Original draft. Edited version published in "Christmas Island," Photographed by Franco Salmoiraghi / Essays by Stephen Trussel & Jocelyn Fujii, C.H.R. Ltd, 1988

The History and People of Christmas Island

Stephen Trussel

   Christmas Island is world-class. 250 square miles of coral sand, iridescent lagoons and coconut palms what seems like one of the smallest places on earth is actually a geographical giant, the planet's largest coral atoll. Tossed up over millennia by the pounding surf, it rests just above the waves on an ancient reef, the reef which ages ago ringed the undersea volcano thrusting it three miles up from the ocean floor. A microcosm of terrestrial life, a world of sea and sky, it's a tropical oasis, a nesting place for millions of seabirds, dominated by the teeming empire from which it barely protrudes.

   Christmas Island. The name seems out of place on a map of the tropics, sounding so unlike the "nearby" islands of Hawaii, 1300 miles to the north, or Tahiti, about as far to the south. In stark contrast to those mountainous Edens, this lowlying atoll was uninhabited at the time of Cook's Christmas Eve landing in 1777. It was dry and barren, apparently a period of drought; he found no evidence of earlier settlement, was pessimistic about its potential for commercial development.

   Nevertheless, for much of the next two centuries, Englishmen, Australians and Americans made various and regular attempts to turn a profit here. They left their momentos, perhaps none so striking as the village names: London, Poland, Paris, Banana. But the 'industry' which seems to have triumphed is the one Cook didn't expect. Today, in the way of the tropical atoll, it is productive as a copra plantation, and as a fishing ground.

   The people who tend the coconuts and catch the fish, the keepers of the oasis in the middle of the sea, are Gilbertese, in an isolated outpost some 2000 miles from their Micronesian homeland to the west. They take their name from another British sea captain, Thomas Gilbert, who explored the group in 1788. The Gilbert Islands, 16 tiny atolls and a raised phosphate island, straddle the Equator just west of the International Dateline. For most of this century they were politically linked with the Polynesian islands just south of them, as the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. In 1979, the Gilberts became the oceanic Republic of Kiribati, and Christmas one of her 33 far-flung isles, scattered across a national territory comprising more than two million square miles of open sea.

   They are truly a people of the sea, these atoll dwellers. Watch a Gilbertese enter the water, and you'll experience no sense of 'entry'; the transition from land to sea is unnoticed, natural, like a city dweller passing from a sidewalk to grass. They are everywhere at home. 'Blessed' by limited land resources and supported by a capacious sense of humor, Gilbertese culture and life have managed to survive colonial rule better than perhaps any other people. The Gilbertese go about their daily lives today, gracefully weaving the intrusions of the technological world into the atoll environment, successfully maintaining much of the traditional life they have evolved so elegantly over thousands of years.

   Traditional life is subsistence life, living off the sea and the land, with little dependence on trade, and little to trade with. The 19th century brought a demand for coconut oil, which since then has provided the islanders with a way to earn the little money they deem necessary. Everyone owns their land. Everyone has coconuts and can share in the bounty of the reef and sea. The Equatorial climate demands little in the way of shelter from the elements, and provides all that is necessary to accomplish it in the form of two trees, the coconut and the pandanus.

   It was the coconut which brought the harbingers of the present Christmas population in the late 1950's, and until Independence in 1979, permanent settlement was not permitted. This is still the status of the various plantation islands which form the remainder of the Phoenix and Line Islands District. Christmas is the District capital, complete with all the requisite governmental trappings of an outpost.

   Viewed from offshore, the atoll appears to be a solid mass of coconut palms, with no sign of human life, no structure taller than the fronds. On the fringes the lower growing pandanus show their spiky clusters. Gathered among the underbrush are low thatched huts, skillful rearrangements of the two trees: Four vertical trunks support the peaked pandanus-leaf foliage above. Narrow plaited coconut frond curtains roll down for walls, everything is lashed together with thin brown coconut-husk twine. A few logs and leaves, some string and imagination are the components of a Gilbertese shelter. As each structure is essentially a single room, homes are complexes of huts, for sleeping and socializing, cooking, and storage. The normally extended family is often further extended by visiting relatives from other islands; housing is flexible. Most of life is outdoors, the house itself half in half out, pandanus mats merging interior and exterior as the reef merges the land and the sea.

   While family life on Christmas follows the time honored patterns of Kiribati society, the dwelling retains but a functional relationship. Replacing the thatched pandanus roof we find corrugated metal, pre-fab housing from the military camp days of WWII, when Christmas provided a staging area for Allied troops, and later a testing area for nuclear bombs. The Gilbertese way prevails, new materials supplanting the traditional, but subject to the gregarious erosions of a closely-knit community.

   At the core of the household are the elders, the cultural link with the past, the "old man" and the "old woman". Gilbertese society is based on respect for the ancestral and the old, who pass on their wisdom only to the deserving. They are masters of transition, blending youth and age, this world and the next, seemingly effortlessly.

   The first generation of Christmas islanders are in their late 20s now, their children populating the schools. They accomodate themselves to this new Kiribati, a juxtaposition of military jetsam and the traditional, and seem to enjoy the contrast. Greater contact with outsiders brings increased economic pressures. Life with a job, regular hours, regular pay has become more prevalent here than anywhere outside the capital in Tarawa.

   But for the traditional fisherman, the distinctions of night and day are less important than the patterns of their quarry. The night sky, filled with markers known well to the Gilbertese sailor, permits him to rise with the tides, changing his working hours throughout the month. The fishing world is the man's world, a world of skilled navigators and canoebuilders, of infinite technique and subtlety. The traditional Gilbertese outrigger canoe, in a land with no large timber, was of narrow planed boards, hewn with adz blades made from the shell of the giant clam. It was smoothed with sharkskin, laced together with coconut twine, sealed with pitch. The sail, a pandanus mat. Today's canoes aren't sewn together, and canvas has replaced the mat, but the style is the same. The hooks are of shell no more, nor the nets of coconut twine, but the techniques have been passed down through generations. A man in the atolls is a master of the sea, the caretaker of the canoe, a teller of tales.

   And on Christmas as well, even if the days are spent in a government office, there is time found for fishing. In the Gilbertese way, a man is a fisherman, but today he may get away for the weekend in a rented power boat, the expense a shared gamble on a profitable catch bought by the government for shipment overseas. If he's lucky, it'll cover the cost of the boat and possibly a week's pay more. If not, there's always next time.

   As the sea provides the meat, the land provides the drink. Fresh water is always scarce shallow wells tap the brackish ground pool, and some rain is collected, but the palm provides the national drink, te karewe, coconut toddy. And gathering toddy is also a man's job. Twice a day, at dawn and dusk, the toddy-cutter climbs to the tops of his trees, coconut cups strung over his arm, a razor sharp knife clasped in his teeth. Removing the filled cups, he slices a thin layer off the twine-bound shoot, keeping the sap dripping day and night. Replacing the strip of leaf which guides the drops into the shell, he hangs the new cup, and moves on to the next spathe, the next tree. And as he gathers and slices, he sings.

   The woman's work merges neatly into that of the men. When the fisherman returns from his labors, no matter the hour, the world comes alive. The catch is transferred into female hands. Cooking fires spring to life from smoldering coconut husks, and a meal begins to develop. The cornerstone of the Gilbertese diet has arrived. A coconut may be grated, squeezed through the gauzy mesh which encircles the base of the tree, transformed into coconut cream for the fish. The multitudinous life of the sea provides the variety that the land denies. Although imported rice has become popular, the traditional starch of the islands is te bwabwai, the giant elephant-eared swamp taro, a tuber, raised painstakingly in flooded pits to great size, baked to accompany the fish. Fruits and vegetables beyond the coconut and the pandanus are meager to non-existent; breadfruit, perhaps pumpkin or papaya.

   On Christmas, with no pandanus to speak of, and no bwabwai pits, there is more interest in imported foods. Rice and sugar fill the storerooms of the local Co-op, along with such delicacies as tinned salmon or corned beef. Vegetables are not popular, but coffee and tea are, and soft drinks and beer. Here there is not only a hotel with a restaurant serving European food, but a small 'cafeteria' near the government buildings serving plate lunches and coffee. Restaurants and eating out have yet to enter the main stream of Gilbertese life, where the meal is always a family affair.

   When not near the cookhouses, women can traditionally be found sitting together weaving the pandanus mats which are the local furniture. Houses set directly on the ground have gravel floors covered with layers of mats. Smaller sleeping mats are rolled out on these at night. Bedding is stored in the rafters during the day, curtains are rolled up, the bedroom becomes a living room. Old coconut frond curtains and used mats find their way under the newer ones for padding. Pandanus leaves provide the floor and roof, coconut leaves, the walls. For enclosed structures like food storage sheds, the midribs of the fronds are used, lashed together in a lattice. No solid walls impede the entry of the sights and sounds of the passing world.

   At least on most Gilbertese islands. On Christmas can be found small houses with walls and rooms, arranged in neat military rows. Without pandanus there is little mat weaving, for they must await the infrequent ships from the capital for their supply of leaves. Not enough for thatching roofs, for the various traditional uses of the tree. The islanders adapt to the new housing by moving halfway outside, and building small surrounding shelters which move them back into contact.

   Everywhere there seems to be a group. Concepts of isolation or privacy are a puzzle in a land where everything can be seen and heard. Children's laughter wafts easily through the quiet air of the village. Small girls run and play with still smaller siblings riding on their hips. They work alongside their mothers, sweeping up leaves in the yard, cooking and cleaning, collecting shellfish on the reef. Young boys help their fathers with the toddy or the canoe, gather coconuts or kindling, running and playing all the while. Gently integrated into the community life, cared for by their grandparents while their parents are busy, they pass their leisure hours as their elders, lolling on the mats listening to the talk of the day.

   The missionaries came in the mid 19th century, translated the Bible, and bequeathed the Gilbertese a writing system, schools, and the Christian religion. All three have taken firm root. With colonial rule came compulsory education, and a literacy rate near 100%. Gilbertese is the language of the land, but English is used in government, and is taught in all the schools. Many of them are parochial schools, predominately Catholic and Protestant from the early missionaries, but including many smaller sects. Though traditional dancing has managed to survive Christianity and resurface in daily life, the old religion rests in the hazy underlife of the community. The old way was a form of ancestor worship, a world filled with ghosts and spirits, of magic spells and flying canoes. Beneath the surface of Gilbertese life the magic seems to lurk, the transition from one world to another without clear markers, smooth, in the Gilbertese way.

   Family complexes often stretch from the ocean breakers to the lapping lagoon, strung out along the reef in necklace of small villages. The center of a village, the gathering place of community life, is the mwaneaba. The steeply peaked pandanus thatch stretches upwards as high as the trees, supported by many posts, blocks of coral at the corners. The roof descends so low you must stoop to enter. This is the focal point of traditional life, each post of the structure marking off the boundary of one clan and the other. It is the place for greeting visitors, for oratory, council, decisions. It's a place for relaxing, arguing, for celebration and dancing.

   Christmas has its mwaneabas, but the corrugated roofs gleam, and evidence of hammer and nail appears in the lumber frame atop concrete slabs. The shape is the same, the scale appropriate the mwaneaba remains the focus of the social life.

   A place for dancing. The Gilbertese national dance, the ruoia, is a unique and powerful spectacle. A row of young girls, decorated with sprigs of flowers, cowrie shells, grass skirts, arms outstretched... only their fingertips seem to move as they cast darting fixed-eye glances over great distances. They are the frigate birds, gliding on currents of air, scanning far below. Behind them, chanting and clapping in ever crescendoing volume and rhythm, rows of gleaming warriors work themselves into a frenzy, encroaching slowly, forcing the birds ever forward in an invisible shuffle. The music mounts, the clapping and stomping becomes ever more furious, but the birds seem only slightly moved; perhaps their glances betray some tentative anxiety, the fluttering of their wing feathers some mounting apprehension. At the climax they are totally spent, returned to the world of the land below.

   The birds of Christmas are one of the world's treasures, and the entire island is a sanctuary for them. Their fleeting congregations can fill the sky, they are a part of every landscape. The worlds of sea and sky and land seem ever closer here.

   The Gilbertese live on intimate terms with their environment. No plant or animal life is strange to them, the sea as familiar as the land. They swim with the fish, and in their dancing and flying canoes, share the air with the birds. Their houses resemble their trees, their pandanus mats, the leaves. The materials of daily life are few and apparent, the construction clear. Their tools are basic, the results, a striking harmony with nature.

   Though these things are true for the Christmas Islander of today, there is a new and added element, coloring life at almost every turn. In a world where islanders maintain sophisticated electrical generators, operate earth-moving equipment and staff a modern hotel, many aspects of traditional life have been transformed. There is regular reminder of the presence of the outside. Weekly flights from Hawaii bring 'exotic' visitors, seeking to share the adventure of the sea. A satellite tracking station whets interest in the exploration of space. The traditional culture sparkles through these surface distractions as easily as the Gilbertese is moved to laughter, the deep easy laughter of the truly rich. For if all the trappings of modern life were to suddenly vanish, if one day all the power were suddenly turned off, the Christmas Islanders would hardly miss a step, gracefully adapting to one more of life's transitions.