National Post (Latest Edition)
The last ‘king’ of the Cocos
Eccentric fiefdom toppled by Australia
John Clunies-ross, who has died aged 92, became the last “king” of the Cocos, a tiny (14-square-kilometre) coral archipelago in the Indian Ocean, in 1944, but spent much of his “reign” fighting rearguard actions against hostile governments in Canberra, which assumed sovereignty in 1955.
The islands, roughly halfway between Sri Lanka and Australia, were first discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling of the East India Company and named the Cocos-keeling Islands by a British hydrographer in 1805.
Clunies-ross’s greatgreat-grandfather and namesake, a sea captain originally from the Shetland Islands, visited in 1814 and returned with his family and eight “sailor-artisans” in 1825. They dug wells and established a coconut plantation for copra production, subsequently importing Malay labourers to work it.
In 1886 Queen Victoria gave the Cocos to the Clunies-ross family in perpetuity, and they went on to develop what was widely regarded for many years as a benign, if eccentric, dictatorship.
Many saw the Cocos as a model community. But the outside world could not be kept at bay forever, and during the Second World War the Cocos became an important transit point for the Allies. After John’s father died of a heart attack during a Japanese bombing raid in August 1944, the British military took control of Home Island until young John returned to take up his inheritance in July 1946.
Returning to the Cocos as “king,” after the Second World War, Clunies-ross maintained the paternalistic traditions of his ancestors.
In 1952, the British government transferred administrative control from Singapore to Australia, though as Clunies-ross owned all the land, he felt able to declare that he did not regard himself as subject to Canberra.
In 1951 Australia had bought land on West Island for an airfield; Clunies-ross confined Australian officials to the island and forbade his subjects to talk to them.
In 1974, a UN mission to the island condemned the “anachronistic and feudal” relationship between the Clunies-ross family and the Malays, and demanded democratic reform.
In 1978 Australia took full control and forced Clunies-ross to sell his land, under threat of compulsory