10° 30′ S, 105° 40′ E
Christmas Island is in the Indian Ocean, 220 miles south of
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
The island first appears (inexplicably marked “Muni”) on a map drawn and published in
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
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
Another former officer of the Challenger, Captain Pelham Aldrich, R.N. (1844–1930), of another Fantome-class sloop, H.M.S. Egeria, visited
The samples sent back to
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,
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
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
Henceforth, Murray and his associates in
Clunies-Ross, meanwhile, was frustrated by his own suspicion that what
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
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
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
At this point, the garrison of Punjabi troops from the
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
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
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.
The island has occasionally been visited by boatloads of refugees from as far away as the
Flora and fauna
135 plant species still exist on the
Some points of clarification
Christmas Island is also the name of the largest, 124 square-mile coral atoll in the
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
It seems likely that Lord Ennisdale’s Christmas Island by Court Harwell out of Tahiti, the “neat, workmanlike colt” who won the
Christmas is also the name of a small community in
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.