The Farthest Place in the Empire
Look at a mid-century map of the Central Pacific Ocean and you’ll see a confused situation. The tiny islands south of the equator and on either side of the date line were sub-divided to a ridiculous extent, scoring a French protectorate, one of New Zealand’s few colonial possessions, islands claimed under the American Guano Islands Act, a couple of British possessions that would one day be melded into Kiribati, and a condominium of two islands belonging simultaneously to the US and the UK.
The condominium led to some peculiar jockeying between empires, one rising and one falling. The Phoenix Islands are eight coral islands with a grand total surface area of 27.6 square kilometers; two of them (Canton and Enderbury) made up the condominium and were formally shared by the both the Americans and the British, while the other six were claimed by the former but ruled by the latter in practice. This cozy relationship came about because even the most strident jingo could see that pressing the issue of sovereignty was about as close to pointless as one can get without vanishing entirely—not only were the islands tiny, they were uninhabited. About the only use they had to the Americans was to serve as a stopover point for planes flying from the US to the Philippines or Australia, while the UK were interested on the general principle they’d followed for the previous century and a half: if it was in the ocean, they’d try to scoop it. Slight as the stakes were, the two still got involved in a minor naval confrontation over Canton Island in 1937, but cooler heads prevailed and the two countries settled for joint rule.
Still, the flexing of American muscles got the British thinking about how to enhance their own sovereignty just as they were addressing another problem. With the introduction of western medicine, the population of many small Pacific islands had been growing rapidly and a demographic crisis was looming. Under the guide of local administrator Harry Maude, the British Colonial Office decided to kill two birds with one stone. The unfortunately-acronymed Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme was inaugurated, under which British subjects from the Gilbert Islands would be offered a chance to emigrate to the six Phoenix Islands outside the condominium. Three of these were less half a kilometer square, and on the grounds that there were flats in London bigger than that, the settlers were put on the three others.
Before the scheme these were Hull, Sydney, and Gardner Island, but out of respect for the Gilbertese they were de-christened and renamed Orona, Manra, and Nikumaroro. The cost of initial colonization was calculated as the princely sum of £5,660—quite possible, even in the Depression-scarred, enervated latter days of the British Empire. Volunteers were quickly found among the poorest people of the Gilberts, and the project began.
Harry Maude was reassigned to Pitcairn Island after the initial surveys, so the man put in charge of the actual colonization was Gerald Gallagher, a colonial servant with a background in medicine and agriculture. He would prove to be the driving force behind many of the scheme’s successes. Water was found (no small thing on tiny Pacific islands that often have to rely on a lens of freshwater supplied by rain, floating in the soil above the ever-present salt water), land claims laid out, and coconuts planted to supply the islands with external trade in copra. As a neutral outsider Gallagher even managed to set up a functioning tribal council for Manra in the teeth of Gilbertese traditions of ancestral precedence that were making it impossible for the colonists, all strangers to one another, to even sit down as a group. The Gilbertese were persuaded of his wisdom by the matter and named their nascent parliament tabuki ni Karaka: “Gallagher’s Accomplishment”.
If Gallagher is known for anything in the 21st century, though, it’s because of an incidental discovery made by him and the colonists of the third island to be settled, Nikumaroro. While they were first exploring its shores, they came across a human skeleton and a sextant box. They had some idea who this might be: Amelia Earhart had disappeared just three years before en route to Howland Island some 650 kilometers to the northeast. After Gallagher radioed his superiors with the news, they removed the remains to Fiji under some secrecy. The reason for the cloak-and-dagger is uncertain, but it’s not hard to guess: the whole point of the settlement scheme was to tighten the UK’s hold on the area. Sparking the interest of the American public in the Phoenix Islands by finding the remains of their country’s most famous missing aviator was the last thing they wanted. After a forensic examination they came to the conclusion that the skeleton belonged to a short male, not a woman, and the crisis was over—though it’s worth pointing out that later investigations have both questioned that gender determination (unfortunately, the bones have been lost and can’t be subjected to DNA testing) and turned up further artifacts on Nikumaroro that are suggestive of Earhart.
All that was far in the future, though. Gallagher and his crew set about building the third island into a respectable colony. Despite a tropical storm in the early months that severely damaged the island’s housing and coconut plantation, Nikumaroro was eventually on the way to success as well. The island’s tiny capital even one-upped the Manra meeting house by being named as a whole for “Karaka”. It had to have been a pleasing vindication for Gallagher after the hard work he had been putting in on behalf of the Gilbertese—by 1941 he was finding himself tired all the time—but in retrospect it was a worrying sign of how much they depended on him to liaise with the wider world.
Gallagher had come down with tropical sprue, an infection that damages the intestinal tract and causes exhaustion, and the antibiotics needed to treat it had yet to be invented. He died of peritonitis on September 27th, 1941, and was buried beneath the flagpole in Karaka. His remains were eventually reinterred on Tarawa at his mother’s request: she had been left childless after his younger brother Terrence was killed on March 21st of 1942 during the Siege of Malta, the three-year long series of Italian and German air raids on that other British island. The extension of that violence to the Pacific would destroy the elder Gallagher’s work.
After starting with Newfoundland in the 16th century and going on to places as widely spaced as the east coast of North America, Australia, and South Africa, the Phoenix Islands would prove to be the last gasp of the United Kingdom’s four hundred year obsession with settling the unsettled (or at least technologically backward) parts of the world. A month after Gallagher died the British government decided to end the colonization plan in the face of the impending war with Japan. No more settlers would come from the Gilbert Islands. Ironically, it was the Phoenix Islanders who were spared the invasion; the Gilberts were attacked on the same day as Pearl Harbor, and were only retaken after the Battle of Tarawa in November of 1943. The Phoenix Islanders were almost entirely cut off from contact with the rest of the world, though a few went to work at an American facility on Canton; the US also put a radar station on Nikumaroro for two years starting in 1944.
After the war the islands muddled along, benignly neglected, until the British evacuated them in 1964 as the cheapest way of relieving an incipient famine after a long drought in the area. Whether or not they should have left the settlers in place and offered aid until the drought was over is arguable, but by the 1960s the Empire was being wound up; ending colonies was in the air. After the evacuation the Phoenix Islands were uninhabited for sixteen years, then the new nation of Kiribati—concerned for their sovereignty in the early 1980s after receiving the islands as a bridge between their territories in the Gilberts and the Line Islands—settled a few people on Canton. There will likely never be more. Rather than issue fishing licenses for income as is common in the Pacific, the I-Kiribati agreed to accept an endowment from the New England Aquarium and Conservation International and make the islands a gigantic nature reserve. It was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007.