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Cocos (Keeling) Islands

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on November 15, 2013

A small island group in the Indian Ocean midway between Australia and India

The island group, consisting of two atolls and about 27 coral islands, was stumbled upon by Captain William Keeling (1578-1620) of the East Indiaman Susanna.  In 1609, he was returning to England from the East India Company’s trading post on Java.  In an historical footnote, Captain Keeling’s diary also records performances by the ship’s crew of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Richard II.  The islands are flat (highest elevation about 15 feet) and cover a total area of about five square miles.  Having little economic value, the islands remained uninhabited until 1814, when Alexander Hare moved from Borneo with 40 Malay women, establishing a private harem.  Another Englishman invaded in 1816, throwing Mr. Hare (but not the Malay women) off the islands.  In 1836, the islands were visited by HMS Beagle.  Charles Darwin, then a young and unknown naturalist, studied the natural history of the islands and collected specimens.  He later wrote about the islands in his book: The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.  The islands were officially annexed by the British Empire in 1857 by Captain Grenville Fremantle of HMS Juno and later placed under the Straits Settlements.  On 9 November 1914, the islands were temporarily captured by forces from the Imperial German cruiser SMS Emden, but not before a distress call was sent.  The nearby Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney attacked and heavily damaged SMS Emden, which beached itself on North Keeling.  Emden was the last active warship of the Central Powers in the Indian Ocean.  The Japanese made only one feeble attempt against the islands during World War II, despite its value as a vital connection in the submerged telegraph cable between India and Australia.  On 23 November 1955, the islands were transferred to Australia under the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act 1955.  The territory is administered from Canberra by the Attorney-General’s Department.  Together with Christmas Island, they comprise Australia’s Indian Ocean Territories.  The 600 residents are mostly of Malay descent and are employed mostly in tourism.

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