Birnie Island is the smallest of the Phoenix Group. It is located 215 nautical miles south of the equator near the centre of a circle of five other Phoenix islands. The island measures less than 3/4 of a mile long by 600 yards at its greatest width.
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Most of the east or weather side is rocky with slabs of coral sand stones and broken fragment of coral piled up in a steep beach to a height of more than six feet. The northern half of the island is flat and fairly smooth carpeted with low herbs and bunchgrass. The very small shallow lagoon occupied a depression bordered by a mass of bright green plants. The lagoon varies considerably in depth as one account gives this depth as six feet while another states that it is nearly dry. The fringing reef is quite narrow, except for points at the north and south ends. There is no anchorage, but landing can be made on the sandy lee beach. There are said to be no signs of former permanent inhabitants.
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Birnie Island was discovered and named by Captain Emment in 1823. He also discovered Sydney Island the same year. Research so far has failed to give any definite information about the discoverer of Birnie Island or his vessel. His name does not appear in an extensive list of New England whaling masters. The most prominent person of that period, for whom the island may have been named was Richard Birnie (1760-1832), who took a leading part in business and official life in England.
The island was visited by the US Exploring Expedition. On August 28, 1840, it was cited by the Vincennes, twelve miles to the westward in the early morning. After surveying Enderbury Island, this vessel tried to go back to get a closer look; but night settling down, they pulled away to avoid piling up on its low treacherous shore in the dark. By morning, they had drifted so far to leeward that they deemed it a waste of time to go back.
Birnie was among the islands claimed by American guano interest. But nothing has ever been found to indicate that any amount of guano was actually dug. On December 6, 1867, the ship Kamehameha V (Captain Stone) reported sighting the island on its passage from Enderbury to McKean, but no regular stops are recorded as having being made by any of these supply ships.
On July 10, 1889, the British flag was hoisted and a protectorate declared. In 1899, the island was leased to the Pacific Islands Company. In 1916, it was included among the islands leased for 87 years to Captain Allen of the Samoan Shipping and Trading Company. This lease was taken over by Burns Philp (South Sea) Company. In April, 1937, with the rest of the Phoenix Group, it was placed under the jurisdiction of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Kiribati and Tuvalu).
There is not much to tell about Birnie, for few people have ever landed there, and practically no use has ever been made of the island. Being so low and difficult to see, it is often regarded as a menace to safe navigation, and in the past, most vessels have carefully avoided it.