Last year, I joined a Facebook group dedicated to swapping Christmas-themed postcards and am just now getting around to writing about them. As I sit in my office here in Phuket, Thailand, I can see grey skies so it at least looks a bit wintery although in reality it’s 87° Fahrenheit and pouring down rain.
This is one of those odd cards that I need to think about how to categorize: it bears Christmas Island stamps but was mailed from the city of Hamilton in New South Wales. The scene pictured on the postcard has no real relation to either other than it celebrates the holiday for which the island was named. So, I am listing it as a card from Australia, computed the distance traveled from Hamilton, but will write about Christmas Island (and will save writing about the holiday itself for a different blog).
The Territory of Christmas Island is an Australian external territory. Located at 10°30′S 105°40′E, the island is about 12 miles (19 kilometers) in greatest length and 9 miles (14.5 km) in breadth. The total land area is 52 square miles (135 km²), with 86.3 miles (138.9 km) of coastline. The island is the flat summit of an underwater mountain more than 14,800 feet (4,500 meters) high, which rises from about 13,780 feet (4,200 m) below the sea and only about 984 feet (300 m) above it. The mountain was originally a volcano, and some basalt is exposed in places such as The Dales and Dolly Beach, but most of the surface rock is limestone accumulated from coral growth. The karst terrain supports numerous anchialine caves. The summit of this mountain peak is formed by a succession of tertiary limestones ranging from the Eocene or Oligocene up to recent reef deposits, with intercalations of volcanic rock in the older beds.
Steep cliffs along much of the coast rise abruptly to a central plateau. The island is mainly tropical rainforest, 63% of which is national park land. The narrow fringing reef surrounding the island poses a maritime hazard.
Christmas Island lies 1,600 miles (2,600 km) northwest of Perth, Western Australia, 310 miles (500 km) south of Indonesia, 606 miles (975 km) ENE of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and 1,708 miles (2,748 km) west of Darwin, Northern Territory.
The island has a population of just over 2,000 residents, the majority of whom live in settlements on the northern tip. The main settlement is Flying Fish Cove. Around two-thirds of the island’s population are Malaysian Chinese, with significant numbers of Malays and European Australians as well as smaller numbers of Malaysian Indians and Eurasians. Several languages are in use, including English, Malay, and various Chinese dialects, while Buddhism is the primary religion, practiced by three-quarters of the population.
Captain William Mynors of the Royal Mary, an English East India Company vessel, named the island when he sailed past it on Christmas Day, in 1643. The island was included on English and Dutch navigation charts as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century, but it was not until 1666 that a map published by Dutch cartographer Pieter Goos included the island. Goos labelled the island “Mony” or “Moni“, the meaning of which is unclear.
English navigator William Dampier, aboard the English ship Cygnet, made the earliest recorded visit to the sea around the island in March 1688. He found it uninhabited. Dampier gave an account of the visit which can be found in his Voyages. Dampier was trying to reach Cocos from New Holland. His ship was pulled off course in an easterly direction, arriving at Christmas Island twenty-eight days later. Dampier landed at the Dales (on the west coast). Two of his crewmen became the first Europeans to set foot on Christmas Island.
Captain Daniel Beeckman of the Eagle passed the island on April 5, 1714, chronicled in his 1718 book, A Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo, in the East-Indies.
The first attempt at exploring the island was in 1857 by the crew of the Amethyst. They tried to reach the summit of the island, but found the cliffs impassable. During the 1872–76 Challenger expedition to Indonesia, naturalist John Murray carried out extensive surveys.
In 1886, Captain John Maclear of HMS Flying Fish, having discovered an anchorage in a bay that he named “Flying Fish Cove”, landed a party and made a small collection of the flora and fauna. In the next year, Pelham Aldrich, on board HMS Egeria, visited it for ten days, accompanied by J. J. Lister, who gathered a larger biological and mineralogical collection. Among the rocks then obtained and submitted to Murray for examination were many of nearly pure phosphate of lime. This discovery led to annexation of the island by the British Crown on June 6, 1888.
Soon afterwards, a small settlement was established in Flying Fish Cove by G. Clunies Ross, the owner of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (some 560 miles or 900 km) to the south west) to collect timber and supplies for the growing industry on Cocos. Phosphate mining began in 1899 using indentured workers from Singapore, Malaya, and China. John Davis Murray, a mechanical engineer and recent graduate of Purdue University, was sent to supervise the operation on behalf of the Phosphate Mining and Shipping Company. Murray was known as the “King of Christmas Island” until 1910, when he married and settled in London.
The island was administered jointly by the British Phosphate commissioners and district officers from the United Kingdom Colonial Office through the Straits Settlements, and later the Crown Colony of Singapore. Hunt (2011) provides a detailed history of Chinese indentured labor on the island during those years. In 1922, scientists attempted unsuccessfully to view a solar eclipse from the island to test Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
At the outbreak of the South-East Asian theatre of World War II in December 1941, Christmas Island was a target for Japanese occupation because of its rich phosphate deposits. A naval gun was installed under a British officer and four NCOs and 27 Indian soldiers. The first attack was carried out on January 20, 1942, by the Japanese submarine I-59, which torpedoed a Norwegian freighter, the Eidsvold. The vessel drifted and eventually sank off West White Beach. Most of the European and Asian staff and their families were evacuated to Perth.
In late February and early March 1942, there were two aerial bombing raids. Shelling from a Japanese naval group on March 7 led the district officer to hoist the white flag. After the Japanese naval group sailed away, the British officer raised the Union flag once more. During the night of March 10-11, a mutiny of the Indian troops, abetted by Sikh policemen, led to the killing of the five British soldiers and the imprisonment of the remaining 21 Europeans. At dawn on March 31, 1942, a dozen Japanese bombers launched an attack, destroying the radio station. The same day, a Japanese fleet of nine vessels arrived, and the island surrendered. About 850 men of the Japanese 21st and 24th Special Base Forces and 102nd Construction Unit came ashore at Flying Fish Cove and occupied the island. They rounded up the workforce, most of whom had fled to the jungle. Sabotaged equipment was repaired and preparations were made to resume the mining and export of phosphate. Only 20 men from the 21st Special Base Force were left as a garrison.
Isolated acts of sabotage and the torpedoing of the Nissei Maru at the wharf on November 17, 1942, meant that only small amounts of phosphate were exported to Japan during the occupation. In November 1943, over 60% of the island’s population was evacuated to Surabayan prison camps, leaving a total population of just under 500 Chinese and Malays and 15 Japanese to survive as best they could. In October 1945, HMS Rother re-occupied Christmas Island.
After the war, seven mutineers were traced and prosecuted by the Military Court in Singapore. In 1947, five of them were sentenced to death. However, following representations made by the newly independent government of India, their sentences were reduced to penal servitude for life.
At Australia’s request, the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty to Australia, with a M$20 million payment from the Australian government to Singapore as compensation for the loss of earnings from the phosphate revenue. The United Kingdom’s Christmas Island Act was given royal assent on May 14, 1958, enabling Britain to transfer authority over Christmas Island from Singapore to Australia by an order-in-council. Australia’s Christmas Island Act was passed in September 1958 and the island was officially placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia on October 1, 1958.
In 1968, the official secretary was re-titled an administrator and, since 1997, Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands together are called the Australian Indian Ocean Territories and share a single administrator resident on Christmas Island.
The settlement of Silver City was built in the 1970s, with aluminium-clad houses that were supposed to be cyclone-proof. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami centered off the western shore of Sumatra in Indonesia, resulted in no reported casualties, but some swimmers were swept some 490 feet (150 meters) out to sea for a time before being swept back in.
A postal agency was opened on Christmas Island in 1901 and sold stamps of the Strait Settlements. After the Japanese occupation (1942–45), postage stamps of the British Military Administration in Malaya were in use, then stamps of Singapore.
In 1958, the island received its own postage stamps after being put under Australian custody. It had a large philatelic and postal independence, managed first by the Phosphate Commission (1958–1969) and then by the island’s administration (1969–1993). This ended on March 2, 1993. when Australia Post became the island’s postal operator. Christmas Island stamps issued after March 1993 were usable in Australia, and Australian stamps in Christmas Island.
On March 4, 1993. the first five Australia Post stamps were issued with a new designation: CHRISTMAS ISLAND / AUSTRALIA. The philatelic program topics remained limited. Australia Post promised three issues per year: a Christmas stamp that was issued every two years during the 2000s, a Chinese New Year stamp since 1995 and one issue on local life.