Kiritimati (Christmas Island):  Documentation

“As we kept our Christmas here I called it Christmas Island…”
Capt. James Cook, 1777

Christmas Island, also known as Kiritimati (the Gilbertese spelling of “Christmas”) and Abakiroro (ancient Gilbertese for “Distant Land”)[1]) is part of the Republic of Kiribati, which includes the Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands in the Equatorial Pacific. The small, barren, inhospitable atoll was first discovered by Captain James Cook on Christmas Eve, 1777; since then the island has been the victim of a series of exploitations. Because of the lack of an indigenous population, the only early records of the island were those provided by visitors from Europe and the United States. Even today, the majority of information about the island comes from outsiders and the present inhabitants are often overlooked. The island’s inhabitants have never been the recipients of profit from export or any other use of the island. Kiritimati’s history is one of vulnerability, which is increasingly evident today as even the government of Kiribati seeks to utilize the atoll as a warehouse for the capital’s excess population. The disjointed documentation of Kiritimati’s history is a reflection of its exploitation at the hands of self-serving powers seeking short-term profit at the expense of the island’s environmental and cultural sustainability.

Arriving Hakaui

Captain James Cook documented his discovery of Kiritimati in his journal: “On the 24th about half an hour after day break, land was discovered ... which upon a nearer approach was found to be one of those low islands so common in this sea; that is a narrow bank of land incloseing the sea within; a few cocoa nut trees were seen in two or three places, but in the general the land had a very barren appearence.”[2]In a somewhat comical anecdote Cook described how some of his crew went ashore and got lost for some time, despite how very flat the island was: “The land, over which they had to travel from the sea coast to the lagoon where the boats lay, was not more than three miles a cross, and a plain with here and there a few shrubs upon it and from many parts of which the Ships masts were to be seen.”[3] He was baffled by why the men did not think to look up for the masts! On February 11, 1792, Thomas Manby, a young man who sailed with George Vancouver as master’s mate aboard the Discovery, also wrote about Kiritimati although he never set foot on the island himself. “If the Winds had admitted of our fetching Christmas Island Capt. Vancouver intended to have stopt a day for the purpose of catching Turtle but unfortunately we were now fully fifty Leagues to Leeward of it.”[4]

Cook described Kiritimati as having no indigenous population: “There were not the smallest traces of any human being having ever been here before us; and indeed, should any one be so unfortunate as to be accidentally driven upon the island, or left there, it is hard to say, that he could be able to prolong existence.”[5] John Gore, first lieutenant on the HMS Resolution, wrote that there were “No inhabitants nor signs of any. Some of our people indeed saw some Round Stones round which there lay broken shells. They likewise saw some cleared places such as where they thought huts had been.”[6] Archaeological remains have shown evidence of periodic occupations, but no permanent habitation. Anthropologists have speculated that ancient voyagers may have followed the migratory paths of land birds to the island, but found the atoll too dry and infertile for settlement.[7] At the time of Cook’s arrival the island was barren of all vegetation but a few coconut trees and he commented on how “not a drop of fresh water was found on the whole island.”[8] It was not until 1882, when the first attempt was made to plant coconuts for commercial copra production, that continuous occupation was established.[9]

Kiritimati proceeded free of any formal claims for more than eighty years following Cook’s discovery. It was thought that Kiritimati would be an ideal location for guano extraction since the island served as a resting post for migratory birds flying south over the Pacific.[10] In the 1850s, Captain John Stetson examined the area for guano deposits and found that the island had at least a small stock. Shortly thereafter British and United States interest in the island began to surface. According to the 1867 Treasury list of guano islands, the United States took possession of Stetson’s discovery on June 20, 1858. The Guano Islands Act, passed in 1856, ultimately enabled any U.S. citizen to take “peaceable possession” of any unclaimed island that was found to have guano reserves.[11] The State Department’s lack of official records of such a possession sheds uncertainty on the island’s status at this point in history.[12] Prospectors were disappointed by the lack of guano deposits. In 1862, J.D. Hague, the leading American technical authority on guano deposits wrote, “much has been said by speculators of its rich deposits, but I have reason to believe there is no guano worthy of mention on the island. Samples that I have examined were chiefly coral sand.”[13]

As early as 1865, Britain began to pursue claims to the island. The British government leased the island to a Tasmanian man by the name of Dr. Crowther with the intention of his working the guano deposits. Crowther canceled his license after determining the deposits were unprofitable. His decision provides a clue as to why the U.S. left their discovery unexploited. No record demonstrates further British interest in Kiritimati until 1879 when Alfred Houlder requested a lease and, upon receipt, sent a representative to investigate the island’s status. He returned to report that the U.S.S. Narragansett had taken formal possession of the island as indicated by a posted notice and the residency of three men working for C.A. Williams of Honolulu. Soon after having his first license cancelled, Houlder applied for its renewal upon hearing that Williams had abandoned his occupation.[14]

To this point, it appears that there had yet to be any form of communication between Britain and the United States regarding sovereignty over Kiritimati. Neither power wished to enter into any sort of conflict over the land, as they possessed no evidence suggesting its value to be significant. Therefore, before granting Houlder his second license, the British Government “inquired whether the United States had finally abandoned and withdrawn its claim.” The State Department responded that “since no notification that the [guano] company had abandoned the island was on file… the company was entitled to the protection guaranteed” by law. While such a response did not necessarily imply sovereignty, Britain neglected to pay any attention to Kiritimati until three years later when the British ship Ryno found it once again to be deserted. The ship’s master “hoisted the British flag and took possession in the name of the firm of Henderson & Macfarlane of Aukland,” the agent of which is reported to have lived alone on the island for some time following.[15]

The closest instance of British-American conflict over possession of Kiritimati occurred in 1888. Contention arose when Captain Sir William Wiseman of the H.M.S. Caroline claimed formal possession of Kiritimati for Great Britain, which he justified by the original discovery by Captain Cook.  Secretary of State Bayard and Lord Salisbury exchanged seemingly heated correspondence regarding the recent years of alternating claims on the island. Lord Salisbury insisted unwaveringly that Britain had attended to every appropriate courtesy throughout the process and that Wiseman’s claims to the island were entirely legitimate. Implying that Secretary Bayard could produce no valid counterclaim, it was printed in 1941 that “there has been no further correspondence touching the status of Christmas Island since 1888.” Immediately after settling their dispute with the U.S., Britain proceeded to lease the island in pursuit of profit for its coconut reserves.[16] More than thirty years passed before Britain formally included Kiritimati as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Island Colony, a decision finalized in 1919.[17]

Arriving Hakaui

Kiritimati’s resources finally became economically viable with the development of the copra trade. The Pacific Islands Company obtained a ninety-nine year lease of the island in 1898 and began exporting copra (dried coconut meat).[18] In June 1902, Lever’s Pacific Plantations, Ltd. acquired the lease of the island. 70,000 coconuts trees were planted over the next three years, but a severe drought wiped out 75% of them and the island was abandoned.[19] French missionary, Emmanuel Rougier, purchased the remaining leasehold of Kiritimati from Lever’s Pacific Plantations on December 17, 1913.[20] He was granted an eighty-seven year occupation license to begin on January 1, 1914.[21] After seeing Kiritimati for the first time in 1912, Rougier was overly optimistic of the islands potential: “No difficulty in getting fresh water for drinking in any place: seven thousand bearing coconut trees and ten thousand nonbearing: guano or phosphates are a by-product: millions and millions of birds and something can be done in that line.”[22] Rougier established his own company, the Central Pacific Cocoanut Plantations Limited, with the intent “to populate the island with colonists and workers of all nationalities and colours.”[23] In Rougier’s time a single coconut palm yielded an average profit on $1 a year. The optimistic entrepreneur dreamt of planting one million coconut palms to make an unbelievable one million dollar profit in one year.[24] Father Rougier is said to have planted from 568,000[25] to 800,000[26] trees during his lifetime career, a remarkable feat just short of his expectations.

Today the town of Paris is desolate and uninhabited and Rougier’s nearby estate lies in ruins. Residents of the island do not even talk about a history preceding the nuclear operations of the 1950s. The government officials are not aware of the copra story or Rougier’s role, despite the presence of thousands of coconut palms marking his entrepreneurship. Records of copra trade under the Pacific Plantations Co. were recently destroyed in a fire so even if there was a revival of community interest, this information is unavailable.[27]

In the years after World War II, both Britain and the United States used Kiritimati as a site for nuclear testing. The British Nuclear Tests Veterans Association documents six Kiritimati detonations that took place between November 1957 and September 1958. These United Kingdom tests were referred to as “Grapple Y” and “Grapple Z” and are reported to have been “many times more powerful than those discharged at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”[28]  An accurate measure of the size of these tests may not exist today. According to an article published in The Telegraph in 2009, “Grapple Y was Britain’s biggest-ever nuclear test, officially a three-megaton monster, but possibly much more powerful than stated.”[29]  Publicity of the events at the time of their occurrence minimized or failed to mention any concern for the health of servicemen working the tests.  Recent fury from veterens and their families attributing long-term health implications to these tests has exposed the insufficient safety precautions taken at the time of detonation.

An unnamed military engineer in Britain’s Royal Engineers wrote in the 1950s of his lack of concern for his own safety. In an article published in Soldier in 1959, he wrote: “Contamination is negligible. My total dose to date is about the same as I get from my luminous wrist watch every fortnight.”[30] Modern understanding highlights the extent to which British propaganda served to excuse their absent precautions. Multiple reports confirm that “men were offered little protection during tests and allowed to eat fish contaminated by nuclear fall-out.” Perhaps more precautions would have been taken had Britain not felt the pressure of simultaneous U.S. and Soviet Union nuclear testing.[31]

A few years after Britain called an end to their testing, similar practices shifted to the United States. An article printed in The London Times on April 24, 1962 titled “U.S. Nuclear Tests Expected Today,” reported the news that President Kennedy had given the order to resume nuclear testing in the atmosphere. The same article outlined British cooperation during U.S. testing: “Britain will take part to the extent that the operations at Christmas Island will be carried out with the full cooperation of the base commander and his staff of experts who will also assist in measuring the effects of some explosions.” Cold War tensions obstructed the cessation of the nuclear tests: “Both the Prime Minister and the President continued to hope that the Soviet Union would announce a willingness to negotiate a test ban treaty with inspection. Had such an indication been given, the order to resume testing would not have been given.”[32] U.S. tests were far fewer in number than those of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, U.S. officials reflected minimal concern for the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands. Henry Kissinger, serving as National Security Adviser at the time of the tests, referred insensitively to the islanders of the South Pacific: “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”[33] Concern for life and ecosystems on the islands did not influence American testing.

According to a 2006 survey carried out by the University of the South Pacific, the majority of Kiritimati inhabitants at that time were families of government employees. The town of Tabakea was the exception, where most residents were families of the laborers who moved to the island during the height of copra production in the colonial period.[34] The vast majority of islanders are of Gilbertese descent, originally coming to the island as part of the nuclear workforce in the 1950s. The families with the longest history on the islands are proud to claim three generations of residency.

Arriving Hakaui

The communities on Kiritimati are very poor, living at a subsistence level. A 2006 survey found that fresh seafood was the main diet and main source of protein for every household sampled, whereas only 13% ate canned fish and a mere 2% ate canned meat. Ninety-eight percent of households eat rice as a second source of energy. The degree of fish consumption was very high among the surveyed households, 65% of households ate fish seven days a week while only 2% ate fish once or twice a week.[35] Kiritimati has the highest per capita fish consumption in the world.[36] Milkfish was the most common fish consumed (89%), followed by red snapper (61%), yellow fin tuna (58%), flying fish (33%), and bonefish (20%). Breadfruit and berro plants (a member of the mustard family) are the only local crops that provide energy food to inhabitants. Coconut is also an important dietary supplement, particularly the sweet, vitamin-rich toddy (sap) cut from the flower spathe (the leaf-like sheath that encloses flower cluster). Toddy is a common children’s drink and is also used as a base for a syrup that may be saved as emergency food.[37]

The survey in 2006 determined that overall household health was “satisfactory.” One very worrisome finding was that 31% of households reported cases of diabetes. This and the frequency of other non-communicable diseases including obesity, gout, hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, can be attributed to lifestyle changes associated with westernization and urbanization. The University of the South Pacific suggests the connection between such health concerns and the rapidly changing lifestyle of islanders: “Traditionally the sea provides the meat; the land provides energy food and the rich vitamin drink toddy. Together they form a balanced diet that brings about a healthy life among the local community.”[38] Households are beginning to stray from this tradition; people are becoming increasingly dependent on imported foods with inferior nutrition values such as rice, flour, meat, and sugar.

Arriving Hakaui

Another important problem facing the growing population on Kiritimati is the over-exploitation of marine resources and the need for active conservation measures. The majority of households (89%) catch their own fish, usually going out once or twice a week and bringing back enough fish to survive a week at a time. Sixty-five percent of households said they bought fish from private fish markets and the fishing industry, and twenty-two percent said that sometimes fish was given to them by their families and neighbors. Nets are the primary gear used (78%) followed by line fishing (64%) and spearing (20%). In 1996-1997, the atoll was declared a conservation area under the South Pacific Biodiversity Conservation Programme (SPBCP), but a decade later, 40% of inhabitants said they saw conservation regulations as weak and only 11% viewed regulations as strong. Reflecting on earlier years, old inhabitants remembered, “how the past was so undisturbed, full of life with rich marine and wildlife resources. …they felt that their once peaceful and colorful world that they treasured had been shattered over time through manmade and technological advances that were mostly incompatible with nature.”[39]

In 2003 and 2004, the government of the Republic of Kiribati decided to implement an integrated conservation-development program (ICDP) to try to relieve the pressure on the local fisheries of Kiritimati. The purpose of an ICDP is to “create or enhance alternative incomes as a way to reduce resource extraction and improve local welfare.”[40] In this case, the government increased the subsidized buying price of copra (dried coconut meat). Most households on Kiritimati own at least some land with coconut trees so the hope was that a greater subsidy would increase the labor directed toward copra production and reduce the fishing effort while increasing income and therefore improving overall welfare.[41]

Arriving Hakaui

Research carried out in 2007, by Sheila Walsh of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, has shown that the subsidy program actually resulted in a situation opposite of the intended effect. Walsh observed an increase in fishing labor accompanied by a decrease in copra labor. Walsh concluded that one of the major problems with the 2004 ICDP was that it overlooked the importance of non-monetary benefits to the Kiritimati community. “They are not cultivators, they are people of the sea,”[42] Increasing the price of copra allowed less work in copra production to achieve the same income. Less time working in coconut cultivation provided laborers with more time to go fishing. A rise in fishing labor can also be attributed to the increased income of those who took advantage of higher price for copra. A higher income allowed people to invest in fishing gear, making their fishing efforts more effective. Under these circumstances, short-term welfare did indeed improve but the outlook for long-term welfare is dire. The coral reef ecosystem is vital to the survival of Kiritimati’s inhabitants. The productivity of the sea is central to every household’s diet. Furthermore, over-fishing can indirectly contribute to a decrease in reef-builders, which can weaken the reef structure and leave low-lying atoll islands, like Kiritimati, highly susceptible to devastating storm damage.[43]

Kiritimati gained independence as part of the Line Islands, along with the Gilbert Islands and the Phoenix Islands, to become the Republic of Kiribati in 1979.[44]Since then, issues of overpopulation and effective land management have become prominent concerns for governing officials. South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, has grown to be severely overpopulated over the past half-century, increasing by an average of 5.2% annually. The Asian Development Bank issued a comprehensive report detailing the problem and the government of Kiribati’s projected solution. Their short-term strategy consists of “voluntary resettlement” from South Tarawa to Kiritimati to combat the high population density in South Tarawa.[45] From the position of the government, the selection of Kiritimati as the destination for population overflow in the capital appears to be a logical one due to the atoll’s extensive land mass and comparatively lower population density. The government frames the plan to be ultimately beneficial for the economy and the culture of Kiritimati, for people are currently relocating within their shores but the migration lacks organized management and responsive land development.[46]

Both the Kiribati government and the people and governing officials in Kiritimati specifically, recognize the present problems of relocation from South Tarawa. Reason for concern in Kiritimati however, is the government’s lack of intention to limit such resettlement, as they rather intend to encourage its increase and to supplement it accordingly with infrastructural development. The objectives of the plan include “improved health, education, living conditions, and increased employment opportunities–and will lead to a reduction in the population growth rate, which in turn will lead to economic growth, social progress, and raised living standards.” The claim to decrease the rate of population growth contradicts the intention to provide incentives to voluntarily resettle on Kiritimati thereby actually increasing the population of the island. Skepticism and opposition are present on Kiritimati, but if the island’s past is any indicator of its future, such concerns may very likely be left unheard.

Arriving Hakaui

Copra is no longer as large a part of the economic base on Kiritimati. Today there is some fishing for export but most of the fishing is for local subsistence. An interesting economical development in Kiritimati, as well as the rest of the Pacific Islands, is the rise of tourism. Author and adventurer, Paul Theroux, visited Kiritimati in December, 1998. In his collection of travel writings, Fresh Air Fiend, Theroux describes his stay on the atoll. Particularly striking is the disparity between Theroux’s description of the town of London before tourists arrived and after. Initially he describes London as “obviously hard up, but it had a blessed serenity and a palpable sense of peace.”[47] The town was awakened by the arrival of the Crown Princess, a cruise ship from Maui: “The whole somnolent place had come alive... the children I had seen a week earlier, frolicking in the schoolyard or at Father Bermond’s church hall, were now circulating among the cruise passengers, begging like lepers. ‘Give me money!’ And the little girls were no longer in school uniforms but were dressed in tremulous grass skirts and seductive makeup, with shell necklaces and flowers plaited in their hair.”[48] This abrupt change illustrates the commercialization of the tropical islands of the Pacific. The Kiritimati community provides visitors with the kind of show they want to see. Theroux spoke to an American living on the islands about the spectacle who said: “There was no begging before the cruise ships, the cruise ship visits are important to the island. They definitely inject money into the economy and they get people busy.”[49] Modern documentation of Kiritimati illustrates the same underlying tones of exploitation present in historical records. Distinguishing today from the past is the presence of permanent multigenerational inhabitants. During the colonial period, Western powers utilized the island for material resources and later took advantage of the atoll’s vulnerability and isolation for potentially disastrous detonations of hydrogen bombs. Today, a lack of foresight on the part of the Kiribati government is central to the island’s problems. Unchecked resettlement from South Tarawa threatens to bring cascading effects of further environmental degradation and depletion of marine resources, likely to leave the growing population increasingly susceptible to malnutrition and disease. The sustainability of Gilbertese culture is similarly weakened under the influence of Western products and ideas.  The political weakness of the island makes the prospect of resolving these problems appear particularly out of reach.  Achieving cultural and environmental sustainability calls for a united effort driven by the local community and supported by outside authority, to ensure that the future of Kiritimati lacks the fragmentation of its past.

Heidi Hirsch, University of San Diego
Amber Hewett, University of Massachusetts



[1]  Theroux, Paul. "Christmas Island: Bombs and Birds." Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings, 1985-2000. Boston: Mariner, 2000. 312-20.

[2]  Cook, James, J. C. Beaglehole, and Philip Edwards. The Journals of Captain Cook. London, England: Penguin, 1999, p.527.

[3]  Cook, p. 529.

[4]  Vancouver, George, and W. Kaye Lamb. A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and A round the World, 1791-1795: with an Introduction and Appendices. London: Hakluyt Society, 1984, p. 444.

[5]  Bailey, Eric. The Christmas Island Story. London: Stacey International, 1977, p. 11.

[6]  Bailey, 12.

[7]  Bailey.

[8]  Cook, 528.

[9]  Bailey.

[10]  Bailey.

[11]  “Guano Islands” United States Code. Title 48, Chapter 8, Section 1411. 1 February 2010.

[12]  Orent, Beatrice, and Pauline Reinsch. “Sovereignty over Islands in the Pacific.” The American Journal of International Law, American Society of International Law, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Jul., 1941): 455.

[13]  Bailey, 35.

[14]  Orent, 455.

[15]  Orent, 456.

[16]  Orent, 456.

[17]  Orent, 456.

[18]  Bailey.

[19]  Bailey.

[20]  Gary Petterson. "A Coconut Bounty; ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS.” The Daily Mail (London, England). 05 Dec. 2006. Goliath Business News. Goliath: Business Knowledge On Demand. Web. 24 Mar. 2011. <>.

[21]  Bailey.

[22]  Bailey, 12.

[23]  Bailey, 12.

[24]  Petterson.

[25]  Bailey.

[26]  "Explore the Central Pacific." Coral Reef Systems. San Diego State University / Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Web. 9 Jan. 2011. <>.

[27]  Tekabaia, Ereti. Personal Communication. 5 Mar. 2011.

[28]  “The Facts.” British Nuclear Test Veterans Association. Web. 20 January 2011.

[29]  Tweedie, Neil. “Britain’s atomic test veterans remember nuclear test of 1950s.” The Telegraph. 05 June 2009.

[30]  Tweedie.

[31]  Tweedie.

[32]  “U.S. Nuclear Tests Expected Today.” The Times. Issue 55374; Page 12, Col. A. 24 April 1962.

[33]  Tagicakibau, Ema G. “‘Pollution in Paradise’ The Impact of Nuclear Testing and Radio-Active Pollution on Indigenous People in the Pacific and Strategies for Resistance.” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 27 August 2007.

[34]  Ioran, Ane and Leon Zann, Ed Lovell, Randy Thman, and Aron Jenkins. “Christmas Island Expedition.” University of the South Pacific. (Aug 2006).

[35]  Ioran.

[36]  Walsh, Sheila. Lecture. Sea Education Association. Woods Hole, MA. 14 Jan. 2011.

[37]  Ioran.

[38]  Ioran, 30.

[39]  Ioran, 28-9.

[40]  Walsh, Sheila M. and Theodore Groves and Sriniketh Nagavarapu. “Promoting alternative livelihoods for conservation backfires when non-monetary benefits of traditional livelihoods are important.” Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. (2007): 3.

[41]  Walsh.

[42]  A quote from a local priest and 37-year Christmas Island resident, Father Gratien Bermond, speaking about the island’s inhabitants, in Theroux, Paul. "Christmas Island: Bombs and Birds." Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings, 1985-2000. Boston: Mariner, 2000. 312-20, p. 315.

[43]  Walsh.

[44]  Pretes, Michael, and Katherine Gibson. “Openings in the body of ‘capitalism’: Capital flows and diverse economic possibilities in Kiribati.” Asia Pacific Viewpoint, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Dec. 2008): 381-91.

[45]  “Republic of Kiribati: Integrated Land and Population Development Program on Kiritimati Island.” Technical Assistance Report, Asian Development Bank: November 2006.

[46]  “Republic of Kiribati,” 3.

[47]  Theroux, 318.

[48]  Theroux, 319.

[49]  Theroux, 319.