THE MILLENNIUM COMES TO MILLENNIUM ISLAND

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By Phil Wilder Pacific Magazine January/February 2000

Special to the Pacific Islands Report

When the 2000 new year came to a small atoll in Kiribati’s Line Islands, it may have been the first to see the new millennium’s first sunrise. The place is called Millennium Island, rechristened from its former moniker, Caroline Island.

Its longitude is seven degrees farther east than Kiritimati (Christmas) Island, giving it a sunrise 28 minutes ahead of Kiritimati.

The island’s name was changed by the Kiribati government when it "moved" the international dateline some 2,000 miles eastward, wrapping it around the Line and Phoenix Islands, before bringing it back to Tarawa. The reason given was to place the far-flung nation into one time zone (and the same day).

Like many uninhabited Pacific islands, this atoll had many names before its newest one. First to discover it was Pedro Fernandez de Quiros on December 16, 1606. He named it San Bernardo.

Capt. W.R. Broughton on the British sloop Providence was the next "discoverer" in 1795. He named it Caroline after the daughter of Sir P. Stephens, first lord of the British Admiralty.

Then came Captain Thornton of the British whaler Supply in 1821 and so it was given the name Thornton Island. Other names included Clark’s Island, Hirst’s Island and Independence Island. It is the Caroline name that has persisted over the years, however. How long the name Millennium will stick is anyone’s guess.

The island is in a rainy southern latitude like Palmyra Island is, in its northern latitude above the equator. Only four islands of the 14 in the Line and Phoenix groups are inhabited and one of the four, Kanton, has a small Kiribati community today.

F.D. Bennet went ashore at Caroline in April 1834. He was impressed by the lush vegetation and coconuts growing on South Islet. He planted sweet potatoes, arrowroot and South Sea chestnut.

In 1846, a Tahitian company, Collie & Lucett, started a livestock venture, using Tahitians sent there to care for the animals, which included pigs, chickens and turkeys. C&L also tried raising vegetables and fruit such as melons, pumpkins and ninitas.

After C&L pulled out, a Captain Brothers and, later, a New Zealand company, J.T. Arundel, took over the island. The British granted the latter a guano license in 1874 for seven years. Some 10,000 tons of the fertilizer were shipped to California and Australia during this period.

When the British warship HMS Icarus visited Caroline in late January 1901, it found half-a-dozen inhabitants—five men and a woman—from Niue. They were returned to their home island and once again Caroline was deserted—until 1916.

Lever’s Pacific Plantations, Ltd. bought the lease in 1902, but it concentrated on another property, Flint Island, and did nothing to develop Caroline. Lever sold out to S.R. Maxwell & Co., Ltd. in 1910, with an occupation license granted for 91 years.

Maxwell started working and developing Caroline until 1934 when the business went bankrupt. Its workers did increase the number of coconut palms, planting 30,000 trees, but the seabird population was reduced and many coconut crabs were killed.

Capt. Omer Darr, an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, was the last lessee of Caroline, Flint and Vostok. This American lived on Moorea in Tahiti for 40 years with his wife, Harriet. They had a daughter and three sons.

Darr obtained a rare first from French officials to use his big sailing ship as a tourist charter boat between Tahiti and Hawai‘i. He got a single New Zealander to look after Caroline, but he soon left the island, probably from boredom.

Darr then had the help of a Scotsman, Ron Falconer, and his French wife Anne and their two children. They occupied Caroline like a Robinson Crusoe family for about four years (1989-1993).

Falconer grew papayas, bananas and other fruit during the family’s tenure on the island. The place was so fertile that creeper vines grew prodigiously, posing a real threat to the fruit trees.

Mrs. Falconer’s father was head of a big shipbuilding firm in France and, during a family illness, nearly had the French navy send a frigate to Caroline to bring her home. But, the Falconers had abandoned the island by this time anyway.

Darr approached Gilbert Islands colonial officials and, later, the Kiribati government to develop Flint and Caroline into a tourist venture by building a small hotel and airstrip. He also hoped to start a pearl fishery and turtle farm. Kiribati gave him tentative approval, but he never got a formal o.k. and his plans never came to fruition. Darr died in October 1999 in Hawai‘i. He was more than 80 years old.

And the Falconers? They parted after a year in Mangareva and Moorea. He took up playing his autoharp and singing at tourist bistros and hotels. Now, Caroline (Millennium, that is) is left alone once more.

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