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By the time Europeans made direct contact with the islands in the 18th and 19th centuries, The only groups that had natives were the sixteen Gilbert Islands in the north and Banaba in the west, inhabited by Micronesians, and eight of the nine Ellice Islands, inhabited by Polynesians. None of the islands in the Line or Phoenix groups had natives, but evidence of previous Polynesian settlements were found on some of them. Some were colonized with Gilbert and Ellice natives by the colonial government in various resettlement schemes.

As Britain led the Colony towards self determination and eventual independence in the early 1970's, it became evident the the Polynesian Ellice Islanders where determined to go at it alone, rather than be a minority ruled by the majority Micronesians. At the time, the population of the Gilbert Islands was about 55,000 and the Ellice Islands 8,000. This led to a United Nations sanctioned referendum in 1974, where well over 90% of the Ellice Islanders voted for secession and eventual independence. On October 1, 1975, the peaceful separation took effect, with formal separate colonial administration established on the new capital of Funafuti on January 1st, 1976. The name of the group became Tuvalu, the traditional name of the islands. Independence was achieved on October 1, 1978.

The remainder of the The Gilbert Islands, including the Line Islands and the Phoenix Islands were established as the Gilbert Islands Colony on January 1st, 1976, and becoming the independent Republic of Kiribati on July 12, 1979.

Postal History

Before the establishment of the Protectorate in 1911, mail services in the islands were very limited. Letters were often put in trust to the Captain or officers of visiting vessels for posting at the nearest port of call with a post office.

In 1901, an agent of the New South Wales Post Office was appointed at Ocean Island, and New South Wales stamps were supplied. However no cancellation device was supplied, the stamps were cancelled on all mail upon arrival at Sydney.

On January 1, 1911 official postal services were established, with stamps and cancellation devices. Five post offices were opened; Ocean Island, Butaritari and Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, Funafuti in the Ellice Islands, and Atafu in the Union (Tokelau Islands). The stamps consisted of seven values of Fijian stamps overprinted "Gilbert and Ellice Protectorate".

Over the next decade, post offices opened on most of the other inhabited islands, which saw a wide variety of dated and undated cancellation devices.

Fanning Island was a bit of an oddity. It was included into the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in 1916, but it already had a New Zealand Postal Agency on it which sold New Zealand stamps and cancelled them with a Fanning Island postmark. It was not until 1939 that stamps and postmarks of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were put into use. Similarily, on nearby Washington Island, A short-lived New Zealand Postal Agency was established in 1921, complete with stamps and a cancellation device. It closed in 1934.

Canton Island, being a British-American condominium, had concurrent British and American post offices from the early 1940's onward, until the closure of the American office in 1979 after handing complete control of the island to the newly independent Republic of Kiribati.

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