Published: September 2014

Southern Line Islands

Picture of man-made structures on the southern Line Islands

The Southern Line Islands: A Short History

The islands in the South Pacific were discovered by seafaring Polynesians, then by Europeans and Americans who mined guano and grew coconuts.

By Kennedy Warne
Photographs by Brian Skerry

Underwater, the southern Line Islands may be relatively untouched, but above water they retain a footprint of human settlement and exploitation.

Despite being little more than specks in the vastness of the sea, these islands belonged to Polynesia. The legendary seafarers of the Pacific used the constellations of the heavens to navigate among a constellation of islands.

Graves and marae—Polynesian ceremonial sites—have been found on some of the 11 Line Islands, although little is known about how and when the islands were occupied.

Europeans came in the 1800s. By the end of that century, some of the islands had upwards of a hundred workers digging guano, decomposed droppings from seabirds, bats, and seals—a valuable fertilizer. On Malden Island, laborers used sails to propel guano-filled railcars along tram tracks from the mines to a warehouse near the shore.

The Guano Islands Act passed in 1856 entitled citizens of the United States to take possession of any island that contained guano deposits, so long as it was not occupied or under the jurisdiction of another government. All of the Line Islands, then uninhabited, were claimed under this law, and most were eventually mined.

Some of the Line Islands were also planted with coconut palms to produce copra, the dried nut meat utilized for its oil.

A more extreme use occurred in 1957, when the United Kingdom exploded three hydrogen bombs in the atmosphere above Malden Island. Thirty-one years later, elevated levels of radioactive cesium were still being recorded in the lagoon of Caroline Island, one of the southern Line Islands more than 500 miles away. (Not to be confused with the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, thousands of miles to the west.)

Once their guano deposits were exhausted, the islands were typically abandoned. Only three of the Line Islands—Kingman Reef, Jarvis Island, and Palmyra Atoll, all in the northern group—remain United States possessions; since 1983 the rest have belonged to Kiribati, a nation of 33 islands spread over 1,351,000 square miles (3.5 million square kilometers). (Kiribati, pronounced KEE-ree-bas, is a derivation of “Gilberts”—the former European name for the main island group, the Gilbert Islands.)

Like many islands, the southern Line Islands were named somewhat capriciously—and probably on the spur of the moment—after ships; their captains, owners and patrons; naval officials; and even a naval official’s daughter, in the case of Caroline Island.

Islands were often named multiple times, with each newcomer assuming he was the first discoverer, and hence had naming rights. Starbuck Island, for instance, was named for a Nantucket whaling family—a name made famous through its use in Moby Dick, long before it became synonymous with coffee. But the island was also known at various times as Barren, Hero, Volunteer, Low, Starve, and Coral Queen.

Name changes have continued into modern times. In 1999 Caroline Island was officially renamed Millennium Island, to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the dawn of a new millennium. The government of Kiribati had determined that Caroline Island would be the first place to see the sunrise on January 1, 2000.

This distinction came about when, five years earlier, the International Date Line had been moved more than 600 miles to the east so that all of Kiribati’s islands would be in the same time zone. That put Caroline right next to the date line, and a celebration was duly held on the uninhabited island to mark the millennial turn.

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