Bantam Commonwealth Walkway

Cocos Keeling Islands / The Pacific

THE COCOS KEELING ISLANDS The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are two separate coral atolls – North Keeling Island and the main atoll 24 kilometres south.  The southern one consists of 26 islets.  The islands are somewhat isolated and situated in the eastern Indian ocean and form an external territory of Australia.  The total area is five square miles (14 square kilometres) and in 2016 its population was 544.  The island was completely uninhabited at the time of its first European sighting by the English sea captain, William Keeling (1577-1619) in 1609 on his way from Banda to England.  The island was settled in 1826 by an English adventurer named Alexander Hare, who brought his Malay harem and slaves with him. For this reason, the inhabitants are predominantly the descendants of the original plantation workers, mostly of Malay origin.  These slaves were also brought to the island by John Clunies Ross (1786-1854), a Scotsman, between 1827 and 1831.   Hare’s slaves were aggrieved by his treatment of them and claimed protection under Ross  John Clunies Ross was the first member of the family to come to the island, having gone to sea at the age of 13.  He arrived on the brig, Olivia, in December 1825.  He moved his family to the then deserted island in 1827, planting hundreds of coconut palms, and building a business selling copra.  Effectively he was their King, ruling the island as his private fiefdom.  .  As Commander Robert Fitzroy wrote in 1839: ‘Mr Ross and the Malays lived peaceably, collecting cocoa-nut oil, turtle, tortoise-shell, and Bicho do mar; and occasionally sailing to the Mauritius, Singapore, or Batavia, to dispose of them, and buy necessaries with their produce.’  His son, John George (1823-71), took over in 1851, but in 1857 Captain Stephen Grenville Fremantle (1810-60), youngest son of Admiral Sir Thomas Fremantle, Captain of HMS Juno 1853-58, took possession of the islands in the name of the Britannic government, appointing John George as Superintendent.  (Apparently, Fremantle annexed the islands by mistake, believing them to be the Cocos Islands of the Andaman Islands).   George Clunies-Ross (1842-1910) succeeded his father in 1871, and in 1886 Queen Victoria granted the islands to the Clunies-Ross family, after which George made his own laws, and ran the island as he wished.  There were two more Clunies-Ross kings, John Sidney (1868-1944), who died of a heart attack during Japanese bombings in August 1944 and his son, John Cecil (1928-2019). It was during John Cecil’s era that the Commonwealth took over the running of the island – in 1955.   John Cecil went bankrupt when the Australian government refused to give business to his shipping line company.  He sold the island to the Australian government in 1978, for £2.5 million, under threat of expropriation.   He campaigned for independence in 1984 but most of the islanders preferred integration with Australia.   Some four-fifths of the population are Cocos Islanders, or Cocos Malays, as they are often called, together with the descendants of the Clunies-Ross family.  Most of the Cocos Malays speak a dialect of Malay and are Muslim.  The island is so small, many inhabitants moved to the Australian mainland in the mid-1950s due to overcrowded conditions.  Today the Cocos Keeling Island remains a fairly remote territory.  Capital Unusually, the capital, West Island, is an island rather than a town or city.  West Island covers an area of 2.4 square miles.  The population is roughly 120, making it the third smallest capital in the world, and consists mainly of Europeans.  It is less populous than Home Island, the only other inhabited island.  West Island was part of the Clunies-Ross plantation and an airstrip was built there during World War II.  As well as all the government buildings, it contains the airport, a general store and tourist accommodation.   Fun Facts
  • Cocos-Keeling Island is about a third the size of Oxford.
  • The islands contain no native mammals.  There are, however, two species of rodent, four species of reptile (including a blind snake) and many beautiful species of bird.
  • Finally, as an Australian territory, Cocos Islands has no military presence, although it does have a 5 person strong police force
Bantam Bantam Village is the largest settlement on the Cocos Keeling Island. It is located on Home Island and has a population of about 500, mainly Cocos Malays.  Bantam was listed as the capital of Cocos Keeling Islands by the European Union but now the official capital of Cocos Keeling Island is West Island. 

3.7 miles / 6 kilometres

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