Arthur Louis Keyser wrote a number of books including one titled “People and places: A life in five continents”. It is in that book that he devoted a chapter to Christmas and Cocos Islands. Keyser had entered into the service of the Malay States in 1888, holding various posts. And an account of his trip to Christmas Island, as Commissioner, is reproduced below.
His brief stopover on the Island was in 1896 at a time before the commencement of phosphate mining. There was only Andrew Clunies-Ross’s small settlement of 22 people (that was established in 1888). Apart from some houses, wells and plantings within the Flying Fish Cove area, the Island was mostly in a virgin state.
Here is Keyser’s account.
In the year 1896, I embarked at Singapore on board H.M.S. Æolus, commanded by Captain Groome, afterwards Admiral Groome. I was sent, as Commissioner, to report on Christmas Island and the Keeling Cocos Islands under the rule of Mr. George Clunies-Ross. After calling at Java, we shortly arrived at Christmas Island
This island rises high out of the sea, practically without any intervening beach ; the water being deep, there is no safe anchorage, and the ship was obliged to lie on and off during my stay on shore. Mr. Andrew Clunies-Ross, who was living there in charge for his brother, Mr. George Clunies-Ross, subsequently told us that natives had called him from his work to say that a man-of-war as large as an island had arrived. Within a short distance from the sea was a small settlement, and immediately behind rose high cliffs which, like a wall, shut in this little plateau by the sea. But, although the further ascents were covered with forest growth, we learnt that they sheltered neither wild animals nor noxious snakes. The soil is very fertile, and the few settlers had found ample for their wants, and through distribution from seeds dropped by the birds, fruit trees had multiplied. A sort of Papaya tree (called Batis) seemed to grow like a weed-the fruit was unusually large.
We also saw pomegranates, guavas, and many other varieties thriving in spite of weeds and over shadowing trees.
Liberian coffee abounded, and although this product was apparently uncared for, some of the bushes were unusually fine. We passed from these patches of cultivation to the famous teak trees, concerning which so much has been written. Though classed as “bastard,” it was held by some to be the real teak-wood and its peculiar reddish tint to be due only to the soil. This wood is extremely durable and is used here, and at the Keeling Cocos Islands, for building boats. A sample sent to England fetched £7 per ton, ex dock expenses. A boat, of this wood, which I then saw in use, had been built in 1873. Climbing the hill by a track cut out by Mr. Ross, after considerable labour, we came to what might be termed the mainland of the island. The rough ground was everywhere covered with phosphate stone.
A Malay jungle has undergrowth so thick that it is often difficult to form a correct opinion of the extent of the valleys or of their formation, by merely passing through them, but in Christmas Island the surroundings showed clearly defined limits, while the total absence of tough creepers and rotans enabled us to see above and around. There were fine trees-their growth unhampered by embarrassing alien growth, and above us birds sat placidly on the branches, quite undisturbed by the approach of human beings.
The majority of these were huge pigeons, which never even attempted to fly away, while first their companions and then themselves were being shot by sportsmen who consented to waive their scruples to provide food for the ship. Of these birds Mr. Ross’s little boy used to secure, daily, as many as the family required-by means of his catapult or a noose. Ground thrushes also came and perched close to us, equally unscared by our presence or by the sound of the guns. Occasionally the path was overgrown, but by nothing more formidable than bushes resembling wild raspberry, a few nettles, and one insinuating species of thorn. But this superficial conclusion does not apply to the whole island. It had taken Mr. Ross three days to penetrate to the further side.
On that expedition he was obliged to carry water, since, at the time of our visit, there was no supply beyond the wells at the settlement. Within the past few months, however, so recently indeed that we were able to inform the proprietor of the Keeling Cocos Islands of it as news, Mr. Ross had discovered a waterfall falling into the sea. The island is about 12 miles long, by 7 miles broad.
Alongside our path, some Liberian coffee had been planted. These plants, overshadowed by trees and left apparently to care for themselves, were of all conditions, good, indifferent, and bad, according as their surroundings were favourable or the reverse.
It was evident that there was no real or systematic cultivation of coffee. There were neither labourers nor nurseries, or any signs of the attention which such a plantation requires, and timber had only been cut in small quantities. On all sides it was seen that no serious attempt had been made to open up the island. Yet houses had been built, a path made, cultivation of coffee tested, and phosphate stone analysed and proved, while an able and shrewd gentleman was in charge, waiting on events and for the signal to go ahead and replace the present stagnation by activity.
Later I learnt the reason for this pause. It was to allow the joint owners of the island, Professor Murray and Mr. George Clunies-Ross, to settle the conditions of their joint ownership. The former gentleman, I was told, had been given charge of all the scientific reports of the H.M.S. Challenger expedition, and thus gained information about the island, although it was stated that the ship had not actually called there. Professor Murray, who till then had not visited the island, applied for and obtained its concession from the Admiralty. At that time Mr. George Clunies-Ross had already obtained some sort of promise from the Colonial Office, and their conflicting claims were settled by these two gentlemen, strangers to each other, being given a joint lease of the island. There was then potential wealth in the presence of phosphates, teak trees, and iron.
It was a complicated dispute, and although I heard a great deal about it at the time, I have never learnt how it was settled.
At the date of which I write, the population consisted of 22 souls. Mr. Andrew Ross was the only European. Labourers, Bantamese (natives of Java), earned 12 guilders a month. They were allowed birds, cocoanuts, fruit etc., free. Very little fish was caught, the sea being too rough. The only complaints of the labourers were the absence of their wives and lack of new clothes. These were also the two chief wants in the Keeling Cocos Islands.
The expense of transporting women to the islands was one of the matters hung up pending the settlement of ownership. Regarding clothes, this meant that these workmen, who love to spend money on finery and garments of colour, were debarred from doing so, and the possession of more money than others was productive of none of that immediate satisfaction to be derived from the admiration and envy of their fellows. Christmas Island was very healthy, though fever was brought there whenever a ship came from Java. The birds of the island are terns, frigate birds, boobies, pigeons, green ground pigeons, ground thrush, banyan tree birds, two kinds of hawk, and the tropical bird. Mr. Ross gave us interesting information about the peculiar habits of the terns and frigate birds. These we had already read with some scepticism. It appeared that these birds actually do lay their eggs on a leaf, or the fork framed by the junction of two leaves, and so judge the time that, as the leaf falls to open, the bird is hatched and thus obtains clear space to fly away. In no instance, we were told, have these birds been known to make a mistake or select a tree which succumbed to the storm or fell, before its time, through weakness or wet. In the Keeling Cocos Islands more was told us about these birds, and I endeavoured to obtain specimens of the leaves and eggs, but though natives made expeditions to procure them, their efforts were unsuccessful owing to rough weather. The searchers were much disappointed, as they showed a great desire to confound the disbelief that I had simulated to obtain their interest.
In addition to the peculiar position of the eggs on the leaf, Mr. Andrew Ross informed us that the young were always hatched tail to head and head to tail alternately, no two birds, side by side, ever facing the same way. Also that, when the parent birds fed their young, they arranged the fish caught for them in the same orderly manner, and that these thoughtful parents never gave their offspring the same kind of fish on two consecutive days. As we only remained one day at Christmas Island, this last sign of their fastidious taste could not be verified.
All domestic animals appeared to thrive in this small island settlement. But there was much trouble from rats in Christmas Island, which were almost as great & plague as they were in the Keeling Cocos Islands. The principal food of the inhabitants was land crabs and birds. The only living thing which might have been described as a wild animal was a huge bat called “kompret.” Of these there were large numbers. There were scarcely any butterflies.
In former days Christmas Island had been a favourite resort for whalers, but they had ceased their visits. Occasionally, however, steamers were sighted making the island to take their bearings. Mr. George Clunies-Ross had intended to settle at Christmas Island, but, owing to lack of anchorage, decided on the Keeling Cocos instead. At the time of our visit no ship had called for three years.
The language spoken by the few people on the island is largely composed of Javanese words, and at that time Javanese was gradually taking the place of Malay.
On leaving the island, our boat was loaded with pigeons and fruit. Captain Groome made return presents of stuffs and stores, not forgetting new elastic for the little boy’s catapult which, during his last shooting expedition, had been hopelessly damaged. As H.M.S. Æolus steamed away from the island the searchlight played on the Islanders’ departing boat, obtaining an unexpectedly picturesque effect from the scarlet costumes of the crew who were dressed as marines in old, worn tunics, provided by their late hosts on board that wonderful ship.
“People and places: A life in five continents” by Arthur Louis Keyser, 1922, pages 196-202