Historical Documents Pertaining to the British Colony on Gardner Island
1939 to 1963
from the Kiribati National Archives
In 1937 the British government approved a plan to establish a colony of coconut plantations on three of the islands of the Phoenix Group – Sydney Island (now Manra), Hull Island (now Orona), and Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro). The project was known as the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme and turned out to be the final colonial expansion of the British Empire. Its purpose was to relieve over-population pressures in the southern-most atolls of the Gilbert Islands and, more to the point, bolster British claims of sovereignty to atolls of the Phoenix Group whose lagoons were potentially valuable as refueling bases for transpacific commercial flying boats.
The first eight-man work party of Gilbertese laborers was put ashore at Gardner in late December 1938 to begin clearing land for the establishment of a village. Their families arrived April 30, 1939 and, over the next twenty-four years, the colony gradually grew to a population of 230 and the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme became the Phoenix Islands District of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony.
The project was not a success. By 1963 the colonies on Sydney and Hull had failed and, in that year, the settlement on Gardner was abandoned due to a severe drought. The population was transported and resettled in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate two thousand miles to the west. The island has remained uninhabited since then. An understanding of what happened on Gardner Island/Nikumaroro during the time the atoll was inhabited is crucial to accurately assessing the evidence that, a year and a half before the first laborers arrived, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan landed there, survived for a time, and died as castaways.
In 1979 the Gilbert Islands became the independent Republic of Kiribati. The records of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme and Phoenix Islands District are now housed in the Kiribati National Archive in the nation’s capital Tarawa. In 2001 and again in 2011, TIGHAR researchers visited the archive and made hundreds of copies of historical documents that chronicle the fascinating story of the colony's rise and fall.
Making TIGHAR’s extensive collection of documents from the Kiribati National Archive available and easily searchable on line is a monumental task for which we have no dedicated funding but we’re working along at it as time permits. Check back for periodic updates. To make a contribution that will help fund this effort click here.