Malden Island sometimes called Independence Island in the nineteenth century, is a low, arid, uninhabited island in the central Pacific Ocean, about in area. It is one of the Line Islands belonging to the Republic of Kiribati.
The island is chiefly notable for its "mysterious" prehistoric ruins, its once-extensive deposits of phosphatic guano (exploited by Australian interests from c. 1860-1927), its former use as the site of the first British H-bomb tests (Operation Grapple, 1957), and its current importance as a protected area for breeding seabirds.
Malden Island is located south of the equator, south of Honolulu, Hawaii, and more than 4,000 nautical miles (5,000 statute miles or 8,000 km) west of the coast of South America. The nearest land is uninhabited Starbuck Island, to the southwest. The closest inhabited place is Tongareva (Penrhyn Island), to the southwest. The nearest airport is on Kiritimati (Christmas Island), to the northwest. Other nearby islands (all uninhabited) include Jarvis Island, to the northwest, Vostok Island, to the south-southeast, and Caroline (Millennium) Island, to the southeast.
The island has roughly the shape of an equilateral triangle, with on a side, aligned with the southwest side running northwest to southeast. The west and south corners are slightly truncated, shortening the north, east and southwest coasts to about , and adding shorter west and south coasts about 1 to 2 km (–1 mi) in length. A large, mostly shallow, irregularly shaped lagoon, containing a number of small islets, fills the east central part of the island. The lagoon is entirely enclosed by land, but only by relatively narrow strips along its north and east sides. It is connected to the sea by underground channels, and is quite salty. Most of the land area of the island lies to the south and west of the lagoon. The total area of the island is about .
The island is very low, no more than above sea level at its highest point. The highest elevations are found along a rim that closely follows the coastline. The interior forms a depression that is only a few meters above sea level in the western part and is below sea level (filled by the lagoon) in the east central part. Because of this topography, the ocean cannot be seen from much of Malden's interior.
There is no standing fresh water on Malden Island, though a fresh water lens may exist.
A continuous heavy surf falls all along the coast, forming a narrow white to gray sandy beach. Except on the west coast, where the white sandy beach is more extensive than elsewhere, a strip of dark gray coral rubble, forming a series of low ridges parallel to the coast, lies within the narrow beach, extending inward to the island rim.
Two kinds of lizards, the Mourning Gecko (Lepidodactylus lugubris) and Snake-eyed Skink (Ablepharus boutonii) are present on Malden, together with brown libellulid dragonfly and large colonies of sooty terns and other migratory seabirds (nineteen species in all).
Cats, pigs, goats and house mice were introduced to Malden during the guano-digging period; all did incalculable damage. While the goats and pigs have all died off, feral cats and house mice are still present. Small numbers of green turtles nest on the beaches, and hermit crabs abound..
The ancient stone structures are located around the beach ridges, principally on the north and south sides. A total of 21 archaeological sites have been discovered, three of which (on the island's northwest side) are larger than the others. These sites include temple platforms, called marae, house sites, and graves. Comparisons with stone structures on Tuamotu atolls show that a population of between 100 and 200 natives could have produced all of the Malden structures. Maraes of a similar type are found on Raivavae, one of the Austral Islands. Various wells used by these ancients were found by later settlers to be dry, or brackish.
Malden was claimed by the U.S. Guano Company under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which authorized citizens to take possession of uninhabited islands under the authority of the United States for the purpose of removing guano, a valuable agricultural fertilizer. Before the American company could begin their operations, however, the island was occupied by an Australian company under British license. This company and its successors exploited the island continuously from the 1860s through 1927.
Beatrice Grimshaw, a visitor to Malden in the guano digging era, decried the "glaring barrenness of the bit island", declaring that "...shade, coolness, refreshing fruit, pleasant sights and sounds: there are none. For those who live on the island, it is the scene of an exile which has to be endured somehow or other". She described Malden as containing "a little settlement fronted by a big wooden pier, and a desolate plain of low greyish-green herbage, relieved here and there by small bushes bearing insignificant yellow flowers". Water for settlers was produced by large distillation plants, since no fresh-water wells could be successfully dug on the island.
The five or six Caucasian supervisors on the island were given "a row of little tin-roofed, one-storeyed houses above the beach", while the native laborers from Niue Island and Aitutaki were housed in "big, barn-like shelters". Grimshaw described these edifices as being "large, bare, shady buildings fitted with wide shelves, on which the men spread their mats and pillows to sleep". Their food consisted of "rice, biscuits, yams, tinned beef, and tea, with a few cocoanuts for those who may fall sick". Food for the white supervisors consisted of "tinned food of various kinds, also bread, rice, fowls, pork, goat, and goat's milk", but vegetables were hard to come by.
Indentured laborers on Malden were contracted for one-year, paid ten shillings per week plus room and board, and repatriated to their home islands when their contracts expired. Salaries for the supervisors were described as "quite high. Work hours were 5am to 5pm, with one hour and 45 minutes given off for meals.
The guano diggers constructed a unique railroad on Malden Island, with cars powered by large sails. Laborers pushed empty carts from the loading area up the tramway to the digging pits, where they were then loaded with guano. At the end of the day, the sails were unfurled, and the train cars whisked back to the settlement by the prevailing southeastern winds. While cars were known to jump the tracks more than once during these excursions, the system seems to have worked fairly well. Railroad handcars were also used. This tramway remained in use on Malden as late as 1924, and its roadbed still exists on the island today.
Although guano digging continued on Malden through the early 1920s, all human activity on the island had ceased by the early 1930s. No further human use seems to have been made of Malden until 1956.
The airstrip constructed on the island by the Royal Engineers in 1956-57 remained usable in July 1979.
The main value of the island to Kiribati lies in the resources of the Exclusive Economic Zone which surrounds it, particularly the rich tuna fisheries. Gypsum deposits on the island itself are extensive, but do not appear to be economically viable under foreseeable market conditions, mainly due to cost of transportation. Some revenue has been realized from ecotourism; the World Discoverer, an adventure cruise ship operated by Society Expeditions, visited the island once or twice annually for several years in the mid-1990s.
Malden was reserved as a wildlife sanctuary and closed area, and officially designated as the "Malden Island Wildlife Sanctuary", on 29 May 1975, under the 1975 Wildlife Conservation Ordinance. The principal purpose of this reservation was to protect the large breeding populations of seabirds. This sanctuary is administered by the Wildlife Conservation Unit of the Ministry of Line and Phoenix Islands Development, headquartered on Kiritimati. There is no resident staff at Malden, however, and occasional visits by foreign yachtsmen and fishermen cannot be monitored from Kiritimati. A fire in 1977, possibly caused by visitors, threatened breeding seabirds; this remains a potential threat, particularly during periods of drought.