CHRISTMAS ISLAND HISTORY

Line Islands, Republic of Kiribati

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Christmas Island lies 105 nautical miles north of the equator. It is 200 miles northeast of Jarvis, 153 miles southeast of Fanning, 238 miles southeast of Washington Island, 357 miles southeast of Palmyra, and 1160 miles south of Honolulu.

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It is the largest of the low coral islands in the central Pacific, measuring 35 statute miles east and west by 24 miles greatest width. The land area by one account is given as 60,000 acres, by another as 160 square miles (102,400 acres), and by a third as 250 square miles (160,000 acres). This last account gives the total surface within the reef as 382 square miles, a third of which is occupied by brackish or salt lakes and the lagoon. The latter measures 12 by 8 miles and occupies much of the western third of the island.

The height of the land averages 10 feet or less, but there are a few lines of sand hills which reach a height of 20 to 40 feet. The highest of these are along the southern shore of the Bay of Wrecks. A strong current sweeps into this bay from the east and has caused many sailing ships and even a steamer or two to pile up on the jagged reef, which averages 100 to 300 feet wide.

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North and south of the lagoon are groves of coconut palms, most of which were planted after 1880. These can be seen from the deck of a vessel at 10 or 12 miles. But the northeast and southeast points are so low that they are only visible from the a few miles. Beacons have been set up on these points, that behind the southeast point being a comical structure of iron, 45 feet high.

Dr. E. Christophensen recorded 24 species of plants as growing naturally on Christmas Island. These include a few Tournefortia trees, three Pisonia trees, clumps of Scaevola shrubs, four kinds of grasses, seven kinds of low shrubs, and the rest herbs. The taller growth is in the western third of the island; grassland and low shrubs in the middle portion; and the eastern end is largely bare. The lakes are practically at sea level. Near the settlements Erythrina, hibiscus, and pandanus trees and other ornamental plants have been set out.

In addition to the usual sea and migratory species of birds there is a native land warbler, related to species on other south Pacific islands and on Laysan Island. Introduced cats, which have gone wild, have helped to exterminate the rats. There are fishes in some of the lakes and marine life is abundant in the lagoon and around the reef.

Winds generally blow from the eastward: northeast from November to May and southeast from June to October. There is a strong westerly current past the island. Anchorage is good off the west side, and landing excellent near the two entrances into the lagoon. Rainfall is variable, but usually averages between 25 and 35 inches a year.

Kenneth P. Emory, Bishop Museum anthropologist, described a dozen archaeological sites which he saw in 1924, or which were described to him by Father Emmanuel Rougier and Monsieur Coulon. But in summary he states that Christmas Island has not yet yielded definite evidence of settlement by Polynesians. The few traces of native stone work and the artefacts found belong to different periods and come from different directions, suggesting chance Polynesian visitors or castaways.

The island was discovered by Captain James Cook, in the ships Resolution and Discovery, December 24, 1777. They stayed until the following 2nd of January, in order to refresh the men; obtain coconuts, fish and turtles; and observe an eclipse of the sun. Cook said: "As we kept our Christmas here, I called this discovery Christmas Island."

So much publicity resulted from Cook's account, that many whale ships and other vessels visited the island in search of safe anchorage, provisions, and shore leave for wearied crews. F. D. Bennett gives an interesting account of the visit of the Tuscan in 1834.

On October 10, 1836, the English ship Briton, Captain George Benson, was wrecked on the northeast side of the Bay of Wrecks. The Captain and 29 men were rescued by the American whale ship Charles Frederic, Captain Brown, May 23, 1837. An interesting account of the experiences on the island is given in the Hawaiian Spectator, vol. 1, pages 64-68, 1838, together with a chart of the island.

Captain J. Scott, in H.M.S. Samarang, made observations in 1842 (or 1840). The Bremen whale ship Mozart was wrecked in December, 1847, rescue being made by the American whaler J.E. Donnell. The following month the Chilean ship Maria Helena went ashore. The passengers included U.S. Commissioner Anthony Ten Eyck and family and other prominent persons. They were rescued by the French corvette Sarcelle, in April, 1848, after word was taken to Honolulu by some of the crew in the ship's long boat. 

In November, 1856, the lumber vessel, J.C. Fremont, was cast ashore in the Bay of Wrecks. The wreck was sold to J. T. Dowsett, of Honolulu, and about 160,000 feet of lumber were salvaged on the ship John Dunlap, schooner Warwick, and brig Hiro, July-October, 1857.

The island was examined for guano prior to 1857 by Captain John Stetson, of New Haven, Conn. It was taken possession of by Captain J. L. Pendleton of the ship John Marshall, on behalf of A.G. Benson and associates, under deed from Stetson dated May 11, 1857. The U.S. Guano Co. acquired the rights in November, 1858, and worked the island for guano for several years.

In 1865 a lease to Christmas Island was given by the British to the Anglo-Australian Guano Co. The island was visited in 1866 by the company's vessel, Marie Louise, Captain Pie, out of Hobart, Tasmania. But the enterprise was found unproductive, and the lease was cancelled in 1869 at the company's request.

License was also granted Alfred Houlder, June 9, 1871. But when the lessee's representative, Dr. Weston, arrived to inspect the island, July 5, 1872, he found three men on the island employed by C.A. Williams of Honolulu. What was more, the U.S.S. Narragansett had just been there and had taken formal possession for the United States. Cmdr. Meade's report of this said, "I recognized this occupancy, subject to the approval of the U.S. Government, and so informed the U.S. Minister resident at the Hawaiian Islands." Mr. Houlder requested that his lease be cancelled, which was done.

Captain William Wiseman of H.M.S. Caroline, annexed the island to Great Britain March 17, 1888, despite American protest. The British leased the island to Lever's Pacific Plantations Limited, June, 1902 for 99 years. They planted 72,863 coconut palms on 1,457 acres and introduced "silver lip" pearl shells into the lagoon. The S.S. Aeon was wrecked on the east point in 1908. Japanese poachers occupied the abandoned island about 1911, killing thousands of birds.

Father Emmanuel Rougier took over the lease from Lever Brothers, December 17, 1913. The Central Pacific Coconut Plantations, Ltd. acquired the island from him October 27, 1914. They pay 200 pounds a year tax and lease, and still use the island.

Newspaper clippings of the story of Joe English who managed the plantation on behalf of Father Rougier.

The following information on Joe English is from The Christmas Island Story by Eric Bailey, published by Stacey International, London, 1977:

English - no relation of the John English of Fanning Island was himself a victim of Father Rougier's inconsistencies a little later, for when the labourers were withdrawn on the 29th August, 1918, having completed their time, he remained behind with a French youth and a Tahitian with a small stock of provisions and a promise that they would be picked up within forty days.

The Company's 135 ton auxiliary schooner Ysabel May had been beached after striking a rock off Christmas Island on the 24th July. Rougier himself had directed the salvage. The ship was, however, sold to a French firm almost immediately and on 25th October, 1918 was destroyed by fire off Huahine in the Society Island. English and his companions remained on Christmas Island without relief for nearly 14 months until on 19th October, 1919 H.M.S. New Zealand happened to call. The landing party, which included Admiral of the Fleet Lord Jellicoe, was "held up" by English, in a tattered pair of shorts patched with a rice bag, brandishing a revolver. He afterwards explained that he was unaware that the War was over and thought the ship a German cruiser in disguise. An irony of their plight was that although they had no clothes, soap or ther necessities and had subsisted on fish and coconut, they had three automobiles and a good stock of fuel.

Frants Jerabak, Czechoslovakian, has been manager, since the death of Father Rougier, with 14 Tahitian workmen and 6 women, in 1937. He harvested about 400 tons of copra a year from approximately 750,000 coconut palms. Besides London and Paris, the two principal settlements, the workmen have several small camps scattered among the coconut groves, to which they move during harvesting.

November 28, 1919, Great Britain reasserted her sovereignty over the island. In February, 1937, a British radio operator was established there, to send daily weather signals, and, incidentally, keep an eye on the island.

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 1st June 2012)