One of the great mysteries of the 20th century is apparently solved. Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan died on a small atoll in the Pacific, lost and out of fuel.The evidence seems pretty convincing (THIGAR website), but it is simply a to good story to really die, so I am sure, the ‘Truth’ will still be discussed for a long time somewhere on the internet….
But I did not want to discuss the quircks of internetfora here. I want to focus on something that is probably going to be overlooked in all this: how interesting; Nikumaroro or Gardner Island, like it was previously called actally is as an Island!
Agreed, you should have some love for history, and a soft spot for remote ilands helps, but it manageds to be interesting in so many ways! It is not just the last resting place (probably) of one of the first great female aviators. In the modest history of the Island, we find US colonialism, the last attempts of British Emperialism, and shipwrecks. All the good stuff.
On Google maps it’s not very impressive, an Atoll like there are thousand s in the Pacific. Sort of an ellipse with a hole in the middle. You could shoot a pretty decent Bounty commercial on it probably. Or something with shampoo’s. Or Rum.
It has a first documented sighting, by white Europeans of course, in 1824. It is very likely that humans set foot on the island in the migration that send the first humans all over the Pacific islands, like Tuvalu (which is close, in Pacific distance terms), but since they neglected to document this fact, the island was officially discovered by Capt. C. Kemiss (or Kemin, Kemish. Documentation was still an issue in those times.) from the British whaling ship Eliza Ann.
Later visitors named it Gardner’s Island, but did not try to colonize it. That was left to the USA, after the introduction of the Guano Island Act of 1856. Which, for those who are not familiar with it, declared that any island, anywhere in the world, that did not belong to another country yet, and had any commercially interesting amounts of bird shit on it, was part of the USA. Or as the official phrasing was:
Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.
Bird droppings contain saltpeter, very useful when you want to make gunpowder or fertilizer, so Guano was a hot ticket in the 19th century. The USA created the Act to seize good Gauno islands, but without adding them officially to the USA. Instead, they had the status of ‘Insular Area’s’. Sounds better than ‘colony’ any way.
In 1856, Nikumaroro was claimed as “Kemins Island” by CA Williams & Co. of New London, Connecticut, but there are no records of any actual mining taking place. The island stays empty and pretty much ignored until on 8 May 1892, the island was claimed by the United Kingdom during a visit at the island by HMS Curacoa. A London businessman called John T. Arundel gets a concession to plant coconuts, and he sends workers to the island. But it all fails within a year because of a shortage of water on the island. Proving that Pacific islands are not by definition tropical paradises. Nikumaroro, or Gardner Island as it is called at that time, is a harsh, dry place. There will be no other attempts to populate the island until 1938.
In the meantime, the Island is empty again, except for the short stay on it by the survivors of shipwreck of the SS Norwich City, a British freighter with a crew of 35 men, that was caught on the reef at the island’s northwest corner on 29 November 1929. And Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan in 1937, apparently.
The 24 survivors of the crew of the Norwich City were saved after several days of camping in the ruins of the old coconut plantation. If Amelia Earhart also stayed there is not known at this moment.
The island was inhabited a little over a year after the disappearance of Earhart, so if she had flown one year later, she could have been saved theoretically! On 20 December 1938, British officials arrived with 20 settlers from the Gilbert Islands in the last colonial expansion of the British Empire . Digging wells and planting coconuts, they managed to scrape a meager existence from the atoll, but it can not have been a rich existence. A sign of the changing times, that he last colony of the English Empire at once rules the world, was postage stamp in the Pacific, that must have costed more than it even could produce…
There was a radio transmitter, and the island had a post office. That must mean there are somewhere still, maybe, British stamps with a ‘Gardner Island’ postmark…I am not a collector in any way, but I’d buy that stamp if I ever see it!
The war did reach the nearby Gilbert Islands, that were occupied by the Japanese army, but Gardner island was never invaded, although a United States Coast Guard LORAN radar station with 25 crewmen was located on the southeastern tip of the island.
The entire colony was abandoned in 1965, leaving it again uninhabited. When the Gilbert and Ellice Islands became independent from England in 1971, Nikumaroro became a part of the new state….with no local inhabitants, an almost comical and strictly administrative event, but it had to belong to someone after all. In 1978, the Ellice Islands separated, and the Gilberts became the Gilbert Islands colony, which issued stamps under that name. In 1979, the Gilberts themselves gained independence, becoming the independent nation of Kiribati. The Ellice Islands became the independent nation of Tuvalu. If Nikumaroro had any preference in this divorce regarding it’s destiny, is was not recorded.
Also in 1971, the US waived any claims on Gardner island, since it was not suitable for atomic testing. Garnder island became Nikumaroro, and was left in peace. How exactly it would have played out if the US would have tried to hold on to the island using a pretty dodgy one sided treaty (Okay, the dodgy is more my opnion than maybe the best legal term for the treaty…) from the 1900’s, let alone nuke it is a question that is fascinating, but will remain unknown!
The rough coast of Nikumaroro makes it difficult to land on it, so very few people visit it nowadays…if they get in the vicinity at all of course. This is an empty, lonely piece of the Pacific.
So, if Nikumaroro is indeed the place where Earhart crashed and died, then it is even more interesting than it already was. But even if it isn’t, I would still buy that postmark if I could afford it…because I started to feel for the island. But I do hope that there will be no big effort to find more bones of Amelia Earhart, or Fred Noonan (who always gets overlooked, the poor guy). If they are there, than that is marvelous place for explorers to be. Let them be. Let Nikumaroro be. It had an interesting history. It doesn’t need any more human interference. We need wild places like that on the planet.