The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a British Protectorate and then a British Crown Colony up until October 1, 1975, when the Ellice Islands formally separated, after passing a referendum of secession in 1974. The Ellice Islands became the Crown Colony of Tuvalu, while the Gilbert Islands name was retained by the rest of the island districts in the colony. Both colonies became independent shortly after, Tuvalu in 1978 and The Gilbert Islands in 1979, changing their name to Kiribati.
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate was established in 1892 in the Central Pacific Ocean, named after the first two island groups that were declared part of the new territory. More islands were added later. Most of these islands were already under some sort of British protection, by the Pacific Islands Protection Act of 1857, and the British Western Pacific Territories Act of 1877.
The sixteen islands in the Gilbert group were Abaiang, Abemama, Aranuka, Arorae, Beru, Butaritari, Kuria, Maiana, Makin, Marakei, Nonouti, Nukunau, Onotoa, Tabiteuea, Tamana and Tarawa. The nine Ellice Islands were Funafuti, Nanumaga, Nanumea, Niulakita, Niutao, Nui, Nukufetau, Nukulaelae and Vaitupu. In 1900, Ocean island (Banaba), to the west of the Gilbert group, was included within the protectorate, followed by the Union (Tokelau) Islands in 1910.
The status of the The Gilbert and Ellice Islands was change to that of a Crown Colony in 1916, at the request of the natives. That year, Fanning and Washington Islands, two of the Line Islands group, were included within the Colony, along with the Union (Tokelau) Islands. Christmas Island was incorporated in 1919. The Union Islands were removed from the Colony and transferred to New Zealand control in 1926, administered from Apia in Samoa. The Phoenix Islands, which consisted of Canton (Kanton), Enderbury, Birnie, McKean, Phoenix (Rawaki), Sydney (Manra) and Gardner (Nikumaroro) Islands were included as part of the Colony in 1939. The United States also had claims on Canton and Enderbury, and in 1938 they were placed under joint British and American control.
The Japanese invaded the Gilbert Islands in late 1941, and Tarawa, Butaritari and Abemama were subsequently heavily fortified. The other islands, including Ocean Island were occupied with nominal forces. The Ellice Islands and the other groups remained under British control, along with American occupying forces. The Americans recaptured all the Gilbert Islands by the end of 1943.
In January 1972, the Central and Southern Line Islands of Caroline, Flint, Malden, Starbuck and Vostok were included in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony.
Most of the islands in the group are atolls or raised coral Islands, rising no more than a few metres above sea level. The soil is rather poor, making agriculture difficult.
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.
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.
Christmas Island Local Stamps
Local Post stamps were use on the privately owned Christmas Island, from 1916 to 1938.
The British government took posession of Christmas Island in 1888. In 1902, the island was leased to Lever Brothers’ Pacific Plantations Ltd, upon which a large cocoanut plantation was established. In 1913 the lease was transferred to a London-registered company called Central Pacific Cocoanut Plantations, which was headed by Emmanuel Rougier, a former Catholic priest from New Caledonia. It is said he acquired the money from a wealthy, falsely convicted, escaped prisoner in New Caledonia.
In 1919, Britain attached Christmas Island to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, but did not open a post office.
In order to defray the cost of carrying mail from the island on his company ships, Rougier issued a postal label depicting one of his schooners, the Isabel May. It was actually issued in 1916, 3 years before Christmas Island became part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The original stamp had a face value of 5c, which covered local delivery or that to the next port of call. However, stamps of the country of the sailed port had to be affixed for onward transfer. Most went through Papeete, Tahiti and thus had French Oceanic Settlements stamps added. By 1926, the rate had increased to 10c and new stamps were issued in that value.
In 1939 the Gilbert and Ellice Islands finally opened a post office which sold colony stamps valid for international mail.