The Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands is an Australian external territory in the Indian Ocean, comprising a small archipelago approximately midway between Australia and Sri Lanka and closer to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is part of Southeast Asia and is in the Southern Hemisphere. The territory’s dual name (official since the islands’ incorporation into Australia in 1955) reflects that the islands have historically been known as either the Cocos Islands or the Keeling Islands.
The territory consists of two atolls made up of 27 coral islands, of which only two – West Island and Home Island – are inhabited. The population of around 600 people consists mainly of Cocos Malays, who practice Sunni Islam and speak a dialect of Malay as their first language. The territory is administered by the Australian federal government’s Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, and together with Christmas Island 600 miles to the east, forms the Australian Indian Ocean Territories administrative unit. However, the islanders do have a degree of self-government through the local shire council. Many public services – including health, education, and policing – are provided by the state of Western Australia, and Western Australian law applies except where the federal government has determined otherwise.
The islands were first discovered in 1609 by William Keeling, but no settlement occurred until the early 19th century. One of the first settlers was John Clunies-Ross, a Scottish merchant; much of the island’s current population is descended from the Malay workers he brought in to work his copra plantation. The Clunies-Ross family ruled the islands as a private fiefdom for almost 150 years, with the head of the family usually recognized as resident magistrate. The British formally annexed the islands in 1857, and for the next century they were officially administered from either Ceylon or Singapore. The territory was transferred to Australia in 1955, although until 1979 virtually all of the island’s real estate still belonged to the Clunies-Ross family.
The islands have been called the Cocos Islands (from 1622), the Keeling Islands (from 1703), the Cocos–Keeling Islands (since James Horsburgh in 1805) and the Keeling–Cocos Islands (19th century). Cocos refers to the abundant coconut trees, while Keeling is William Keeling, who discovered the islands in 1609.
John Clunies-Ross, who sailed there in the Borneo in 1825, called the group the Borneo Coral Isles, restricting Keeling to North Keeling, and calling South Keeling “the Cocos properly so called”. The form Cocos (Keeling) Islands, attested from 1916, was made official by the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act 1955.
The territory’s Malay name is Pulu Kokos (Keeling). Sign boards on the island also feature Malay translations.
Discovery and Early History:
The archipelago was discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling of the East India Company, on a return voyage from the East Indies. North Keeling was sketched by Ekeberg, a Swedish captain, in 1749, showing the presence of coconut palms. It also appears on a 1789 chart produced by British hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple.