The Cocos (Keeling) Islands is a tiny group of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean 2800 kilometres north-west of Perth and 900 kilometres from Java. It has a population of about 600.
These islands were nominally a British territory between 1858 and 1955, when they were transferred by a British act of parliament to Australia. Yet for the next 17 years, the Australian government allowed the islands to operate as a private fiefdom of the Clunies-Ross family — just as the British had for 100 years before then.
The islands were uninhabited until 1826, when Alexander Hare, a former minor British colonial official, set up an establishment with about 50 slaves, mainly of Malay background, and a personal “harem” he had collected from many colonial outposts.
Hare was displaced a year later by his former business partner, John Clunies-Ross, a Scottish ship captain whose descendants enriched themselves on the labour of the Malay plantation workforce, who they paid with tokens that could be spent on only the company store.
The Malay islanders had no access to formal education, but the Clunies-Ross children were sent to private schools in Britain. The head of the Clunies-Ross family was the island’s lawmaker, judge and administrator. Anyone who did not accept his rule was banished.
So it is no surprise that, when the Cocos Islanders were finally given the choice between independence, free association and integration with Australia in 1984, they overwhelmingly voted in secret ballot for integration. Only members of the Clunies-Ross family and a couple of loyal servants were in favour of “independence”.
But the Australian government did not offer the islanders their liberation from semi-feudalism just out of respect for freedom.
Kenneth Chan, the Australian administrator on the Cocos Islands from 1983-85 admitted in a largely unnoticed academic paper he wrote in 1987 that the islands’ strategic location was the main motivation to acquire and integrate this Indian Ocean territory.
The islands were used as a military base by the British in World Wars I and II. Now, the US military wants the islands as a base for drones and other spy planes. Pentagon officials hope Australia will make up for a possible closure or downgrading of its main Indian Ocean island military base in Diego Garcia, which the US leased from Britain in 1966.
The US built its giant base on Diego Garcia in the 1970s after the 2000 Chagos Islanders were forcibly removed through trickery and starvation, a colonial crime exposed to the world relatively recently.
The US has used Diego Garcia as a base for nuclear weapons, marines, warships, bombers and spy planes. It has used it as a transit station for political prisoners sent for “rendition” to other countries so they can be tortured, though this is officially denied. Diego Garcia is a strategic hub of the US killing machine.
But the US lease runs out in 2016 and the Pentagon wants to relocate at least some of the military functions of the base to various Australian bases in Western Australia, Darwin and the Cocos Islands.
The Gillard Labor government and the Liberal-National opposition wholeheartedly support this process and have already agreed to station thousands of US marines in Darwin.
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