How Did Australia’s Christmas Island Get Its Name? | History Hit

How Did Australia’s Christmas Island Get Its Name?

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 the same name today, is located in the Indian Ocean, some 960 miles northwest of the Australian mainland. Scarcely visible on a map, this 52-square-kilometre island was first sighted by Europeans in 1615, but named on Christmas Day 1643 by Captain Willian Mynors of the East India Company’s ship Royal Mary.

Today, Christmas Island is inhabited by fewer than 2,000 people, is primarily a national park, and is entirely designated as a wildlife sanctuary. In spite of being little-known, it is a site of significant historical and geographical interest. Here’s a breakdown.

The location of Christmas Island. Credit: TUBS / Commons.

It wasn’t explored until the 19th century

Christmas Island was first sighted in 1615 by Richard Rowe of the Thomas. However, it was Captain Mynors who named it nearly 30 years later after sailing past it on the Royal Mary. It began to be included on English and Dutch navigation charts early in the 17th century, but it wasn’t included on an official map until 1666.

The first documented landing on the island was in 1688, when the crew of the Cygnet arrived on the west coast and found it uninhabited. However, they did collected wood and Robber Crabs. In 1857, the crew of the Amethyst tried to reach the summit of the island, but found the cliffs impassable. Shortly after, between 1872 and 1876, naturalist John Murray carried out extensive surveys on the island a part of the Challenger expedition to Indonesia.

The British annexed it

In the late 19th century, Captain John Maclear of HMS Flying Fish anchored in a cove that he then named ‘Flying Fish Cove’. His party gathered flora and fauna, and the following year, British zoologist J. J. Lister gathered phosphate of lime, amongst other biological and mineral samples. The discovery of phosphate on the the island led to its annexation by Britain.

Thereafter, the Christmas Island Phosphate Company Ltd was granted a 99-year lease to mine the phosphate. An indentured workforce of Chinese, Malays and Sikhs were transported to the island and set to work, often in appalling conditions.

It was a Japanese target during World War Two

During World War Two, Christmas 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.

However, before the Japanese attack could get under way, a group of the Punjabi soldiers mutinied and killed Williams and four other British officers. The 850 or so Japanese troops were therefore able to land on the island unopposed on 31 March 1942. They rounded up the workforce, most of whom had fled into the jungle. However, in the end, they sent around 60% of the island’s population to prison camps.

No matter the war being fought, it's a sad fact that war crimes take place all around the world - we need only look to Russia's offensive war in Ukraine to see how civilians can be illegally targeted in an indiscriminate and disproportionate fashion.
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It was transferred to the Australians after World War Two

In 1945, the British re-occupied Christmas Island. After World War Two, the Christmas Island Phosphate Company was sold to the governments of Australia and New Zealand. In 1958, sovereignty of the island passed from Britain to Australia along with $20 million from Australia to Singapore to compensate for their loss of earnings from phosphate.

The legal system is administered via the Governor-General of Australia and Australian law, though it is constitutionally distinct, and a ‘Shire of Christmas Island’ with nine elected seats provides local government services. There are movements within the island for it to be independent; a number of Christmas Island residents find the bureaucratic system to be cumbersome and non-representative.

It is home to many asylum seekers

From the late 1980s to early 1990s, boats carrying asylum seekers, mainly departing from Indonesia, began arriving on Christmas Island. Between 2001 and 2007, the Australian government excluded the island from Australia’s migration zone, meaning asylum seekers couldn’t apply for refugee status. In 2006, an immigration centre containing 800 beds was constructed on the island.

The majority of the island is a National Park

As of January 2022, the island had a population of 1,843. 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 in order to protect its unique, flora and fauna-rich ecosystem; indeed, the island boasts some 80km of shoreline, however, most are inaccessible. 

The island is also well known for its Christmas Island red crab population. At one time, it was thought that there were around 43.7 million adult red crabs on the island; however, the accidental introduction of the yellow crazy ant killed around 10-15 million in recent years.

Between October and December, the start of the wet season, the island is witness to the red crab population embarking on an epic migration from the forest to the coast in order to breed and spawn. The migration can last up to 18 days, and consists of millions of crabs making the journey, which entirely carpets areas of the landscape.

Christmas Island Red Crab.

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Lucy Davidson