Starbuck Island lies 336 nautical miles south of the equator. It is 235 miles northeast of Tongareva (Penrhyn), 345 miles northwest of Vostok, 400 miles southeast of Jarvis, 450 miles south-southeast of Christmas, and 108 miles south-southwest of Malden.
It is a low, flat coral island, with a greatest height, along the beach crest, of about 15 feet. Within this crest the island is depressed, with small salt lagoons near the eastern end. The shape is described as that of a shoulder of mutton, with the knuckle at the west end. It is 5.1/2 miles long, east and west, by 2.1/4 miles greatest width, tapering toward both ends. The area is given as about one square mile.
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The steep beach is surrounded by a fringing reef, which averages about 1,000 yards in width, a little wider at the eastern point. Near the west point a break has been blasted in the reef, making possible a rather difficult, and at times dangerous, landing. there is no safe anchorage. During the guano-digging period vessels tied up to two mooring buoys near the landing.
The appearance of this island is well described by John T. Arundel in an address before the Geographical Society of the Pacific, at San Francisco in March, 1885.
"At first nothing but a strong white glare in the western sky, painfully bright and shining, even at the distance of four miles or so; then, as the vessel rose on the tops of the waves, a long low line of white sand becomes visible; then, as we gradually got nearer, we could see wrecks of ships at intervals, strewn along the coast, and clusters of white sea-birds resting upon them; and, as we got to the western end, a few houses, of which we had come to take possession, and towering high above all, the remains of the French transport Euryale, which had been sailed ashore about twelve months previously, while on the passage from Tahiti to San Francisco."
Going ashore through the passage in the reef, Arundel stated that he narrowly escaped capsizing in passing the surf. He notes that for periods of as much as two weeks it was impossible to either land or leave the island, although the ship lay but an eighth of a mile away. On shore he could not sleep at first because of the noise made by the myriads of sea birds. The vegetation consisted of half a dozen species of herbs and a low shrub. So inconspicuous is the island, with strong current sweeping past it to the west-southwest, that many fine ships have piled up upon its reefs. Arundel counted seven wrecks when he landed.
At the eastern end, Arundel noted, were some salt lagoons, "where thousands of tons of the purest kind of salt was found in various forms, coarse and fine." They varied in size, being almost dry at times. It was dangerous to approach them. One of Arundel's workmen sank up to his shoulders before he was pulled out. From the west end beacon, ridge after ridge of old block coral was visible, enclosing the guano beds.
Another description was given by a sailor on the British ship George Thompson, under Captain William Shepherd, which moored to load guano in October, 1872. "I think they ought to call this the island of desolation; it is indeed a desolate region. It puts me in mind of a vast flat iceberg. The coral is all over it, ground to fine powder, which looks much like sand. The kanakas have to launch surfboats over and through great monster seas and load the ships. The climate is beautiful and delightful. A nice breeze from the S.E. is always blowing. There are only five white men and about 100 kanakas."
Starbuck Island was discovered by Captain Valentine Starbuck, in the English whale ship L'Aigle, in 1823. He called it Volunteer Island. That same year he took the Hawaiian king, Lioliho (Kamehameha II), his wife and party to England, November, 1823, to March, 1824. The royal couple died in England, and their bodies were sent back to Hawaii on H.M.S. Blonde, Captain Lord Byron. On August 1, 1825, after leaving Hawaii, the Blonde passed by Starbuck, but did not land. The narrative says: "Its appearance was still more uninviting than that of Malden's Island, there not being even the trees to enliven the flat coral rock."
It was taken possession of by Commodore Swinburn, in H.M.S. Mutine, in December 1866. Guano digging began soon after. The French transport Euryale was wrecked on the night of March 10, 1870. The date of Arundel's arrival would have been 1871. Records in The Friend (Honolulu) of shipping to and from Starbuck, at the port of Honolulu are frequent during 1871-1874. After the island was given up by Arundel, it was revisited by the company which worked Malden Island.
One provision of the British lease was that a tall beacon should be erected, so that the island might be seen at more than four miles. One was maintained near the west point. In 1926 it consisted of a large wooden pyramid 25 feet high, in fair condition, although the island long since had been abandoned. In 1937, H.M.S. Achilles reported it still standing, although the houses and sheds were in ruins. A vessel visits the island at intervals to see if there have been any wrecks.
Besides Starbuck and Volunteer, the island has been known by several names, including, Low, Starve, Hero, Barren and Coral Queen.