King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands

View across the water to the village, with boats and trees visibleA view of the [indecipherable name of] village, just beyond a natural breakwater (seen in the foreground). Good shelter for boatsThe Cocos (Keeling) Islands, now an external territory of Australia, became a formal part of the British Empire in 1857. Before this, from 1820, a Scottish family ruled the island as self-styled ‘Kings.’

The settlements are based around a small coral atoll and were said to be first acknowledged by western explorers in 1608-9 by William Keeling, a member of the East India Company.

By 1885 the Islands were under the formal control of the British crown, when EW Birch (1857-1929), a crown agent, was sent there by the governor of the Strait Settlements, an area covering modern-day Malaysia and Singapore.

Birch’s visit was with the expressed intention of investigating the state of the atoll, including taking a census. In this process he recorded a variety of aspects of island life, including the currency issued by the Clunie-Ross family.

Within island culture, Birch registered the means through which the Ross family had assembled a colonial hierarchy, subjugating the Cocos people and Bantamese migrants from Sunda and Java to indentured labour.

Birch’s companion Horace R Adams took photos of the island and the islanders, including indentured domestic servants taken from the local population.

Picnic house on Hasburgh Island, being a group portrait of EW Birch and his companions and one local personPicnic house on Hasburgh IslandDespite their strange British outpost in the Pacific Ocean, the Clunie-Ross family was said by Birch to have been educated on the British mainland. Moreover, far from being deliberately isolationist, the Clunie-Ross family were hoping Birch’s report could further their plans for a telegraph to be installed.

The islands remained in the ownership of the family until 1978, when they were purchased by the Australian government for $4.75 million.

The photographs reproduced here highlight an instance of ‘representing the unfamiliar.’ The Clunie-Ross family represented a strange instance of white-settlement. Whilst it was common for white settlers to establish an exclusionary government, it was not common to see a single family establishing such control along racial, economic and patrimonial grounds.

Link to King's College London catalogue record:

EW Birch. The report of Mr EW Birch, deputed by the officer administering the government of the Straits Settlements (Mr. Cecil C. Smith, C.M.G.) to visit the Cocos-Keeling Islands [Singapore?: publisher not identified, 1885]

ARCHIOS™ | Total time:0.0298 s | Source:cache | Platform: NX