Tuvalu, formerly known as the Ellice Islands, is a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and Australia. Its nearest neighbours are Kiribati, Samoa and Fiji. It comprises four reef islands and five true atolls. Its population of 11,992 makes it the third-least-populated independent country in the world, with only Vatican City and Nauru having fewer inhabitants. During pre-European-contact times there was frequent canoe voyaging between the nearer islands. Eight of the 9 islands of Tuvalu were inhabited; thus the name, Tuvalu, means "eight standing together" in Tuvaluan. Possible evidence of fire in the Caves of Nanumanga may indicate human occupation thousands of years before that.
Tuvalu was first sighted by Europeans in 1568 with the arrival of Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira from Spain who also encountered the island of Nui (atoll) but was unable to land. The next Europeans to appear did not do so until the late 1700s when explorers reached the area. By the early 1800s, whalers were roving the Pacific though visiting Tuvalu only infrequently because of the difficulties of landing ships on the atolls. No settlements had been established by them.
Peruvian slave raiders ("blackbirders") combed the Pacific between 1862 and 1864 and Tuvalu was one of the hardest-hit Pacific island groups with over 400 people taken from Funafuti and Nukulaelae, none of whom returned. In 1892 the islands became part of the British protectorate known as the Ellice Islands. The protectorate was incorporated into the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in 1916. In 1943, during World War II, Tuvalu was selected as an operations base for Allied forces battling the Japanese in the Pacific. Thousands of marines were stationed there until December 1945.
In 1974 ethnic differences within the colony caused the Polynesians of the Ellice Islands to vote for separation from the Micronesians of the Gilbert Islands (to become Kiribati). The following year the Ellice Islands became the separate British colony of Tuvalu. Independence was granted in 1978.