CHRISTMAS ISLAND HISTORY

Line Islands, Republic of Kiribati

Christmas Island Message Forum

           

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.

 
 
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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.

Father Emmanuel Rougier.

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."

Captain Cook's map of 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.

WRECKED ON CHRISTMAS ISLAND

by Anthony G. Flude. ©1999

A BRIGHT BLUE FLARE burst into the blackness of the night, lighting up the surrounding sky and sea with an eerie glow, disclosing the dark outline of the approaching American topsail schooner CONCORD, as she made her way cautiously towards Christmas Island in March 1909. She had left San Francisco for Fanning Island, in the northern Pacific Ocean, where she had taken on provisions before leaving for her final destination. The schooner was fully fitted with diving equipment and underwater explosive gear suitable for salvage work.

News had reached these looters from their agents in Hawaii, that a steamer named the AEON, had run aground on the coral of Christmas Island and that the vessel lay abandoned above water level with her cargo intact, while her officers, crew and passengers had been rescued. The schooner's captain and crew were intent on pirating a valuable cargo from a shipwreck.

The unexpected signal, soaring into the sky, brought warning shouts from the crew. Her lights were immediately extinguished and the CONCORD was quickly swung about and disappeared into the darkness of the night as silently as she had arrived.

Eight months earlier, aboard the ill-fated steamer AEON, the bridge telegraph had rung out a "Full Speed Astern" command from the officer on watch, as she steamed towards a long line of white breakers at 9.30pm on that dark and stormy night of the 18th July, 1908. The engines were quickly reversed but to no avail. A strong onshore current swept them inwards and just four minutes later, the AEON slid smoothly, with hardly a sound, onto the coral rocks of Christmas Island.

This lonely island, situated in the northern Pacific Ocean, some fourteen hundred miles north-east of Pago Pago, Samoa, is a British possession and was discovered by Captain Cook on Christmas Day. It is described as a low coral rock, shaped in the form of the letter 'H ', approximately forty miles long in each arm. A desolate place of white, coarse sand, with no sign of the usual coconut palms. The only vegetation visible, appeared to be low clumps of salt bush, about three foot high, dotted here and there. The AEON was practically a new ship, according to Captain Downie's account of the incident, only two or three years old at the time of the wreck. She was of 3,987 tons, built in England to the order of Howard Smith of Melbourne , Australia. Bound from San Francisco, via Pago Pago, Samoa, to the Port of Auckland, her cargo hold held 2,100,000ft of Oregon timber and Redwood from Puget Sound and another 1000 tons of general mechandise loaded at San Francisco. Ten adults and two children made up her passengers, together with eight European officers and a crew of thirty- five Chinese seamen.

The Captain stated in his reports that the weather was fine up to the 16th July when the wind veered to the south-east. The night of the 18th was dark and cloudy, the captain having just left the bridge, leaving the third mate on watch, the ship, supposedly, was on her correct course. Keeping the engines running at full speed astern for an hour and a half after the grounding, in the hope that as the tide made they might pull her off, Captain Downie found the strong winds caused the vessel to be swung broadside. As the boilers were showing signs of lifting and the steam pipes getting twisted he ordered the engineers to blow off steam pressure to prevent an explosion.

"In the meantime the crew were busy getting the lee lifeboats swung out and provisioned and the electric lights were kept going until 2am when the steam was exhausted. "The conduct of the passengers and crew was admirable.", he wrote, "There was no fuss or excitement and our women passengers kept quite cool. I sent the mate and two or three crew ashore in one of the small boats to make fast a line so that the lifeboats and provisions could easily be pulled ashore to and fro." At daybreak he satisfied himself that the ship had gone aground on Christmas Island. She was stuck on the rocks some five miles up the south-east bay and within two hundred yards of the sandy beach.

As soon as the lines were made fast they began the transfer of passengers to shore, after which they threw overboard a quantity of the cut timber from the hold and floated this ashore to build temporary accommodation. No sooner had the timber landed in the surf, then the men ashore hauled it up the beach and began construction well above the high water mark on the sandy shore. With timber and sailcloth, four little houses were built over the next two days, while others ferried backwards and forwards to the steamer, bringing provisions and personal items ashore. One building was set apart as hospital, as one of the passengers, a Mrs. Patrick, was approaching the birth of her child and needed a place for her confinement. A higher platform with a flagstaff was set up in the hopes that their plight would be seen from a passing vessel as they were close to the main shipping route to Samoa.

The Chinese crew had other ideas and did not wish to live in close contact with the officers and passengers. They elected to build themselves a larger communal house for themselves in a hollow about a quarter of a mile distant. Away to one side they built themselves a small joss house. The Chinese crew decided that they would sink a well in their hollow, but the results were disappointing, producing only brown brackish undrinkable water.

It was decided to salvage a condenser from the ship along with a two- hundred-gallon tank. The condenser could produce forty gallons of fresh water a day. Before this was done, however, the ship's carpenter had other ideas. He reckoned that fresh water could be found by digging on a ridge of coarse sand, located about a quarter of a mile inland. A well was sunk and at seven or eight feet down a good supply of fresh water was found. As for food supplies, there was going to be no shortage, for the hold of the vessel was stacked with merchandise, tinned meat, cases of pigs feet in jelly, cans of fish and boxes of claret wine and beers.

Four of the ships' lifeboats were safely ashore, provisioned and rigged with sail and fresh water. Captain Downie was aware that Fanning Island lay just one hundred and ninety- six miles distant; but there were strong sea currents in the area and frequent storms and rough weather, making the trip a risky one in a small boat. They had the timetables of the steamers that plied the route from San Francisco to Samoa and used this information to light bonfires at night to attract their attention.

It was obvious that others had been shipwrecked here before, the captain later reported. Their memorials were their own graves, some dozen or more, together with the remains of at least four wrecks at different parts of the beach. Among one of the wrecks debris, they found a rusting iron plate, which showed she was a New Bedford vessel of the 1829 era. "After two days the Chinese crew decided that they would do no more work. The No.1 Boatswain said quite plainly "No pay. No work" and after that they spent their days lolling about or fishing." The ships' officers and passengers spent most of the day sorting provisions from the cargo hold which were being ferried ashore. A game of cards was played at night, together with a little music from a gramophone, salvaged from the ship. Lights went out at 8 o'clock and we were all up at 7 o'clock next morning ready for breakfast.

Some concern was expressed about their being rescued after a month had passed with no sign of any other shipping being sighted. It was decided to fit out one of the ships lifeboats to make a rescue bid. The cargo manifest showed that there were two small boat engines in the hold and they set about retrieving these from the wreck. One was about 4 horse power which was then fitted to one of the boats. By the sixth week on the island they were ready to make a rescue attempt to reach Fanning Island. Captain Downie and the 1st Officer were to make the trip, leaving behind the 1st and 3rd Mates and the 2nd and 4th engineers to look after the settlement.

"We started out on the 8th September with a leading wind on the beam and further out found the current running at 4- 5 knots. We made about 16-18 miles to the northern point of the island, when the rudder pinion broke and we lost our sails, which were blown away. The rest of the day and night we just drifted about. Finally, at daybreak on the 10th September we fixed the rudder and decided to return to the settlement. They were pleased to see us back but disappointed that out rescue attempt had failed."

Captain Downie's report continued: "On the 14th September, with the boat re-provisioned and with new sails, we were ready to make another attempt. We left at 7am and after rounding the south-east point of the island, bore away for the western point where, I had been told was where Messrs. Lever Bros. had started a settlement to grow copra. When we got there at 4pm we found it had been deserted for years. All that remained was a few stunted palms, a small hut in which there were 3 tins of preserved milk which had gone bad, together with an Australian newspaper dated 1904. We slept there the night and sailed next morning, setting a course for Fanning Island. On the morning of the 18th, we sighted land ahead. It had been two months since our stranding on Christmas Island. The people at the cable station were not surprised to see us. They knew we must be somewhere in the area when cables had reached them from Samoa telling of our non-arrival on schedule."

Captain Downie cabled the owners in Melbourne detailing our plight. He received a reply from them on the 21st saying that the steamer MANUKA would call in and pick them up and carry them on to Christmas Island in order to rescue our people and collect the mails, of which we had 500 bags in the hold. The New Zealand Herald reported that the steamer MANUKA was being diverted for the rescue and left Fanning Island on the morning of the 23rd September. At 3pm the long line of white surf of Christmas Island came into view. After running down the long leg of the 'H' for thirty miles we saw across the land the shape of the stranded steamer, sitting close in-shore , with her white funnel and two masts still standing. At 5.45pm we sent up a rocket and fifteen minutes later it was answered from the shore. Two bonfires began to blaze, one in direct line with the ship, another some distance away to one side which we later learnt had been lit by the Chinese crew.

A small boat pulled away from the shore towards the MANUKA and when it was alongside the four occupants were asked if all was well ashore at the settlement. "Yes thank you', came the reply, "Have you got a doctor on board?" Dr. Woolard, the ships surgeon, answered promptly and said he would be willing to accompany them to shore. The expected little one had arrived the previous night and mother and baby were doing well.

It was decided to land the ships doctor and then begin the task of removing the mail bags from the AEON's hold. The motor launch which they had used to sail from Christmas island to Fanning Island to effect the rescue, was aboard the MANUKA and this was lowered into the sea. In the swell running at the time, some water got into the engine and it would not start. Undaunted, the rowing boat occupants elected to try to tow the launch ashore, where the engine could be fixed and dried out. The tow was more hazardous than expected, and on more than one occasion the small boat was almost capsized as the towed launch swung from side to side in the swells. Finding themselves in danger of being thrown into the sea, they decided to cut it loose and let it head in the strong current for the reef. As they pulled for the shore, they watched the launch, caught by the surf, run aground and beach in shallow water.

Meanwhile, the MANUKA's jolly-boat began ferrying the mails from the stranded vessel. It was a long task and they decided to work through the night, while the sea was calm to stow them all aboard. By 7am, the task was completed and all 500 bags were safely aboard in the hold. The passengers were considered the next priority and since they had all eaten a hearty last breakfast on their lonely island, were gathering up their personal belongings ready for the transfer.

Two boats were made ready and the women and children came first, accompanied by the ship's doctor, followed by the Chaplain's wife, Mrs Patrick, lying on a trestle bed holding her first little 3 yr old boy tightly by the hand as the small boat bobbed up and down in the swells. Next to be helped aboard by the welcoming crew were the elderly nurse, clutching a small bundle containing the newborn infant. Gradually the thirty-five members of the Chinese crew were ferried aboard, the last load included Captain Downie, who had managed to pry off the tin nameplate of the gig of the AEON as a momento. By 11am the MANUKA had finished her rescue and was ready to resume her scheduled route to Samoa and on to Auckland, leaving the stranded steamer, its cargo of timber and remaining stores, intact. Some thirty minutes later, Christmas Island and the wreck were fading into the distant haze on the horizon.

In December 1908, after the usual official marine enquiry, the rights of salvage of the AEON and its cargo were sold to a syndicate of businessmen in Auckland and Sydney for the sum of £1000. They had learned that the AEON's general cargo was valued at £30,000. Her timber valued at £12,000, while the steamer herself was valued at £70-80,000. The salvage operation was considered well worth mounting.

Chartering the three masted topsail scow ZIGARA in Auckland, they began to set up the vessel ready for her expedition into the Pacific Ocean to Christmas Island. The scow was fitted with auxiliary power in the form of two small steam engines which drove her twin screws. These were too small and weak in horsepower to be of much use to the lumbering scow, however, they were good in calm water and light winds. She was probably the best vessel for the type of salvage work that they had in mind and had the full cargo of timber been aboard the AEON on Christmas Island, when they reached her, she could easily have loaded it in 200,000 super feet consignments.

Captain W. Robertson, a New Zealand shipmaster took command of the vessel and as the mate had his son Captain L. Robertson. Captain Holmes sailed with the expedition, together with Mr F. Goodman a master shipwright, and Mr. Henderson, who went as secretary. An experienced diver was hired, two engineers, two firemen and a winch driver, besides the deck hands. The ZIGARA sailed out of Auckland to begin her adventure on the 18th February, 1909. First, she headed for the island of Niue, or Savage Island as it is sometime known, where Captain Robertson had arranged to pick up a crew of 25-30 trained natives to help with the loading and salvage work.

After taking on her extra crew, the ZIGARA continued heading northwards for Christmas Island. North-east and northerly trade winds were met after they left Niue astern and the small engines had to be used frequently to keep her on course. Eventually Christmas Island was reached, but at first they could find no signs of the masts of the AEON, which they expected to find protruding above the horizon. Finally they found her; all that remained of the proud steamer was her bow which lay capsized, her deck facing into the sea. On the coral nearby lay some of her framework, awash, with the sea lapping around it. As they approached closer, they saw the her cargo of timber scattered over nearly a mile of the beach by the tides. The seas were continuing to run high and the ZIGARA could not approach the wreck for nearly eighteen days. It was also impossible to land a small boat near the wreck site.

Captain Robertson with the mate and the engineer made the trip in a small boat into the calmer waters of the lagoon and had to walk the thirty-two miles to the wreck which took them two days. They occupied one day surveying the wreck, deciding that it was going to be impossible to salvage much of value from her in this state. It was fortunate that they took plenty of food with them as nothing in the way of stores or provisions from the hold remained. Returning back to the ZIGARA two days later, they found the seas still running high. They decided to head back to Fanning Island again to cable the results of their survey to the remainder of the syndicate in Auckland and Sydney.

Returning to Christmas Island, they found the seas had calmed down and they were able to get a boat onto the beach where the shipwrecked crew had landed and built their little houses. Inside the huts they found stacks of boxes of provisions from the AEON'S hold, some of which had been brought ashore by the crew at the time of the shipwreck and others which Captain Robertson believed to had been more recently landed. A note was pinned to a makeshift table which read: "These stores have been left for the benefit of any other shipwrecked crew who might be unfortunate enough to land here." Quite clearly some unauthorised persons had been here to plunder the salvage that the apparently abandoned steamer had left in her hold. Dynamite had been used to blow a hole in her hull to gain easy access to the stores remaining.

As though to confirm these findings, that same night the American topsail schooner CONCORD had been sighted silently making her way towards the beach by the watch aboard the ZIGARA. It was he who had fired off the blue rocket into the sky, to warn them off and make them aware of others present. It was obvious that she was up to no good when her lights were extinguished and she quickly turned about. Next morning at daybreak they ran a line ashore and secured it to a large pile of timber on the beach. Boats were secured to this line to enable then to ply between the ship and shore with the boxes stacked in the houses. Gradually, with the many willing hands of the crew of natives aboard, the ZIGARA's hold was filled. Working backwards and forwards through the surf was tough work and twice the empty boats returning to shore capsized on their way to the beach.

Captain Robertson had meanwhile decided that it was an impossible task to salvage items from the steamer in the position she was now placed. He had hoped to salvage much of the timber that he had been told was still aboard the AEON's hold, but of course this had been washed out of the wreck by the seas after she had been split apart by dynamite. He had hoped to recover also the two boilers, all the brass fittings aboard, copper piping and also her two brass anchors which he knew had cost £1500 each, when she was built.

Although they had the experienced diver aboard with them it was impossible to use his services due to the high seas running all the time in the vicinity of the wreck. The ZIGARA waited around for a further twenty days in the hope that the seas would calm, but this did not happen and they could not get close enough to the wreck to achieve any further salvage in the strong currents and bad weather. Finally they all decided that any further chance of salvage was not going to present itself.

Reluctantly, the ZIGARA turned to head back to Auckland, the hold only containing the provisions they had loaded on board from the beach settlement of the earlier wreck. Dropping off their labour force at NIUE Island, they made the final leg to Auckland. When the goods were sold at auction and fetched only £350, the syndicate found they were sadly out of pocket. They had spent over £2000 on the salvage price of the wreck and charter of the ZIGARA and crew, only to have their spoils stolen by the American looters from Hawaii and San Francisco.

Captain Robertson was to learn at a later date, that had they sailed northwards to the little known island of Palmyra, they would have found there the remaining consignment of illegally pirated merchandise from the hold of the AEON.

However, it was too late. Nothing could be proved; nothing more could be done to recover their losses.

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 other 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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