Kanton Island (also known as Canton Island or Abariringa Island), alternatively known as "Mary Island", "Mary Balcout's Island" or "Swallow Island", is the largest, northernmost, and as of 2007, the sole inhabited island of the Phoenix Islands, in the Republic of Kiribati. It is an atoll located in the South Pacific Ocean roughly halfway between Hawaii and Fiji at . The island is a narrow ribbon of land enclosing a lagoon with an area of 40 square kilometers. Kanton's closest neighbor is the uninhabited island of Enderbury, 63 km to the south. The capital of Kiribati, South Tarawa, lies 1,765 km to the west. As of 2005, the population was 41, down from 61 in 2000. The island's sole village is called Tebaronga.
Kanton got its permanent name from the New Bedford whaler Canton, which ran aground on the atoll on March 4, 1854, while under the command of Capt. Andrew Wing. The crew managed to escape on whaleboats and after an open-water voyage of 45 days, reached Tinian Island in the Marianas, without the loss of a man.
Much of Kanton's land surface is bare coral, sparsely covered with herbs and low bunch grass; a few trees and bushes are found near the village site. According to Edwin H. Bryan's American Polynesia and the Hawaiian Chain, Kanton possessed in 1941 a total of twelve native species of vegetation, including low herbs and bunch grass, a thick stand of Scaevola shrubs on the island's south side (2-3 meters high), some Suriana shrubs near the lagoon entrance, heliotrope and kou trees, and coconut palms. In 1937, the New Zealand eclipse expedition reported 23 bird species on Kanton, together with Polynesian rats, lizards, hermit crabs and turtles. Two species of spiders were found on the island.
There is no fresh water on Kanton, which is a problem for settlers. Rainwater is caught in cisterns; Pan American had a large distillation plant on the island when it operated there during the 1940s and 50's. Rainfall is sparse, averaging between 8.71 and 35.97 inches between 1938 and 1953, though later reports suggest a wetter climate in recent years.
On July 8, 1937, Kanton was the site of a total solar eclipse and the island was occupied briefly by American and New Zealand scientists, members of an expedition organized by the National Geographic Society and led by the astronomer Samuel Alfred Mitchell. During this time, the American party claimed the island for the United States, erecting a small monument with two American flags. According to one account, the British warship HMS Wellington fired a shot across the bow of the USS Avocet, when the latter refused to cede the choicest anchorage spot to the British vessel. The American ship allegedly retorted in kind, following which both captains agreed to "cease fire" until instructions could be received from their respective governnments. Washington and London quickly ordered no further escalation, and both parties observed the solar eclipse together, "though officially a bit cool.
In response to the British reoccupation of Kanton in August 1937, seven Americans landed on the island on March 7, 1938. Although the British ambassador to the United States requested removal of markers claiming U.S. sovereignty, President Franklin Roosevelt formally placed the island under control of the U.S. Interior department on March 3, 1938. Both parties continued to press their competing claims until April 6, 1939, when the U.S. and Britain agreed to hold Kanton under joint control for the next fifty years as the Canton and Enderbury Islands condominium. The U.S./U.K. tenure proved cordial and cooperative thereafter, with each party enjoying the other's hospitality and working together to ensure smooth operation of island facilities.
During World War II the United States Navy built a 6,000 foot (1.8 km) airstrip and Kanton became a stopover point for the Navy Air Transport Service flights to Australia and New Zealand as well as a staging point for attacks on the Gilbert Islands, then held by Japan. It was shelled three times in late 1942 by Japanese submarines, and bombed once on March 25, 1943. Damage was reported as "slight. The island was defended by approximately 1,200 combat troops and support personnel, but was never attacked by Japanese forces.
In November 1946, Pan Am resumed service to Australia and New Zealand via Kanton with Douglas DC-4 aircraft. British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines, Australia's first trans-pacific airline,flying luxurious DC-6Bs, used the island as a stop over on the way to Hawaii, flying the Sydney to Vancouver BC , Canada route. Qantas followed shortly thereafter when BCPA went out of business. Canadian Pacific Airlines used the island as well. This service continued through 1958, when the DC-4's were replaced with the Douglas DC-7C. A full-scale community was established to support this operation, including an electrical power station, a hotel for the airline passengers' use, a medical dispensary, school for dependant children of station personnel, and other necessary facilities. The island was jointly administered by the United Kingdom and the United States, and the British and American post offices were both operated from a single building. The American administrator, who was an employee of the Civil Aeronautics Administration (predecessor to the FAA) and island manager for that agency, also served as the U.S. resident administrator under the Department of the Interior and as a U.S. special deputy marshal under the Department of Justice. William J. Evans held this position from 1952-1956, during which time a crew from The National Geographic Magazine visited the island and highlighted it in the magazine's January 1955 issue. Ultimately, the introduction of long-range jet aircraft spelled the end of Kanton's usefulness as an aircraft refueling station, and all airlines ended their operations there by the late 1950s. The airport remained operational, however, as an emergency landing field.
Kanton is occasionally visited by Republic of Kiribati vessels, the U.S. Coast Guard and various fishing boats. In 2008, Kanton and the rest of the Phoenix Islands became the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), the world's largest marine protected area, covering a total area of 410,500 square kilometers of land and ocean. It was recently nominated, together with the rest of the PIPA, as a UNESCO World Heritage site.