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Christmas Island - History

Christmas Island is remarkable in ways that the story-tellers never dreamed of. It is an island of modern romance. No pirates ever landed on the shore of Christmas Island, for its shores are too rough and forbidding to tempt even a hardy sailor; no barefooted savage ever left a footprint on its beaches, for until a few years ago no human voice was ever heard among its higher hills; no sailors were ever there marooned, nor gold buried. There was virgin territory in which life had developed, knowing nothing of the influence of that great changer and developer, humanity.

Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, appears to have been known to navigators from about the middle of the seventeenth century. Christmas Islandwas named on Christmas Day 1643 by Captain William Mynors, the Master of a passing ship. On a curious old Dutch chart, made by one Pieter Goos in 1666, it is given the name Moni.

The first landing was recorded by William Dampier in 1688. He needed a pump, as he writes quaintly, and it being a calm day, he succeeded in getting a boat ashore, where his carpenter cut a tree. The men brought back a load of boobies, frigate birds, and landcrabs. The crabs evidently pleased the hungry crew, for Dampier says, "They were very good sweet meat, and so large that two of them were more than a man could eat, being almost as thick as one's leg."

Dampier and other voyagers sent boats ashore, but no person appears to have been able to penetrate beyond a few hundred yards from the landing-places, because of the steep and rugged cliffs, covered with dense tropical vegetation, by which the island is everywhere surrounded. For the next two centuries little interest was shown in the Island due to its rugged coastline. As there were no evidences of natives who might buy gew-gaws, nor of valuable vegetable or mineral products, the island was left in the mist of obscurity.

The surveying ship, "Flying Fish" under Captain Maclear, which was about to make a voyage in the Indian Ocean, was ordered by the Admiralty to visit Christmas Island. In December, 1886, Captain Maclear first sighted the island from the north. It seemed everywhere rugged and forbidding, with high cliffs undermined with surf, and no bottom for anchoring; but after sailing and sounding entirely around the island, he discovered a small bay with a bit of white beach, to which he gave the name "Flying-Fish Cove." There, by letting his anchor down deep and tying to a tree on the land, he secured his vessel, and sent a party ashore. And then he learned another strange thing concerning the island. All about it swarmed multitudes of birds, some of the sea and some of the land; and so unaccustomed were they to the presence of man that they flew about the heads of the sailors and allowed themselves to be picked from the ground or the trees like pet chickens.

In 1887 Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Pelham Aldrich, E.N., visited the island in H.M.S. "Egeria," and with the assistance of a party of blue-jackets cut a way up the cliffs, encamped on the highest point of the island, and made some explorations towards the interior. In consequence of Captain Aldrich's discoveries during this expedition, the island was formally annexed to the British Crown in 1888. At the time of the visit of H.M.S. "Egeria" (Captain Aldrich), in 1887, the island was found to be entirely uninhabited, and there was no indication that it hud ever been occupied. A few ships, probably whalers, seemed to have touched at Flying Fish Cove, for some of the large trees had letters cut on them, and there was a report current in Batavia that some thirty years earlier five men of a Duteh vessel were cast away on the south-cast coast, where they remained for several months. One of the party was said to have died, and the others were at last rescued by a Duteh ship.

Towards the end of 1887 the rocks collected during the visit of H.M.S. "Egeria" were submitted to Dr. (later Sir John) Hurray for examination, and he detected among the specimens from the higher parts of the island some which consisted of nearly pure phosphate of lime, a compound of the greatest commercial importance, used the world over for fertilizers and for other purposes. It is to this discovery that the island owed its further development.

Early in 1888 Dr. Murray sent Dr. H. B. Guppy to explore the island and work out its structure. He went to Batavia, and thence paid a visit to the Cocos-Kecling Islands, of which he gave a valuable account; but as far as Christmas Island was concerned the expedition miscarried, and he returned to England in February, 1889, without having reached it.

Strange as it may seem, the boundary line between the British and Dutch "spheres of influence" ran through the island, small as it was, so that it was within the "protection" of neither nation. Sir John Murray, confident that the island had great value, although he had never seen it, succeeded in getting his friend, the late Duke of Argyll, interested in the matter, with the result that Lord Salisbury ordered the island to be annexed to the British Crown. In June, 1888, H.M.S. "Imperieuse" anchored in Flying-Fish Cove, and the day following the flag floated for the first time over Christmas Island; the British Empire had a new possession, won bloodlessly, by modern scientific methods.

In November 1888 a settlement was established at Flying Fish Cove by Mr. G. Clunies Ross, of Cocos-Keeling Island, and since that date this gentleman's brother, Mr. Andrew Clunies Ross, with his family and a few Cocos-Island Malays, resided there almost continuously. By them houses were built, wells were dug, and small clearings for planting coffe(;, coconut-palms, bananas, and other plants were made in the neighborhood of Flying Fish Cove.

The discovery of phosphate in 1888 led to an imported workforce of Chinese, Malays and Sikhs who often endured appalling conditions. You will hear many residents on the island still speak their cultural language of Bahasa melayu, many of the Chinese dialects, Cocos Malay, English and quite a few more.

Until the late 19th Century, it was probably the only existing tropical island of any large extent that had never been inhabited by people, savage or civilized. In the year 1897 a Company acquired the lease of the island, and arrangements were immediately made for its thorough exploitation; an agricultural rent is paid to the Government, in addition to royalties on all minerals and timber that may be exported.

In February, 1891, Sir John Murray and Mr. G. Clunies Boss were granted a lease of the island by the British Government, and in 1895-6 Mr. Sidney Clunies Ross made explorations in the higher part of the island, resulting in the discovery of large deposits of phosphate of lime. Finally, in 1897 the leaseholders sold their lease to a small company, in the possession of which the island remained.

The Island was occupied by Japanese forces from March 1942 until the end of the Second World War and in 1946 became a dependency of Singapore. By agreement with the United Kingdom sovereignty was transferred to the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 October 1958 under the Christmas Island Act 1958. This day is still celebrated as Territory Day.





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Page last modified: 26-07-2017 19:17:10 ZULU