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Phoenix Group, Kiribati

The Canton Island Message Forum

Canton Island (also known by its Kiribati name of Kanton or Abariringa) is the largest and most northern of the Phoenix Group. The island is an atoll, made up of a low, narrow rim of land surrounding a large shallow lagoon. Its shape had been likened to that of a pork chop. It is 4.1/2 miles wide on the west, from which it narrows to the southeast point, which is nine miles distant from the northwest point.

canton.jpg (41881 bytes)

The rim of land varies in width from 50 to 600 yards, and its height from 5 to 20 feet. The ocean beach rises steeply from its fringing reef to a crest, within which the surface is fairly level and smooth. The beach is composed alternately of coral sand and broken fragments of reef rocks. On the lagoon side the beach is lower, in places with white sand running out onto the fringing reef.

Much of the rim is nearly bare or sparsely covered with low herbs and bunch grass. A stretch of about two miles on the south side supports a thick stand of Scaevola shrubs, eight to twelve feet high.

Click on the above for a larger aerial
photograph of Canton Island, Phoenix Group,
Republic of Kiribati, courtesy of Ross and Lorna Thompson

There are also small patches of wiry Suriana shrubs near the lagoon shore at the northwest and southeast ends. Half a dozen small clumps of heliotrope and kou trees, and ten grown coconut palms made up the balance of the conspicuous vegetation, a dozen species in all.

Aerial view of Canton Island by Joseph Cosgrove
Click on the above for a larger image.
Please check out Joe's great Web site:


More interesting Canton Island pictures courtesy of Joe Cosgrove

Into the lagoon there are four entrances, all on the west side. The most northern, which ran in 1924, is now dry. The middle two are blocked by reefs and rocks. The southern entrance has deep water through the rim, but within it is blocked by coral heads, which with a network of reefs choke the entire western half of the lagoon. A boat of shallow draft can work eastward close to the southern side; and along this route guano was transported (1885-6) from a small stone pier on the northern side. Pan-American Airways has blasted a wide channel across the southern half of this part of the lagoon, to provide a safe landing basin for seaplanes.

Card that was prepared by Pan Am as a stuffer inside the
first flight covers from Canton Island courtesy of Kendall C. Sanford

One of the rare survey flight covers from Canton Island in 1939 courtesy of Kendall C. Sanford

The bird life has been described by two naturalists, J. J. Lister (in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1891) and Major G. A. Buddle, a member of the New Zealand 1937 eclipse expedition (Auckland Museum Record, November, 1938). They list 23 species, including 3 shearwaters, a petrel, the red-tailed tropic bird, 3 kinds of boobies, great and lesser frigate, 8 species of terns, curlew, golden plover, and wandering tattler. The Polynesian rat, lizards, hermit crabs, and marine life are as on the other islands, and turtles come up onto sandy beaches to lay their eggs.

Canton Island was discovered independently by several ships, most of them American whalers, for which it was a frequent haven, despite its lack of water and coconut groves, for there was fair anchorage off the southwestern lagoon entrance. The variety of names, including Mary, Swallow, and Mary Balcout, attest these "discoveries," the earliest of which must have been before 1820, as these names appear in early lists. The British claim a visit by H.M.S. Curacao, Captain Gibson, during the 1850's.

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Dedication of Canton Island lighthouse, July 27, 1938

The name Canton came late but stuck because of the dramatic circumstances. On March 4, 1854, the New Bedford whale ship Canton, Captain Andrew J. Wing ran aground on its reef. The Captain and crew, after a brief stay, took to their open boats, and after 49 days arrived at Guam. In 1872, Commander R. W. Meade, of the U.S.S. Narragansett, who surveyed the island during his efforts to bring Captain William "Bully" Hayes to justice, named it Canton to commemorate this adventure.

Although claimed by American guano diggers, Canton does not seem to have been worked by them. A little guano was dug by the John T. Arundel Company, between 1885 and 1886. In 1899 the island was leased to Pacific Islands Company, but not developed. In 1916, it was among the islands leased to Captain Allen of the Samoan Shipping and Trading Company, but aside from planting a few coconut palms, of which ten survived, the Company made no use of the island.

Canton broke into the news in 1937, when American and New Zealand eclipsed expeditions shows it as a spot from which to view the total eclipse of the sun of July 8. Enough radio and publicity was produced to put any spot on the map.

But more than the eclipse was observed. Both British and Americans noted, that here was a splendid lagoon in which seaplanes could settle as well as a flat rim for land planes. British and American parties each made a monument displaying the flag of its nation.

Prior to this the British had taken pains to reassert their jurisdiction over the Phoenix Islands. Officials had landed on Canton from H.M.S. Leith on August 6, 1936 and had posted a sign asserting sovereignty in the name of King Edward VIII. On June 3, 1937, H.M.S. Wellington stopped and a second sign was nailed up on the coconut palm, in the name of King George VI. Meanwhile, on April 8, 1937, the Phoenix Islands had been placed for safekeeping in charge of the Gilberts and Ellice Islands Colony (now Kiribati and Tuvalu), and its administrator and had added his sign in October 1937.

On August 31st, 1937, two British agents, with powerful radio equipment, were landed by H.M.S. Leith; one was replaced on January 17, 1938, and another on June 22, 1938. They received their supplies from the passing Canadian and Australian steamships.

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British and American camps on Canton Island, 1938

Despite all this British safeguarding, an American party of seven, including surveyors and a radio engineer, besides four part Hawaiian colonists, landed on the island at 9.00 a.m. March 7, 1938, and set up their camp alongside the British. This had followed an administrative order, signed on March 3, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, placing Canton and Enderbury under jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior.

It was a friendly and bloodless invasion, each party sharing the other's hospitality. They knew that the settlement lay in Washington and London. This settlement was finally reached in April 1939, when Canton and Enderbury were placed under joint British and American control for fifty years, and "thereafter until such time as it may be modified or terminated by mutual consent". During 1938 and 1939 Pan American Airways laid out and developed an extensive airport, deepened and cleared the lagoon, and initiated flights to New Zealand using Canton as one of the ports of call. 

Canton Island came under the jurisdiction of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Kiribati and Tuvalu) on March 18, 1937. During the 1950s and 1960s the District Officer was Paul Laxton and we are indebted to Paul's daughter Hilary for sharing with us her recollections of growing up on Canton Island.

I have many memories of my brother John and I playing with friends, Kokoia, Te Biria, Areni (who was the daughter of the medical officer), and Ereuana. Most of us went to school on the American side in a launch each day through a passage blown from the lagoon coral some time before the debris had formed long thin Island which were covered with terns. Other terns covered what we called the 'old runway' and Dad tried not to run over their eggs in the old Landrover. 'Boobies' as we called the giant blue faced gannets, lived in the stunted mau bushes halfway round the island. If we drove back from the far side at night, the ground would be covered with makauro, John and I used to want Dad to stop so we could get some as we used them for bait, but I don't recall that he ever did.

The PanAm hotel was disused, we used to play in it though, climbing in through a tiny highup window. Lucky my parents never found us out. I remember the Musick light, when we came to NZ we found 'Musick Point' named after the same airman, it seemed like a connection for me, homesick as I was for Kiribati. We thought the stunted grove of trees further over were a forest. We just roamed and played where ever we liked, no-one ever worried about us, they knew if we were doing something dangerous or naughty, any passer-by would stop us and put us right.

I still dream about Canton at times.

Hilary Kerrod.


George Ballard from Houston, Texas, spent two weeks on Canton Island in 1964 while serving in the United States Navy. George has kindly shared his recollections of Canton Island with us - a time he remembers as being both the best two weeks of his enlistment and certainly one of his favourite memories.

Memories of Canton Island by George Ballard

Harold Mendelson from Tallahassee, Florida, USA, arrived at Canton Island on the troop ship SS President Taylor on Friday, 13th February, 1942, less than ten weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The mission of the Task Force was to protect Canton Island, a strategic refueling point for planes travelling from the United States to Australia. Harold has very kindly agreed to share with us his recollections of Canton Island, including the grounding of the SS President Taylor.

Memories of Canton Island by Harold D Mendelson                                                                    

About Canton Island by Bruce Jacobs 


The author, Carl Oates, was a Pan Am operations representative on Canton Island in the period 1947-48. This book is a personal account which includes many and varied anecdotes, from the observations of a total eclipse of the sun to the skills of the Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) fishermen (and their song); and from the shipments of fish to the US to the strategic usefulness of Canton Island during the testing period of the space age. The book is 225 pages and includes 56 photographs, many of which are quite rare as well as 12 maps. The old photographs and unique stories make lively and fascinating reading.

For more information, please contact:

Carl Oates
776 Glendale Avenue
Ashland, Oregon 97520

For further information about Canton (Kanton) and the
Phoenix Group as well as the Line Islands, please contact:
Kiraren T Tebetanga
Tourism Development Officer
Tourism Office
Ministry of Communication, Transport & Tourism Development
Ronton, Kiritimati
Telephone: 0011-686-81198
Facsimile: 0011-686-81316

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