History of Caroline Island

The astronomers' camp on Caroline Island, drawn by a member of the expedition

Caroline Island is the easternmost uninhabited coral atolls that comprise the south Line Islands in the Pacific Ocean Republic of Kiribati. The atoll is recognized as the first place on our planet to receive sunlight each day during much of the year.


The atolls (which means ring-shaped coral reefs) of the Pacific Ocean are the most minimal environment in the world for human occupancy. They have not been occupied for more than 1,500 years but sprang to be settled by humans once stable islets formed around lakes. In comparison with other islands, Caroline Island has been undisturbed.

There are signs that early Polynesians entered the island before Europeans, as numerous marae (sacred or communal places) and graves have been discovered, but no proof has been found of long-term human settlement.

Early sightings

The Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan may have seen Caroline Island on 4 February 1521 CE. The first reported sighting of Caroline Island by Europeans was on 21 February 1606 CE, by the Portuguese traveler Pedro Fernández de Quirós, who named the island San Bernardo and wrote his voyage. On 16 December 1795 CE, the island was next observed when the British naval officer William Robert Broughton of HMS Providence named it Carolina, after the daughter of Philip Stephens, the First Secretary of the Admiralty. The island was seen in 1821 CE by the English whaler Supply and was then called “Thornton Island” for the ship’s captain. It was also recorded in the 19th century CE as Clark Island and Hirst Island.

1883 solar eclipse

In 1883 CE, two expeditions appeared on Caroline Island in time to record and observe the solar eclipse of 6 May in 1883 CE. On 22 March, English and Americans left the Peruvian port of Callao aboard the USS Hartford, landing at the island on 20 April. Among those in the American campaign were the astronomers Edward S. Holden of the Washburn Observatory, the tour’s leader, and William Upton, professor of astronomy at the prestigious Brown University.

Commercial enterprises and British claim

In 1846 CE, the Tahitian firm of Collie and Lucett tried to place a small copra-harvesting and stock-raising community on the island; the operation met with poor financial success. In 1868 CE, Caroline was claimed for Britain by the first captain of HMS Reindeer, which noted 27 residents in a town on South Islet. The British government leased the island to Houlder Brothers and Co. in 1872 CE with John T. Arundel as the manager; two of the islands are named for him. Houlder Brothers and Co. managed minimal guano mining on the island from 1874 CE. John T. Arundel and Co. later took over the contract and the industry in 1881 CE; the company supplied about 10,000 tons of phosphate until stocks became exhausted in 1895 CE. In 1885 CE Arundel built a coconut plantation, but the coconut palms experienced disease, and the plantation eventually failed. The settlement on the isles lasted until 1904 CE, when the six remaining Polynesians were moved to Niue.


When the eventual Gilbert Islands became the sovereign nation of Kiribati in 1979 CE, Caroline Island became Kiribati’s easternmost point. The island is presently owned by the government of the Republic of Kiribati and managed by the Ministry of Line and Phoenix Islands Development, which is presently headquartered in Kiritimati. Claims to independence over the island by the United States were abandoned in the 1979 CE Treaty of Tarawa, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1983 CE.

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