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Phoenix Islands

Phoenix Islands

Phoenix Islands, group of eight islands, 11 sq mi (28 sq km), central Pacific, N of Samoa. The chain comprises a portion of Kiribati. The two most important are Kanton (or Abariringa) and Enderbury Island. The other islands include Rawaki (formerly Phoenix), Manra (formerly Sydney), Birnie, McKean, Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner), and Orona (formerly Hull). The islands are largely uninhabited. The atolls, their reefs, and their surrounding waters form the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, 164,200 sq mi (425,300 sq km), the largest marine protected area in the world.

The Phoenix Islands were visited between 1823 and 1840 by British and American explorers, but most of them were annexed by Great Britain in the late 19th cent. After the United States took over Howland and Baker islands in 1935, Britain included (1937) the Phoenix group in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony. In 1938 the United States claimed sovereignty over Kanton and Enderbury, and in 1939 Britain and the United States agreed to exercise joint control over the two islands for a period of 50 years.

Previously uninhabited, Orona, Manra, and Nikumaroro islands were colonized with people from the overcrowded Gilbert Islands between 1938 and 1940. By 1963, however, the three settlements had failed and the entire population was moved to the Solomon Islands. In 2006 the waters (73,800 sq mi/184,700 sq km) surrounding the islands were made a protected area and commercial fishing was banned; the protected area was expanded in 2008.

Group of eight small coral atolls, Kiribati. Lying in the west-central Pacific Ocean 1,650 mi (2,650 km) southwest of Hawaii, the low, sandy atolls have a total land area of about 11 sq mi (28 sq km) and were discovered in the 19th century by U.S. whaling ships. Annexed by Britain in 1889, they were joined to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1937. They became part of independent Kiribati in 1979. Kanton is the only inhabited atoll.

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The Phoenix Islands are a group of eight atolls and two submerged coral reefs, lying in the central Pacific Ocean east of the Gilbert Islands and west of the Line Islands. They are a part of the Republic of Kiribati. During the late 1930s they became the site of the last attempted colonial expansion of the British Empire (the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme). The islands and surrounding areas are home to some 120 species of coral and more than 500 species of fish. On January 28, 2008, the government of Kiribati formally declared the entire Phoenix group and surrounding waters a protected area, making its 410,500 square kilometres the world's largest marine protected area.

The group is uninhabited except for a few families on Kanton (41 people according to the 2005 census). The United States unincorporated territories of Baker Island and Howland Island are often considered northerly outliers of the group, in the geographical sense. Howland and Baker are statistically grouped with the United States Minor Outlying Islands, however. The Phoenix Islands (not including the reefs) were all claimed by the United States at some point, but most came under British dominion prior to Kiribati independence.

At various times, the islands were considered part of the Gilbert group (once also known as "Kingsmill"). The name "Phoenix" for this group of islands seems to have been settled on in the 1840s, after an island of that name within the group. Phoenix Island was probably named after one of the many whaleships of that name plying these waters in the early nineteenth century.

Atoll/Island/Reef Land
Area
km²
Lagoon
km²
Coordinates
Phoenix Islands (Kiribati)
Abariringa (Canton Island) 9.0 50
Enderbury Island 5.1 0.6*
Birnie Island 0.2 0.02*
McKean Island 0.4 0.2*
Rawaki (Phoenix Island) 0.5 0.5
Manra (Sydney Island) 4.4 2.2*
Orona (Hull Island) 3.9 30
Nikumaroro (Gardner Island) 4.1 4
'''Phoenix Islands (Kiribati) 27.6 84.5
Submerged coral reefs
Winslow Reef - 1
Carondelet Reef - ?
U.S. territories to the north
Baker Island 1.6 -
Howland Island 1.8 -
* The lagoon areas marked with an asterisk are contained within the island areas of the previous column because they are, unlike in the case of a typical atoll, landlocked bodies of water completely sealed off from the sea.

Geography, Flora and Fauna

The Phoenix Islands are a group of eight islands, totalling 11 sqare miles (28 sq. km) in land area, located in the central Pacific, north of Samoa. The chain comprises a portion of Kiribati. The only island of any commercial or historical importance is Kanton (or Abariringa) Island. The other islands include Enderbury, Rawaki (formerly Phoenix), Manra (formerly Sydney), Birnie, McKean, Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner), and Orona (formerly Hull).

Kanton Island

Kanton, or Abariringa Island, is the northernmost and sole (as of 2007) inhabited island in the Phoenix group. It is a narrow ribbon of land (9 sq. km. in area), enclosing a lagoon of approximately 40 sq. km. Kanton is mostly bare coral, covered with herbs, bunch grasses, low shrubs and a few trees. Its lagoon teems with 153 known spieces of marine life, including sharks, tuna, stingrays and eels. Land fauna includes at least 23 bird species, lizards, rats, hermit crabs and turtles.

Once an important trans-Pacific airport and refueling station, Kanton declined in importance with the introduction of long-range jet aircraft in the late 1950s, and was eventually abandoned after serving a brief stint as a U.S. missile-tracking station. Today, the island still exhibits the remains of the airline and military presence, with 41 persons (as of 2005) residing there, most living in abandoned structures from the U.S./U.K. occupation (1936-1976).

Enderbury Island

Enderbury is a low, flat, small coral atoll lying 63 km ESE of Kanton. Its lagoon is rather tiny, comprising only a small percentage of the island's area. Herbs, bunchgrass, morning-glory vines and a few clumps of trees form the main vegetation on the island, while birds, rats and a species of beetle are the known fauna. Heavily mined for guano in the late 1800s, Enderbury has seen little human impact following the evacuation of the last few colonists (four in number) in 1942, during World War II.

Birnie Island

Birnie Island is a small, flat coral island about 20 hectares in area, measuring 1.2 km long by 0.5 km wide. It contains a tiny lagoon, which has all but dried up. A nesting place for flocks of seabirds, Birnie is devoid of trees and is instead covered with low shrubs and grass. Unlike most of the other Phoenix Islands, Birnie does not appear to have been worked for guano or otherwise exploited by humans. It was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1975.

McKean Island

McKean Island is the northwesternmost island of the Phoenix group. Its area is 57 hectares, and devoid of fresh water or trees, though it does have a hypersaline lagoon in its center. Carpeted with low herbs and grasses, McKean provides a sanctuary for the world's largest nesting population of lesser frigatebird (Fregata ariel), with a population of up to 85,000 birds. Actively worked for guano in the mid nineteenth century, it was abandoned by 1870, and no further use has been made of it.

Rawaki Island

Rawaki, or Phoenix Island, measures approximately 1.2 km by 0.8 km, and covers 65 hectares in area. Its lagoon is shallow and salty, with no connection to the ocean. It does, however, have several freshwater pools, the only known freshwater wetlands in the Phoenix Islands. Treeless, Rawaki is covered with herbs and grasses, and provides another important landing site for migratory seabirds. Worked for guano from 1859 to 1871, Rawaki was abandoned and no human use seems to have been made of it thereafter.

Manra Island

Manra, or Sydney Island, measures approximately 3.2 km by 2.8 km, with a large, salty lagoon with depths reportedly varying from five to six meters. The island is covered with coconut palms, scrub forest, herbs and grasses, including the species Tournefortia, Pisonia, Morinda, Cordia, Guettarda, and Scaevola. Manra contains definite evidence of prehistoric inhabitation, in the form of at least a dozen platforms and remains of enclosures in the northeast and northwest portions of the island. K.P. Emory, ethnologist at Honolulu's Bishop Museum, estimated that two groups of people were present on Manra, one from Eastern Polynesia, the other from Micronesia. Wells and pits from these early inhabitants were also found.

Extensively worked for guano, Manra was turned into a copra plantation in the early twentieth century. In 1938, Manra was selected as one of three atolls for use in the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, which represented the last expansion of the British Empire. Plagued by drought and the death of the project's organizer, together with the effects of World War II and the declining copra market, Manra was abandoned in 1963.

Orona Island

Orona, or Hull Island, measures approximately 8.8 km by 4 km, and like Kanton, is a narrow ribbon of land surrounding a sizable lagoon with depths of 15-20 meters. Like Manra, it is covered with coconut palms, scrub forest, and grasses; it also contains evidence of prehistoric Polynesian inhabitation. An ancient stone marae stands on the eastern tip of the island, together with ruins of shelters, graves and other platforms. Unlike Manra, Orona does not seem to have been worked for guano, but became a coconut plantation and a part of the British Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme. Photos of the abandoned settlement, circa 1967, may be seen at. Residents were evacuated in 1963, due to drought and the declining copra market.

Nikumaroro

Nikumaroro, or Gardner Island, is approximately 6 km long by 2 km wide, enclosing a large central lagoon. Vegitation is profuse, including scrub forest, coconut palms and herbs. Large quantities of birds nest on the island, which was once the headquarters for the British colonial officer heading up the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, Gerald Gallagher. Gallagher constructed a village on the western end of the atoll, with wide coral-paved streets, a parade ground, cooperative store, administrative center and residence, and radio shack.

Tragically, Gallagher died on Nikumaroro in 1941, and was buried on the island (where his empty grave monument can still be seen, though his remains were later moved to Tarawa). Like the other atolls in the settlement project, Nikumaroro was abandoned in 1963 due to the scarcity of fresh water, together with the declining market for copra produced on the island.

Several excellent modern photographs of Nikumaroro, including recent photos of the flora, fauna and Gallagher's abandonded village site, may be viewed at.

In recent years, Nikumaroro has become a news item due to a theory that Amelia Earhart might have crash-landed her plane on the island during her fateful around-the-world attempt in 1937. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery made several expeditions to Nikumaroro during the 1990s and 2000's, finding possible evidence, but no conclusive proof, of this theory. Continued investigation and expeditions to the island are ongoing.

History of the islands

Early History

There is evidence to suggest that Howland Island was the site of prehistoric settlement, which possibly extended down to Rawaki, Kanton, Manra and Orona, probably in the form of a single community utilising several adjacent islands. Archaeological sites have been discovered on Manra and Orona, which suggest two distinct groups of settlers, one from eastern Polynesia, and one from Micronesia. The hard life on these isolated islands undoubtedly led to extinction of or dereliction by the settled peoples, in much the same way that other islands in the area (such as Christmas Island and Pitcairn) were abandoned.

Such settlements probably began around 1000 BC, when eastern Melanesians travelled north.

Discovery and mapping of the islands

The oceans of the mid-Pacific and Micronesia opened up in the early nineteenth century as whalers from Europe and the Americas came in search of prey. The sudden influx of whaling vessels in the 1820s led to the discovery and intitial charting of most of the Phoenix Islands between 1821-1825. This area was the last in the Pacific to be fully explored and charted, probably because the islands were predominantly small and isolated.

In 1568, when Spaniard Mendana was commanded to explore the South Pacific, he sailed between the Line Islands and the Phoenix Islands without sighting land, ultimately discovering "Isla de Jesus", probably amongst the Ellice group. While early nineteenth-century whalers were responsible for discovering most of Kiribati in the modern era, conflicting reports, inaccurate mapping and duplication of islands makes it almost impossible to confirm exactly who discovered each of the islands. Jeremiah N. Reynolds's 1828 report to the American Navy recommended an exploring expedition to the Pacific as "the English charts, and those of other countries are as yet very imperfect. Much of their information has been obtained from loose accounts from whalers who were careless in some instances, and forgetful in others, and which were seized with greediness by the makers of maps and charts, in order to be the first to make these discoveries known."

This came to fruition in the 1840s: Charles Wilkes led the Exploring Expedition, consisting of the Peacock and the Flying Fish, which surveyed the islands under William Hudson.

Identifying the discoverers

Report of JN Reynolds, 1828
Island Name Location Reynold's comments
"Phenix Island"* 2°35'S, 171°39'W "small and sandy, three miles in circumference"
"Mary Balcout's
Island"*
2°47'S, 171°58'W "Surrounded by a reef twenty leagues in circum-
ference, with only four openings where boats can
enter" (this is an almost identical position to
"Mary Island" shown on Norie's map of 1825;
similar to Canton Is.)
"Barney's Island"* 3°9'S, 171°41'W "a lagoon, twenty miles in circumference"
(Possibly another sighting of Canton Is.)
"Birney's Island" 3°30'S, 171°30'W "Discovered by Capt Emmert; found on charts"
"Sidney's Island" 4°25'S, 171°20'W "Discovered by Capt Emmert; found on charts"
"Sidney's Is." (2) 4°30'S, 171°20'W
"Sidney's Is." (3) 4°29'S, 171°20'W
"New Nantucket" 0°11'N, 176°20'W "Not on charts"
"Gardner's Island" 4°30'S, 174°22'W "Not on charts; discovered by Capt Coffin,
on Ganges".
unnamed 3°14'S, 170°50'W
unnamed 3°33'S, 173°44'W
unnamed 3°35'S, 170°20'W
unnamed 4°45'S, 174°40'W
unnamed reef 5°30'S, 175°W "Not on the charts". (possibly Carondelet Reef)
*Reynold's suggests that since these three have similar coordinates, they "are probably the
same as Birney's Island"

Commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1828 to compile a survey of American discoveries in the South Pacific, J.N. Reynolds interviewed several New England whalers, inspecting their logbogs, charts and documents. His report included at least 13 islands fitting roughly within the Phoenix group, but the coordinates he gave do not always compare to the now-established coordinates.

Further confusion regarding the initial discoveries is provided by other contemporary reports of the islands: Frenchman Louis Tromelin reported his 1823 discovery of Phoenix island at 3°42'S, 170°43'W, while cartographer John Arrowsmith plotted it 12 minutes further north; a rediscovery of Sydney is at 4°26'30", 171°18'. The same year, James Coffin recorded "Enderby's Island" at 3°10', 171°10. This clearly illustrates "the impossibility of deciding who discovered which of these...islands, and when...."

Contemporary reports and modern analysis provide conflicting evidence regarding the indentification of the initial discoverers, a state of affairs only complicated by the numerous names given to the atolls.

The name "Phoenix" appears to have been first applied to the whole group by Wilkes's Exploring Expedition, from the island of that name reported within the group.

McKean Island

McKean Island was the first of the Phoenix group to be reported and named. It was discovered May 28, 1794 by the British Capt. Henry Barber, of the ship Arthur. Barber named it "Drummond's Island", plotting it at 3°40'S, 176°51'W. It was later named 'Arthur Island' and appeared as such in charts of the time located at 3°30'S, 176°0'W. It was mapped and renamed by Commander Charles Wilkes of the US Exploring Expedition on August 19, 1840, after a member of his crew.

Enderbury Island

Enderbury Island is held to have been discovered by Capt. James Coffin of the British whaler Transit in 1823, who named it "Enderby's Island" after the London whaling house. However, when he described his own discoveries to Arrowsmith and other geographers, he did not mention Enderbury.

Birnie Island and Manra (Sydney Island)

The discovery of Birnie and Sydney Islands are reported to have occurred in 1823 by a British whaler, either the Sydney Packet or the Sydney, captained by a "Emmett", "Emmert" or "Emment", and named after the ship and ship owner, the London firm Alexander Birnie & Co. "Captain Emmett" might be William Emmett, from Sydney, who sailed regularly in the area and is known to have bought the brig Queen Charlotte from whaler James Birnie (of the Birnie ship owning family) in 1820. Frenchman Tromelin found Sidney's Island again in 1823 (or 1828), placing it at 4°26'30", 171°18'; he went on to survey Phoenix Island.

Abariringa (Kanton Island)

"Mary Island" and "Mary Balcoutts Island", at similar coordinates to Kanton Island, exist in reports and charts from 1825. Reynold's report also describes a "Barney's Island", roughly at Kanton's position, which was possibly named and discovered by Capt. Joseph Barney of the Equator, who was whaling in the area in 1823-4. It was given the name "Canton" by Commander RW Meade of the USS Narragansett in 1872, after the whaler Canton, which was wrecked there in 1854.

Nikumaroro (Gardner Island)

0n 8 January 1824, Capt. Kemin, of an unnamed ship, discovered what is possibly Gardner Island (at 4°45'S, 186°20'15"E) and McKean Island, naming them the "Kemin Islands". Capt. Joshua Gardner, reportedly aboard the whaler Ganges, discovered an island in 1825, located at 4°20' S, 174°22' W, and named it "Gardner's Island". His discovery was reported in the Nantucket Enquirer, December 1827. However, Joshua Coffin (also reportedly on the Ganges) is sometimes credited with the discovery, naming the island after his ship's owner, Gideon Gardner.

During the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, Charles Wilkes identified Gardner's Island from the reported position, and confirmed its existence.

Rawaki (Phoenix Island)

Frenchman Louis Tromelin, aboard the corvette Bayonnaise, came across Sydney (see above) and Phoenix Island, probably in 1828, although some sources state 1823 and 1826. Placing the island at 3°42'S, 189°17'E, Tromelin claimed it was already reported on Norie's map.. A "Phenix", plus unnamed islands at similar coordinates also feature in Reynold's report. The source of the name (and discoverer) is unknown but may be the whaling ship Phoenix of Nantucket, Massachusetts, which was active in the area and also the discoverer of Winslow Reef; the London whaler Phoenix, owned by Daniel Bennett (W. Bennett & Co), whaling in the Pacific in 1815; the Phoenix, under the command of John Palmer in 1824; or a vessel, also named the Phoenix under the command of a Captain Moore, which was in the Pacific in 1794.

Orona (Hull Island)

Little is known about the discovery of Hull Island, but it was confirmed by the US Exploring Expedition in 1841 (and found to be inhabited), and named by Wilkes after Commodore Isaac Hull.

Winslow Reef

The reef was discovered by the whaler Phoenix in 1851, speculated to be the ship which gave its name to the group. (although "Phoenix Island" was reported prior to this date). Perry Winslow was the master of the Phoenix on this voyage.

Carondelet Reef

An unnamed reef at similar coordinates to Carondelet Reef was included in Reynold's report of 1828.

Baker Island

In August 1825, Capt Obed Starbuck of the whaler Loper sighted a low barren island at 0°11'N, 176°20'W, which he named "New Nantucket" after his home Nantucket, Massachusetts. Starbuck had previously discovered islands in the Ellice group. It was later named after Capt Michael Baker, who discovered the guano deposits on the island in 1839.

Howland Island

The discovery of Howland Island is sometimes credited to Captain George B Worth of the Nantucket whaler Oeno, around 1822, who called it "Worth Island". Daniel MacKenzie of the American whaler Minerva Smith, charted the island in 1828, and, believing it to be a new discovery, named it after his ship's owners.

Later history

Most of the Phoenix Islands were annexed by Great Britain in the late 19th century, although the United States claimed Howland and Baker islands in 1935, and in 1937 Britain included the Phoenix group in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony. In 1938 the United States claimed sovereignty over Kanton and Enderbury, and in 1939 Britain and the United States agreed to exercise joint control over the two islands for a period of 50 years as the Canton and Enderbury Islands condominium. This would continue until Kiribat independence in 1979. Kanton was extensively developed first as a seaplane landing site, then later as a refueling station for trans-Pacific civilian and military aircraft which remained in use until 1958.

Although shelled and bombed a few times during World War II, neither Kanton nor any of the Phoenix Islands was ever occupied by Japanese forces.

Between 1938 and 1940, in an effort to reduce overcrowding on the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme colonised the previously uninhabited Orona (Hull), Manra (Sydney), and Nikumaroro (Gardner) islands. By 1963, however, the three settlements had failed and the entire population was moved to the Solomon Islands. Kanton was used by the U.S. during the 1960s and early 1970s as a missile-tracking station, before being abandoned altogether in 1976 and then ultimately resettled by I-Kiribati, who continue to reside there today. In 2008, the government of Kiribati declared the islands to be the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the world's largest marine protected area.

Notes

References

  • Bryan, EH, (1942) American Polynesia and the Hawaiian Chain, Honolulu, Tongg Publishing Co.
  • Dunmore, John.Who's Who in Pacific Navigation. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-52284-488-X.
  • Irwin, Geoffrey (1992), The Prehistroric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521476518
  • Maude, H.E., (1968) Of Islands and Men: Studies in Pacific History, Melbourne: Oxford University Press
  • Polynesian Society, (1961), The Journal of the Polynesian Society
  • Quanchi, Max & Robson, John, (2005); Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands, USA: Scarecrow Press, ISBN 0810853957
  • Sharp, Andrew (1960); The Discovery of the Pacific Islands, Oxford:Oxford University Press,
  • Stackpole, Edouard A.; The Sea Hunters: The New England Whalemen During Two Centuries, 1635-1835
  • Suárez, Thomas (2004), Early Mapping of the Pacific, Singapore: Periplus Editions, ISBN 0794600921

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