The History Of The Cocos (Keeling) Islands

Posted on 1/19/2016

Private issued Rupees, ivory and bone tokens, and the Australian Dollar are a few of the currencies that have been issued on the Cocos Islands since it was settled.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are currently a territory of Australia located in the Indian Ocean southwest of the Christmas Islands roughly halfway between Sri Lanka and Australia. Cocos consists of two atolls (a ring-shaped reef) and 27 coral islands (islands which are formed from coral detritus and associated organic material). Two of the 27 are inhabited – West Island and Home Island, with a total population of approximately 620 people. Home Island (locally known as Pulu Selma) is the larger of the two inhabited islands housing about 500 predominately Cocos Malay people. West Island (locally known as Pulau Panjang) is home of the Clunies-Ross coconut plantation, an airstrip (which was built during World War II), and a general store among other administrative buildings.

These islands have been called many things: Cocos Islands, Keeling Islands, Keeling-Cocos Islands, Borneo Coral Isles, and most recently Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The islands have also been administered by several countries: Ceylon, Straits Settlements, and Singapore. As it is told, William Keeling was the fist European to spot the islands sometime between 1608-16091. Scottish merchant Captain John Clunies-Ross (1786-1854) claimed the islands with the flag of Great Britain – The Union Jack, between 1814-1818 (depending on accounts) aboard the Borneo. In fact, before Clunies-Ross fully established the island a wealthy Englishman Alexander Hare (1775-1834) settled the atolls and established his residence on Rice Island. Hare hired a captain, and brought a harem of forty women from Malaysia. By the time Clunies-Ross had come to the islands with his family around 18252 Hare had already settled two-thirds of the islands. Clunies-Ross and company made their home on what they called New Selma. The two families tried to live in peace, but they did not get along. Hare believed that he had just as much right to be there as Clunies-Ross, and Hare would not leave. This upset Clunies-Ross and his sailors. Those living in New Selma called Rice Island Prisoner Island and that name has stuck ever since. Soon there after Clunies-Ross claimed all of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands as his own and sent Hare packing to Batavia3. However, this seems to contradict what John Clunies-Ross wrote to The Metropolitan. In this article (see footnote number 2), Clunies-Ross said Mr. Hare left under his own power with the people whom he had power over. He also said Mr. Hare came to the islands after he did in 1826.

Chart of the Cocoas (Keeling) Islands in 1840
Click image to enlarge.

John Clunies-Ross established a coconut export business in 1830. The island was rich with coconuts, hence the name Cocos. Clunies-Ross used convict labor to field his plantation. This practice was abolished in 1875. From 1826 until 1875 there were two circulating currencies: Indian Rupees and Ceylon Rupees4. Later Clunies-Ross introduced his own currency for payment for his workers. This need to create a currency, known as the Cocos Rupee, came out of necessity. Without payment he would lose his work force. However, there were two catches. Payment was only redeemable at Clunies-Ross’ own general store. Several sources claim that the workers on Cocos (Keeling) thought the Clunies-Ross as family, and not as a boss. The Second catch was if you left the island you were not welcomed back5.

Private issued currency was first issued in 1879 on sheepskin hand signed by King George Clunies-Ross6, or more formally known as Ross III. There were 100 cents to every 1 Rupee. The Clunies-Ross family kept a close eye on all released and circulated currency. There were always 6 circulating denominations, mostly, 5, 3, 2, 1, ½, and ¼ Rupee. Later, in 1902, Ross IV introduced the 1/10 Rupee and dispensed of the 3 Rupee7.

Pick S-119; KNB11
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Pick Unlisted; KNB1
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In 1913 Ross IV also decided to replace the paper money with ivory or bone tokens. The new tokens had the family crest. In total there were 7 of such pieces. John Cecil Clunies-Ross (Ross V) produced 10 plastic tokens in 1968 apparently only for internal accounting purposes8. Since then there have been several commemorative coins produced.

KN1-7, obverse
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KN1-7, reverse
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KN8-17, (top) reverse, (bottom) obverse
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In 1886 Queen Victoria granted ownership of the Islands to the Clunies-Ross family for perpetuity. The following year, 1887, George Clunies-Ross built a gorgeous estate aptly named Oceania on Home Island set on 12 acres of botanical gardens which overlooks a personal lagoon. Now it appears this beautiful home turned into a hotel which anyone can rent a room for the night and stay in one of four rooms9.

Oceania House on Home Island
Click image to enlarge.

The Clunies-Ross family had complete control over the islands until 1978 where John Cecil (Ross V) sold them to the Commonwealth of Australia for $4.75m USD. This however, did not include the family home. The Commonwealth had already been administering the islands since 1955. This was the same time where the Australian Dollar became the main currency and all prior tokens became demonetized.

The story does not end well for the Clunies-Ross clan. In 1986 Ross V declared bankruptcy after a failed shipping venture. It was at this time that he had to sell his family home. His eldest son John George still lives on Cocos (Keeling) West with his family.

There seems to be much speculation as to who settled the islands first, and how Mr. Hare left the islands. Regardless what the actual history was, the hero has been and always will be the Clunies-Ross family. Likewise, there will always be a healthy debate as to how the laborers were treated and how well they were paid.

1. The Cocos Islands. (1899). The Chamber's Journal 76, pgs. 187-190.
2. Ross, J. C. (1835, May). The Cocos' Isles, The Metropolitan. Peck and Newton, pgs. 219-221.
3. Slocum, Joshua. (1901). Sailing Alone Around the World, pg. 212.
4. Bohora, Anil R. (2009). The Indian Rupee: Used Around the World, International Bank Note Society 48.4, pg. 47.
5. Clunies-Ross, John C. and Souter, Gavin. (2009). The Clunies-Ross Cocos Chronicle.W.A.: J.C. Clunies-Ross. Print.
6. Long, Edward E. (3 Oct. 1903). The King of the Coco Islands,Timaru Herald, Volume LXXIX ed,m Issue 12187 sec, pg. 2. Print.
7. Boon, K. N. (2014). Malaysia Brunei & Singapore: Banknotes & Coins,Petaling Jaya: Trigometric, pg. 41+. Print.
9. Oceania House. (2015). Cocos Keeling Islands. Visitor Center. Web.

PMG is an independent member of the Certified Collectibles Group (CCG).

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