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REPUBLIC OF KIRIBATI

THE KING OF CHRISTMAS ISLAND

 

There are many tales of romance and adventure in the South Seas. This is the tale as it was told in South Sea ports. It is the tale of Emmanuel Rougier who was once the King of Christmas Island, with the island and its coconut groves remaining to prove a part of it.

 

         

Many years ago, Pierre Cecil escaped from the French penal colony in New Caledonia, committing himself to the Pacific in a small open boat. In this craft, he was able to elude pursuit and sailed for over a thousand miles, eventually arriving in Fiji. There, he sought the aid of Father Emmanuel Rougier. It was always contended, of course, that Cecil was an innocent man, convicted wrongfully by a plot of enemies who sought to steal his fortune. He did, however, have ample funds left and, it is said, that he gave Father Rougier half a million dollars in gratitude for the priest's good offices in obtaining his pardon.

The bearded imposing presence of Father Emmanuel Rougier,
the former King of Christmas Island.

Pierre Cecil, in the meantime, fell in love with the Fijian girl, and the couple were married by Father Rougier. As the story goes, his superiors reprimanded him, whereupon Father Rougher is said to have renounced the church and became a landholder and planter. With the money given to him by the former convict, he bought or leased several islands. Eventually, however, he disposed of his minor holdings and acquired a long-term lease from Lever Brothers, British soap manufacturers.

The following anecdote about Father Rougier was told by Hugh Greig, the labour superintendent at Fanning Island. The former priest started to walk around the island to inspect his domain, and in the course of the journey, he had to camp out at night. As the story goes, the hermit crabs bit him and he could not sleep. He built a wall of stones around his bed and they climbed over it. The following night, he slung his bed like a hammock between two trees and they climbed the trees and dropped down upon him. Finally, he caught a lot of fish and spread them all around and as long as the fish were there, the crabs left Father Rougier alone.

His predecessors had planted seventy thousand or more coconut trees and there was room for many more. At the time, a coconut tree in bearing was estimated to yield an income of a dollar a year, and it is said that Rougier planned to have a million trees. It is said that a total of some 750,000 trees at about 52 to the acre were eventually planted although not all of them were being harvested.

Though it is unlikely that the income from Christmas Island ever reached the million dollar estimate envisaged by Rougier, it certainly did yield a very tidy sum when copra was in demand.  

Captain James Cook's map of Christmas Island.

Rougier installed machinery which eliminated some of the hand labour. He hauled the copra to its drying sheds in his own trucks and transported it in his own ships.

Rougier also issued his own stamps, which, although legally good for postage only between Christmas Island and the ports at which his ships called, were eagerly sought by collectors. Although the island was technically under the jurisdiction of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands administration, Father Rougier was virtually, if not nominally, independent, and ruled his domain without much interference from the outside world until he passed away. 

At his death, Rougier's interest were inherited by his nephew, Paul Emmanuel Rougier, who had quite a few adventures of his own and was placed in jail several times, once being charged with murder.

 

Christmas Island History

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 9th October 2009)