WASHINGTON ISLAND

LINE ISLANDS

         

Washington Island lies 282 nautical miles north of the equator. It is about 75 miles northwest of Fanning, 238 miles northwest of Christmas, and 120 miles southeast of Palmyra. It also has been called New York and Prospect.

It is a distinctive sand and coral island, about 3.4 miles long by 1.3 miles, greatest width. The circumference is about 9 miles and the area less than 4 square miles. Most of the beach rim reaches elevations of 9 or 10 feet, with a few places, especially toward the west end, where the crest may be 15 feet high. The land is densely covered with coconut palms and forest trees (75 to 90 feet) making the island visible from the deck of a ship at 15 miles.

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Most of the beach is of a fine sand. The fringing reef is not over 200 yards wide, except at a few places: 1,000 yards at the east point, 800 yards at the northwest point, and 600 yards wide at the southwest point. The island seems to be building westward, for at the west end is an area of about 2 square miles with depths between 5 and 20 fathoms. It is 14 fathoms deep 2.5 miles off the west point.

Although vessels may anchor on this bank, the anchorage is very uncomfortable because of lack of protection. Landing is possible only at the west end. Here it is uncertain, often dangerous, and in rough weather impossible. A new landing, develo9ped on the south side, half a mile from the southwest point, is said to be better. The distinctive feature about Washington island is that the eastern half contains a fresh water lake, and the western half two peat bogs. These occupy the former lagoon basin, as shown by marine shells and white coral sand on the lake bottom and beneath the layers of peat.

The peat consists of a dense, interlaced mass of partly decayed plant fibres, dark brown or black in colour. Its surface is 2 or 3 feet above sea level. At the centre of the bogs it averages 3 to 3.5 feet thick, a few places up to 5 feet. It decreases to a few inches thick around the margin of the bogs. In the west bog there is an "island" of coconut palms, its soil underlain by peat.

The surface of the lake is about 3 feet above sea level. It measures nearly 2 miles long by 7 miles wide, and averages about 5 feet deep, although it is reported to reach a depth of 30 feet. The water level is maintained by the heavy rainfall. The lake gradually is encroaching into the east bog.

Dr. C. K. Wentworth (1931) suggested that Washington Island was first built as an atoll at a time when the sea stood at a higher level. As the sea level fell, the lagoon became a closed basin, the salt water seeped or evaporated away; and heavy rainfall produced the fresh water lake. Plants filled the western portion with peat. The lake now is being enlarged.

Partly to drain the bogs, but principally for the sake of transportation, canals have been dug across both bogs, along a narrow strip of bog connecting them, from the west bog to the south shore, and from the lake to the north shore. It is said that part, at least, of the canals was dug by the wives of Gilbert Islands workmen. The level of the water in both canals and lake is controlled by means of dam gates. Along the canals, power and row boats ply to transport workmen and collect coconuts.

Dr. Christophersen (1927) lists 35 species of plants, but many of these are weeds. The vegetation forms several associations. Along the beach crest are mainly tree heliotrope and Lepturus bunchgrass, with some Scaevola thickets. Within this is a dense stand of coconut palms, over 2,100 acres, only 200 acres of which have been planted. Among the coconut palms are trees, Pisonia, pandanus, and tree heliotrope; and beneath all is a dense undergrowth of birds-next, polypody, and other ferns.

Each bog measures 200 to 250 acres, and is bare of coconuts and trees. Around the margin of the bog are pandanus trees and large taro-like aroids (Cyrtosperma), up to 5 feet high, inferior to taro but edible. In the bogs are bulrushes (Scirpus), 5 to 7 feet tall, in solid clumps. In 1924, the water table was 8 or 10 inches down, the bogs being firm enough to walk on.

Judging by the vegetation, the rainfall is heavier on Washington than on Fanning. Otherwise the climate is much the same, high temperature being tempered by trade winds. The Alexandrine rats, lizards, land and coconut crabs, and land and sea birds like those on Fanning are the principal animals. The reef abounds with marine life. Kenneth P. Emory, anthropologist, states (1934) that no artifacts of local origin have been found on Washington Island, although ancient stone-walled enclosures have been found. The people of Manihiki called the island Arapata, and Tuamotu natives called it Teraina. About 1906, James Greig found a canoe hull in a peat bog, resting on the old sand bottom and covered by 50 inches of peat. It was of Calophyllum wood, a tree not found on Washington, and only recently brought to Fanning. It may be ancient and of Tongan origin.

Washington Island was discovered by Captain Edmund Fanning, in the American ship Betsy, June 12, 1798. He remarked on its beautiful green and flourishing appearance, and named it for President George Washington. He did not land. Edward Lucett, merchant from Tahiti, passed the island June 19, 1848. He says: "It is about 3 miles long and rather more than a mile in width; elevated from 12 to 15 feet above the level of the sea; its surface presents an unbroken mass of vegetation."

Under the name of Prospect, the island was claimed by American guano interests, under the Guano Act of 1856. Apparently no use was made of it. Its history is like that of Fanning Island. It was occupied by Captain John English and Manihiki natives about 1860; then by William Greig and George Bicknell, about 1870. When visited by the U.S.S. Portsmouth in 1874, Bicknell was employing 50 Tahitians as labourers. James Bicknell of Honolulu stated that when he visited the island in 1882 his uncle was using men from Manihiki to gather coconuts, and in 1894, Gilbert islanders.

Washington Island was annexed to Great Britain by Commander Nichols, in H.M.S. Cormorant, May 29, 1889. For some years it was in charge of Captain Benhard Anderson and his wife Marian, daughter of William Greig. After Captain Anderson's death, 1906, the sons of William Greig occupied the island. They employed about 200 Gilbert Island natives.

The island became part of the assets of Fanning Island Ltd. In 1935 these were transferred to a subsidiary of Burns, Philp and Co., called Fanning Island Plantations, Ltd. It had been practically abandoned in 1924. In 1935, under the new company, the making of copra was renewed. In 1937 there were 3 Europeans and 80 Gilbert Island workmen on the island. The natives work under a three year contract. One clause provides that they do not have to work in the rain; and how it can rain on Washington Island.

The village consists of several houses near the southwest point. Here have been planted such fruit and ornamental trees as breadfruit, papayas, bananas, guavas, sweet sop, plumeria, and hibiscus. A light is shown on a 70 foot tower, on the southwest point, when a ship is expected. Near there are two black radio masts and a conspicuous red-roofed garden shed. Supplies are brought about twice a year. During this time, the administration was from Ocean Island, through the resident agent on Fanning.

Good descriptions of both Fanning and Washington are given by Professor William B. Herms (1926), who visited the islands in 1924 to advise on the control of a weevil damaging the coconut palms. B. P. Bishop Museum also had an expedition to these islands in 1924.

A view of the jungle adjacent to the
 freshwater canal, Washington Island.

Man-made canal built for moving
 coconuts to the drying sheds.

Men's meeting house presided over by island chief.

The road servicing the two cars on the island, 1969.

Traversing the man-made freshwater canal.

Village site along man-made freshwater canal.

The above six photographs are courtesy of NOAA
 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 13th July 2012)