Dec 242017

On this date in 1777, captain James Cook sighted Kiritimati and named it Christmas Island. It should not be confused with Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean which is an Australian external territory. The name “Kiritimati” is a respelling of the English word “Christmas” in the Kiribati dialect of Gilbertese, in which the combination /ti/ is pronounced /s/, and the name is thus pronounced /kəˈrɪsməs/. Kiritimati was first discovered by Europeans when the Spanish expedition of Hernando de Grijalva found it in 1537, and named it Acea. At the time it was uninhabited. This discovery was referred to by a contemporary, the Portuguese António Galvão, governor of Ternate, in Tratado dos Descubrimientos of 1563. Cook visited on Christmas Eve 1777, but did nothing more about it. It was claimed by the United States under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, though little actual mining of guano took place. Permanent settlement started by 1882, mainly by workers in coconut plantations and fishermen but, due to an extreme drought which killed off tens of thousands of coconut palms – about 75% of Kiritimati’s plant stock – the island was abandoned between 1905 and 1912.


The island has the greatest land area of any coral atoll in the world, about 388 square kilometers (150 square miles). Its lagoon is roughly the same size. The atoll is about 150 km (93 mi) in perimeter, while the lagoon shoreline extends for over 48 km (30 mi). Kiritimati comprises over 70% of the total land area of Kiribati, a country encompassing 33 Pacific atolls and islands. It lies 232 km (144 mi) north of the Equator, 2,160 km (1,340 mi) south of Honolulu, and 5,360 km (3,330 mi) from San Francisco. Kiritimati Island is in the world’s farthest forward time zone, UTC+14, and is one of the first inhabited places on Earth to experience the New Year. Despite being 2,460 km (1,530 mi) east of the 180˚ meridian, a 1995 realignment of the International Date Line by the Republic of Kiribati moved Kiritimati to west of the dateline.

Upon Western discovery, Kiritimati was uninhabited. As on other Line Islands there might have been a small or temporary native population, most probably Polynesian traders and settlers, who would have found the island a useful replenishing station on the long voyages from the Society Islands to Hawaiʻi, perhaps as early as 400 CE. This trade route was apparently used with some regularity by about 1000 CE. From 1200 onwards, Polynesian long-distance voyages became less frequent, and had there been human settlement on Kiritimati, it would have been abandoned in the early-mid second millennium CE. Two possible village sites and some stone structures of these early visitors have been located. Today, most inhabitants are Micronesians, and Gilbertese is the only language of any significance. English is generally understood, but little used outside the tourism sector.

Many of the toponyms in the island date back to Father Emmanuel Rougier, a French priest who leased the island from 1917 to 1939 and planted around 800,000 coconut trees there. He lived in his Paris house (now only small ruins) located at Benson Point, across the Burgle Channel from Londres (today London) at Bridges Point where he established the port. Joe’s Hill was named by Joe English, who served as plantation manager for Rougier between 1915 and 1919. English was left alone on the island for a year and a half (1917–19), with two teens, when cholera broke out in Papeete and transport stopped due to the First World War. English was later rescued by Lord John Jellicoe, 1st Earl Jellicoe, admiral of the British Fleet. English, still thinking the war was in effect and that the ship was German, pulled his revolver on the British admiral, causing a short standoff until some explanation defused the situation. Upon his rescue, English’s adventures were later chronicled in the Boston Globe.

Kiritimati was occupied by the Allies in World War II. US troops took over the island garrison, allowing Australian troops to be used for mainland defense. The first contingent of US troops was a company from the 102nd Infantry Regiment, a National Guard unit from New Haven, Connecticut. The Island was important to hold because if the Japanese had captured it, an airbase could have been constructed that would have allowed obstruction of the main Hawaii-to-Australia supply route. The first airstrip was constructed then for servicing the US Army Air Force weather station and communications center. The airstrip also provided rest and refueling facilities for planes traveling between Hawaii and the South Pacific. There was also a small radio-meteorological research station operated by the Kiribati Meteorological Service. In 1975 the Captain Cook Hotel was built on the former British military base.

During the dispute over the Carolines between Germany and Spain in 1885, arbitrated by Pope Leo XIII, the sovereignty of Spain over the Caroline and Palau islands as part of the Spanish East Indies was analyzed by a commission of cardinals and confirmed by an agreement signed on 17th December. Its Article 2 specifies the limits of Spanish sovereignty in South Micronesia, being formed by the Equator and 11°N Latitude and by 133° and by 164° Longitude. In 1899, Spain sold the Marianas, Carolinas and Palaus to Germany after its defeat in 1898 in the Spanish–American War. However, Emilio Pastor Santos, a researcher for the Spanish National Research Council, claimed in 1948 that there was historical basis, supported by the charts and maps of the time, to argue that Kiritimati (or Acea as in the Spanish maps), and some other islands, had never been considered part of the Carolines. Thus, Kiritimati was not included in the description of the territory transferred to Germany, and therefore was not affected, on the part of Spain, to any cessation of transfer and theoretically Spain should have had the only jurisdiction and right to the island. Pastor Santos presented his thesis to the Spanish government in 1948. In the Council of Ministers of Spain on 12th January 1949, the Minister of Foreign Affairs declared that the proposal had passed to the first stage of public attention. The Cabinet of Diplomatic Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs circulated the following note:

The Minister of Foreign Affairs informed the Council of Ministers of the situation in which we find ourselves in view of information and public commentary in the press and because of the requests made of the Spanish administration. The Ministry recognizes that it is a certain fact and historic truth due to Article 3 of the Treaty of 1 July 1899, that Spain reserved a series of rights in Micronesia and for another thing, the specifications of the territories which Spain ceded in 1899 leaves apart certain groups of islands in the same zone.

However, no Spanish government has made any attempt in this respect, and this case remains as a historical curiosity related to Kiritimati.

During the Cold War there was some nuclear weapons testing in the Kiritimati area. The United Kingdom conducted its first successful hydrogen bomb test at Malden Island on 15th May 1957; Kiritimati was the operation’s main base. In fact, this test did not work as planned, and the first British H-bomb was successfully detonated over the southeastern tip of Kiritimati on 8th November 1957. Subsequent test series in 1958 (Grapple Y and Z) took place above or near Kiritimati itself. The United States conducted 22 successful nuclear detonations as part of Operation Dominic here in 1962. Some toponyms (like Banana and Main Camp) come from the nuclear testing period, during which at times over 4,000 servicemen were present. By 1969, military interest in Kiritimati had ceased and the facilities were abandoned and for the most part dismantled. Some communications, transport and logistics facilities, however, were converted for civilian use and it is due to these installations that Kiritimati came to serve as the administrative center for the Line Islands. Islanders were usually not evacuated during the nuclear weapons testing, and data on the environmental and public health impact of these tests remains contested.

The natural vegetation on Kiritimati consists mostly of low shrubland and grassland. What little woodland exists is mainly open coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) plantation. There are three small woods of catchbird trees (Pisonia grandis), at Southeast Point, Northwest Point, and on Motu Tabu. The latter were planted there in recent times. About 50 introduced plant species are found on Kiritimati. They are most plentiful around settlements, former military sites and roads. Beach naupaka (Scaevola taccada) is the most common shrub on Kiritimati; beach naupaka scrub dominates the vegetation on much of the island, either as pure stands or interspersed with tree heliotrope (Heliotropium foertherianum) and bay cedar (Suriana maritima). The latter species is dominant on the drier parts of the lagoon flats where it grows up to 2 m (6.6 ft) tall.

More than 35 bird species have been recorded from Kiritimati. Only the bokikokiko (Acrocephalus aequinoctialis), perhaps a few introduced Rimitara lorikeets (Vini kuhlii) – if any remain at all – and the occasional eastern reef egret (Egretta sacra) make up the entire landbird fauna. About 1,000 adult bokikokikos are to be found at any date, but mainly in mixed grass/shrubland away from the settlements. On the other hand, seabirds are plentiful on Kiritimati, and make up the bulk of the breeding bird population. There are 18 species of seabirds breeding on the island, and Kiritimati is one of the most important breeding grounds anywhere in the world for several of these.

The local cuisine of Kiribati is what you would expect, fish, shellfish, bananas, and coconuts predominate, cooked in Polynesian fashion.  This website gives the basic idea: I’ll go with pumpkin and coconut soup because it’s very common, but is also easy to prepare practically anywhere these days. The soup can be served hot or chilled

Kiribati Pumpkin and Coconut Soup


2 lbs pumpkin, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1 13.5 fl oz can coconut milk
salt and pepper to taste
coconut oil for frying
chives to garnish


Heat the coconut oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the pumpkin and ginger and cook until the pumpkin is soft, but not browned. Cover the pumpkin with water, bring to the boil, and simmer until the pumpkin is cooked and easily mashed with a fork.

Drain and then mash the pumpkin with a fork, or use a food processor. Add the mashed pumpkin back to the pot with the coconut milk and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Either heat through to serve warm, or chill in the refrigerator to serve cold.

Serve garnished with chives.