Cocos (Keeling) Islands

From Home Island, looking across the lagoon.

Together the Cocos (Keeling) Islands form the classic circular shape of an atoll. The coral islands are the remains of an extinct volcano which has either been submerged, or has risen over millions of years, from the ocean floor. Only the eroded rim of the vent is now above sea level. Its coral islands form a protective circle around the tranquil lagoon while the constant surf, rolling in from the Indian Ocean, pounds their outer beaches.

During the 1860s the Islands were owned by successive generations of the Cluneys Ross family. The patriarch, George Cluneys Ross, brought Malaysian workers over from the Mainland to work his copra-producing plantation. By the 1960s the plantation had ceased to be commercially viable. The Cluneys Ross family eventually handed it over to the Australian Government who now control the Islands as part of their Indian Ocean Territories. The workers, who by then had lived there for four generations and had become virtually cut off from the outside world, stayed on.

Today the Cocos Malays are a unique community with their own language, traditions and values. Always hardworking, devout and loyal, they have managed to  survive, mostly in isolation, for eight  generations. They have developed their own quinine, mainly based on the abundant seafood that the islands produce with the addition of vegetables they can grow and the chickens that range freely around the settlement.

I feel privileged to have been invited in to the Primary School on Home Island, where the bulk of the Cocos Malay population live, and to have swapped stories with the lively, smiling, black-eyed children and their charming parents, many of whom work as assistants in the school. Others come with food each day and sit with their children while they eat at recess and lunch time.

On West Island, which has a more mixed population and a District High School, I was based in the

Display set up by the students of Cocos Islands District High School for Elaine Forrestal’s visit

Library each day, doing workshops with all of the classes. Halfway through the first day I was surprised to see an enormous lion staring balefully at me from one of the pin-up boards. ‘I know that lion from somewhere,’ I thought. It was definitely not a local as they have lizards, but not lions, on Cocos. During a break I decided to confront this almost life-sized creature and found that James Foley had drawn it several years before! Then I discovered some smaller, more discreet pieces of artwork by Matt Ottley and felt that I was in highly esteemed company.

In terms of a pristine environment and friendly, self sufficient people it is difficult to imagine a more pleasant place than the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

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