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Keeling Islands

KEELING ISLANDS (often called Cocos and COCOS-KEELING ISLANDS), a group of coral islands in the Indian Ocean, Let ween 12 4' and 12 13' S., and 96 49'~S7' E., but including a smaller island in 1 1 50' N. and 96 50' E. The group furnished Charles Darwin with the typical example of an atoll or lagoon bland. There are altogether twenty-three small islands, 9^ m. being the greatest width of the whole atoll. The lagoon is very shallow and the passages between many of the islands are fordable on foot. An opening on the northern side of the reef permits the entrance of vessels into the northern part of the lagoon, which forms a good harbour known as Port Refuge or Port Albion. The coco-nut (as the name Cocos Islands indicates) is the characteristic product and is cultivated on all the islands. The flora is scanty in species. One of the commonest living creatures is a monstrous crab which lives on the coco-nuts; and in some places also there are great colonies of the pomegranate crab. The group was visited by Dr H. O. Forbes in 1878, and later, at the expense of Sir John Murray, by Dr Guppy, Mr Ridley and Dr Andrews. The object of their visits was the investigation of the fauna and flora of the atoll, more especially of the formation of the coral reefs. Dr Guppy was fortunate in reaching North Keeling Island, where a landing is only possible during the calmest weather. The island he found to be about a mile long, with a shallow enclosed lagoon, less than 3 ft. deep at ordinary low water, with a single opening on its east or weather side. A dense vegetation of iron-wood (Cordia) and other trees and shrubs, together with a forest of coco-nut palms, covers its surface. It is tenanted by myriads of sea-fowl, frigate-birds, boobies, and terns (Gygis Candida), which find here an excellent nesting-place, for the island is uninhabited, and is visited only once or twice a year. The excrement from this large colony has changed the carbonate of lime in the soil and the coral nodules on the surface into phosphates, to the extent in some cases of 60-70%, thus forming a valuable deposit, beneficial to the vegetation of the island itself and promising commercial value. The lagoon is slowly filling up and becoming cultivable land, but the rate of recovery from the sea has been specially marked since the eruption of Krakatoa, the pumice from which was washed on to it in enormous quantity, so that the lagoon advanced its shores from 20 to 30 yards. Forbes's and Guppy's investigations go to show that, contrary to Darwin's belief, there is no evidence of upheaval or of subsidence in either of the Keeling groups.

The atoll has an exceedingly healthy climate, and might well be used as a sanatorium for phthisical patients, the temperature never reaching extremes. The highest annual reading of the thermometer hardly ever exceeds 89 F. or falls beneath 70. The mean temperature for the year is 78-5 F., and as the rainfall rarely exceeds 40 in. the atmosphere never becomes unpleasantly moist. The south-east trade blows almost ceaselessly for ten months of the year. Terrific storms sometimes break over the island; and it has been more than once visited by earthquakes. A profitable trade is done in coco-nuts, but there are few other exports. The imports are almost entirely foodstuffs and other necessaries for the inhabitants, who form a patriarchal colony under a private proprietor.

The islands were discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling on his voyage from Batavia to the Cape. In 1823 Alexander Hare, an English adventurer, settled on the southernmost island with a number of slaves. Some two or three years after, a Scotchman, J. Ross, who had commanded a brig during the English occupation of Java, settled with his family (who continued in the ownership) on Direction Island, and his little colony was soon strengthened by Hare's runaway slaves. The Dutch Government had in an informal way claimed the possession of the islands since 1829; but they refused to allow Ross to hoist the Dutch flag, and accordingly the group was taken under British protection in 1856. In 1878 it was attached to the government of Ceylon, and in 1882 placed under the authority of the governor of the Straits Settlements. The ownership and superintendency continued in the Ross family, of whom George Clunies Ross died in 1910, and was succeeded by his son Sydney.

See C. Darwin, Journal of the Voyage of the " Beagle," and Geological Observations on Coral Reefs ; also Henry O. Forbes, A Naturalist's Wanderings in the Eastern Archipelago (London, 1884) ; H. B. Guppy, " The Cocos-Keeling Islands," Scottish Geographical Magazine (vol. v., 1889).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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