Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas Island

10° 30 S, 105° 40 E
Christmas Island is in the Indian Ocean, 220 miles south of Jakarta, Indonesia, 810 miles south of Singapore, and 1,600 miles northwest of Perth, Western Australia. It is 52 square miles in area, and 65% of this is predominantly pristine tropical rainforest. Its coastline is 86.3 miles long. The highest point above sea level is 1,184 feet. It lays claim to an exclusive fishing zone of 200 nautical miles. Much of this stretch of ocean is greater than three miles (2,640 fathoms) deep. The present population is approximately 1,400 (70% Chinese, 20% Caucasian, 10% Malay).

Discovery and exploration

The earliest documented sighting of Christmas Island took place on Monday, December 25, 1643, when Captain William Mynors (1593–1667) sailed past aboard the East Indiaman Royal Mary, bound for Bengal, and—there being very little else to do to celebrate—so named it.

Captain Mynors sailed past again in the same ship on Tuesday and Wednesday, January 13–14, 1646, an event noted by his V.I.P. passenger, Ralph Cartwright, the recently retired President of Bantam (1643–45), who recalled the spot as “Nativity Iland.” It was said of Captain Mynors that “he hath safely returned eleven times from the East Indies, whereas, in the dayes of our grandfathers, such as came thence twice were beheld as rarities: thrice, as wonders: four times, as miracles.” He was born at Uttoxeter, and “died at Hertford, after some years of retirement.”

The island first appears (inexplicably marked “Muni”) on a map drawn and published in Amsterdam in 1666 by the busy cartographer Pieter Goos (ca. 1616–1675), and apart from the occasional and perhaps forgivable early omission it remains marked on all subsequent maps.

The first recorded landing seems to have taken place in March 1688, when the privateer cum pirate Charles Swan (d. 1690), master of the Cygnet, visited the island, found it uninhabited, and rightly concluded that nobody had ever lived there. The explorer William Dampier (1651–1715) was then serving probably as Swan’s second mate, and later published a brief account of that visit in his A New Voyage Round the World (1697).

The next landing occurred nearly forty years later when Captain Daniel Beeckman paid a visit to the island and afterwards mentioned it in his A Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo, in the East Indies (1718). In 1771, the crew of the East Indiaman Pigot, claimed to have tried to anchor (without success), and reported seeing wild pigs, coconut palms, and lime trees ashore, which strongly suggests that what they thought of as Christmas Island was an altogether different one.

The first systematic attempt to explore Christmas Island did not come until the 26-gun, Spartan-class frigate H.M.S. Amethyst visited the area in 1857, and the crew of hearty blue-jackets found it impossible to scale the cliffs surrounding the highest hill.


The Scottish-Canadian surgeon, naturalist and pioneering oceanographer Dr. (later Sir) John Murray (1841–1914), had from 1872–76 been a member of the famously successful 68,890 nautical-mile scientific expedition of the 2,306-ton, 17-gun, 1,200-horsepower, 200-foot corvette H.M.S. Challenger, under the command of Captain (later Admiral Sir) George Nares, R.N., F.R.S. (1831–1915).

Largely as a result of Murray’s interest in the scientific and commercial potential of large deposits of Calcium diphosphate (CaHPO4.H2O), commonly known as phosphate of lime—the source of superphosphate fertilizer, of which by 1876 Britain was consuming nearly half a million tons worth £3.5 million per annum—two expeditions were ordered to collect rocks from Christmas Island.

The first of these was led by Captain (later Admiral) John Fiot Lee Pearse Maclear, R.N. (1838–1907) of the 940-ton, 4-gun, 1,011-horsepower, 160-foot Fantome-class screw sloop H.M.S. Flying Fish, who dropped anchor there in January 1887, on his return voyage from the Far East. He had been second in command of the Challenger, and a now extinct native rat (Rattus macleari) was later named in his honor.

Another former officer of the Challenger, Captain Pelham Aldrich, R.N. (1844–1930), of another Fantome-class sloop, H.M.S. Egeria, visited Christmas Island for ten days in September 1888, enabling the ship’s naturalist Joseph Jackson Lister, F.R.S. (1857–1927) to study the mineralogy, flora, and fauna. Aldrich was in 1902 appointed C.V.O., and in 1907 retired with the rank of full admiral. Bathycrinus Aldrichianus, the crinoid or feather star, a relation of sea urchins, is named after him; an indigenous species of blue-tailed skink (Cryptoblepharus egeriae) is named after his ship, while the smaller of two geckos native to the island (Lepidodactylus listeri) and a wild sago plum (Arnega listeri) are named after Lister.


The samples sent back to Murray in Edinburgh proved enormously encouraging. Indeed, according to Rear-Admiral Sir William Wharton, K.C.B., F.R.S. (1843–1905), Maclear’s collection was “received with joy at the British Museum.” As a result, and mildly swayed by its usefulness as a mid-ocean cable station, Christmas Island was formally but somewhat reluctantly annexed by the first government of the Marquess of Salisbury. The proposal had been urged upon the cabinet by Murray’s friend the 8th Duke of Argyll, who may have entertained some speculative interest, and was vetted at first by perplexed mandarins in the Foreign Office. They could unearth no treaty with a foreign power which the proposed annexation might breech, or be seen to breech, then or conceivably at any future date.

The file then plopped onto a succession of desks in the neighboring Colonial Office. The tendency of the hard-working clerks of that department was to object to the acquisition of new and isolated territories on the very reasonable grounds that each one added to their massively accumulating work load. Actually, Whitehall played down the strategic or any other advantage of the annexation by letting it be known through the columns of The Times newspaper that “the island is of little or no strategic value, though it might be irritating to have any other flag over it than our own.”

Murray versus Clunies-Ross

So, in compliance with sealed orders from the Admiralty, not to be opened until after his departure from Mauritius (bound for Singapore), Captain (later Sir) William H. May, R.N. (1849–1930), of H.M.S. Impérieuse, reached Christmas Island on Wednesday, June 6, 1888, and, finding it still uninhabited, took possession, wrote out a lengthy proclamation to this effect, glued it onto a board, nailed the board onto the trunk of a tree somewhere prominent, raised the Union Jack, and fired a twenty-one gun salute. Arriving in Singapore on Monday, June 11, Captain May wired the Admiralty, reporting the successful completion of his mission. Thenceforth the island was administered by the crown colony of the Straits Settlements (Singapore).

Six months later, George Clunies-Ross (1842–1910), de facto proprietor and ruler of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands some 560 miles west of Christmas Island at 12° 10′ S 96° 50′ E, despatched his brother, Andrew, nephew Hugh, and a small party of Malay “workers” to create a settlement at Flying Fish Cove. From 1884, Clunies-Ross had lobbied hard in England for title to the Cocos (Keeling) group, and in 1886, following an official inspection, the British crown gave him a “grant-in-fee” and a magistracy, subject to annual, somewhat desultory visits by colonial inspectors from Singapore. The Cocos (Keeling) group had, in fact, been annexed to Ceylon by mistake in 1857, and it is not altogether clear how Clunies-Ross managed to persuade the imperial authorities to rectify this careless error so spectacularly in his favor, other than that the sanguine view taken by the India Office seems to have been that since he was prepared to live somewhere so preposterously isolated; had already been in unchallenged possession of the islands for some decades; did not appear to be doing too much harm, and cost the crown nothing, he might as well have it.

Henceforth, Murray and his associates in England and the unconventional, vividly Conradian Clunies-Ross family pursued rival claims over the phosphate deposits on Christmas Island, which turned out to be massive, and of high quality. Murray was frustrated when, having successfully urged the government to annex Christmas Island, the Colonial Office concluded that, notwithstanding the fact that his mother and wife were both Malay, George Clunies-Ross was far better placed to make a decent job of mining the phosphate than a British syndicate with little or no commercial or colonial experience of the tropics. A good question also arose as to whether Murray ought to be permitted to profit so spectacularly from his salaried work for the government on the Challenger mission.

Clunies-Ross, meanwhile, was frustrated by his own suspicion that what Murray had actually discovered in the rock samples removed from the island were traces of gold. Somehow he could not be made to understand that this was not so, and that there was equally impressive money to be made—and a good deal more easily—from guano.

In 1890, H.M.S. Redpole called at the island for a few hours, and Mr. H. N. Ridley of the Singapore Botanical Gardens managed to collect a number of previously unknown plants, but apart from this isolated visit most access to the island was controlled by George Clunies-Ross. His ships, including the 46-ton yawl J. G. Clunies-Ross, his “flagship,” which was registered with Lloyd’s in London as “A.1.,” ran between Batavia (Jakarta), Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Group, and mainland Australia. It was an easy matter for him to prevent anyone at all from reaching the island, and he regularly did so, to Murray’s infinite annoyance.


By 1897, Murray and the British Phosphate Commissioners (who found they could not gain access to the island without Clunies-Ross) and Clunies-Ross (who finally accepted that there was no gold, and now needed to reach markets for the guano) were persuaded to form, in uneasy partnership, the Christmas Island Phosphate Company. This development prompted a good deal of comment in the American press, along the lines of “Isle of Mystery,” and “Tiny Island Worth About Two Billion Dollars.”

Assisted by Malay and Sikh foremen, Clunies-Ross proceeded to import approximately 640 Chinese laborers, a large proportion of whom in due course died of beriberi and other forms of malnutrition and mistreatment, which is surprising because no such abuses had ever before been observed on the admittedly not very well supervised Cocos (Keeling) Group. These developments presumably reflected the Clunies-Rosses’ far greater experience in the production of copra, and the fact that they had never before tried their hand at mining. Naturally it was the coolies who suffered the consequences.

The resulting scandal in England led to the appointment of a Chinese-speaking civilian District Officer, and a few other colonial officials who reported to successive British governors of Singapore, but sadly no better supervision of the questionable activities of the increasingly eccentric Clunies-Ross family. Notwithstanding these setbacks, by January 1913 Murray could report to 11 Downing Street that “His Majesty’s Treasury has received in hard cash [out of the Christmas Island phosphate venture]…in the form of rents, royalties, and taxes, a sum greater than the cost to the country of the whole Challenger expedition.”


During World War II, following Japanese sea bombardment on Monday, March 9, 1942, the District Officer, an official of the Malayan Civil Service, who was anxious to prevent European casualties, raised the white flag over Christmas Island. However the next day the Japanese flotilla sailed nonchalantly away. Outraged by what he saw as the District Officer’s premature capitulation, Captain L. W. T. Williams, the British officer in charge of the gun crew and a veteran of twenty-five years’ service in the British army, saw no reason not to hoist the Union Jack once more.

At this point, the garrison of Punjabi troops from the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery Regiment mutinied. Led (after a fashion) by one Sergeant Mir Ali, they murdered Captain Williams and four British N.C.O.s; dumped their bodies in a blow hole; captured the island’s single gun; arrested the remaining civilians including the District Officer, and a single Indian Viceroy’s commissioned officer. Afterwards, on March 31, they surrendered the island to the Japanese. Seven of the Sepoys were tried in 1946–47 by a Court Martial in Singapore, at which date two others were known to be at large in the interior of Java. Five were convicted and sentenced to death, but after the newly independent governments of India and Pakistan both protested to Mr. Attlee in Downing Street—an exceedingly rare moment of unanimity—their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.

For several months the Japanese attempted to help themselves to the island’s phosphate deposits, but because they had already destroyed the wharf at Flying Fish Cove very little could be exported, and none at all aboard the creaking 700-ton Japanese cargo vessel Nissa Maru when, a little later, it was torpedoed by an American submarine. In December 1942, most of the remaining civilian population was deported to appalling prison camps on Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). The island was in October 1945 liberated by the River-class frigate H.M.S. Rother.

The end of the beginning

The Christmas Island Phosphate Company was liquidated in stages between 1947 and 1957. It sold its lease of Christmas Island, together with the mining facilities, to the Australian and New Zealand governments, who were by then the biggest customers for the phosphate. In 1951, the decision was taken in principal to transfer sovereignty of the Cocos (Keeling) Group and Christmas Island to Australia. Under the refreshingly brief Christmas Island Act (1958) of the Parliament at Westminster, and the Christmas Island Act (1958), which did the trick in Canberra, that plan was carried out, and the islands formally passed from the jurisdiction of the British Commonwealth Relations Office (previously the Dominions Office, and before that the Colonial Office) to the Commonwealth of Australia. This was because by then the islands apparently lacked strategic importance and Whitehall saw no point in holding onto it—although it is hard to see why this conclusion should have been reached, because Christmas Island especially was close to shipping lanes, never busier; Malayan independence was not far off, and Southeast Asia was generally unstable. Certainly, the island was from time to time inconvenient, as for example when in 1956, at the height of the Suez Crisis, the R.A.F. was obliged to go to the trouble and expense of parachuting into the settlement a British doctor from Singapore, there still being no air-strip, to treat the wife of a civilian who had encountered difficulties whilst giving birth.

In any case, the Commonwealth of Australia paid the sum of £2.9 million in compensation for the loss of projected future phosphate revenues to what was still the crown colony of Singapore—but not for much longer: Singapore merged with Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak to form Malaysia in 1963, but on August 9, 1965 left the confederation and became an independent republic.

Present arrangements

Since 1958 Christmas Island has been governed by an Australian administrator, who is appointed by the Governor-General in Council, on the recommendation of the federal government of the day. In 1992 the Territories Law Reform Act replaced the existing laws of the island which the relevant officials in Canberra seem previously not to have noticed still followed, at least in theory, those of colonial Singapore. Further, since 1995, when the Local Government Act (WA) (CI) was passed, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island together now form the Australian Indian Ocean Territories, under a single administrator. The position is currently occupied by Neil Lucas, P.S.M. Purely local matters devolve to a nine-seat shire council elected for four-year terms. At present the Shire President is Cr. Gordon Thomson; his deputy is Cr. Kee Heng Foo, and the remaining members are Cr. Azmi Yon, Cr. Mariam Kawi, Cr. Kelvin Lee, Cr. Philip Teo, Cr. Nora Koh, Cr. Soon Chew Chin, and Cr. Mahmood Ismail.

The island has occasionally been visited by boatloads of refugees from as far away as the Middle East. In August 2001, when the Norwegian cargo vessel M.V. Tampa rescued 431 Afghans from a small, ill-equipped wooden fishing boat encountering difficulties in international waters, and shortly before that year’s general election, the Howard government refused the Tampa permission to enter Australian waters, or to deliver the refugees to Christmas Island where in theory they could have applied for asylum. Later, the federal government passed legislation which excised the island from Australia’s “migration zone,” so that in future any refugees arriving there could not automatically seek asylum on the mainland, and could be directed to countries and territories other than Australia. This cynical measure by which some portions of sovereign territory seem to be defined as more or less Australian than others, is best described as wanting and eating your cake, but uncharitably refusing to share it with a small number of frightened, penniless strangers in distress.

Flora and fauna

135 plant species still exist on the Christmas Island, of which sixteen are unique. Many of the abundant fauna are exceedingly rare, and eight species or subspecies of sea bird nest there. Many of the native species identified by nineteenth-century naturalists carry the Latin name of the island, for example the remarkable red crab (Gecarcoidea natalis), which Dampier recalled eating with not much relish in 1688. Every November, approximately 100 million red crabs make a dash for the sea to spawn, scuttling overland, dodging sundry natural predators as best they can—a curious phenomenon that must be really remarkable to witness.

Some points of clarification

Christmas Island is also the name of the largest, 124 square-mile coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which was discovered by Captain James Cook (1728–1779) aboard H.M.S. Resolution on December 24, 1777. Lying at 1° 52´ N and 157° 30´ W, this other Christmas Island is 2,500 northeast of Sydney, New South Wales, and 3,330 miles southwest of San Francisco, Calif. Its present population is about 4,400 souls. To the vexation of the Colonial Office, this Christmas Island was formally annexed in 1888, at precisely the same time as our Christmas Island, and was in 1919 transferred to the crown colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, mainly to solve the problem of getting hopelessly mixed up the two separate, nearly contemporaneous, comparably slender Colonial Office files marked “Christmas Island.”

The Royal Engineers, the Royal Corps of Signals, the Royal Navy, and the RA.A.F. detonated hydrogen bombs over this atoll on Wednesday, May 15, 1957, and on Friday, November 8, 1957. In late April 1962, in spite of formal objections raised at the United Nations in New York by Acting Secretary-General U Thant, President John F. Kennedy prevailed upon Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to allow the United States’ massive Task Force Eight, under the command of Major-General Alfred D. Starbird, to detonate over the atoll about twenty to twenty-five more nuclear “devices,” including Polaris, Minuteman, Atlas, and Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles, and other approximately 10-megaton bombs.

Today the atoll forms an outlying portion of the Republic of Kiribati, and its present Gilbertese (Micronesian) name, Kiritimati, is merely a simple transcription of “Christmas,” and is pronounced in exactly the same way. Although it is 1,530 miles east of 180°, since 1995, when at the request of the Republic of Kiribati the International Date Line was shifted deftly sideways, Kiritimati has been the first inhabited spot on the globe to celebrate the New Year, no longer the last. Thanks to Father Emmanuel Rougier, a cheerful and imaginative French Roman Catholic diocesan priest who took a lease on the atoll from 1917 to 1939, the few tiny villages include London, Paris, Poland, and Banana.

It seems likely that Lord Ennisdale’s Christmas Island by Court Harwell out of Tahiti, the “neat, workmanlike colt” who won the 1963 Irish St. Leger by a length and a half, was named after this remote and now somewhat radioactive spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and not our smaller but more interesting Christmas Island.

Christmas is also the name of a small community in Orange County, Fla., approximately twenty-four miles due east of Orlando. It takes it name from Fort Christmas a little way to the north, which was established during the Second Seminole Indian War (1835–42), on December 25, 1837, the day on which a force of 2,000 Alabama volunteers and U.S. Army soldiers arrived in the neighborhood, and began to build it.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

I am grateful to Neil Lucas, P.S.M., Administrator of the Australian Indian Ocean Territories; Linda Cash of the Christmas Island Tourism Association; Nat Williams of the National Library of Australia, Canberra; Elizabeth Tobey of the National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Va.; Niall Devitt and Catherine Hume of the Communications and Public Affairs Division Library of the Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House, London; Kate Willson of the Parliamentary Archives at Westminster; Stanfords Stationery of Long Acre, Covent Garden; the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.; the powerfully learned staffs of the University Library of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the Library of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (London); the Universitätsbibliothek of the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität at Heidelberg; the Sterling Memorial and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Libraries at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; the estimable John G. Hunt, who knows more about Christmas Island than anybody else and, above all, my friend and colleague Lyn Bell Rose, for their generous assistance in drafting this private Christmas cracker.

No comments:

Post a Comment