Handover of Christmas Island to Australia



The sovereignty of Christmas Island was transferred from Singapore (then a Crown colony of the United Kingdom) to the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 October 1958 under the Transfer to Australia Order in Council, 1958.1 At the close of the day on 30 September, the Union Jack outside the residency and the administration offices on Christmas Island was lowered, followed by the raising of the Australian flag on the morning of 1 October 1958. After a quiet ceremony, D. E. Nickels was sworn in as the first Australian official representative, and read messages of goodwill from the British Secretary of State for Colonies and the Australian Minister for Territories.2

Geography and annexation
Christmas Island is a 135sq km island located in the Indian Ocean, 1,330 km southwest of Singapore. The island was named by Captain William Mynors of the East India Company vessel Royal Mary after he sailed past it on Christmas Day on 25 December 1643.3

The island was initially uninhabited, but this changed following the discovery of phosphate on the island by naturalist Sir John Murray during one of his expeditions to Indonesia between 1872 and 1876. The discovery prompted calls for the British to establish a settlement on the island to extract phosphates and other minerals or resources.4

In June 1888, Captain W. H. May of the HMS Imperieuse landed at Flying Fish Cove in the island's north and declared it part of the United Kingdom's dominions.5 A letters patent (a legal instrument) issued by Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom dated 8 January 1889 declared the island under the control of the governor of the Straits Settlements. A proclamation dated 23 May 1900 formalised the island's annexation and incorporation into the Straits Settlements.6

Christmas Island was subsequently administered from Singapore, with the laws of Singapore applying to the island.7 A district officer from Singapore was also appointed to maintain law and order on the island.8

Settlement and commercial interests
Soon after May's landing in 1888, George Clunies-Ross established a settlement at Flying Fish Cove. Clunies-Ross was of the family that settled and governed the Cocos (Keeling) Islands some 980 km southwest of Christmas Island.9

In February 1891, Clunies-Ross and Sir John Murray were granted a 99-year lease on Christmas Island by the British government, allowing them to exploit the island's mineral and timber resources. In 1897, the lease was transferred to the Christmas Island Phosphate Company (CIPCO), founded by the Clunies-Ross family and Murray.10

Indentured labourers were brought in from Singapore, China and Malaya to mine the phosphate, and by 1905, Christmas Island exports of phosphate had reached 97,942 tons.11 The island's annual report that year showed that there were 1,061 inhabitants comprising 10 Europeans, six Eurasians, 952 Chinese, 42 Malays, 38 Sikhs, eight Japanese and five others.12 Tramlines were laid to transport phosphate from the quarry to the docks and a hospital was built to provide healthcare services for the inhabitants.13

During the 1920s, the British Phosphate Commission (BPC), bringing together British, Australian and New Zealand interests seeking to secure the supply of phosphate to those countries, submitted a bid to purchase Christmas Island's phosphate rights for £1.6 million. However, the deal fell through as CIPCO had demanded a price of £4 million.14 In 1942, the Japanese occupied Christmas Island but were unable exploit the phosphate supply due to interference from the submarines of Allied forces in nearby waters.15

Post-war developments
Following the end of World War II, the Straits Settlements was dissolved and Singapore made a separate Crown colony.16 Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands were then administered and governed as a part of the colony of Singapore.17

In 1948, the governments of Australia and New Zealand acquired the mining rights to Christmas Island by buying CIPCO's assets and rights for £2.75 million.18 The two governments shared the costs equally. Rent and phosphate royalties continued to be payable to the colonial government of Singapore, while the two purchasing governments set up the Christmas Island Phosphate Commission to manage and control the undertaking. The BPC became the managing agent of the island.19 The collaboration between the New Zealand and Australia governments was affirmed with the Christmas Island Agreement Act 1949.20

The initial share capital of CIPCO had consisted of 36,000 shares costing £10 each.21Based on the £2.75 million purchase of the company, a share became worth £77 each. CIPCO shareholders that benefited included descendants of Sir John Murray and the Ross-Clunies family such as K. A. J. Murray, the grandson of Sir John and the director of the company at the time.22 The purchase amount was shared by the Clunies-Ross and Murray families.23

Around the time of the purchase of CIPCO, government records show that the Australian government was also considering acquiring the sovereignty of Christmas Island due to the importance of its phosphate supplies to Australia.24

In 1950, the British Commissioner General for Southeast Asia sought Australia's help to use Christmas Island to confine political detainees from Malaya. After consultations with the New Zealand government and the BPC that managed the island, the proposal was rejected for fear of causing the island's workforce of 1,700 to move away.25

Further Australian moves towards acquiring Christmas Island
Production of phosphates on Christmas Island had reached 251,000 tons by 1949, and the island's production together with those of the Ocean and Nauru islands constituted nearly 10 percent of the phosphates exported globally.26 With Australia relying on the Christmas Island supply while New Zealand tapped the Ocean and Nauru sources, an inter-departmental Australian government committee met in September 1954 to discuss the phosphate supply. This committee comprised representatives from the departments of the Attorney-General, the Prime Minister, Commerce and Agriculture, Territories, External Affairs and Treasury.27

The committee framed Australia's interests in Christmas Island as a critical source of phosphates and a strategic defence location, while the potential for the Singapore government to raise the price of phosphates with the imposition of export taxes or derive more revenue from the island in other ways was said to be a concern. The political situation in Singapore in the 1950s was also fast changing, and the Australians anticipated that the then upcoming Rendel Constitution would affect the government of Singapore and its position towards Christmas Island.28

The Australian government reasoned that since Christmas Island's population did not contain indigenous inhabitants,29 any revenue from the island derived by the government in Singapore was an "accidental" effect of its administration from Singapore. The committee also expressed its view that the transfer of Christmas Island's sovereignty to Australia before constitutional changes in Singapore would be in the interests of both the Australian and New Zealand governments.30


Governmental negotiations
On 24 November 1954, the Australian Cabinet took the same view on Christmas Island. Then Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies first raised the question of the island's sovereignty through informal discussions with the British government in London in February 1955.31 Then Australian Minister for External Affairs Richard Casey also broached the subject with Sir Robert Black, then Governor of Singapore, in October 1955. The governor expressed his view that such a move would be seen as empire building on the part of the Australians, and that its unpopularity with the public would be exploited by the Malayan Communist Party.32


Casey then mooted an alternative method of detaching Christmas Island from Singapore by establishing the island as a separate dependency of the United Kingdom. An Australian newspaper reported in May 1956 that the country was seeking the sovereignty of Christmas Island, while Menzies approached the British government with the new plan. On 22 October 1956, the British Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations replied that the United Kingdom would assent to the plan on condition that Singapore should not be entirely deprived of the phosphate revenue and that the British should incur no expenses in the transfer.33

Negotiations proceeded over the next few months during which it was agreed that the United Kingdom would transfer the sovereignty of Christmas Island directly to Australia, with the Australians compensating Singapore with a lump sum payment. In March 1957, the amount to be paid to Singapore was agreed at £2.33 million (M$20 million). Then Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd discussed the subject of the transfer and financial payment with then Chief Minister of Singapore Lim Yew Hock on 12 March 1957, who asked for time to consult his colleagues.34

A report from the Australian High Commission in Singapore to the Department of External Affairs in Australia on 16 May 1957 noted that Lim was concerned about the status of residents of Christmas Island if they lost their jobs. He was unsure whether they would have to return to Singapore or would be able to enter Australia.35

Apart from concerns over citizenship and employment, Lim outlined issues pertaining to the loss of revenue incurred by the Singapore government resulting from the transfer. Lim noted that Singapore was receiving M$1.5 million annually in terms of royalty and income tax from Christmas Island. With another 32 years remaining on the lease, the potential earnings would amount to at least M$48 million, a figure much higher than the M$20 million offered by the Australians.36

Transfer of Christmas Island and legislation
Despite these concerns, the announcement of the transfer of Christmas Island to Australia was announced by Boyd in the British Parliament on 6 June 1957 (7 June Singapore time), with a simultaneous press release in Australia and Singapore.37


To prepare for the impending transfer, then Secretary of the Australian Department of Territories C. R. Lambert visited Singapore on 4 July 1957 to study the administrative problems on Christmas Island.38 The Singapore authorities made arrangements to receive the M$20 million payment from the Australian and New Zealand governments for Christmas Island, with then Financial Secretary of Singapore T. M. Hart announcing that the revenue would be added to Singapore’s liquid reserves.39

Legislation to pave the way for the transfer was passed in Australia in December 1957, while an order-in-council was made by Queen Elizabeth II to detach Christmas Island from Singapore on 13 December 1957. The order came into effect on 1 January 1958 with the payment of M$20 million to Singapore, but the island would remain under the jurisdiction of the colony of Singapore for a number of months as the governments involved prepared for the transfer. The United Kingdom’s Christmas Island Bill was introduced in the House of Lords in April 1958 and the House of Commons in May 1958, and passed on 13 May 1958.40

On 14 May 1958, royal assent was given to the United Kingdom’s Christmas Island Bill to enable Britain to transfer authority over Christmas Island from Singapore to Australia by an order-in-council.41 The Christmas Island Act 1958 was passed in Australia in September 1958 and the island was officially placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 October 1958.42


Reactions in Singapore and citizenship issues
In the Legislative Assembly of Singapore, Lim Choon Mong, then Member of Parliament for Serangoon commented that the island was under the jurisdiction of Singapore and giving it away to another country was “ceding away part of territory”. In response, Acting Chief Minister Abdul Hamid bin Haji Jumat (Lim Yew Hock was away at that time) stated that the island belonged not to Singapore but to the British government.43


The issue of citizenship for the 2,000 residents of Christmas Island (as of 1957) was resolved when it was agreed that people born on the island after the transfer to Australia would automatically become Australian citizens. They would also be citizens either of the United Kingdom and Colonies or citizens of Singapore by descent. This meant that the islanders had dual nationalities.44 Permanent residents of the island who were citizens of the United Kingdom were given the option of becoming Australian citizens.45

Before the transfer, the island was still under Singapore's jurisdiction and a Singapore registration team was sent to Christmas Island aboard the Royal Malayan Navy ship H.M.M.S Penyu on 1 December 1957 to register those eligible for Singapore citizenship.46



References

1. Colony of Singapore. Government gazette. Subsidiary legislation supplement. (1958, October 1). The Christmas Island (Transfer to Australia) Order in Council (Sp. S235/1958). Singapore: [s.n], pp. 783–787. (Call no.: RCLOS 348. 5957 SGGSLS)
2. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 316. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
3. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 316. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)

4. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 317. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
5. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 317. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)

6. Christmas Island. (1900, July 10). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Christmas Island. (1900, July 10). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 319. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
9. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 317. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)

10. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 317. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
11. Report on Christmas Island. (1906, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

12. Report on Christmas Island. (1906, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Report on Christmas Island. (1906, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 318. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
15. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 318. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
16. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An  ccount of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 318. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
17. Singapore. British Military Administration. Gazette. Extraordinary [Microfilm no.: NL 1262]. (1946, January 22). (G. N. 8). Singapore: [s.n.], pp. 61–62.
18. Xmas Island sale. (1948, October 6). The Singapore Free Press, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

19. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 319. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
20. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 319. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
21. Xmas Island Phosphate Company purchase. (1948, October 7). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

22. Xmas Island Phosphate Company purchase. (1948, October 7). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Two familes share a fortune. (1948, October 20). The Singapore Free Press, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 319. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
25. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 320. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
26. Phosphate production goes up. (1951, July 24). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 320. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
28. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, pp. 320–321. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
29. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 321 (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
30. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 321 (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
31. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 321. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
32. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 322 (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
33. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, pp. 322–323. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
34. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, pp. 322–323. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
35. Department of External Affairs in Australia. (1957, May 16). Report from the Australian High Commission in Singapore to the Department of External Affairs in Australia  [Microfilm no.: NAB 447]. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore.
36. Department of External Affairs in Australia. (1957, May 16): Report from the Australian High Commission in Singapore to the Department of External Affairs in Australia [Microfilm no. NAB 447]. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore.
37. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 324. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
38. Christmas Island take-over begins. (1957, July 5). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Singapore. Legislative Assembly. Debates: Official report. (1957, December 4). First Reading of Appropriation Bill. (Vol. 4) Singapore: [s.n], col. 2825. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
40. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 327. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)

41. All set for transfer. (1958, May 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.|
42. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 329. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)

43. Singapore. Legislative Assembly. Debates: Official report. (1957, June 19). Transfer of Christmas Island to Australia. (Vol. 3). Singapore: [s.n], cols. 2023–2024. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
44. Christmas Islanders dual nationality after transfer. (1958, May 14). The Singapore Free Press, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

45. Kerr, A. (2009). A federation in these seas: An account of the acquisition by Australia of its external territories, with selected documents. Barton, A.C.T.: Attorney General's Dept, p. 323. (Call no.: R 325.394 KER)
46. They're off to Xmas Island to seek citizens. (1957, December 2). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources
Australia, Department of Territories. (1965-1972). Annual report on the Territory of Christmas Island. Canberra: Author.
(Call no.: R 996.4 ADTTCI)

Macfarlane, S. (1997). Christmas island: Hey Singapore: Series 3, episode 7 [Videorecording]. Singapore: TCS.
(Call no.: RAV 959.57 HEY)

National Archives of Australia. (2000, August). Factsheet 157: Christmas Island. Retrieved August 5, 2003, from www.naa.gov.au/publications/fact_sheets/fs157.html

Ridley, H. N. (1891). A day at Christmas Island. Journal of Straits Branch Royal Asiatic Society, 23, 123-129.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5 JSBRAS)

Ridley, H. N. (1905). An expedition to Christmas Island. Journal of Straits Branch Royal Asiatic Society, 45, 121-155.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5 JSBRAS)

Waters, L. (1983). The Union of Christmas Island Workers. Sydney; Boston: Allen & Unwin.
(Call no.: R 331.88 LES)





The information in this article is valid as at 1 September 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading material on the topic.

 

 

Subject
Politics and Government
Events
Events>>Historical Periods
Geography>>Geographical Areas and Countries>>Singapore Offshore Islands
Singapore offshore islands
Kiritimati (Kiribati)--History
Islands--Kiribati
History>>Other parts of the world>>Australia