December 24, 1777 – Kiritimati, also called Christmas Island, is discovered by James Cook.
“As we kept our Christmas here I called it Christmas Island…” – Capt. James Cook, 1777
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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. 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.” It was not until 1882, when the first attempt was made to plant coconuts for commercial copra production, that continuous occupation was established.
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. 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. The State Department’s lack of official records of such a possession sheds uncertainty on the island’s status at this point in history. 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.”
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.
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.
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