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The White Rajah of the Islands sells out to Australia for £4m

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics on Saturday, 31 December 2011

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This edited article about the Cocos-Keeling Islands originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Coconut palm tree, picture, image, illustration

Copra was exported from the islands, by Gordon Davies

The world’s only feudal kingdom where 600 natives live happily under the rule of a benevolent Scotsman is coming to an end. Two atolls made up of 27 coral islands are to be bought by the Australian government for around £4 million because of the strategic position they occupy in the Indian Ocean.

The sale of the Cocos-Keeling Islands provides a sad finale to a romantic tale that began in 1609, when they were discovered by a British sailor, Captain William Keeling of the East India Company. The islands, however, remained uninhabited until 1826. Then the first settlement was established on the main atoll by an Englishman, Alexander Hare, who stayed for five years. Before he left, a second colony was set up by a Scottish adventurer, Captain John Clunies-Ross, who landed on the islands with several boatloads of Malay seamen.

The captain was captivated by the exotic necklace of islands spread over an azure sea. Here were inviting melon-slice beaches shaded by lofty palm trees, and lagoons and reefs that churned up a frothing sea. He decided to stay and his Malay seamen, who also fell under the spell of the islands, stayed too. Their descendants have been exporting copra ever since.

They enjoyed an idyllic existence under the tropical sun. The captain assumed the role of monarch, and the Malays became his subjects. So was born the legend of the “White Rajah of the Islands”. His feudal rule was accepted by everyone as an accompaniment to the lazy kind of life that usually only finds portrayal in novels of the Far East.

Yet officialdom was never very far away. In 1857, the islands were annexed to the British Crown and in 1878 responsibility was transferred from the British Colonial Office to the government of Ceylon. Eight years later they came under control of the governments of the Straits Settlements and it was in that year, too, that Queen Victoria granted the land on the islands to the Clunies-Ross family and to their heirs in perpetuity.

Certain rights were reserved for Britain, but the head of the family was granted semi-official status as resident magistrate and representative of the British government.

In 1903, the Cocos-Keelings were incorporated in the Settlement of Singapore and during the last war came briefly once again under the control of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.

A chequered history, indeed. The present ruler, John Clunies-Ross, was still a schoolboy of 16 in wartime England when his father was killed by Japanese bombs.

The new “king” finished his schooling and then went to Oxford University. There he met his future wife, Daphne Holmes Parkinson, daughter of a wealthy Lancashire manufacturing chemist.

After marrying in London in 1951, “King John” returned to his domain and installed his “queen” in the island palace – a two-storeyed Victorian-style mansion on Home Island, the historical centre of the Clunies-Ross estate, overlooking a lagoon.

The simple life had always suited the islanders ideally. They even had their own currency system of plastic coins. It was only two years ago that it was phased out and replaced by metal coinage, which consisted of cents and rupees, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the settlement.

The islanders may not have complained about their lot, but occasionally the lack of democracy in the Cocos-Keelings was criticised by the United Nations and western powers. Many governments felt the Clunies-Ross rule was anachronistic.

Changes were on the way. In 1955, the islanders were put under the authority of the Australian government, which had always coveted these pinpoints in the Indian Ocean. Legally, Australia was empowered to amend or repeal all the laws of the islands. “King John” resisted take-over moves for several years, although he actually announced his surrender of sovereignty in 1973. However, he still insisted on clinging to his “throne” which was given to his family under the royal charter by Queen Victoria.

Australia was not yet satisfied. The islands were in an ideal position for the military control of the Indian Ocean, and so the battle for the island paradise really began.

Although reserved in temperament, “King John” declared he would never give in to pressure from Australia to quit his home. He said he had the time and money for a long legal battle and was prepared to take his case to the UN and the International Court of Justice. Indeed, in 1975, he rejected an offer of £2,250,000 from the Australian Labour government of Mr Gough Whitlam. The selling price, said “King John”, was £11 million.

Then in June last year, the Australian Minister for Administrative Services, Senator Reginald Withers, flew to the islands for talks with the Scottish “monarch”. The senator declared that the Australian government would assume ownership of all island territory, replace its money system with Australian currency and introduce a form of representative local government as a forerunner to a fully elected assembly. Australian citizenship would be encouraged and migration to the mainland subsidised.

Then, for the first time, “King John” spoke seriously of selling out to Australia – but several months were to pass before the right price could be agreed.

He accused Australia of bribing Malay workers on his plantation to seek employment in Australia so that it would be easier to set up an air base on the islands. Certainly, in recent years, the population of the islands dropped from 502 to 319 and, with emigration to the islands banned by Australia, “King John” found great difficulty in getting enough labour for his estates.

Last year, however, agreement was reached on the final sale of the islands at a figure put at around £4 million. So the “kingdom” of the Clunies-Ross will soon be transformed into a key defence base in the Indian Ocean.

The Australian Air Force has already started using a runway on one of the islands for training flights by their American-built F-111 swing-wing bombers. Home Island is certainly ideal as a natural adjunct to the technical communications and electronic eavesdropping stations which Americans are operating in the mid-Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

The Malay workers in the Cocos-Keelings may well remain in the islands once Australian democracy arrives. But it seems unlikely that the Clunies-Ross family would be able to tolerate the invasion of 20th century military man and all the accompanying gadgetry.

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