Christmas Island’s laid-back multicultural atmosphere is a result of a varied and interesting history.
Early history and exploration
Christmas Island began appearing on the charts of English and Dutch navigators from the early 1600s. But it wasn’t until 1643 that Captain William Mynors of the British East India Company named the island after sighting it on Christmas Day.
The first known landing came in 1688, when the English ship Cygnet landed near the Dales on the island’s west coast. The explorer William Dampier was on board, and recorded how some of the crew brought large robber crabs back to the ship to eat.
Several explorers visited Christmas Island during the 19th century, including Captain John Maclear, who named Flying Fish Cove after his ship (the HMS Flying Fish) in 1886. Captain Pelham Aldrich and naturalist JJ Lister of the HMS Egeria came ashore for ten days in 1887, collecting a large number of plant and animal species.
The crew of the Egeria also discovered that the island was a rich source of phosphate, a valuable fertiliser.
Settlement and phosphate mining
Britain annexed Christmas Island in 1888 to claim its valuable phosphate deposits.
The British Crown then leased the island to naturalist John Murray and George Clunies-Ross, the owner of the Cocos Islands. Murray and Clunies-Ross set up the Christmas Island Phosphate Company to mine the island, making their first major shipment of phosphate in 1900.
Most of the work in the phosphate industry was performed by indentured migrant labourers, including several hundred Chinese. Malays and Sikhs also supported the mining, with British managers supervising operations. These migrants formed the basis of the island’s multicultural community.
Christmas Island’s early phosphate workers endured appalling conditions. In the first five years of mining, more than 500 Chinese died from beriberi, a vitamin deficiency caused by an inadequate diet. But conditions gradually improved and the island’s phosphate industry continued making a tidy profit.
World War II
The island’s rich phosphate deposits and strategic location made it a target for the Japanese during World War II.
The first attack came in January 1942, when Japanese submarines torpedoed a Norwegian vessel, causing it to sink off West White Beach. Soon after, 50 Asian and Australian families were evacuated to Perth.
On 31 March 1942, around 850 Japanese troops arrived by sea and took over the island. They restarted phosphate operations, producing valuable fertiliser for the Empire of Japan.
However, many workers had fled into the jungle when the Japanese arrived. They stayed there for the duration of the war, living off crabs and birds.
Bombing by Allied forces and acts of sabotage by the remaining islanders meant that very little phosphate was actually exported to Japan. In November 1943, with food running low, nearly two-thirds of the island’s population was sent to prison camps in Java.
The remaining soldiers left when Japan surrendered in August 1945, and the island was reoccupied by the British in October the same year.
The Australian and New Zealand governments purchased the Christmas Island Phosphate Company in 1949, and administrative responsibility for the island shifted from the UK to the British colony of Singapore.
But with Britain giving up many of its colonies after the war, Australia expressed an interest in acquiring Christmas Island. In 1958, the island was excised from Singapore and sovereignty was transferred to Australia. As part of the transfer, Australia paid Singapore £2,800,000 as compensation for lost phosphate revenue.
Christmas Island became an Australian territory on 1 October 1958 – a day still celebrated on the island as Territory Day.
A new national park
The 1970s brought concern about the impact that phosphate mining could have on the Abbott’s booby, an endangered seabird that only nests on Christmas Island.
In 1974, a Federal Government committee recommended that a conservation area be set up to preserve the island’s unique flora and fauna.
The first national park was declared in 1980 and covered the southwestern part of the island. Two more stages were added in 1986 and 1989 to create the Christmas Island National Park.
Today the national park makes up 64% of Christmas Island’s land area and extends 50 metres offshore. It protects rainforests, wetlands, freshwater mangroves and crucial habitats for numerous rare and endemic species.
Asylum seekers and immigration detention
Christmas Island’s proximity to Indonesia meant that boats carrying asylum seekers began landing on the island from the late 1980s.
The island was the site of the 2001 Tampa affair, when the Australian Government stopped a Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, from entering Australian waters to unload 438 rescued asylum seekers on Christmas Island. The captain of the ship eventually declared a state of emergency and entered territorial waters without permission, sparking a diplomatic dispute between Australia and Norway.
Shortly after the Tampa incident, the Federal Government, led by Prime Minister John Howard, excised Christmas Island and several other offshore islands from Australia’s migration zone. This meant that asylum seekers arriving on Christmas Island could no longer apply for refugee status.
In 2002, the government announced the construction of a permanent immigration detention centre in the northwestern part of Christmas Island. The centre was completed in 2008.
In December 2010, tragedy struck when a boat carrying around 90 asylum seekers collided with rocks north of Flying Fish Cove. Poor weather made rescue operations difficult, and the boat quickly broke up and sank. 42 people were rescued, but the majority of the asylum seekers drowned.
Christmas Island today and into the future
In 2018, a proposed expansion to phosphate mining operations was knocked back by the Australian Government due to environmental concerns.
As a result, the island’s future lies with a more diversified economy – one in which tourism plays a major part. To support this, a number of improvements to visitor infrastructure will be made both inside and outside the national park in the coming years.
That means ecotourism on Christmas Island is set to boom as more people from Australia, Asia and beyond discover the wildlife wonders and laid-back multicultural vibe of this Indian Ocean paradise.