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Phoenix Island lies 40 nautical miles in a direction 30 degrees east of south from Enderbury Island, 77 miles from Canton Island, and 222 miles south of the equator. It is about 1,650 miles from Honolulu, and 640 miles due north of Pago Pago, American Samoa. It is the most western of the Phoenix group.
It is a sand and coral island, which might be described as ham-shaped or pear-shaped. It measures a little less than 3/4 miles long, from N.W. to S.E., by less than half a mile wide. The highest elevation is about 18 feet, at the beach crest, the rest of the surface being much lower.
The lowest part of the enclosed basin is occupied by a very shallow salty lagoon. This is now triangular in outline, measuring one-third mile north and south by not over 400 yards wide. Its size fluctuates greatly. The steep beach is fringed by a narrow reef, 30 to 100 yards wide. Through this there is a small break, apparently blasted, on the southwest side, where landing is comparatively easy in moderate weather. There is no anchorage, and the surf breaks heavily on the east side and off the N.W. and S. E. points.
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There are no trees on the island, but in 1924 much of its surface was covered with herbs, except on the east side, where the waves had thrown up a ridge of broken coral, and at the north end of the lagoon, where there was an expanse of bare sand. The vegetation suggests a warm, dry climate.
Each of half a dozen species of plants dominates a different area: Lepturus bunchgrass at the N.W. point and along the west beach crest; Boerhaavia and Portulaca on the south and southwest; a mat of Sesuviun along the west border of the lagoon; and small areas of stunted Sida (ilima) and Triumfetta (beach runner) amid the rocks on the east side.
White, yellow, and brown, ex-domestic rabbits were fairly numerous, but did no apparent damage to the vegetation. (See note from Hilary Kerrod below). Sea birds were very abundant, consisting of sooty, grey, and white terns; frigates nesting on the Sesuvium; four species of shearwaters and petrels, sharing holes with rabbits; boobies, and migratory plover and curlew.
No lizards or rats were noted, but turtles must occasionally come onto sandy portions of the beach to lay eggs, for a skull and some bones were found. Insects were abundant, but of few species, consisting principally of flies, moths, leafhoppers, green bugs, and spiders, all small.
No prehistoric ruins have been found; but Polynesian navigators might have visited the island in their travels, finding no inducement to stop.
It is known from records in the U.S. Hydrographic office that Phoenix Island was discovered by an American vessel of that name, prior to 1828; but just which one or the date is not certain. One ship, Phoenix, under command of Captain Moore, was in this region in 1794. A whale ship out of Nantucket (Captain David Harris) was in the Pacific between 1821 and 1824. Another, from New Bedford, was whaling under Captain Worth in 1822, and under Captain Stetson in 1824, according to Starbuck's History of American Whale Fishing. The U.S. Exploring Expedition did not find the island.
On March 14, 1859, C.A. Williams and Co. (later the Phoenix Guano Co.) filed notice with the U.S. State Department of the discovery of Phoenix Island, Thomas Long, master of the schooner E.L. Frost, making affidavit that a landing has been made there February 19, 1859, (another account says February 9, 1859), that possession had been taken in the name of the United States, a sign board erected, and a bottle, containing papers, buried. Claim to McKean, Enderbury, and Starbuck was made at this same time.
On April 19, 1859, the American brig Agate, under Captain Long, set out from Honolulu with A. M. Goddard and 29 native labourers, to establish a camp on Phoenix and commence digging operations. The American schooner Modern Times followed, on April 28th. But, apparently, landing was found too difficult on Phoenix, for the camp was made on McKean Island, and the Modern Times was loaded there.
On September 3, 1860, Phoenix Island was visited by the barque Zoe (Captain Bush) with passengers Dr. Grisweld and A. Mitchell there from Honolulu to examine the island. Thereafter the supply ship Agate (Captain Lawton) visited both Phoenix and McKean, and many vessels went there to load. During 1870 the visits became less frequent, and in August, 1871, the island was finally abandoned by the American guano diggers.
When the U.S.S. Narragansett visited Phoenix Island, March 27, 1872, commander Richard W. Meade reported: "The buildings, flagstaff, and wharf of the Phoenix Guano Company are still standing, but the island has been worked out and was abandoned in August last. I saw no vegetation on the island, except a little grass here and there."
June 29, 1889, the British flag was hoisted and protectorate declared. At that same time a careful survey was made of the island. One account states that on January 1, 1914, Phoenix Island was leased to Burns, Philp (South Sea) Co. for 87 years. Another says that the lease was given in 1916 to Captain Allen, who was head of the Samoan Shipping and Trading Co., for 87 years. In any event, no use was made of the island, and no one has lived there.
On March 18, 1937, with other islands of the Phoenix group, it was placed under the jurisdiction of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony.
The lagoon is too small and too shallow to be used by seaplanes; and the land, while fairly level, is not large enough to afford safe landing for airplanes. It is, however, another tiny dot of land upon which man can live, and from which weather or other observations could be made.
Harry Maude, in 'Of Islands and Men', says the rabbits were still there when they looked at the island for recolonisation purposes just before the war. The I-Kiribati in the inspection party refused to eat them as they were too much like cats. My brother Baoro says he was told there were still rabbits there not long ago. (Hilary Kerrod -- 2001)