Skip to main content
Menu
Christmas Island

Christmas Island

by Angus Trumble, 1 December 2018

This is my last Trumbology before, in a little more than a week from now, I pass to my successor Karen Quinlan the precious baton of the Directorship of the National Portrait Gallery, after five supremely happy and rewarding years in the saddle (at the wheel, on the bridge?—take your pick). I have been looking back over the full run of 56 (with extras) and find to my astonishment that they cover the following more or less portraity topics, and a few that don’t really warrant a mention.

I started off with St Bernard of Clairvaux; the genera banksia and grevillea; Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey in Sydney; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, and the late Dr Ursula Hoff. There were Dame Nellie Melba; one of James Gillray’s caricatures of Sir Joseph Banks (ours); the mixed pleasures of turning fifty, and statistics relating to the number of former prime ministers still living at any time since Federation. There was Anna Matveyevna Pavlova and the eponymous dessert, New Zealand’s premier cultural export. There were Josiah Wedgwood’s Sydney Cove Medallion; aspects of a childhood largely spent at Metung on the Gippsland Lakes; the selfie stick and the swizzle stick; the bellwether William Bligh in Australian history; the centenary of ANZAC; the mid-Victorian Sydney lyricist “Desda,” and the really terrible fruits of her, well, fruity collaborations with Maestro Ernesto Spagnoletti.

I examined the earliest ads in the Sydney Gazette. I dilated upon the only soldier at the Battle of Waterloo who was born at Port Jackson—Andrew Douglas White. There were Magna Carta; the ways in which Australian scientists and medicos punch above their weight in the world; Uluru and Kata Tjuta; The Queen; an ancient Major Mitchell cockatoo known as Cocky McGrath, and Cocky’s celebrated encounter with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh on the gravel drive at Government House, Melbourne.

Then came Thomas Woolner, the only member of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who ever came to Australia; Louise Dyer of the Maison L’Oiseau Lyre; the late Robert Oatley AO; radiance, Moses, and Lord Kitchener of Khartoum. I then noted the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, and the fact that in Regency Britain the quality of a portrait and the quality of the likeness were not necessarily the same thing at all. There followed Edward Lear’s “Inditchenous Beestes of New Olland”; Alfred Tennyson’s Enoch Arden; Pokémon Go (remember that?); an excursion into the obscure but delicious realm of dendrochronology; the late Mollie Murphy, and the Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota of Mexico.

This is to say nothing of Angkor Wat; His late Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria; my stalwart bear, the estimable Brownie, or Sir Stamford Raffles. And let us not forget The Chattri near Brighton in Sussex (effectively a sort of absorption of the Imperial narrative back into the South Downs, the heart of primitive England); photography (daguerrotypes); the arts of Latin America, specifically those seventeenth-century gun-toting angels in the Viceroyalty of Peru; dementia; the Conversation Piece; John Church Dempsey, and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. Nor indeed Queen Victoria; the active and the contemplative life; The Rothschild Bank in New Court, St Swithin’s Lane; indexing (the art of); Central Java and the lotus; time and memory.

And let us not forget the House of Cartier; the platypus and Ovid in Hobart Town; the quest for equivalents in the present of costs and prices in history, or the Black Death. I see now that I lean towards the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but that should come as no surprise. They are the cultural territories where I feel more or less at home. Not too much should be made of any particular adjacency in this curious sequence. I was usually working to a hard monthly deadline, and casting about for an interesting subject—interesting above all to me, mindful of the fact that what you write cannot very well be interesting to other people unless it began by being interesting to you.

There are tributes and other topical matters, mostly arising from anniversaries. But what is so striking to me about the latter is that my tenure has extended slightly farther at either end that the full duration of World War I. Near the beginning, for example, I noted the fact that the fateful dominoes were sent clattering by the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. We have just marked, less than three weeks ago, the centenary of the signing of the armistice on Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne in Picardy at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Was ever a greater human catastrophe compacted into so brief a period, only slightly more than four years, 100 years ago? By strong contrast, it is now more than seventeen years since the destruction of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.

The rhythms of time, the patterns with which events unfold, do not necessarily accelerate in parallel with the daunting pace and colossal amount of digital communication with which we contend today. As I prepare to sign off, however, I feel that in the spirit of the approaching holiday season a festive cracker is in order, and in passing it into your hands, dear reader, may I thank you for accompanying me on this wonderful adventure. I wish you all a fond farewell.

Christmas Island
10° 29’ 28.43” S, 105° 37’ 22.73” E

i migliori fabbri

To the staff of the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
—past and present—
to whom I owe a profound debt of gratitude
for their generous support and hard work
over the past nearly five years,
which have been among the happiest
and most rewarding of my life,
this little bon-bon is humbly and respectfully dedicated.

A. T.

Canberra

Christmas Island is in the Indian Ocean, 364 kilometres (226 miles) south of Jakarta, Indonesia, 1,211 kilometres (815 miles) south of Singapore, and 2,621 kilometres (1,629 miles) northwest of Perth, Western Australia. It is 134 square kilometres (52 square miles) in area, and 70% of this is predominantly pristine tropical rainforest. Its coastline is approximately 72 kilometres (45 miles) long. The highest point above sea level is 361 metres (1,184 feet). The climate is tropical, with annual rainfall of approximately 2,000 millimetres (79 inches), most of which is concentrated into the November to May wet season. The island lays claim to an exclusive fishing zone of 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres). Much of this stretch of ocean is greater than three miles (2,640 fathoms, or 15,840 feet) deep. The present permanent population is approximately 2,070 (65% Chinese, 20% Malay, 10% European and 5% Indian and Eurasian).

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands at 12° 10’ 15.15” S, 96° 50’ 30.26” E are 901 kilometres (560 miles) west and slightly south of Christmas Island.

Together the Cocos (Keeling) Group and Christmas Island are now administered as the Australian Indian Ocean Territories.

Christmas Island stamps, issued 1990

Discovery and exploration

The earliest documented sighting of Christmas Island took place on 3 February 1615, when merchant John Milward and master Richard Rowe sailed past aboard the East Indiaman Thomas, bound for Java. The next recorded sighting occurred on Monday 25 December 1643, when Captain William Mynors (1593–1667) spotted it from the Royal Mary, 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 13–14 January 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.”

Chart of the Malay Archipelago and the Dutch discoveries in Australia (detail), 1618-1628 Hessel Gerritsz

The island had first appeared (inexplicably marked Monij or Monÿ) on a map published in 1618 by Hessel Gerritsz. (?1581–1632), Chief Cartographer for the Dutch East India Company, but it is not known by whom or under what circumstances it was spotted and named before that date. The name Christmas Island appears on Nicholas Comberford’s East Indies chart of 1665, and still as “Moni” (or “Muni”) on a map drawn and published in Amsterdam in 1666 by the busy cartographer Pieter Goos (ca. 1616–1675). 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.

Phosphate?

The Scottish-Canadian surgeon, naturalist and pioneering oceanographer Dr. (later Sir) John Murray (1841–1914), had from 1872 to 1876 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 honour.

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 (Arenga listeri) are named after Lister.

Annexation

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 was urged upon the Prime Minister by Murray’s friend the eighth Duke of Argyll, the father-in-law of Queen Victoria’s third daughter Princess Louise, Marchioness of Lorne. The Duke may have entertained some speculative interest, and evidently underlined the commercial potential of the island without demonstrating more than a vague grasp of what phosphate was, merely that there was a lot of money in it. At first the Prime Minister referred the matter to the Admiralty. The mandarins of the Foreign Office then vetted it. Perplexed, they could unearth no treaty with a foreign power that the proposed annexation might breech, or be seen to breech, then or conceivably at any future date.

Well clear of this political hurdle, 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 workload. 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 6 June 1888. Finding it still uninhabited, he 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 Flag, and fired a twenty-one gun salute. Arriving in Singapore on Monday 11 June 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 at 12° 10’ S, 96° 50’ E, some 560 miles west of Christmas Island, despatched his brother, Andrew, Andrew’s son 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.

Unbeknownst to the Clunies-Rosses, who had lived there since the 1820s, the Cocos (Keeling) Group had, in fact, been claimed by Britain during the Crimean War, and in 1878 annexed to Ceylon by mistake, and it is not altogether clear how Clunies-Ross managed to persuade the imperial authorities to rectify this careless error so spectacularly in his favour. The sanguine view taken by the India Office seems to have been that since the Clunies-Ross family was prepared to live somewhere so preposterously isolated; had already been in unchallenged possession of the islands for at least sixty years; did not appear to be doing too much harm, and cost the Crown nothing, they might as well have them.

Cosmo Clunies Ross' bungalow at Home Island, Cocos Island, ca. 1915

Henceforth, Murray and his associates in England and the unconventional, vividly Conradian Clunies-Rosses 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 annexe 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 new British syndicate with little or no commercial experience of the tropical or Far Eastern colonies. A good question also arose as to whether Murray ought to be permitted to profit so enormously 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 was 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.

Christmas Island stamp, issued 1972

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 effectively controlled by George Clunies-Ross. His ships, including the 46-ton yawl J. G. Clunies-Ross, the family’s “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.

Phosphate!

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 establish and 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.”

Map of Christmas Island, 1901

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’ greater experience in the comparatively benign 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.

Chinese labourers on Christmas Island

The resulting scandal 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.”

1914-1942

Affairs on Christmas Island between the World Wars mainly concerned the extraction of of guano. Prior to the onset of the Great Depression, 575,000 tons of phosphate were being put into ships, and over a million tons of processed fertilizer were being sold throughout Australia and New Zealand at approximately £5 per ton. Everything on the island was driven by this profitable enterprise. Nothing much else happened there. Even in 1934 it was so unusual for an unofficial vessel to call at Christmas Island that any such event warranted reporting. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s special correspondent, wiring on Thursday 5 April, “The cruising liner Cathay to-day visited Christmas Island, a lonely island about mid-way between Fiji and Hawaii [sic]. As the Cathay, hoisting her name in flags and flashing Morse signals, approached Flying Fish Cove this morning, flocks of quaint frigate birds [Fregata minor minor], with forked tails, flew out. A score of immense blowholes were erupting high, foamy columns which, dissipated in drifting smoke, seemed like a royal salute. A motor launch brought Mr. [G. H.] Vinen, manager of the phosphate company, and Mr. Rhodes, the district officer, out to the Cathay. The ship presented them with a barrel of fruit, meat, chocolates, newspapers, and camera films. The islanders responded with bunches of bananas, and took away a special passenger mail to be stamped with the Christmas Island postmark.” In fact, the Cathay was the first large passenger steamer to visit the island.

SS Cathay, 1924

The most noteworthy non-phosphate event in this relatively long and stable period occurred in 1922, when H. Spenser Jones (1890–1960), chief assistant at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and P. J. Melotte (1880–1961), the discoverer of the eighth satellite of Jupiter, visited the island on behalf of the Astronomer Royal to observe the solar eclipse of 21 September. That mission was prompted by the need to check Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity against the observation of astronomical phenomena. At one point it was reported in The Times newspaper that Prof. Einstein would accompany a rival joint German and Dutch expedition, and it is intriguing to imagine what topographical feature might have carried his name had the island received that most distinguished scientific visitor. At any rate, Jones and Melotte were intensely disappointed when, at the crucial moment, cloud cover completely obscured the phenomenon and prevented observation and photography. Anticlimax is something of a recurring theme in the long history of Christmas Island.

As far as I can tell, the only effort to draw attention to any potential strategic importance of Christmas Island prior to the outbreak of World War II appeared in the Sunday Mail (Brisbane) on 15 December 1935. In his slightly flamboyant article, “Christmas Island,” which makes no reference to guano or superphosphate, Robert M. Macdonald, F.R.S.G.S., who had sought refuge there during a cyclone, emphasized its natural beauty and abundance of birds, but also predicted that the island “will loom large as a Gibraltar of the Orient should that part of the world become a danger zone.” Much earlier, in 1911, the covert landing of a party of thirteen Japanese (at first denied by the commander of the Togo Maru, the Japanese schooner that had delivered them) had caused a flurry of panic with respect to Imperial ambitions in the Indian Ocean. However, despite the outbreak of war in the Pacific on 7 December 1941, Christmas Island never assumed anything like the strategic importance that Macdonald had in mind—even though the region was then, and indeed subsequently (above all, during the Malayan and Indonesian emergencies of the 1950s and 1960s), without question a danger zone. However, a most unlikely event did take place.

Mutiny

Following Japanese naval bombardment on Monday 9 March 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 Flag 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 an Indian Viceroy’s commissioned officer. Afterwards, when at length the Japanese returned on Tuesday 31 March, the mutineers surrendered the island to them. 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.

SNLF soldiers posing with a captured British coastal gun after the conquest of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, April 1942

For several months in 1942, the Japanese attempted to help themselves to the island’s phosphate deposits. However, 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 Nissei Maru when, on Tuesday 17 November 1942, it was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine. In December, most of the remaining civilian population was deported to appalling prison camps at Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). The island was liberated in October 1945 by the River-class frigate H.M.S. Rother.

Christmas Island stamps, issued 1992

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 still then its 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 the Commonwealth of 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 Australia. This was because by then the islands apparently lacked strategic importance and Whitehall saw no point in holding onto them—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, the doctor was to treat the wife of a civilian who had encountered difficulties whilst giving birth.

In any case, 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 the Kingdom of Malaysia in 1963, but on 9 August 1965 left the confederation and became an independent, aggressively modernizing 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. That position is currently occupied by Natasha Griggs. Purely local matters devolve to a nine-seat shire council elected for four-year terms. At present the Shire President is Cr. Foo Kee Heng.

Since the late 1980s, the island has been regularly visited by boats carrying refugees and others from as far away as the Middle East, many ferried illegally by people smugglers aboard unsafe, overcrowded and, at times, unseaworthy vessels from ports mostly in the Republic of Indonesia. In August 2001, the Norwegian cargo vessel M.V. Tampa rescued 431 Afghans from a small, ill-equipped wooden fishing boat in international waters. Shortly before that year’s general election, the Commonwealth 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 Commonwealth 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—specifically (in due course) facilities established on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and in the Republic of Nauru. However, in a unanimous 2010 judgment in the case of Plaintiff M61/2010E v Commonwealth of Australia the full bench of the High Court of Australia later found that asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island, or arriving there by boat, were entitled to the protections of the Migration Act (1966).

The MV Tampa with 438 rescued asylum seekers. Wallenius Wilhelmsen/AAP

In December 2010, 48 people perished after an insubstantial wooden vessel carrying about 90 people mostly from Iran and Iraq was driven onto rocks in the vicinity of Flying Fish Cove and in rough conditions broke up against the neighbouring cliffs. Bad weather frustrated desperate attempts by the Coast Guard and many local people ashore to save more lives. It was a terrible tragedy. On 20 June 2013, after four boats were intercepted in six days, carrying 350 people, the Immigration Department stated that there were 2,960 “irregular maritime arrivals” being held in the island’s five detention facilities, which exceeded not only the “regular operating capacity” of 1,094 people, but also the “contingency capacity” of 2,724.

The issue of off-shore detention remains controversial. Those in favour underline the need to combat illegal people-smuggling (to prevent associated deaths at sea; and to exert control over immigration processes, border protection, and so on), in other words to “stop the boats.” Those against point to over-crowding, mental-health and various other humanitarian concerns arising from the indefinite detention or “limbo” experienced by asylum-seekers. The local inhabitants of Christmas Island have for many years found themselves at the nub of this seemingly intractable problem.

Flora and fauna

Christmas Island is home to 237 native plant species, including at least 17 endemic species found nowhere else in the world. About half the island’s plants are not known anywhere else in Australia. On the plateau and terraces, where soils are deep, there is tall evergreen rainforest, with a closed uneven canopy about 40 metres high (130 feet). Some trees emerge up to ten metres (33 feet) above the canopy and it is there that the endemic Abbott’s booby nests (Papasula abbotti).

Abbott's Booby Christmas Island stamps issued 1990

The rainforest is prolific with ferns and orchids (e.g. Flickeringia nativitatis), and on the ground are stands of young palms, ferns and lilies. The shallower soils of the slopes and terraces down to the coast—and some plateau areas—support semi-deciduous forest, with smaller trees (15−30 metres, 50−100 feet) and thicker patches of young palms. Land crabs, particularly tens of millions of red crabs (Gecarcoidea natalis), feed on understorey plants, thus maintaining its bareness. Many of the abundant fauna are exceedingly rare, and eight other species or subspecies of sea bird nest on Christmas Island.

Christmas Island stamps, issued 1994

Many of the native species identified by nineteenth-century naturalists carry the Latin name of the island, for example the remarkable red crab, which Dampier recalled eating with 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 remarkable phenomenon that never fails to impress anyone who has ever witnessed it.

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 4,023 kilometres (2,500 miles) northeast of Sydney, New South Wales, and 5,360 kilometres (3,330 miles) southwest of San Francisco, California. Its present population is about 6,447 souls. To the vexation of Whitehall, this Christmas Island was formally annexed in 1888, at precisely the same time as our Christmas Island. In 1919 it was added to the crown colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, mainly to solve the problem of getting hopelessly mixed up the two separate, comparably slender, nearly contemporaneous Colonial Office files marked “Christmas Island.”

The Royal Engineers, the Royal Corps of Signals, the Royal Navy, and the R.A.F. detonated hydrogen bombs over this atoll on Wednesday 15 May 1957 and on Friday 8 November 1957. In late April 1962, 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 a further twenty to twenty-five nuclear “devices.” This, despite formal objections raised at the United Nations in New York by Acting Secretary-General U Thant. Those devices included Polaris, Minuteman, Atlas, and Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles, and certain other, apparently classified, 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 2,462 kilometres (1,530 miles) east of 180°, since 1995, when at the request of Kiribati the International Date Line was deftly moved 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 much more interesting Christmas Island.

Gazetteer

The names of the following topographical features of Christmas Island are self-explanatory: Low Point, Northeast Point, Northwest Point, Phosphate Hill, Rocky Point, and South Point. They appear on the fine map accompanying A Monograph of Christmas Island by the naturalist Charles William Andrews, F.G.S. (1866–1924), which was published in 1900 by the Natural History department of the British Museum. The remaining features were named in 1908 by the survey expedition financed by Sir John Murray and undertaken once again by C. W. Andrews and a team employed by the Christmas Island Phosphate Company. The expedition sailed twice around the island aboard the company’s supply ship Islander, and subsequently produced a definitive map entitled Running Survey of Christmas Island (Indian Ocean).

Running Survey of Christmas Island, Indian Ocean / prepared in August and September 1908 under the superintendence of Sir John Murray

That map was not supplanted until 1971 when new data was gathered with the aid of satellite technology by U.S.S. Bartlett; augmented with data gathered by Manfred Ost, a surveyer with the British Phosphate Commissioners, and a new map published for the Australian government the following year (× 752) by the Division of National Mapping in the Commonwealth of Australia’s Department of National Development. They are:

  • Andrews Point, named after Charles William Andrews, who had previously spent ten months studying the climate, geology, flora, and fauna of the island from July 1897 to May 1898, sailing there from Batavia aboard the J. G. Clunies-Ross. Andrews’ expedition was financed by Sir John Murray. Upon his return to England, Andrews published A Monograph of Christmas Island, which aimed to provide a definitive scientific description of the flora and fauna on the island prior to the commencement of phosphate mining on a grand scale, and in most respects succeeded.
  • Egeria Point, named after H.M.S. Egeria.
  • Flying Fish Cove, named after H.M.S. Flying Fish. This provides anchorage for principal area of housing ashore (known as “The Settlement,” at one time also referred to by Andrews as the “Clunies-Ross Settlement,” an earlier incarnation that lasted only from 1888 to 1899). Close by is the Malay Kampong (village). On higher ground are the communities of Silver City (built of aluminium in the 1970s, and thought to be cyclone-proof), Poon Saan (which means “half way” in Cantonese), and Drumsite, named after the huge cable drum on the plateau. This was installed in 1915 to lower hoppers of phosphate down a concrete ramp to the shore.
  • Jack’s Point, apparently named after the son of one of the members of the 1908 survey expedition. There is also a Tom’s Point, and a Hugh’s Dale and a Sydney’s [sic] Dale, both on the western side of the island, between Northwest Point and Egeria Point. In conformity with general principles first enunciated by Sigmund Freud, all protruding topographical features of the island are named after men, while the island’s relatively few sandy beaches carry the given names of Christmas Island Phosphate Company wives: including (clockwise) Winifred Beach (between Egeria Point and Northwest Point), Rhoda Beach and Margaret Beach (between Northwest Point and Smith Point), Isabel Beach (between Flying Fish Cove and Rocky Point); Ethel Beach and Lily Beach (slightly north of Steep Point); Greta Beach, Dolly Beach, and Dorothy Beach (between Steep Point and South Point).
  • Jones Point, named after D. J. Jones, a marine pilot for the Christmas Island Phosphate Company, 1904–1941.
  • McMicken Point, named after George McMicken, island “manager” for the Christmas Island Phosphate Company from 1919 until well into the 1920s, and initially also Acting District Officer when in 1919 a serious coolie riot took place. It is not clear how his role harmonized with that of succeeding district officers, but he appears to have been involved in making practical arrangements for the Royal Observatory’s expedition of 1921.
  • McPherson Point, named after John Murray McPherson, Sir John Murray’s Canadian nephew, who was resident manager of the Christmas Island Phosphate Company from 1903 to 1906.
  • Medwin Point, named after Sidney Medwin, a holder of ten of the 1,500 shares in the Christmas Island Phosphate Company (capitalized in 1897 at £10 a share), and one of George Clunies-Ross’s directors. He died in 1912.
  • Murray Hill, 1,184 ft., named after Sir John Murray of the British Phosphate Commissioners. Perhaps Murray’s best known scientific paper is “The Structure and Origin of Coral Reefs and Islands,” in The Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Volume 10, 1880, in which he correctly refuted Charles Darwin’s view that the lagoons of atolls form as a consequence of land subsidence. Murray was elected F.R.S. in 1896, and appointed K.C.B. in 1898, and eventually visited the island twice, in 1900 and 1908. A small native insect-eating bat (Pipistrellus murrayi) is named after him.
  • Ross Hill, 1,046 ft., named after the Clunies-Ross family. George Clunies-Ross, the eldest of the six sons and three daughters of John George Clunies-Ross (d. 1871); George Clunies-Ross’s brother Andrew, and/or their nephew “Mr. Hugh Ross,” whose small collection of birds and insects was dispatched to South Kensington in about 1899–1900 and is listed in the Appendix to Andrews’s Monograph. George Clunies-Ross held 183 shares in the Christmas Island Phosphate Company.
  • Smithson Bight, named after Joseph S. Smithson, a chemical manufacturer, a holder of fifty of the 1,500 shares in the Christmas Island Phosphate Company, and one of Sir John Murray’s directors. He retired in 1909.
  • Stubbings Point, named after Henry Stubbings, formerly of the Eastern and Australian Steamship Co., later Secretary of the Christmas Island Phosphate Company. Stubbings held twenty-six shares.
  • Wright Point, named after Captain M. S. Wright of the Christmas Island Phosphate Company, who took a leading role in the 1908 survey.

The postcode of Christmas Island is 6798.

The telephone area code is 08 or + 61 8, when dialling from abroad.

.cx is the country code top level domain (ccTLD) for Christmas Island.

Merry Christmas Island and a happy and prosperous new year 2019. Trumble out!

Further reading

Papers relating to the Cocos (Keeling) and Christmas Islands, Parliamentary Papers (1897), 61.161, C. 8367, including reports, 1885–96.

Charles W. Andrews, “A Description of Christmas Island (Indian Ocean),” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 1899, pp. 17–35.

A Monograph of Christmas Island (Indian Ocean). London: British Museum (Natural History) Geology Department, 1900.

Harold L. Burstyn, “Science Pays Off: Sir John Murray and the Christmas Island Phosphate Industry, 1886–1914,” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 5, No. 1, February 1975, pp. 5–34.

William Foster, “The Discovery of Christmas Island,” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 37, No. 3, March 1911, pp. 281–282.

Peter T. Green, “Red Crabs in Rain Forest on Christmas Island, Indian Ocean: Activity Patterns, Density and Biomass,” Journal of Tropical Ecology, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 1997, pp. 17–38.

“Litterfall in Rain Forest on Christmas Island, Indian Ocean: Quantity, Seasonality, and Composition,” Biotropica, Vol. 30, No. 4, December 1998, pp. 671–676.

“Greta’s Garbo: Stranded Seeds and Fruits from Greta Beach, Christmas Island, Indian Ocean,” Journal of Biogeography, Vol. 26, No. 5, September 1999, pp. 937–946.

John G. Hunt, Reaction to Mistreatment of Chinese Coolies on Christmas Island, 1900–04. B.Litt. dissertation, Canberra, A.C.T.: Australian National University, 1982.

J. Pettigrew, “Christmas Island in World War II,” Australian Territories, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 1962, pp. 44–48.

W. J. L. Wharton, “Account of Christmas Island, Indian Ocean,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, Vol. 10, No. 10, October 1888, pp. 613–624.

Maslyn Williams and Barrie MacDonald, Phosphateers: A History of the British Phosphate Commissioners and the Christmas Island Phosphate Commission. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1985.

Jan Tent, “The Ghosts of Christmas (Island) Past: An Examination of its Early Charting and Naming,” Terrae Incognitae, July 2016, pp. 1−23.

Abbreviations

A.C.T. Australian Capital Territory
C.I. Christmas Island
C.V.O. Commander of the Royal Victorian Order
Cr. Councillor
F.R.S. Fellow of the Royal Society
F.R.S.G.S. Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society
H.M.S. His/Her Majesty’s Ship
K.C.B. Knight Commander of Most Honourable Military Order of the Bath
M.V. Motor Vessel
N.C.O. Non-Commissioned Officer
O.D.N.B. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
P.S.M. Public Service Medal (Australia)
R.A.A.F. Royal Australian Air Force
R.A.F. Royal Air Force
R.N. Royal Navy
W.A. Western Australia

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Neil Lucas, P.S.M., sometime Administrator of the Australian Indian Ocean Territories; Karenn Singer, sometime Assistant Director of the Territories West Branch of the Strategic Policy and Projects Section of the Attorney-General’s Department in Canberra; Linda Cash, formerly of the Christmas Island Tourism Association; Nat Williams, Margaret Dent, and Justine van Mourik, of the National Library of Australia, Canberra; Elizabeth Tobey of the National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Virginia; 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, Connecticut, and the estimable John G. Hunt, who knows more about Christmas Island than anybody else, for their generous assistance in producing this Christmas cracker. All of its shortcomings are, of course, my own.