The Spanish were the first Europeans to see the islands in the 1500s. However, in 1819, Captain De Peyster, an American in command of the British merchant ship Rebecca named the main island in the group Ellice's Island after a British politician who owned the cargo aboard his ship. In 1841, the U.S. Exploring Expedition commanded by Charles Wilkes visited three of Tuvalu's islands and welcomed visitors to his ships. Other early interactions with the outside world were far less benign. In 1863, hundreds of people from the southern islands were kidnapped when they were lured aboard slave ships with promises that they would be taught about Christianity. Those islanders were forced to work under horrific conditions in the guano mines of Peru.
Eventually, the islands came under British influence in the late 19th century. The Ellice Islands were administered by Britain as part of a protectorate (1892-1916) and later as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony (1916-74).
During World War II, several thousand American troops were in the islands. Beginning in October 1942, U.S. forces built airbases on the islands of Funafuti, Nanumea, and Nukufetau. Friendly cooperation was the hallmark of relations between the local people and the troops, mainly U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy SeaBees. The airstrip in the capital of Funafuti, originally built by the U.S. during the war, is still in use, as is the "American Passage" that was blasted through Nanumea's reef by SeaBees assisted by local divers.
In 1974 the Ellice Islanders voted for separate British dependency status as Tuvalu, separating from the Gilbert Islands, which became Kiribati upon independence. Tuvalu became fully independent in 1978 and in 1979 signed a treaty of friendship with the United States, which recognized Tuvalu's possession of four islets formerly claimed by the United States.