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Hull Island, Phoenix Group, Republic of Kiribati


Phoenix Group

Hull Island (Orona), in the Phoenix Group, is located 249 nautical miles south of the equator, 60 miles west of Sydney Island, and 145 miles eastward of Gardner Island. It is 570 miles to the north of Apia, Samoa.

The Island is an atoll, consisting of a narrow rim of land, averaging less than 1/4 mile wide, surrounding a lagoon with depths of 50 to 60 feet. The lagoon is a shoal at both ends and contains numerous coral heads, only a few of which come close to the surface. The atoll is shaped like a parallelogram, with sides 4.1/2 by 2.1/2 miles, but the eastern side is bulged outward to a point, so that the atoll's greatest length (E.N.E.-W.S.W.) is about 5.1/2 miles and the average width is 2.1/4 miles.

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The rim on the north and south sides is cut by narrow, shallow lagoon entrances, which vary in number and position as storms break through and shift the sand upon the coral rim. In March, 1924, it was 13.1/2 miles around the rim and there were 17 channels on the north and 4 on the south, instead of the two on each side shown on the old hydrographic chart. Only two were more than waist deep. At present there are 20 on the north side, of which only two will admit a small boat from ocean to lagoon. The best entrance has a depth of about 4 feet, in part cleared by blasting.

The entire atoll is surrounded by a fringing reef, 80 to 250 yards wide, which generally dries at low water. There is no harbour, but with prevailing trade wind, anchorage may be had about 100 yards off the west end, opposite a beacon on the shore. Landing near here is not very difficult in calm weather.

The western curve of the rim has been planted to coconut palms, several thousand having been planted during the late 1880's, and many more during the past seven decades. The rest of the rim is covered by patches of scrubby forest, 10 to 20 feet high, less dense, but of the same kinds of trees and plants as are found on Sydney. Here and there Pisonia trees, up to 50 feet high, stand out. The tallest coconut palms raise their heads only 75 to 80 feet above the sea. In 1939 the forest at the northeast appeared nearly dead.

At the extreme eastern point the rim is very narrow and bare of trees. Here are located the ruins of an ancient stone marae of Polynesian shrine and there are small shelters, made of blocks of coral sandstone. At other places along the north rim are graves of platforms (Ellis reports finding a hundred), showing that Hull, like Sydney, was long ago a stopping place for wandering Polynesians and other Pacific islanders.

Fish are abundant off the reef and in the lagoon. Turtles used to be caught frequently. There are the usual kinds of sea and migratory birds, about 17 species. Cats, dogs, pigs, ducks, and chickens are raised domestically. There are three kinds of lizards, Polynesian rats, land and hermit crabs. About 50 kinds of insects were collected, but insect life is less abundant than on the wetter Sydney Island.

The island was named by Commander Charles Wilkes for Commodore Isaac Hull, U.S.N. (1773-1843) on August 26, 1840, when the U.S.S. Vincennes visited the island. This party of the U.S. Exploring Expedition was surprised to find on the island a sick Frenchman and 11 Tahitians, who had been left there five months before to catch turtles, while their vessel went to Samoa to trade. American whalers had also visited the island, mistaking it for Sydney, as did Captain Hudson of the Peacock, January 17, 1841. It might have been due to this confusion that Hull was not claimed by American guano diggers, although Sydney and Gardner were, along with all the other islands of this region.

Sir Albert F. Ellis tells how, about the middle of 1887, he and his elder brother James (sons of the manager of Baker and Howland Islands for John T. Arundel and Co.) arrived at Hull, established a camp, and set out some 20,000 coconuts which they had brought with them. Many more were planted later.

The British flag was hoisted on Hull July 11, 1889. In 1916 the island was among those leased for 87 years to Captain Allen and used by the Samoan Shipping and Trading Co. for the production of copper. In 1924, the seventeen Tokelau native workmen were in charge of Wyllie Shafer, Yankee ex-marine with Samoan wife and family. After the death of Captain Allen in 1925, the group nearly starved through failure to receive supplies. Mr. Shafer died on Hull, February 15, 1931.

No use was made of the island during the next seven years. Then Captain J. W. Jones went there as manager for Burns Philp Co. He arrived in May, 1937, on the Makoa, which went aground on the west point on May 22, the wreck, in two pieces, being still visible on July 28, 1938.

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now the Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu) took over the lease in 1938, retaining Captain Jones as administrator of the island. In July 1939, there was a well arranged village, where the copra camp used to be, at the west end, occupied by about 80 natives from the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati), with promise of about 200 more before the end of 1939. At that time the wells were brackish, due to drought, but a large concrete cistern was to be built.

As on Sydney Island, the 14,000 coconut palms had been apportioned among the settlers at the rate of about 50 bearing trees per adult. The Kiribati name of this island is Orona. 

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(E-mail: -- 16th January 2005)