The human settlement of Christmas Island had its origins in 1887, when a small party of British explorers made their way through dense jungle and collected rock specimens of almost pure phosphate of lime.
The discovery of phosphate guided the island’s destiny for the next century. Two rivals, George Clunies Ross and John Murray, formed the Christmas Island Phosphate company in 1897 and quickly built an imported workforce of Chinese, Malays and Sikhs, who often endured appalling conditions. The first phosphate shipment was exported in 1900.
Today, a private company, Phosphate Resources Limited (PRL), hold a phosphate mining lease which expires in 2018. This operation is limited to previously mined areas and a condition of the lease is that no more primary rainforest be cleared.
Britain took possession of the Island in the name of Queen Victoria in 1888, but in 1946 it was placed under the jurisdiction of the New Colony of Singapore. In 1958, Britain transferred sovereignty to Australia, and the island was made an Australian territory.
Christmas Island’s history
25 December 1643 - Captain William Mynors on the East India Company vessel, the Royal Mary, sees and names the island on Christmas Day
1688 - Crew of Cygnet make the first recorded landing (probably at the Dales), sent by English navigator William Dampier - they bring back water, timber and robber crabs
1857 - Crew of vessel Amethyst tries to explore the island, but are hampered by inland cliffs and dense jungle
1887 - A party from British naval vessel HMS Egeria reach the summit of what is now Murray Hill, finding phosphate as predicted by Scottish naturalist, Dr John Murray, and in a nearly pure form
6 June 1888 - Great Britain annexes Christmas Island at urging of John Murray
1888 - George Clunies-Ross, owner of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands sends his brother Andrew and a small party of Cocos Malay workers to form a settlement at Flying Fish Cove to pre-empt any other claim to the Island's resources
1891 - Britain offers rivals Murray and Clunies Ross a joint phosphate lease for 99 years
1897 - The rival claimants are induced to form the Christmas Island Phosphate Company
1898 - 200 Chinese labourers, eight European managers and five Sikh policemen arrive on island to make up workforce, supplemented by a small number of Malays
1900 - First major shipment of phosphate
1900-1904 - 550 die from beri-beri, most of them Chinese
1908 - CW Andrews of the British Museum conducts a comprehensive study of the island’s natural history, following on from his earlier study in 1898
1942 - Japanese attack Norwegian phosphate ship in Flying Fish Cover; 50 Asian and Australian families evacuated to Perth
March 1942-1945 - 900 Japanese troops invade and occupy Christmas Island, imprisoning remaining Europeans and hunting 1000 Malay and Chinese workers in the jungle. Islander sabotage and allied submarines lead to suspension of mining. In 1943, half the population is sent to prison camps in Indonesia when food runs low
1949 - Australia and New Zealand buy the Christmas Island Phosphate company and Christmas Island is administered by the colony of Singapore
1950s - Population expands, with labour from Singapore, Malaya and Cocos and supervisors from Australia
1 October 1958 - On Territory Day, Christmas Island becomes an Australia territory after a payment of £2.8 million
1970s - Union of Christmas Island Workers formed to improve living and working conditions
1977 - First Government Conservator appointed after conflicts between mining and conservation
1980 - The first National Park declared over Egeria Point area
1986 and 1989 - Christmas Island National Park extended
2006 - A wave of unauthorised boat arrivals seeking asylum in Australia leads the Australian government to open an immigration reception and processing centre on a former phosphate lease in the island’s north west
Christmas Island has a rich mix of cultures. A population of some 2000 people includes many Chinese and Malay Australians as well as people from mainland Australia. National park staff reflect this cultural mix.
English is the official language but many people also speak Bahasa Malay or one or more Chinese dialects.
The Malay community are Muslim,while members of the Chinese community follow a variety of religious beliefs including Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism.
The significance of Christmas Island’s natural environment was documented in the late 19th century by C.W. Andrews of the British Museum – a study that has served as a baseline for later natural history investigations.
Until the late 1960s, it was widely believed that phosphate mining would not cause excessive damage to the natural environment, because it was planned to mine only limited areas of the island. However, the impact of mining became a matter of general concern when the original deposits were worked out and mining commenced in the western sector of the island.
In the 1970s, there was rising concern about the impact of mining on the Abbott’s booby (Papasula abbotti), a rare seabird that nests only on Christmas Island and which is now listed as endangered under the EPBC Act.
In 1974, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation examined the impacts of mining and other activities on the island’s ﬂora and fauna and the adequacy of attempts to rehabilitate the rainforest. One of the Committee’s recommendations was that a conservation area be reserved.
In 1980 Christmas Island National Park was proclaimed over the entire south west corner of the island, under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975. The 1983 Senate inquiry, The Preservation of the Abbott’s Booby on Christmas Island, led to an extension of the park to increase the conservation area. Stages two and three of Christmas Island National Park were proclaimed in 1986.
Today’s national park
In 1989 the three areas were incorporated into Christmas Island National Park.
Today the national park makes up 64 per cent of Chistmas Island’s land area. The new park boundaries also include additional areas of freshwater mangroves and much of the island’s remaining undisturbed rainforest. The protected area comprises crucial habitat for species such as Abbott’s booby, the Christmas Island frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi), the endemic blue crab (Discoplax celeste) and red crabs (Gecarcoidea natalis).
A small but environmentally significant marine park extends 50 metres offshore from the park’s boundaries.