How Christmas Island Got Its Name

History Hit

2 mins

25 Dec 2017

Two islands have, at one time or another, carried the name Christmas Island. The Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean is today better known as Kiritimati and is part of the nation of Kiribati. It was documented by Captain James Cook on Christmas Eve in 1777. It was on this Christmas Island that Britain carried out a series of nuclear tests in the 1950s.

The second Christmas Island, which is still known by that name today, is located in the Indian Ocean. This island was identified on Christmas Day, 1643 by Captain Willian Mynors of the East India Company’s ship Royal Mary.

The island measures 52 sq mi (135 km2) and is located 870 miles (1,400 km) northwest of Australia. It forms the top of an oceanic mountain, with the highest point on the island being Murray Hill at 1,184 feet (361 metres).

Changing hands

Christmas Island was first sighted in 1615, but it was Captain Mynors who named it nearly thirty years later – clearly a man somewhat lacking in inspiration. The first documented landing on the island came in 1688, when the crew of the Cygnet arrived on the west coast and collected wood and Robber Crabs.

The discovery of phosphate on the the island in the late 19th century led to its annexation by Britain. The Christmas Island Phosphate Company Ltd was granted a 99-year lease to mine the phosphate. A workforce of Chinese, Malays and Sikhs were transported to the island and set to work – often  in appalling conditions.

During World War Two, the island was invaded and occupied by the Japanese, who sought it not only for the valuable phosphate deposits but also for its strategic position in the east Indian Ocean. The island was defended by a small garrison of 32 men, made up primarily of Punjabi troops under a British officer, Captain L. W. T. Williams.

Yet before the Japanese attack even got under way, a group of the Punjabi soldiers mutinied and killed Williams and four other British officers. The Japanese were therefore able to land on the island unopposed on 31 March 1942.

A new dawn on Christmas Island

After World War Two, the Christmas Island Phosphate Company was sold to the governments of Australia and New Zealand, and in 1958 sovereignty of the island passed from Britain to Australia.

Today, the island has a population of just over 2,000. The people of the island are predominantly Chinese, Australian and Malay, and all are Australian citizens. About 63% of Christmas Island is a National Park, protecting its unique ecosystem.

Between October and December, the start of the wet season, the island is witness to one of the most remarkable spectacles of the natural world. The island’s red crab population embark on an epic migration from the forest to the coast to breed and spawn. The migration can last up to 18 days and sees millions of crabs make the journey, carpeting areas of the landscape.

Christmas Island Red Crab.

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