What Should I Know About Christmas Island?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Christmas Island is a tiny Australian territory off the coast of Indonesia. It covers 52 square miles (135 sq. km), and has a population of just under 1500 people. The island is located about 870 miles (1400 km) from Australia, in the Indian Ocean.

Woman waving
Woman waving

There is no evidence of early settlement of Christmas Island, making it somewhat of an anomaly among islands that are currently inhabited. Although it’s possible that early humans had stopped on the island, if they did they left absolutely no trace, and Europeans were the first people we know of to set foot on Christmas Island.

The island was first spotted in the early 17th century, and it was named when a British captain spotted it on Christmas Day in 1643. More than forty years later the first people landed on the island to gather supplies, and for the next century and a half the island was used exclusively by ships looking to resupply with wood and water.

In the mid 19th century the first exploration of the island took place, and a few decades later a more thorough exploration was undertaken. This expedition discovered pure phosphate of lime on the island, which made it instantly desirable to a number of commercial interests. Under pressure from entrepreneurs, Britain laid claim to the Christmas Island.

In the late 1950's, the island was transferred to Australia, as Britain divested itself of many of its holdings in the region. Since the late 1990's, Christmas Island is administered by Australia along with the Cocos (Keeling) Islands as the joint Australian Indian Ocean Territories.

Phosphate production has played a major role in the island’s history since its discovery in 1887. The population of the island was primarily brought from mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia in order to work the phosphate mines, and to this day a large number of people are employed in the industry. Production of phosphate was interrupted briefly when the Japanese occupied the island in World War II, but resumed soon after the war ended. Phosphate mining ceased in the late-1980s for a few years, but resumed under a new contract in 1990 and has continued unabated since then.

In the last few years Christmas Island has been the center of a number of immigration debates in Australia. A fair number of refugees wind up in Christmas Island, using it as a stepping stone to immigrating to Australia. As a measure intended to limit the number of refugees immigrating to Australia, the government instituted the so-called Pacific Solution, allowing the government to relocate asylum seekers who arrive on Christmas Island to other countries in the region. A massive processing facility was recently completed on Christmas Island to help facilitate the handling of these refugees.

The tourist industry on Christmas Island is mostly built around ocean sports. Diving with whale sharks and sport fishing are two of the major attractions. Natural sites include the National Park, which makes up more than 60% of the island, and the park is full of flora and fauna, some of which are unique to the island.

Flights arrive semi-regularly at Christmas Island from both Perth in Australia, Singapore, and the Cocos Islands.

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