands falling in her part without British objection, Britain saw it as a device by which she could ignore her side without fear of German intrusion. Indeed Germany 'religiously confined herself' to her part of the divide. However, the presence of other metropolitan interests in the Western Pacific coupled with the colonial partition of labour supplies created pressures which forced a reluctant Britain to adopt a more positive role within her sphere of interest.
Briefly, the German Trading and Plantation Company in Samoa (the DHPG) regarded the Gilbert Islands as one source of labourers for its plantations and felt threatened by a series of unwelcome developments. In 1890 a resumption of recruiting in the Gilberts for Fiji plantation coincided with large members of Gilbertese being recruited for coffee plantations in Central America. The following year it was being rumoured that the United States government was planning to enter into treaties with Gilbertese chiefs. Germany then pressed Britain to place the Gilberts under her protection. After arguing vaguely that 'it is necessary that some kind of order should be exercised there with a view to maintain order', the German revealed their real motive: they wanted to 'keep the market open for the supply of labourers to the German plantations in Samoa' and to prevent the wholesale exploitation of the group by competing recruiters. The request was made on the tacit understanding that Germans would be able to continue recruiting Gilbertese after the establishment of the British protectorate.
The German move was in character with the backing that German trading and plantation interests in the Pacific, as in Africa, received from their imperial government. German labour recruiters, constantly supported by the Reich, extracted every advantage from Britain's regulation of the British labour trade and from the establishment of German protectorates: Germans supplied guns to Islanders (thus gaining a competitive edge on British recruiters whole government forbade the practice among its own nationals); they recruited labourers on the British side of the 1886 line of demarcation; and they excluded British recruiters from their own possessions. Quick to annex territory themselves, the German s generally benefited from Britain's tardiness in doing so, though when it suited them for Britain to extend protection over the Gilberts in 1891 they succeeded in forcing the British decision.
The background to this event is well-known. Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, was cordial to the German request because he needed their diplomatic support to counter French opposition to British policy in Egypt. the Colonial Office officials strenuously opposed the assumption of formal responsibility over an island group with few claims to commercial or strategic significance, and in the absence of any appeal for protection by the local authorities. This resistance appreciably hardened when Germany's real motive eventually came to the Colonial Office's attention, and matters were hardly improved when the Admiralty confirmed that the Gilbert Islands were of no naval value to Britain. But they were forced to capitulate when Salisbury proposed as the only alternative that the group be made over to Germany. To allow Germany to step into the British sphere was out of the question since it meant tearing up the 1886 agreement and inviting vehement protests from the Australasian colonies, 'who would look upon it as a breach of faith portending surrender in all directions to Foreign Powers'." So the colonial Office and Salisbury's Foreign Office agreed, for quite different reasons, that a British protectorate be declared over the Gilbert Islands, and in May 1892 Captain E.H.M. Davis of HMS Royalist raised the flag." It was the only occasion Britain extended the borders of her colonial empire at the behest of another power. Davis also visited the Ellice Islands and reported that the inhabitants of all the islands agreed to the establishment of a British protectorate there, except for southernmost Niulakita which was owned by Harry J. Moors, an American citizen, who sent small parties to extract the tiny island's guano deposits. When the Royalist stood off Niulakita, Moors' labourers hoisted the American flag.
Aerial view of Funafuti, Tuvalu
The idea to draw-in the Ellice Islands was that of the man on the spot, Sir John Thurston, the High commissioner for the Western Pacific. Three years earlier Thurston had suggested, as a counter to what he perceived in the German design in the gilberts, the appointment of a resident Deputy commissioner for the non-German Solomons with additional responsibility for the Gilbert and Ellice Islands which he would visit once a year. Thurston further urged the appointment of 'one of the most respectable' British residents in the Gilberts as unpaid Vice Consul, and that treaties be entered into with local authorities to formalize the latter arrangement. The Colonial Office had no disagreement in principle but shelved the matter in the knowledge that treasury approval for the modest additional expenditure involved would never be forthcoming. With a protectorate to be declared over the Gilberts, Thurston seized his chance and, in a private letter to the Secretary of State for Colonies, warned that France might drive a wedge between Fiji, the centre of British power in the Pacific, and the Gilberts by occupying the intervening Ellice Islands. Thurston's motives probably had more to do with maintaining order and tidying-up in the wake of the gilberts decision but in raising the possibility of French action in the Ellice Islands, he also maximizing his underlying desire for further territorial expansion. It was a shrewd move, presenting the colonial Office with an argument which could hardly be ignored. It was quickly decided that the Queen's protection should extend also over the Ellice, providing 'the natives agree', and so the Rroyalist was diverted to the group.
That done, Captain Gibson of HMS Curacoa received instructions to place the Ellice under British protection, which he did a few weeks later in September 1892. No problems were encountered at Niulakita where Moors' labourers meekly accepted the changed status of the island. Only at Funafuti were there any difficulties. Whether the Queen's protection by the very sight of armed sailors ashore, and that his acquiescence was highly unpopular with some members of the community who chased him into the bush where he remained for the next few hours until 'feelings had cooled down'. Nevertheless a protectorate had been born, a classic case of pre-emptive or defensive imperialism designed to safeguard existing interests from possible foreign threat. Even so, Britain's reluctant rush for protectorates was not over. Fearing that recent events might provoke the French into seizing the non-German Solomon Islands, Britain felt impelled to declare yet another protectorate. As Fuller of the Colonial Office minuted, 'The French Govt, if their hands were forced by a subordinate would be in a difficult position, as they are mere terrorised by their Jingoes than even we are by ours'. In the past the colonial Office had resisted promptings to extend some form of control over the southern Solomons, not only Thurston's but those also of Sir William MacGregor, the governor of British New Guinea, who had suggested at various times that the New Hebrides and the non-German Solomons be added to his domain. but, by the end of 1892, accumulated pressured against holding out any further became too great and a reluctant Britain was forced once again to take up her territorial options. with that, Britain had raised the flag throughout her sphere of influence as defined by the 1886 Anglo-German Agreement, except for tiny Ocean Island.
Once protectorates had been declared, however, reluctantly, the colonial Office then had to decide how they were to be administered, or more precisely the extent of British jurisdiction. Initially the Colonial Office had baulked at the idea of outright annexation, preferring instead the cheaper option of protectorate which, hopefully, might only be a temporary measure. However, protectorates had their limitations for the man on the spot. they were an evolving legal form, originating out of the Foreign jurisdiction Act of 1843, which gave Britain influence without the trouble and expense of outright annexation. From the 1840s to the 1880s the concept of protectorate was shadowy, allowing a variety of degrees of influence according to local circumstances. By the 1880s, the protectorate had emerged as a clearly defined species of empire but one which did not extend to non-Britons. This was not good enough for Thurston. 'As his biographer points out, 'he had no love for protectorates. They were in vogue as a mans of limiting responsibilities and quietening anti-colonial lobbies, but they left much in doubt about the protector's powers. He really aid not know what a protectorate was, and could find no lawyer able to tell him'.
Realizing that protectorate governments in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands would be from the beginning 'beset with difficulties in consequence of an inability to enforce its authority over natives and foreign residents alike'. Thurston proposed possession instead and gave details on the likely expense of administration and various schemes for administering the new dependencies. While Thurston's proposals would probably have been blocked on the grounds of treasury opposition, their timing made rejection a foregone conclusion. Salisbury's Conservative government had been defeated in the recent general election and the new Secretary of State for Colonies, Lord Ripon, was avowedly against annexation 'even on the smallest scale'. He had already been assured by Meade of the colonial Office that there would be no annexation of the Gilbert Islands, only the establishment of a protectorate, and so had no hesitation in overriding Thurston's proposals to that effect.
Nonetheless, Thurston's entreaties were not without impact. One section of opinion within the Colonial Office acknowledged the force of his arguments in favour of possession: given the activities of rival imperial powers it was no longer feasible to continue the policy under which Britain did the least possible, at the least cost and with the least commitment, that would guarantee the protection of 'natives' from British nationals, and protect British nationals from both 'natives' and other Europeans. The problem now as to devise a means by which the new protectorates could be effectively administered - and that eventually meant extending British jurisdiction over foreigners - while at the same time overcoming the objections to annexation. the obvious solution was to abandon the idea that a protectorate only allowed a degree of influence and jurisdiction over British subjects alone, and instead adopt the continental type of protectorate, especially that of Germany which had no qualms about asserting an authority tantamount to full sovereignty within its own protectorates.
Once again the timing of Thurston's proposal assumed significance because there were recent precedents for widening the scope of protection. All stemmed from the 1891 Bechuanaland Order-in-Council which was issued under the 189- Foreign Jurisdiction Act to deal with the practical problems involved in preventing anarchy on the frontier of empire in southern Africa. This was the first step in the colonial Office's implementation of what later became known as the 'colonial protectorate' - a legal device which eventually enabled Britain to bring her theory of protectorates into line with the continental varieties. both the foreign Office and the Law Officers initially demurred, in the early 1890s, to sanction that such authority flowed ipso facto from the bare assumption of a protectorate. But by November 1892, when the new Pacific Order-in-Council was being drafted, the Law Officers gave their consent, on practical grounds of the sort concerning Thurston, for jurisdiction in protectorates to extend to foreigners. The question of jurisdiction over Islanders was still unresolved but for the moment legal difficulties could be overcome by entering into treaties with the indigenous authorities in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. So in June 1893, shortly after the release of the new Pacific Order-in-Council, Thurston visited both groups in HMS Rapid to inaugurate protectorates along such lines and was pleased to report that it was the Islanders' 'special desire' that foreigners should be amenable to British jurisdiction under the new Pacific Order-in-Council.
In the end the law was made to fit political necessity with the Colonial Office deciding that treasury objections could be overcome if the cheaper option of protectorate was taken up, but only if jurisdiction over foreigners and Islanders could be made to stick. In that regard, by the end of 1892, Colonial Office officials concluded that the Law Officers' work on the new Pacific Order-in-Council was good enough for a few remote islands in the Pacific and so went ahead. Ultimately, the declaration of a protectorate over the Gilbert Islands and the consequent need to issue regulations binding on German labour recruiters and other foreigners was a blessing in disguise for the colonial Office: originally so resented, it became the vehicle by which the scope of jurisdiction was widened in British protectorates. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorates, then, were a significant advance in British imperial thinking as a stepping stone in the evolution of British protectorates. To that extent Thurston could claim a notable victory because his systematic lobbying dating back to 1889, had been the scope of protection widened considerably. although falling far short of outright annexation, it went as far as realistically could have been expected. In another sense, however, Thurston's success was counterproductive because it paved the way for the compromising of the native policy to which he adhered. In other words, it was a short step from widening the scope of protection to include non-British foreigners to the subsequent extension of these new powers to cover the indigenous population as well. Having adopted the continental type of protectorate, the impulse was for Britain then to govern her protectorates as such and so pervert the original accord with the 'protected' people involved, even though 'protection' did not provide for a transfer of sovereignty from protector to protected. that accord, based on treaties, allowed no more in both the Gilbert and Ellice Islands than provision for the material support of a resident commissioner who would advise the local authorities on the conduct of their affairs.
Initially there were few such tensions between ideal and reality. As Macdonald pints out, C.R. Swayne, the first resident commissioner, like Thurston, 'firmly believed in the capacity of indigenous institutions and, although moved to direct intervention on occasions, ... was more inclined to advise than instruct, and to leave with island governments the substance as well as the semblance of power1. But with Swayne's departure in 1896 and the arrival of an interventional minded successor in William Telfer Campbell, the principles of indirect rule were abandoned wholesale and the character of the Protectorates' administration became increasingly authoritarian, paternalistic and direct. In consequence the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were soon governed as if a colony and when this arrangement was formalized in 1915-16 with the transition to a consolidated de jure colony, policy had at last caught up with practice. the principles of direct 5role then intensified until by 1930 the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony was under a code of laws quite extreme by British standards. In the interests of administrative conformity, moreover, the Ellice Islands had to bear the indiscriminate application of laws framed for Gilbertese conditions.
When seen in its wider context British rule in these Cinderellas of the Empire - and notably the practice of unilaterally extending the scope of jurisdiction into the sphere of native affairs - fits comfortably into the British colonial tradition of exceeding the agreed-upon bounds with formal advice becoming outright direction. Certainly the 'Draconian' native laws of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were gradually relaxed during the 1930s. Yet the case with which British rule transformed itself into a comprehensive and authoritarian oversight makes all the discussion during the late 1880 and early 1890s on the nature of protectorates seem irrelevant.