The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a British protectorate and colony from 1857 until 1 January 1976, when the islands were divided into two colonies: the Gilbert Islands, now part of the nation Kiribati, and the Ellice Islands, which became the independent nation Tuvalu in 1978.

The protectorate was established by the Pacific Islands Protection Act of 1857, and a High Commissioner was appointed in 1893. The islands became a Crown Colony in 1916. Christmas Island joined in 1919, and Fanning Island in 1939. The colony's capital was at Tarawa.

Postage stamps

Originally mail service was ad hoc, depending on which ships were calling at the various islands. A regular service began in 1911; Edward VII postage stamps of Fiji were overprinted GILBERT & ELLICE / PROTECTORATE and put on sale 1 January of that year, followed by March by a set of four stamps depicting a Pandanus tree, inscribed "GILBERT & ELLICE ISLANDS / PROTECTORATE".

These were followed in 1912 by George V stamps of the common type, inscribed "GILBERT & ELLICE ISLANDS". A new definitive series came out starting 14 January, 1939, featuring local scenery and a profile of George VI. These were updated in 1956 with a profile of Elizabeth II.

A set of four stamps on 1 May 1960 commemorated the 60th anniversary of the discovery of phosphate at Ocean Island. The definitive series of 1965 depicted daily activites of the natives, but a decimal currency conversion necessitated surcharges in 1966 and a reissue of the stamps in 1968. The colony issued about 10-15 stamps per year thereafter, usually as sets of four, until the end of 1975.