When a British sea captain discovered Funafuti in 1819, he named the island "Ellice" after a member of Parliament who owned the ship's cargo. In 1841, Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Exploring Expedition gave that name to the entire group. Great Britain declared a protectorate over the then Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1892; the islands were elevated to the status of colony in 1916. When preparations for the colony's independence began in the 1970s, the Polynesian Tuvaluans feared being overwhelmed by the larger Micronesian Gilbertese population. They voted overwhelmingly in a 1974 referendum, monitored by United Nations (UN) observers, to be treated separately, and the colony of Ellice Islands was established in 1975. Great Britain granted independence to Tuvalu in October 1978.
The original Constitution was revised in 1986. Tuvalu remains a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and the British monarch is the head of state and is represented by a Tuvaluan governor-general, whose functions are mostly ceremonial. The monarch, with advice from the prime minister and Parliament, appoints the governor-general. The cabinet, made up of the prime minister and not more than four ministers, holds real executive authority. The prime minister is elected by Parliament.
Parliament consists of a single chamber of 15 members elected by all citizens over 18 years of age. Candidates must be at least 21. Elections are held every four years, more often if Parliament is dissolved by the governor-general under provisions set out in the Constitution. Seven islands elect two members each, and one island elects one member. Parliament can remove the prime minister by passing a no-confidence vote.
A 70-member police constabulary, the only security force, is responsible to and effectively controlled by civilian authority.
Funafuti, the main island, has a town council; the other inhabited islands have island councils. Each council consists of six members and is elected to four-year terms. Councils are responsible for the provision of local services and upholding law and order.
Like a number of other Pacific Island nations, Tuvalu inherited a British type of political system that does not always fit easily with traditional culture and values. There are no major political parties. Personal alliances are much more important than ideology, and economic issues inevitably affect government. Accusations of financial mismanagement led to the ouster of the first prime minister, Toaripi Lauti, in1981.