Last king of the Cocos evicted: The 20th century and the Australian government have put paid to the Indian Ocean 'Arcadia' created by the coconut-rich Clunies-Rosses

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The Independent Online
FOR THE PAST few years, John Clunies-Ross has been reduced to living in a bungalow in the grounds of his family's palatial historic home. Now, it seems, he is to lose even that: last week, he was packing his belongings into a truck and sending them into storage while he waited to be evicted.

For the 'Kings of the Cocos Islands', this is the way their world ends: not with a bang but with a court order.

It was six generations ago, in 1827, that the first John Clunies- Ross arrived to settle the islands in the Indian Ocean, 1,800 miles from Australia, and create the coconut plantations that would make the family fortune.

Under his grandson George, the third 'king', it was for many a model community, described by one British traveller at the turn of the century as 'a species of Arcadia'. There were 'no police, no crimes, no trade unions, no strikes. Mr Ross was king, doctor, parson, magistrate and merchant, all rolled into one . . . the friendliness, well-being and content of his subjects afforded a lesson to many a more enlightened kingdom'.

Now those subjects are fully fledged Australian citizens, and 'Young John', as the islanders know him, is suffering the consequences. The authorities in far- off Canberra 'have been picking fights with us since my father's day, and you just can't win an argument against a government'.

Remote coral atolls with a total land area of about five square miles, the Cocos were discovered in 1609 but remained uninhabited until the time of the first John Clunies-Ross, an enterprising Shetlander. He covered them with coconut palms and brought in the indentured labourers who became known as the Cocos Malays. Nuts, oil and copra were exported, to lucrative effect.

With Queen Victoria's official blessing, a dictatorship developed, which was widely regarded as benign. Steady growth in the Malay population and the fact that many labourers chose to stay at the end of their indenture period were taken as proof that the islanders saw it that way too.

But slowly the outside world encroached. It was the presence of a wireless station that drew the famous German cruiser Emden there on a wrecking raid in 1916. An SOS was picked up by the Australian warship Sydney and the ensuing battle ended the Emden's long reign of terror in the southern oceans. Parts of the wreck can still be seen on Keeling Island, where it was beached.

In 1942 the Japanese came, a warship shelling the radio station on Direction Island. But there was no landing, and the Cocos soon became an important transit point for the Allies.

The post-war years brought increasing foreign intrusion. In 1955 Australia acquired sovereignty and introduced hard currency instead of Clunies-Ross tokens; in 1974 a United Nations mission condemned the 'anachronistic and feudal' relationship between the family and the Malays, and demanded democratic reform; in 1978 the Australian government bought the islands from the family for dollars A6.25m and undertook to raise living standards and improve education.

The aspirations of the Malay islanders also changed. Many moved abroad, while those who remained assumed control of the island government and its economy. The copra business has died, but there are postage stamps, the airfield and a growing tourist trade - about 40 people a week.

Young John's father, also called John, was the last of the island kings and received the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh there in some style in 1954. By the 1980s, he was fighting a series of rearguard actions against hostile Labor governments in Canberra. In 1986, after a shipping venture failed, he was declared bankrupt, and he now lives in reduced circumstances in Perth. Oceania House, the beautiful family home, built with materials shipped in from Scotland on a promontory overlooking the main Cocos lagoon, was also lost.

Young John's charmless modern bungalow in the grounds of the house is the final toehold, but the trustees in bankruptcy now want him off the estate so that the government can have vacant possession. It plans to turn the house over to the island council, perhaps for use as a hotel.

Mr Clunies-Ross is ready to go, but insists that the government, which controls all the islands' housing, must first find him a suitable home. 'I'm not staying to be bloody-minded. I've been offered a place on West Island, but it's unsuitable,' he says.

West Island is unsuitable partly because it is the European island, home to the 200 outsiders who work at the airfield, in the administration and on an Australian animal quarantine station. The Clunies-Rosses have always lived on Home Island, among the 300 Malays. There are strong blood ties, since several of the kings married Malay women.

Young John, 36, educated at Seaford College in Sussex, has three children by his first marriage (including another John), and a fiancee.

His pride is dented by his family's fall, but he is not inclined to wallow in history. All he wants to do, he says, is to stay on the island and make his living catching and exporting fish for aquariums.

(Photograph omitted)