Sunday, February 8, 2015

Cocos (Keeling) islands

Like its neighbour to the south-west, Christmas Island, the Cocos, also known as the Keeling Islands, are counted as a part of Australia - two atolls and twenty-seven coral islands making up the whole. They were discovered by Captain William Keeling of the East India Company in 1609, while sailing his ship the Red Dragon home from Java to England. Little is known of Keeling, save that he was later put in command of Cowes Castle, on the Isle of Wight, now the home of the world's most elite Yacht Club, that of the Royal Yacht Squadron - which fact should rename his ship the White Dragon retrospectively, as member ships of the Royal Yacht Squadron, and they alone of all merchant navy ships, fly the White Ensign of the Royal Navy rather than the Red Ensign of the Merchant Navy. One solitary fragment of Keeling's diaries has survived, long believed to be a forgery, but now confirmed as genuine, which describes performances of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Richard II on board the Red Dragon. A merchant seaman who was also an explorer and a man of culture! Hamlet we can easily understand - but why Richard II?

Keeling discovered the islands, and gave his name to them, but they remained uninhabited for two hundred years, until a Scottish sea captain, John Clunies-Ross, stopped to plant a Union Jack and swear to bring his family to live there. At which point the history of the islands becomes worth telling.

There was a wealthy man, by name of Alexander Hare, the governor of Maluka, though perhaps he should be called, as I am now embarked upon a piece of epic romance in the manner of Lord Byron, the first White Rajah of Borneo. Hare could not, in his own words, "confine himself to the tame life that prosy civilisation affords", neither in Borneo nor back home in England. He wanted his own fiefdom, with his own harem, and enlisted an English sea-captain to ferry him, with the forty Malay women he had purchased, to the island that he had chosen for his realm. By extraordinary coincidence that island was Keeling's Cocos islands; by even more extraordinary coincidence the sea captain he chose was the brother of John Clunies-Ross, who did not reject the payment offered for the porterage, but did send a letter to his brother, letting him know about the usurpation of his fiefdom. Two years later John Clunies-Ross returned to Keeling Islands, with his wife, children and mother-in-law, and more importantly with eight well-armed soldiers and a determination to seize both land and harem; there is no historical record that tells us what his wife, let alone his mother-in-law, thought of the determination to seize the harem as well as the island, but we can imagine that their shock at being expected to live in this mid-ocean wilderness was greater even than the thought of sharing it with forty Malay concubines. Hare and Clunies-Ross engaged in battle; Hare's Malay women made the mathematical calculation that eight of C-R's sailors gave them more nights of pleasure than just one Alexander Hare, and deserted. Hare retreated to what he called Bencoolen, though we would call it Bengkulu City, in Indonesia, where he later died. C-R and his family lived on, building a splendid home which they named Oceania House, planting hundreds of coconut palms for which they brought in workers from Malaysia to harvest the nuts and to extract copra (any who left, even for a brief family visit home, were forbidden to return; a practise still employed by many companies across the world, who hold their workers' identity papers for security against such a libertarian outcome). 

Copra is a type of oil, made from the dried flesh of the coconuts. This they traded across the globe, and made a fortune, while their workers were paid in a currency of their own invention, the Cocos Rupee, which was only exchangeable at the company store on the island. C-R declared himself king, and his title hereditary, and so his branch of feudalism became the last surviving example of Anglo-Saxon feudalism in the world, lasting indeed until 1978, when the last king of Cocos, also appositely named John, was forced, not into a Magna Carta, but actually to sell the islands to the Australians for a mere 2.3 million pounds (sterling) - though at least his earnings were exchangeable beyond the island's now-closed company store. The deal included his continued right to live in Oceania House, but sadly the Australians reneged on that, and the Australian High Court backed them, forcing him to leave the house, and settle instead in Perth, in Western Australia. Unfortunately he chose to invest those earnings in a shipping line, and went bankrupt, not helped by the Australian government's edict that no business should be granted to it. His son, Johnny Clunies-Ross, still lives on West Island, earning a living from the clams that populate its shores. His family are much missed, if only because the Australians do not allow the islanders to shoot birds and hunt turtles, which privilege was granted by the former king, in much the same way that droit de seigneur was practised by Alexander Hare in days of yore.

Oceania House
Why were the islands sold to Australia? The British Government had formally annexed the islands in 1857, allowing the king to rule as governor; but then sovereignty was transferred to the Australian Government in 1955, who put their own governor in charge, and whose trades unions launched a campaign against the exploitative capitalist feudalism of the regime, which led to the events described above.

Apart from North Keeling Island, which lies 30 kilometers north of the main group, the islands form a horseshoe-shaped atoll surrounding a lagoon. North Keeling Island was declared a national park in 1995 and is administered by Parks Australia. The population on the two inhabited islands is split between the ethnic Europeans on West Island and the ethnic Malays on Home Island, a total of just six hundred people, five of them Australian police officers. Habitation is difficult because, despite the vastness of the surrounding oceans, there is no significant source of drinking water on any of the islands; no rivers, no lakes; just what are called water lenses on the larger islands - underground accumulations of rainwater that sit on top of the seawater and which can only be accessed by drilling shallow bores or wells down into them.

Rumour has it that the the United States Armed Forces would like to construct airbases on the Cocos Islands, capable of supporting drone-based espionage and surveillance over the South China Sea. There is a historical precedent of sorts for this; during World War Two a cable station on the islands serviced a Y station, Interception and Direction Finding systems used by British military intelligence; encrypted messages captured this way were forwarded to Bletchley Park, unencrypted messages to Arkley House in Barnet.

Marks For:Very hard to determine.

Marks Against: Rather too many for such a small and unimportant set of virtually uninhabitable islands.

Copyright © 2015 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

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