Introducing Christmas Island (Kiritimati)
Pincer-shaped Christmas Island contains 48% of Kiribati's land area and is the world's largest coral atoll. Flying in over its multiple shimmering salt flats and lagoon shallows is a wonderful experience: the dry, windswept landscape of salt bush and coconut palms is glaringly bright and dusty, and impressively desolate. The island is one of the world's great seabird sanctuaries, home to millions of birds of 18 species, and the lagoon hosts a dazzling array of marine life.
Christmas Island has a colourful history. Captain Cook arrived for a brief visit on 24 December 1777, hence the island's name. Cook found remnants of early Polynesian visitors but no sign of permanent settlement. Largely unvisited until the 1850s, the island was then variously worked (unsuccessfully) by American phosphate interests and a New Zealand (NZ) copra and pearl-shell company. In the 1880s it came under the umbrella of British interests in the Pacific, and officially became part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony in 1919.
French former priest Emmanual Rougier was granted a coconut- plantation licence in 1914. He named his now-deserted settlement Paris, and ruled the island and his Pacific workers with an iron hand until the 1930s. (Poland was named after his Polish mechanic and the township of London came later, across the channel of course!) In 1941 the British authorised the employment of a manager and Gilbertese workers to take over the plantations, initiating the island's permanent settlement.
Between 1957 and 1962 Christmas Island was the site for high-altitude hydrogen bomb tests, first by the British and then by the Americans. Millions of birds were instantly blinded and later died in the immediate aftermath; both civilians and military workers have since experienced ongoing health problems. The tests had no obvious long-term environmental effects on the island and background radiation is now lower than normal levels. A massive cleanup campaign funded by the British between 2005 and 2006 has removed almost all visible traces of this part of the Cold War.
More recently, Christmas Island has become the focus of a government initiative to resettle several thousand I-Kiribati from the crowded atoll of Tarawa, which is having a marked impact on the island's wildlife. Less permanent visitors include sport fishers, mesmerised by the large bonefish that lurk on the sand flats. When air services are running regularly, Christmas Island's tally of around 1500 annual visitors far exceeds Tarawa's slender tourist numbers.
Last updated: Mar 2, 2009
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