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.
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.
|Phoenix Islands (Kiribati)|
|Abariringa (Canton Island)||9.0||50|
|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|
|U.S. territories to the north|
|* 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.|
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, 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).
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.
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.
Such settlements probably began around 1000 BC, when eastern Melanesians travelled north.
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."
|Island Name||Location||Reynold's comments|
|"Phenix Island"*||2°35'S, 171°39'W||"small and sandy, three miles in circumference"|
| "Mary Balcout's|
|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,|
|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.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. 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.
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.