Two crewmen aboard the British ship Cygnet were the first recorded humans to step foot on Christmas Island in March 1688, though the uninhabited island had been first sighted back on Christmas day in 1643 by William Mynors. On 6th June 1688 it was claimed for the British crown, largely thanks to the deposits of phosphate on the 50 square mile island.
Lying south of the largest Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java, Christmas Island is now an Australian overseas territory, home to roughly 1508 residents. The residents cling to the edges of the island, the majority of the landmass given over to virgin monsoon forest. Phosphate remains important to the Islanders. It continues to be mined and provides each islander with a substantial dividend each year. Many of the original indentured miners were Chinese, with large proportions of the population now classed as Chinese Australian.
An awkward history
The island’s phosphate industry also made it a target of occupation for Japanese forces during the Second World War. Protected by only a handful of allied soldiers the island surrendered in March 1942. With little phosphate having aided the Japanese war effort, the island was returned to British sovereignty in October 1945 with the arrival of HMS Rother.
Christmas Island was administered as part of the (Malay) Straits Settlements and Crown Colony of Singapore, and sovereignty was transferred to Australia in 1957.
More recently, the island’s Australian territorial status and relative proximity to Indonesia (compared to just about anywhere else) led it to become an attractive destination for refugees, though Australian officials have frequently denied the right of refugees to land. In 2001 the Norwegian merchant vessel Tampa carrying 438 Afghans was refused permission to enter Australian waters. The Afghans had been rescued from a fishing vessel. The Tampa was boarded by Australian Special Forces troops, and within days a new law passed to prevent such refugees reaching Australia.
But if anything, the island is best known for its land crabs. A mass migration of 100 million red crabs occurs annually in November as the crabs make their way from burrows to the sea to spawn. The crabs stream over every surface. David Attenborough wrote of the migration:
“We caught it on film for The Trials Of Life in 1990 and it was an astonishing, wonderful sight, but what makes it really stick in the memory is the decision that I should sit in the middle of the beach to deliver my script. Of course, the crabs just treated me as another obstacle – a particularly oddly-shaped boulder perhaps – and simply walked straight over me by whatever route they could find. That’s how I discovered how difficult it is to deliver lines while several four-inch crabs, each armed with sharp claws, are advancing menacingly up your inner thigh.”
Here’s to a Happy Christmas.