Cocos (Keeling) Islanders

Location: Indian Ocean, north-west of Australia, south-west of Java
Population: about 600 in the islands, others elsewhere
% of population: 100% of islands’ population
Religion: Islam
Language: Malay dialect

The Cocos Malay people are the descendants of the original settlers who came to the Cocos islands from 1826. The 27 coral islands in the Cocos (Keeling) Island group are an Australian Territory in the Indian Ocean, 2,752 kilometres north of Perth, Western Australia, but closer to the main Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. Today there are about 600 inhabitants of the islands, while since World War II many other Cocos Islanders have migrated elsewhere — to Singapore, Sabah, Christmas Island and to four towns in Western Australia.

The Cocos Keeling Islands, originally uninhabited, were occupied by Captain John Clunies Ross in 1827 when he established a trading and plantation settlement there. Indentured labourers from Malaya and elsewhere were brought to the islands during the nineteenth century. For five generations the Clunies Ross family dominated the islands, importing Malays to work on the coconut plantation and dominating their lives completely. Queen Victoria granted the islands to the Clunies Ross family “forever” in 1886 although officially the islands were administered by the crown, from Ceylon and Singapore and, from 1955, by Australia, which bought one of the islands for a military base.

In 1972 an official report had severely criticized the rule of Clunies Ross, claiming that his rule was “feudal”, that he controlled the only industry and the only store, while islanders were forbidden to speak to outsiders and faced banishment if they left the islands. The new Australian Labor Party government attempted to oust Clunies Ross, offering to buy the islands for Australia, but this was refused by Clunies Ross. The later Conservative government initially confirmed that it would support the status quo; however in 1978 Australia compulsorily acquired the islands from Clunies Ross for $A6.25 million and in 1979 instituted the Cocos (Keeling) Islands District Council and Co-operative Society. Clunies Ross continued to dominate the islands in what a UN Observer called a “subversive influence on peace and good order”.

In 1984 islanders voted in a referendum between independence, free association with Australia or to merge with Australia and become Australian citizens. They overwhelmingly voted for the last option, completely breaking all links with the Clunies Ross family. The islanders also requested that the UN continue to monitor developments on the islands. The Australian government and the island’s district council announced that they would fight through the courts to remove Clunies Ross permanently from the islands.