The Territory of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Wilayah Pulau Cocos (Keeling) in Malay), also called Cocos Islands and Keeling Islands, is a territory of Australia, located in the Indian Ocean, southwest of Christmas Island and approximately midway between Australia and Sri Lanka. The territory consists of two atolls and 27 coral islands, of which two, West Island and Home Island, are inhabited with a total population of approximately 600.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands consist of two flat, low-lying coral atolls with an area of 5.5 square miles (14.2 square kilometers), 16 miles (26 km) of coastline, a maximum elevation of 16 feet (5 meters), and thickly covered with coconut palms and other vegetation. The climate is pleasant, moderated by the southeast trade winds for about nine months of the year and with moderate rainfall. Tropical cyclones may occur in the early months of the year.
North Keeling Island is an atoll consisting of just one C-shaped island, a nearly closed atoll ring with a small opening into the lagoon, about 160 feet (50 m) wide, on the east side. The island measures 270 acres (1.1 km²) in land area and is uninhabited. The lagoon is about 120 acres (0.5 km²). North Keeling Island and the surrounding sea to 0.93 miles (1.5 km) from shore form the Pulu Keeling National Park, established on December 12, 1995. It is home to the only surviving population of the endemic, and endangered, Cocos Buff-banded Rail.
South Keeling Islands is an atoll consisting of 24 individual islets forming an incomplete atoll ring, with a total land area of 5.1 square miles (13.1 km²). Only Home Island and West Island are populated. The Cocos Malays maintain weekend shacks, referred to as pondoks, on most of the larger islands. There are no rivers or lakes on either atoll. Fresh water resources are limited to water lenses on the larger islands, underground accumulations of rainwater lying above the seawater. These lenses are accessed through shallow bores or wells.
The islands have been called the Cocos Islands (from 1622), the Keeling Islands (from 1703), the Cocos–Keeling Islands (since James Horsburgh in 1805) and the Keeling–Cocos Islands (19th century). Cocos refers to the abundant coconut trees, while Keeling is named after William Keeling, reputedly the first European to sight the islands, in 1609. John Clunies-Ross, who sailed there in the Borneo in 1825, called the group the Borneo Coral Isles, restricting Keeling to North Keeling, and calling South Keeling “the Cocos properly so called”. The form Cocos (Keeling) Islands, attested from 1916, was made official by the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act 1955.
In 1609, Captain William Keeling was the first European to see the islands, while serving in the East India Company, but they remained uninhabited until the 19th century. In 1814, Scottish merchant seaman Captain John Clunies-Ross stopped briefly at the islands on a trip to India, nailing up a Union Jack and planning to return and settle on the islands with his family in the future.
Wealthy Englishman Alexander Hare had similar plans, and hired a captain — coincidentally, Clunies-Ross’ brother — to bring him and a harem of 40 Malay women to the islands, where he hoped to establish his private residence. Hare had previously served as resident of Banjarmasin, a town in Borneo, and found that “he could not confine himself to the tame life that prosy civilization affords”.
Clunies-Ross returned two years later with his wife, children and mother-in-law, and found Hare already established on the island and living with a private harem. A feud grew between the two. Clunies-Ross’ eight sailors “began at once the invasion of the new kingdom to take possession of it, women and all”. After some time, Hare’s women began deserting him, and instead finding themselves mates amongst Clunies-Ross’ sailors. Disheartened, Hare left the island. He died in Bencoolen in 1834.
Clunies-Ross’ workers were paid in a currency called the Cocos rupee, a currency John Clunies-Ross minted himself that could only be redeemed at the company store.
On April 1, 1836, HMS Beagle under Captain Robert FitzRoy arrived to take soundings to establish the profile of the atoll as part of the survey expedition of the Beagle. To the naturalist Charles Darwin, aboard the ship, the results supported a theory he had developed of how atolls formed, which he later published as The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. He studied the natural history of the islands and collected specimens. Darwin’s assistant Syms Covington noted that “an Englishman [he was in fact Scottish] and HIS family, with about sixty or seventy mulattos from the Cape of Good Hope, live on one of the islands. Captain Ross, the governor, is now absent at the Cape.”
The islands were annexed by the British Empire in 1857. This annexation was carried out by Captain Stephen Grenville Fremantle in command of HMS Juno. Fremantle claimed the islands for the British Empire and appointed Ross II as Superintendent. In 1878, by Letters Patent, the Governor of Ceylon was made Governor of the islands, and, by further Letters Patent in 1886, responsibility for the islands was transferred to the Governor of the Straits Settlements to exercise his functions as “Governor of Cocos Islands”. The islands were made part of the Straits Settlements under an Order in Council of May 20, 1903. Meanwhile, in 1886. Queen Victoria had, by indenture, granted the islands in perpetuity to John Clunies-Ross. The head of the family enjoyed semi-official status as Resident Magistrate and Government representative.
In 1901, a telegraph cable station was established on Direction Island. Undersea cables went to Rodrigues, Mauritius, Batavia, Java and Fremantle, Western Australia. In 1910, a wireless station was established to communicate with passing ships. The cable station ceased operation in 1966.
On the morning of November 9, 1914, the islands became the site of the Battle of Cocos, one of the first naval battles of World War I. A landing party from the German cruiser SMS Emden captured and disabled the wireless and cable communications station on Direction Island, but not before the station was able to transmit a distress call. An Allied troop convoy was passing nearby, and the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney was detached from the convoy escort to investigate.
Sydney spotted the island and Emden at 09:15, with both ships preparing for combat. At 11:20, the heavily damaged Emden beached herself on North Keeling Island. The Australian warship broke to pursue Emden‘s supporting collier, which scuttled herself, then returned to North Keeling Island at 16:00. At this point, Emden‘s battle ensign was still flying: usually a sign that a ship intends to continue fighting. After no response to instructions to lower the ensign, two salvoes were shot into the beached cruiser, after which the Germans lowered the flag and raised a white sheet. Sydney had orders to ascertain the status of the transmission station, but returned the next day to provide medical assistance to the Germans.
One hundred and thirty-four personnel aboard Emden were killed, and 69 were wounded, compared to 4 killed and 16 wounded aboard Sydney. The German survivors were taken aboard the Australian cruiser, which caught up to the troop convoy in Colombo on November 15, then transported to Malta and handed over the prisoners to the British Army. An additional 50 German personnel from the shore party, unable to be recovered before Sydney arrived, commandeered a schooner and escaped from Direction Island, eventually arriving in Constantinople. Emden was the last active Central Powers warship in the Indian or Pacific Ocean, which meant troopships from Australia and New Zealand could sail without naval escort, and Allied ships could be deployed elsewhere.
During World War II, the cable station was once again a vital link. The Cocos were valuable for direction finding by the Y service, the worldwide intelligence system used during the war.
Allied planners noted that the islands might be seized as an airfield for German planes and as a base for commerce raiders operating in the Indian Ocean. Following Japan’s entry into the war, Japanese forces occupied neighboring islands. To avoid drawing their attention to the Cocos cable station and its islands’ garrison, the seaplane anchorage between Direction and Horsburgh islands was not used. Radio transmitters were also kept silent, except in emergencies.
After the Fall of Singapore in 1942, the islands were administered from Ceylon. West and Direction Islands were placed under Allied military administration. The islands’ garrison initially consisted of a platoon from the British Army’s King’s African Rifles, located on Horsburgh Island, with two 6-inch (152.4 mm) guns to cover the anchorage. The local inhabitants all lived on Home Island. Despite the importance of the islands as a communication center, the Japanese made no attempt either to raid or to occupy them and contented themselves with sending over a reconnaissance aircraft about once a month.
On the night of May 809, 1942, 15 members of the garrison, from the Ceylon Defence Force, mutinied under the leadership of Gratien Fernando. The mutineers were said to have been provoked by the attitude of their British officers and were also supposedly inspired by anti-imperialist beliefs. They attempted to take control of the gun battery on the islands. The Cocos Islands Mutiny was crushed, but the mutineers killed one non-mutinous soldier and wounded one officer. Seven of the mutineers were sentenced to death at a trial that was later alleged to have been improperly conducted. Four of the sentences were commuted, but three men were executed, including Fernando. These were to be the only British Commonwealth soldiers executed for mutiny during the Second World War.
On December 25, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-166 bombarded the islands but caused no damage.
Later in the war, two airstrips were built, and three bomber squadrons were moved to the islands to conduct raids against Japanese targets in South East Asia and to provide support during the planned reinvasion of Malaya and reconquest of Singapore. The first aircraft to arrive were Supermarine Spitfire Mk VIIIs of No. 136 Squadron RAF. They included some Liberator bombers from No. 321 (Netherlands) Squadron RAF (members of exiled Dutch forces serving with the Royal Air Force), which were also stationed on the islands. When in July 1945 No. 99 and No. 356 RAF squadrons arrived on West Island, they brought with them a daily newspaper called Atoll which contained news of what was happening in the outside world. Run by airmen in their off-duty hours, it achieved fame when dropped by Liberator bombers on POW camps over the heads of the Japanese guards.
In 1946, the administration of the islands reverted to Singapore and it became part of the Colony of Singapore.
On November 23, 1955, the islands were transferred from the United Kingdom to the Commonwealth of Australia. Immediately before the transfer the islands were part of the United Kingdom’s Colony of Singapore, in accordance with the Straits Settlements (Repeal) Act, 1946 of the United Kingdom and the British Settlements Acts, 1887 and 1945, as applied by the Act of 1946. The separation involved three steps: separation from the Colony of Singapore; transfer by United Kingdom and acceptance by Australia.
H. J. Hull was appointed the first official representative (now administrator) of the new territory. He had been a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Australian Navy and was released for the purpose. Under Commonwealth Cabinet Decision 1573 of September 9, 1958, Hull’s appointment was terminated and John William Stokes was appointed on secondment from the Northern Territory police. A media release at the end of October 1958 by the Minister for Territories, Hasluck, commended Hull’s three years of service on Cocos.
Stokes served in the position from October 31, 1958, to September 30, 1960. C. I. Buffett MBE from Norfolk Island succeeded him and served from July 28, 1960 to June 30, 1966, and later acted as Administrator back on Cocos and on Norfolk Island.
In the 1970s, the Australian government’s dissatisfaction with the Clunies-Ross feudal style of rule of the island increased. In 1978, Australia forced the family to sell the islands for the sum of A$6,250,000, using the threat of compulsory acquisition. By agreement, the family retained ownership of Oceania House, their home on the island. In 1983, the Australian government reneged on this agreement, and told John Clunies-Ross that he should leave the Cocos. The following year the High Court of Australia ruled that resumption of Oceania House was unlawful, but the Australian government ordered that no government business was to be granted to Clunies-Ross’s shipping company, an action that contributed to his bankruptcy. John Clunies-Ross now lives in Perth, Western Australia. However, some members of the Clunies-Ross family still live on the Cocos.
Extensive preparations were undertaken by the government of Australia to prepare the Cocos Malays to vote in their referendum of self-determination. Discussions began in 1982, with an aim of holding the referendum, under United Nations supervision, in mid-1983. Under guidelines developed by the UN Decolonization Committee, residents were to be offered three choices: full independence, free association, or integration with Australia. The last option was preferred by both the islanders and the Australian government. A change in government in Canberra following the March 1983 Australian elections delayed the vote by one year. While the Home Island Council stated a preference for a traditional communal consensus “vote”, the UN insisted on a secret ballot.
The referendum was held on April 6, 1984, with all 261 eligible islanders participating, including the Clunies-Ross family: 229 voted for integration, 21 for Free Association, nine for independence, and two failed to indicate a preference. In recent years a series of disputes have occurred between the Muslim Coco Malay inhabitants and the non-Muslim population of the islands.
The capital of the Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands is West Island while the largest settlement is the village of Bantam (Home Island). Governance of the islands is based on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act 1955 and depends heavily on the laws of Australia. The islands are administered from Canberra by the Attorney-General’s Department.
The current Administrator is Barry Haase, who was appointed on October 5, 2014, and is also the Administrator of Christmas Island. These two Territories comprise Australia’s Indian Ocean Territories. The Australian Government provides Commonwealth-level government services through the Christmas Island Administration and the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development.
As per the Federal Government’s Territories Law Reform Act 1992, which came into force on July 1, 1992, Western Australian laws are applied to the Cocos Islands, “so far as they are capable of applying in the Territory.”; non-application or partial application of such laws is at the discretion of the federal government. The Act also gives Western Australian courts judicial power over the islands. The Cocos Islands remain constitutionally distinct from Western Australia, however; the power of the state to legislate for the territory is power delegated by the federal government. The kind of services typically provided by a state government elsewhere in Australia are provided by departments of the Western Australian Government, and by contractors, with the costs met by the federal government.
There also exists a unicameral Cocos (Keeling) Islands Shire Council with seven seats. A full term lasts four years, though elections are held every two years; approximately half the members retire each two years. Federally, Cocos (Keeling) Islanders form the electorate of Lingiari with Christmas Island and outback Northern Territory.
The population of the islands is approximately 600. There is a small and growing tourist industry focused on water-based or nature activities. In 2016, a beach on Direction Island was named the best beach in Australia by Brad Farmer, an Aquatic and Coastal Ambassador for Tourism Australia and co-author of 101 Best Beaches 2017.
Small local gardens and fishing contribute to the food supply, but most food and most other necessities must be imported from Australia or elsewhere. The Cocos Islands Cooperative Society Ltd. employs construction workers, stevedores, and lighterage worker operations. Tourism employs others. The unemployment rate was 6.7% in 2011.
The only airport is Cocos (Keeling) Islands Airport with a single 8,009-foot (2,441-meter) paved runway. Virgin Australia operates scheduled jet services from Perth Airport via Christmas Island. After 1952, the airport at Cocos Islands was a stop for airline flights between Australia and South Africa, and Qantas and South African Airways stopped there to refuel. The arrival of long-range jet aircraft ended this need in 1967.
An interisland ferry, the Cahaya Baru, connects West, Home and Direction Islands. There is a lagoon anchorage between Horsburgh and Direction islands for larger vessels, while yachts have a dedicated anchorage area in the southern lee of Direction Island. There are no major seaports on the islands.
A postal agency was opened in the Cocos on April 1, 1933, and and operated until March 1, 1937. Postage stamps of the Straits Settlements were available successively picturing Kings George V and George VI. The postal agency reopened on September 2, 1952 with stamps of Singapore used on outgoing mail.
In 1955, with the independence of Singapore being prepared, the United Kingdom gave control of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands to Australia. The Australian legislation was introduced, including the postage system, stamps and the currency, the Australian pound replacing the Malaya and British Borneo dollar. However, the post office was considered a non official one: the local postmaster was paid with a commission depending of his financial results.
On June 11, 1963, the Australian Post Office issued six stamps inscribed COCOS (KEELING) ISLANDS (Scott #1-6), a designation that appeared on all the islands’ stamps until late 1993, and illustrated with subjects linked to the islands’ life and geography. The 1963 series was drawn and engraved by E. Jones. A single stamp in the ANZAC omnibus was released on April 14, 1965 (Scott #7).
On February 14, 1966, the Australian decimalization imposed the use of stamps of Australian alone, whose denominations were in Australian dollar and cents. A new definitive series for Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the new currency was issued on July 9, 1969 (Scott #8-19). The twelve stamps pictured local fauna and flora. They were replaced on March 29, 1976, by a new twelve stamp set depicting ships important in the islands’ history (Scott #20-31).
In the late 1970s, Australia bought the Clunie-Ross family’s property of the islands and gave a large autonomy to the inhabitants. The post service became independent from Australia and issued its two first postage stamps on September 1, 1979, picturing the flag of Australia, map and the atoll landscape on the 20 cents, and the Statutory Council on the 50 cents (Scott #32-33). Stamps of Australia were no longer valid in the islands.
Following the example of Christmas Island in March 1993, the postal service of the Cocos Islands was transferred from the local authority to Australia Post. Cocos Islands stamps issued since 1994 and bearing the inscription COCOS (KEELING) ISLANDS AUSTRALIA are valid in Australia and the stamps of Australia are valid on the archipelago too.
Scott #69 was released on June 23, 1981, part of a set of five stamps issued to commemorate the inauguration of air service to the Indian Ocean (Scott #68-72). These stamps were all denominated at 22 cents, printed by lithography and perforated 13½x13. Scott #69 depicts two airplanes — a Consolidated B-24 Liberator in the air and an Avro 691 Lancastrian on the ground.
The Consolidated B-24 Liberator was an American heavy bomber designed by Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, California. It was known within the company as the Model 32, and some initial models were laid down as export models designated as various LB-30s, in the Land Bomber design category. At its inception, the B-24 was a modern design featuring a highly efficient shoulder-mounted, high aspect ratio Davis wing. The wing gave the Liberator a high cruise speed, long range and the ability to carry a heavy bomb load. Early RAF Liberators were the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean as a matter of routine. However, the type was difficult to fly and had poor low speed performance. It also had a lower ceiling and was less robust than the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. While aircrews tended to prefer the B-17, General Staff favored the B-24, and procured it for a wide variety of roles.
The B-24 was used extensively in World War II. It served in every branch of the American armed forces, as well as several Allied air forces and navies, and saw use in every theater of operations. Along with the B-17, the B-24 was the mainstay of the U.S. strategic bombing campaign in the Western European theater. Due to its range, it proved useful in bombing operations in the Pacific, including the bombing of Japan. Long range anti-submarine Liberators played an instrumental role in closing the Mid-Atlantic Gap in the Battle of the Atlantic. The C-87 transport derivative served as a longer range, higher capacity counterpart to the Douglas C-47 Skytrain.
The B-24 was produced in very large numbers. At nearly 19,000 units, with over 8,000 manufactured by Ford Motor Company, it holds the distinction of being the most produced heavy bomber in history, the most produced multi-engine aircraft in history and the most-produced American military aircraft.
At the end of World War II, the Liberator had been surpassed by more modern types such as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The type was rapidly phased out of U.S. service, although the PB4Y-2 Privateer derivative carried on in service with the US Navy in the Korean War. Two B-24s, one LB-30B (contract version of AAF B-24A) and one Liberator V (Lend Lease B-24J) representing a B-24H, are airworthy as of 2017.
In June 1944, Qantas Empire Airways began service with the first of two converted LB-30 Liberators on the Perth to Colombo route to augment Consolidated PBY Catalinas that had been used since May 1943. This route across the Indian Ocean was 3,513 miles (5,654 km) long, the longest non-stop airline route in the world at the time. The Liberators flew a shorter 3,077 mile (4,952 km) over-water route from Learmonth to an airfield northeast of Colombo, but they could make the flight in 17 hours with a 5,500-pound (2,500 kg) payload, whereas the Catalinas required 27 hours and had to carry so much auxiliary fuel that their payload was limited to only 1,000 pounds (450 kg). The route was named Kangaroo Service and marked the first time that Qantas’s now-famous Kangaroo logo was used; passengers received a certificate proclaiming them as members of The Order of the Longest Hop. The Liberators were later replaced by Avro Lancastrians.
The Avro 691 Lancastrian was a Canadian and British passenger and mail transport aircraft of the 1940s and 1950s developed from the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber. The Lancaster was named after Lancaster, Lancashire; a Lancastrian is an inhabitant of Lancashire. The Lancastrian was basically a modified Lancaster bomber without armor or armament and with the gun turrets replaced by streamlined metal fairings, including a new nose section. The initial batch was converted directly from Lancasters; later batches were new builds.
In 1943, Canada’s Victory Aircraft converted a Lancaster X bomber for civil transport duties with Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA). This conversion was a success resulting in eight additional Lancaster Xs being converted. The “specials” were powered by Packard-built Merlin 38 engines and featured a lengthened, streamlined nose and tail cone. Range was increased by two 400 gallon (1,818 liter) Lancaster long-range fuel tanks fitted as standard in the bomb bay. These Lancastrians were used by TCA on its Montreal–Prestwick route. After the war, Victory Aircraft was purchased by what became Avro Canada.
In 1945, deliveries commenced of 30 British-built Lancastrians for BOAC. On a demonstration flight on April 23, 1945, G-AGLF flew 13,500 miles (21,700 km) from England to Auckland, New Zealand in three days, 14 hours at an average speed of 220 mph (354 km/h).
The Lancastrian was fast, had a long range, and was capable of carrying a heavy load, but space inside was very limited as the Lancaster had been designed with space for its seven crew dispersed throughout the fuselage, and with the majority of the load being carried in the 33-foot (10.05 m) long bomb bay. Consequently, as passengers are bulky but low in weight, it was not suited to carry large numbers of passengers, but was suitable for mail and a small number of VIP passengers. BOAC used it for flights between England and Australia from May 31, 1945. It also served with the RAF; RAF Lancaster I serial number PD328, was converted to a Lancastrian and renamed Aries, as well as serving with QANTAS and Flota Aérea Mercante Argentina.
Lancastrians were used during the Berlin Airlift to transport petrol; 15 aircraft made over 5,000 trips. In 1946, a Lancastrian operated by BSAA was the first aircraft to make a scheduled flight from the then-newly opened London Heathrow Airport.
In September 1952, Qantas Empire Airways (QEA) began a regular air service between Australia and South Africa. Cocos Island was a vital refueling stop on this route which also included the island of Mauritius closer to Africa. By the early 1950s, the military airstrip that had been constructed in the Cocos Atoll was irregularly used. Following the transfer to Australian control on November 22, 1955, the strip was refurbished for the Qantas service. The route had one return flight every two weeks and included a Lockheed L-1049C Super Constellation designated VH-EAI named Southern Sun. At this time the Cocos-Mauritius sector was the longest over-sea airline service without an alternate airport. An interesting collection of photographs taken at the Cocos airstrip between 1955 and 1957 by radio technician Alan Jenkins can be found online.