The first European Explorer to make contact with Tuvalu was Alvaro de Mendana y Neyra, a Spanish explorer. He sailed westward across the Pacific in 1567-8 to discover, explore and name a substantial part of the eastern half of the Solomon Islands. On January 16, 1568 Mendana, with his ship Capitana, sighted his first island, which turned out to be Nui, and named it the Isle of Jesus. Mendana himself reported on Nui “…we found it so small it was not more than six leagues in circumference. The island was very full of trees like palms; towards the north it had a reef...” Although islanders ventured out to the ship no contact was made with them. Gallego, the Chief Pilot, merely recorded that they were “naked and mulattoes” and Sarmiento, the captain of Magellan's flagship, observed that the island "had a large fishery".
A quarter of a century later Mendana once again obtained ships and men to make a second exploration of the Pacific. On August 29, 1595 the atoll of Niulakita was discovered and named La Solitaria. Once again no contact was made and Mendana sailed off in search of the Solomons where on Santa Cruz, he died in October 1595.
Such was the first and only European contact with Tuvalu for almost two centuries. The atolls were ignored until 1781 when the Spanish trader Don Francisco Maurelle was forced well south of the Equator by unfavourable winds on a routine journey from Manila to Mexico.
With inadequate provisions (since cockroaches ate most of the stores) he was forced as far south as the Tongan archipelago. Sailing north, on May 5, 1781 he discovered an island which he called Isla del Cocal, the atoll of Nanumanga. It was impossible to land although islanders who also came onboard attempted to tow his frigate, La Princesa by tying lines to the bows. Maurelle eventually abandoned the attempt and set sail northwestwards, sighting Nanumea, which he named San Augustin, but passing no closer than six leagues. Once again Tuvaluan atolls had been discovered by accident, and once again they provoked little or no interest in their discoverers.
Captain Arent de Peyster, an American, is given credit for the rediscovery of Tuvalu. He was in command of the British brigantine Rebecca, who in May 1819 discovered a group of fourteen islets which appeared to be inhabited. The first atoll was discovered when the Rebecca was only three times her length from the shore. That he avoided shipwreck was fortunate whilst the problem of visibility, plus the isolation of Tuvalu, indicates very clearly the reason for its belated discovery. The atoll was Funafuti and de Peyster called it Ellice's Group after Edward Ellice, the Member of Parliament for Coventry and the owner of the Rebecca's cargo. Ellice was also a London merchant, a financier of wide imperialist interests and a leading figure in the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada. The next morning de Peyster sighted Nukufetau, which he called de Peyster's Group. Eventually, the name Ellice was applied to all nine islands by the English hydrographer A. G. Findlay.
In the next decade more traders and whalers briefly visited Tuvalu, especially after the discovery of the Central Pacific whaling grounds in 1818. Captain George Barrett in the Nantucket whaler Independence II, was the first to sight Nukulaelae, and rediscovered Niulakita on November 6, 1821. Four years later, 1825, Obed Starbuck in the whaler Loper, discovered Niutao and Vaitupu, and Captain Eeg of the Dutch ship Pollux sights Nui again, more than 250 years after Mendana's first voyage
Although few left record of their journey, they did serve finally to establish the location of the atolls on the map of the Pacific. Inadvertent discovery gave way to almost inadvertent incorporation. By the middle of the nineteenth century Tuvaluans had obviously become quite familiar with the unfortunate medical impact of the arrival of increasing numbers of Europeans, so that in 1853 when Captain Pease of the Planter became one of the first Europeans to visit the atoll of Nanumea he was washed and various propitious ceremonies were carried out before he was allowed to step ashore.
Tuvalu's waters are frequented by American whalers in the 1800's. Seamen occasionally deserted and settled ashore, while some of the more adventurous islanders became crewmen. Some Europeans beachcombers become traders and agents for firms in Australia, Germany and the US, and organised the export of coconut oil or copra.
During the 1860s slave traders, or "blackbirders", carried off about 400 islanders, mainly from Funafuti and Nukulaelae, to work in Peru. None of them ever returned. Others were later recruited for plantations in Fiji, Samoa and Hawai'i. European diseases caused many deaths among the islanders.