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 through the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area, established in 2008, is one of the world's largest protected areas, and home to some 120 species of coral and more than 500 species of fish.
The group is uninhabited except for a few families on Kanton. 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 United States previously claimed all the Phoenix Islands under the Guano Islands Act. The Treaty of Tarawa released all American claims to the Phoenix Islands, excluding Baker and Howland.
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 19th century.
- 1 Geography, flora and fauna
- 2 History of the islands
- 2.1 Early history
- 2.2 Secondary discovery and mapping of the islands
- 2.3 Identifying the secondary discoverers
- 2.4 Later history
- 3 Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA)
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
Geography, flora and fauna
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|
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 28 square kilometres (11 sq mi) 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 km2 (3 sq mi), enclosing a lagoon of approximately 40 km2 (15 sq mi). Kanton is mostly bare coral, covered with herbs, bunch grasses, low shrubs and a few trees. Its lagoon teems with 153 known species 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./UK occupation (1936–1976).
Enderbury is a low, flat, small coral atoll lying 63 km (39 mi) 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 19th century, 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 is a small, flat coral island about 20 hectares in area, measuring 1.2 km (0.7 mi) long by 0.5 km (0.3 mi) 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 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-19th century, it was abandoned by 1870, and no further use has been made of it.
Rawaki, or Phoenix Island, measures approximately 1.2 by 0.8 km (0.7 by 0.5 mi), 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, or Sydney Island, measures approximately 3.2 by 2.8 km (2.0 by 1.7 mi), 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 from 1884 by John T. Arundel & Co, Manra was turned into a copra plantation in the early 20th 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, or Hull Island, measures approximately 8.8 by 4 km (5.5 by 2.5 mi), 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. Residents were evacuated in 1963, due to drought and the declining copra market.
Nikumaroro, or Gardner Island, is approximately 6 km (4 mi) long by 2 km (1 mi) wide, enclosing a large central lagoon. Vegetation 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.
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.
In recent years, Nikumaroro has appeared in media stories due to a theory that Amelia Earhart might have landed her plane at low tide on the edge of the atoll's barrier reef during her fateful around-the-world attempt in 1937. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) made several expeditions to Nikumaroro during the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century, finding possible evidence, but no conclusive proof, of this theory. Investigation and expeditions to the island continue.
History of the islands
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. Later settlement and contact by Polynesians is evident in archaeological digs revealing basalt artifacts originating in Samoa, the Marquesas, and the Cook Islands which were transported to the Phoenix and Line Islands during the 12th-14th centuries CE.
Secondary discovery and mapping of the islands
The oceans of the mid-Pacific and Micronesia opened up in the early 19th 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 initial 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 19th-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."
Identifying the secondary discoverers
|Island Name||Location||Reynold's comments|
|"Phenix Island"*||2°35'S, 171°39'W||"small and sandy, three miles in circumference"|
|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 identification of the initial discoverers, a state of affairs only complicated by the numerous names given to the atolls.
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 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 Richard W. Meade of the USS Narragansett in 1872, after the whaler Canton, which was wrecked there in 1854.
Nikumaroro (Gardner Island)
On January 8, 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.
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.
Little is known about the discovery of Hull Island, but it was confirmed by the United States Exploring Expedition in 1841 (and found to be inhabited), and named by Charles Wilkes after Commodore Isaac Hull.
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.
An unnamed reef at similar coordinates to Carondelet Reef was included in Reynold's report of 1828.
Baker Island is United States territory, one of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. 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 is United States territory, and one of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. 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.
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 50 years as the Canton and Enderbury Islands condominium. This would continue until Kiribati 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 at the time. Collaborations between Kiribati, the New England Aquarium, and Conservation International have allowed scientific expeditions to the Phoenix Islands to quantify the ocean's flora and fauna in a place without much human impact.
The Phoenix Islands have been surveyed by TIGHAR in an attempt to locate a possible landing site of Amelia Earhart who disappeared in 1937 over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island during an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight of the globe.
In May 2010, it was reported that a British sailor had saved a group of "desperate and starving" islanders after chancing upon them on his way to Australia. When Alex Bond, from Penryn, Cornwall, docked at Kanton Island — the only habitable island in the Phoenix Islands chain, northeast of Australia — he found that its 24 residents were destitute after a supply ship failed to bring them food four months before. He contacted the Falmouth, England, coast guard using his satellite phone, and they arranged for the US coast guard to send supplies from Honolulu, Hawaii. The 10 children and 14 adults were surviving on fish and coconuts when he pulled into a lagoon near the small island. Bond reportedly works for UK-based disaster relief charity ShelterBox, which provides emergency aid to people in need.
Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA)
The Phoenix Islands Protected Area was announced in 2006. On January 28, 2008, the park was extended and the government of Kiribati formally declared the entire Phoenix group and surrounding waters a protected area, making its 410,500 square kilometres (158,500 sq mi) the world's largest marine protected area at the time. A ban on commercial fishing commenced on 1 January 2015.
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