MALDEN ISLAND

Line Islands, Republic of Kiribati

         

Malden Island lies 241 nautical miles south of the equator. It is located 108 miles N.N.E. of Starbuck, 460 miles N.W. of Caroline, 365 miles S.S.E. of Christmas, and 373 miles S.E. of Jarvis Island.

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It is a triangular, flat coral island, about 5 miles long (east and west) by 4.1/2 miles wide. Its east-central portion is occupied by a very salty lagoon, the outline of which changes with the tide. The map indicates the high and low water outline as observed by a Bishop Museum party in 1924. The land area is given by the guano company as 10,700 acres, with an additional 9,000 acres of lagoon.

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There is evidence that at some time in the past the sea broke through the east rim and flooded a much larger area of the central basin. This is indicated by the dotted line on the map. It is also claimed that the island has risen several feet with reference to sea level. This also would have accounted for a former larger lagoon.

The enclosing ridge is nowhere more than 25 or 30 feet high. Most of the island cannot be seen at a distance of over 7 or 8 miles. There are numerous small, reddish fish in the lagoon which evidently pass through some underground channel to and from the sea.

The shore is surrounded by a narrow fringing reef, the greatest width of which is variously given as between 200 and 600 yards. A steep beach rises from the reef and forms a rim about 400 yards wide, in places with successive ridges of coral and marine debris, cast up by storms. Anchorage is precarious, for there is deep water off the edge of the reef. During the guano days, buoys anchored off the west end, in 80 to 100 fathoms, provided mooring for small vessels. In 1926 there were two of these left. Landing often is difficult, despite a small pier near the south of these left. Landing often is difficult, despite a small pier near the south end of the west shore. At times, due to the swell, it is better to land on the beach just north of this pier.

A weather record was kept on Malden for many years, almost continuously from 1890 to 1919. This shows a warm but pleasant climate, despite its uniformity. The mean pressure varies but little from 29.86 inches of mercury. The mean temperature is 84.8 degrees F., with 75 and 99 degrees marking the extremes. Trade winds predominate: 62 per cent from the east, 21 from the northeast, 8 from the southeast, 4 from the north, 3 per cent calm, and the other 2 per cent from the northwest and west. Violent storms are rare. There generally is a current past Malden from the east varying from northeast to southeast with the seasons.

The most variable factor in the climate is the rainfall. The yearly average is 28.62, but it has varied from less than four inches (1908) to over 93.5 inches (1914). The record came to an end in October, 1919, but during the ten months of that year it rained 95.45 inches. No rain at all fell during nineteen different months, and only a trace in many more. The heaviest rainfall is between January and May. during March, 1914, it rained 25.73 inches.

There is abundant evidence to show that Polynesians lived on Malden before its discovery by white men. Earliest explorers reported stone-faced platforms and graves. Several descriptions have been given of these, together with speculations as to when and by whom they were built.

The late Dr. J. Macmillan Brown draws a highly imaginative picture of "great temple pyramids" dating from a time when Malden formed part of a "vanquished empire," and people coming on pilgrimages to it from "fertile archipelagos within canoe distance of its shores," which now have sunk. Kenneth P. Emory, Bishop Museum anthropologist, who studied the ruins in 1924, has published an account which agrees not at all with these fantastic ideas. The stone structures are located around the beach ridges, principally on the north and south. They include temple platforms, called marae, house sites, and graves. They indicate that Polynesians lived on Malden for several generations, and that this was not many centuries ago. Comparisons with stone structures on Tuamotu atolls show that a population of between 100 and 200 natives could have produced all of the Malden structures. Maraes of a similar type are found on Ra'ivavae, one of the Austral Islands. The natives got their water from wells, remains of which have been found, always dry or salty at present.

Malden was discovered July 30, 1825, by Captain Lord Byron, in H.M.S. Blonde. He had just taken to Hawaii the bodies of Kamehameha II and his wife, who had died in England. It was named for Charles Robert Malden, Lieutenant, R. N., who landed and made observations on shore. Andrew Bloxam, naturalist of the Blonde, also landed, and his diary, published in 1925 by Bishop Museum, gives more complete observations than the official narrative of the voyage.

The "several clumps of thick, fresh-looking (Pisonia) trees, so compact that at a distance they were taken for rocks" are still there, although, like much of the other vegetation, damaged by goats which were introduced in the 1860's. Other plants include Sida shrubs, bunchgrass, and low herbs, a total of about ten species. Polynesian rats, found on the island, now have been exterminated by introduced cats. Sea birds of the usual kinds, formerly abundant, in 1924, were rare except for sooty terns. Two kinds of lizards and a few insects also have been reported. An account of the natural history and an analysis of the guano were given by W. A. Dixon in 1877.

The island was called Independence by Brayton in 1836. The story is told that the extensive guano deposits were discovered by an American whaling master in 1828, but that he decided to finish his cruise before exploiting any of it. Soon after, another whaler came along and noted the layers of guano. Her captain immediately sailed for Sydney, where he sold his discovery for a considerable sum.

Thus was started a series of guano enterprises, which worked the island, with considerable profit, for nearly seventy years. In 1876 there were 79 persons on the island. Just prior to 1889, Messrs. Grice, Drummer and Co., of Victoria, employed 8 Europeans and 150 Polynesians on Malden. Natives of Niue dug and transported the guano, and Cook Islanders from Aitutaki handled the boats. Water had to be distilled by means of condensers in dry years. Coconuts, planted by the guano diggers, grew for a few years and then died.

Malden was claimed by Americans under the Guano Act of 1856, but by then the Australian firm already was established there. On January 1, 1922, Malden was leased to Malden Island Pty. Ltd. of Melbourne, for 21 years, but they did not stay out their lease, and the island has been abandoned during the past few years.

Malden Island is now part of the Line Islands, Republic of Kiribati.

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