John Clunies-Ross, ‘king’ of the Cocos Islands, was toppled by Canberra

John Clunies-Ross, ‘king’ of the Cocos Islands, was toppled by Canberra

John Clunies-Ross, who has died aged 92, became the last “king” of the Cocos, a tiny (5.5 square miles) coral archipelago in the Indian Ocean, in 1944, but spent much of his “reign” fighting rearguard actions against hostile governments in Canberra, which assumed sovereignty in 1955.

The islands, roughly halfway between Sri Lanka and Australia, were discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling of the East India Company and named the Cocos-Keeling Islands by a British hydrographer in 1805. John Clunies-Ross’ great-great-grandfather and namesake, a sea captain from the Shetland Islands, visited in 1814 and returned with his family and eight “sailor-artisans” in 1825. They dug wells and established a coconut plantation for copra production, subsequently importing Malay labourers to work it.

John Clunies-Ross, ‘king’ of the Cocos Islands, was toppled by Canberra
John Clunies-Ross on his paradise island in 1972. CREDIT:FAIRFAX

Another adventurer, Alexander Hare, an English merchant infamous for his polygamous lifestyle, had arrived shortly before Ross with a harem of 40 Malay women, whom he established on Direction Island to be as far as possible from the sanctions of civilisation. By 1830, however, the Clunies-Ross community on Home Island had a population of 175, most of whom were men.

The attractions of Home Island proved too great for Hare’s harem, who sought Clunies-Ross’ protection, and in 1831, after a period of high tension between the two would-be colonisers, Hare was driven out.

John Clunies-Ross, ‘king’ of the Cocos Islands, was toppled by Canberra
The Cocos Islands. CREDIT:GETTY

Clunies-Ross imported more Malay workers, built up his coconut plantations and prospered. In 1886, Queen Victoria gave the Cocos to the Clunies-Ross family in perpetuity, and they went on to develop what was widely regarded for many years as a benign, if eccentric, dictatorship.

They built themselves a mansion on a promontory on Home Island overlooking the main Cocos lagoon. Oceania House, with eight bedrooms, grand ballroom and central spiral staircase, was built between 1887 and 1904 employing local labour, using bricks from Glasgow and three tonnes of teak to line the walls.

John Clunies-Ross, ‘king’ of the Cocos Islands, was toppled by Canberra
The Malayan village of Home Island with islanders and John Clunies-Ross (Photo by George Lipman/FairCREDIT:FAIRFAX

Under the Clunies-Ross regime, the Malays were paid in Cocos Island rupees, an invented currency (first paper, then plastic) which was redeemable only at the family store. Any islander who chose to leave was barred from returning. The family insisted on naming every child born on Cocos, giving them names such as Yes, Dollar, Champagne, Darling and Wedding.

The Cocos-Malays developed a unique identity, mixing Islamic culture with Scottish traditions; Muslim weddings were often accompanied by Caledonian reels.

Many saw the Cocos as a model community, one British traveller at the turn of the 20th century calling it a “species of Arcadia”. There were, he observed, “no police, no crimes, no trade unions, no strikes. Mr Ross [John’s grandfather, George] was king, doctor, parson, magistrate and merchant, all rolled into one … the friendliness, well-being and content of his subjects afforded a lesson to many a more enlightened kingdom.”

But the outside world could not be kept at bay forever, and during World War II, the Cocos became an important transit point for the Allies. After John’s father died of a heart attack during a Japanese bombing raid in August 1944, the British military took control of Home Island until young John returned to take up his inheritance in July 1946.

John Cecil Clunies-Ross was born on November 29, 1928, one of five children of John Sidney Clunies-Ross, the fourth “king” of the Cocos, and Rose (nee Nash). He spent most of his early years in Britain, taking a degree in sociology at the University of London and studying colonial administration at the University of Oxford.

Returning to the Cocos as “king”, or “Tuan Besar” (“Big Master” in Malay) after World War II, Clunies-Ross maintained the paternalistic traditions of his ancestors, overseeing a social welfare program, including optional retirement with pension at 60, along with free healthcare, housing and schooling.

John Clunies-Ross, ‘king’ of the Cocos Islands, was toppled by Canberra
John Clunies-Ross and Daphne Holmes Parkinson married in London in 1951.CREDIT:UNKNOWN

In 1951, he married Daphne Parkinson, from Burnley in Lancashire, and in 1954, the couple received the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, who were entertained by islanders dancing their own version of a Highland reel accompanied by Malaysian violins and gandongs (drums).

A year after the Queen’s visit, however, the British government transferred administrative control from Singapore to Australia, though as Clunies-Ross owned all the land, he felt able to declare that he did not regard himself as subject to Canberra. In 1951, Australia had bought land on West Island for an airfield; Clunies-Ross confined Australian officials to the island, forbade his subjects to talk to them and continued to rule, his authority symbolised by the long dagger he wore in his belt.

John Clunies-Ross, ‘king’ of the Cocos Islands, was toppled by Canberra
The Queen tours Cocos Island on her homeward voyage from Australia in 1954.CREDIT:GETTY

His feudal kingdom triggered columns of indignation from liberal-minded Australian journalists, and in 1974, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam galvanised a UN mission into visiting the islands. The mission duly condemned the “anachronistic and feudal” relationship between the Clunies-Ross family and the Malays and demanded democratic reform.

Though Clunies-Ross dismissed claims that he ran a feudal state as “nonsense”, the UN report prompted the Australian government to grant powers to its local island administrator to take charge of education, healthcare and sale of food, and to replace the Cocos rupee with the Australian dollar.

In 1978, Australia took full control and forced Clunies-Ross to sell his land, under threat of compulsory acquisition, except for Oceania House and a plot of two acres, for $6.25 million (Clunies-Ross had asked for $35 million, today worth about $188 million).

Clunies-Ross continued to wield significant influence on the islands and Australian politicians became increasingly convinced that he had to be made to leave if the Cocos people were to be aligned to Australian democratic norms.

In 1982, a home affairs minister in the government of Malcolm Fraser warned of “countervailing forces including the influence of Mr Clunies-Ross”, and in 1983, after a territories minister complained of a “master-servant” relationship between Clunies-Ross and locals that allowed the “king” to hold sway, the government of Bob Hawke attempted to force the sale of Oceania House, only to be forced to retreat when Clunies-Ross successfully challenged the proposed expropriation in Australia’s High Court.

John Clunies-Ross, ‘king’ of the Cocos Islands, was toppled by Canberra
Clunies-Ross outside the high court in Canberra in 1983.CREDIT:FAIRFAX

The government then ordered that the Clunies-Ross family shipping company, which had been bought with proceeds from the original sale of their land, could not be awarded any government work, and in 1986 Clunies-Ross was declared bankrupt.

Two years before, in a UN-supervised referendum, the islanders had voted by 261 to 32 for full integration with Australia. Clunies-Ross, who had lobbied the islanders to vote for independence or free association, moved to a Perth suburb with his wife and in 1991 the Hawke government agreed to pay $1.55 million to buy Oceania House. In 1993, Clunies-Ross was reported to be working as a sales director for a clothing catalogue company.

In 2007, a newspaper observed: “Even after 30 years, the [Cocos] community argues over whether the Clunies-Ross were benevolent dictators or exploitative colonialists.”

John Clunies-Ross’s wife, Daphne, died in 2013. He is survived by three sons and two daughters.

The Telegraph, London

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