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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 June 2007, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
The man who lost a 'coral kingdom'
By Nick Squires
BBC News, Cocos Keeling Islands

For many, living on an tropical island away from the cares of everyday life is the ultimate dream. But, for a family of British merchant adventurers, the dream became a reality when they ran a group of islands as a private fiefdom for 150 years.

Cocos beach (Photo: Nick Squires)
Until John Clunies-Ross arrived, the island was uninhabited
From the air, they look like a chain of pearls wrapped around a giant opal. Twenty six tiny islands enclosing a turquoise and jade lagoon.

Stepping out of the aircraft, I was enveloped by tropical heat.

Palm trees rustled in the breeze and there was the distant sound of surf crashing on a reef. The locals were either barefoot or in flip-flops.

Adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Cocos Keeling Islands lie halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka.

Home to just 500 people, they are an Australian territory, but on many maps of the continent, they do not even feature.

Which is a shame, because the islands have an intriguing history.

Royal connections

They were uninhabited until the 1820s, when a small settlement was established by a Scottish adventurer named John Clunies-Ross.

Oceania House (Photo: Nick Squires)
Oceania House was the original home of the Clunie-Rosses
He was originally from Shetland and must have delighted in exchanging his frigid homeland for these balmy, sun-kissed isles. He set about planting hundreds of coconut palms and brought in Malay workers to harvest the nuts.

Successive generations of Clunies-Rosses built up a business empire based on copra, the dried flesh of coconuts traded for its oil. Their tenure over their exotic adopted home was confirmed in 1886, when Queen Victoria granted them possession of the islands in perpetuity.

They styled themselves the "kings" of the Cocos.

Remarkably, their rule lasted right up until 1978, when the last "king", also called John Clunies-Ross, was forced to sell the islands to Australia for 2.5m ($4.75m).

He had come under pressure from the Australian Government and its trades unions, as well as the United Nations, none of whom was too enamoured by his feudal regime.

'A dagger in his belt'

The Clunies-Ross family lived in a grand colonial mansion which still stands to this day.

To reach Oceania House, I took a ferry from West Island across the lagoon to Home Island, the only other inhabited scrap of land in the territory.

Arriving was like suddenly stepping into south-east Asia.

Opinion among the Malays today is divided as to whether the Clunies-Rosses were exploitative colonialists or benevolent father figures
The island is home to 350 ethnic Malays, the descendants of the original plantation workers. Women wear headscarves, street names are in Malay and there are several mosques, all of which makes Oceania House all the more incongruous. It has the look and feel of a Scottish country estate.

Wandering through the overgrown gardens, I came across a stone Celtic cross inscribed with the names of the Clunies-Ross ancestors.

John Clunies-Ross used to stride around his tiny coral kingdom barefoot, a dagger tucked into his trouser belt.

He paid his Malay workers in Cocos rupees, a currency he minted himself and which could only be redeemed at the company store.

Islander Cree bin Haig (Photo: Nick Squires)
Islander Cree bin Haig remembers life in the 'kingdom'
Workers who wanted to leave the islands were told they could never return.

Despite such strictures, opinion among the Malays today is divided as to whether the Clunies-Rosses were exploitative colonialists or benevolent father figures.

Wages were low, but water, electricity and schooling were free.

Sixty-seven-year-old Cree bin Haig worked as a boatman back in the old days: "Mr Clunies-Ross was a good man," he told me, throwing scraps to the chickens in his backyard.

"Although we have better houses and food now, the Australian Government doesn't let us shoot birds and hunt turtles like the family allowed us to."

After being forced to sell his beloved islands, John Clunies-Ross eventually went bankrupt through a failed shipping line.

Now approaching 80, he lives in suburban obscurity in Perth, in Western Australia. But his son, Johnny Clunies-Ross, still calls the islands home.

'Modest living'

Back on West Island, it did not take long for me to track him down.

He and his four siblings grew up amid the grandeur of Oceania House, but he now lives in a bungalow overlooking the airstrip.

Johnny Clunies-Ross (Photo: Nick Squires)
Even in the old man's time, it had become anachronistic. It had to change
Johnny Clunies-Ross
Parked outside was a battered jeep riddled with rust. In place of his father's immaculate white shirts and pressed trousers, he was in a faded T-shirt and shorts.

Had his family's reign not come to an end, he would now be the sixth "king" of the Cocos. So, is he disappointed?

"I was upset at the time," he admitted with a shrug.

"I was 21 and I'd been brought up to do the job. But even in the old man's time, it had become anachronistic. It had to change."

Where his forbears made a fortune from coconuts, Johnny is now forging a more modest living from another island resource, giant clams.

He breeds them in tanks and sells them to the aquarium trade in Europe and the US.

It is an unusual line of work, but one which enables Johnny to remain on the islands his family has inhabited since 1827.

The man who would have been "king" seems content with his lot.

On my last evening I met him again in the islands' only watering hole, the Cocos Club.

He was still in shorts and a T-shirt, drinking a beer, chatting with friends.

An ordinary bloke, with an extraordinary past, in one of the most beautiful and unspoilt places in the world.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 7 June, 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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