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Enderbury Island lies 37 nautical miles E.S.E. of Canton and 186 miles south of the equator. In contrast to Canton Island, which is largely lagoon, Enderbury is nearly solid land, with the lagoon reduced to a small, shallow pond, a few hundred yards across, and dotted with sand islets, covered with a mat of Sesuvium, which also carpets the surrounding basin.
The island measures a little less than three miles north and south by about a mile wide. The elevation around much of the rim is between 15 and 22 feet, with a small mound of low-grade guano rising as high again on the northwest side. The central part is depressed toward the south, and to the north has been dug over for guano until it resembles a great mine dump.
Much of the surface is carpeted by herbs, bunchgrass, Sida, and morning-glory vines, and there are also several small clumps of trees. These include three groups of coconut palms, each surrounding a moist depression. Of these there were in 1924, from north to south, 22, 12, and 26 palms; in 1938 several of these were seen to have lost their crown of leaves, 14, 9, and 8 still growing.
Near the south end there are two large and six small clumps of kou trees; also one clump on each side of the mound, and a few scattered trees. A grove of green heliotropes covers a few acres near the centre of the west side, with a smaller thicket on the southeast rim, and a single tree which screens the camp from the sea.
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Most of the beach is composed of sandstone slabs and coral rubble, alternating with short stretches of sand. The northern end is surfaced with jagged fragments of coral, which clink as one walks over them. No wonder natives at some period, guano diggers or before, built paths of smooth stones across this area. One can easily imagine that, at time of storms, waves may sweep across this low part of the island. The steep beach is fringed by reef 60 to 200 yards wide.
Birds are abundant on Enderbury, including great flocks of sooty terns and other species found also on Canton. The rat population is said to be large. The most astonishing insect discovery was a tiny beetle, hiding among the roots of herbs and bunch grass. Its relatives are bark beetles on native forest trees of Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, and other high island groups.
Enderbury was discovered and named in 1823 by Captain James J. Coffin, of Nantucket, when in command of the British whale ship Transit. The name is a misspelling of Enderby, a London whaling merchant. There is no record of earlier visitors, although it was certainly known to the Polynesians.
The island was visited on two occasions and surveyed by vessels of the U.S. Exploring Expedition: the Vincennes, August 28, 1840, and the Peacock and Flying Fish, January 9, 1841. It was also examined by Lieutenant Hamphill of the U.S.S. Tuscarora.
Guano digging began about April 1860, but the start was not promising. Captain Lawton, of the American brig Agate, which supplied Phoenix and McKean Islands, reported: "January 1, 1861, touched at Enderbury Island; found two men confined to their berths with scurvy - had been on allowance about three months and about five pounds of wormy bread left, plenty of water; neither of them was able to get out of the house; took one of them (John Brown) away; they had been nine months on the island, expecting relief".
Sickly coconut palms around a seep, north end of Enderbury Island, 1938.
But Enderbury developed into an important source of guano. The peak of activity there came in the early 1870's. Captain Elias Hempstead, with sixty Hawaiian labourers, arrived in June, 1870, to be superintendent for the Phoenix Guano Company. In 64 working days, the next four vessels were loaded with over 60,000 tons of guano. In 1872 there was another record of 4,822 tons being loaded onto three vessels in 33 working days. After three or four years, the shipments gradually fell off. The last guano ships were recorded as going there from Honolulu in February and March, 1877. The supply ship, Joseph Woolley, discontinued its calls there in July, 1877.
There is no anchorage at Enderbury and loading the cargo ships was a difficult and dangerous procedure. There were numerous wrecks on Enderbury but comparatively few of the many guano vessels were wrecked. The British barque Golden Sunset (Captain E.H. Tidmarsh) went ashore on December 11, 1866, with 20 passengers and a cargo of coal. The Captain, passengers, and crew were brought safely to Honolulu on the Hawaiian brig Kamehameha V, supply ship at the time.
Ruins of the Guano camp on Enderbury Island, 1938.
The John T. Arundel Company made use of Enderbury for a while during the 1880's. They found a horse and a mule which had been abandoned on the island by the American company, and used the mule to pull the tram cars. In 1899, the island was leased by Great Britain to the Pacific Islands Company, but there is no record available of its having being used. Various British vessels visited the island, including H.M.C.S. Nimanoa, with H.E. Maude, administrator for the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, October, 1937.
On March 3rd, 1938, Enderbury, like Canton, was placed under the U.S. Department of the Interior, by administrative order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The American colonist landed here from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney and established their camp there on March 6, 1938. For the next fifty years or more, Enderbury Island was under the joint control of America and Great Britain.