Handover of Cocos (Keeling) Islands to Australia

Singapore Infopedia


On 23 November 1955, the administrative responsibility for the Cocos (Keeling) Islands was transferred from the Colony of Singapore to the Commonwealth of Australia.1 The Cocos Islands had been part of the Straits Settlements until 1946 when the latter was dissolved, at which point it became part of the crown colony of Singapore.2 The transfer was announced in Singapore on 23 July 1951 but only took effect in 1955 due to several complications. The Cocos Islands officially became part of Australia in 1984.3

Clunies-Ross and the Cocos Islands
Cocos (Keeling) Islands, commonly referred to as just Cocos Islands, comprise 27 small coral islands in two atolls in the Indian Ocean. They were occupied by British adventurer John Sydney Clunies-Ross in 1827, who governed the islands for 25 years until his death.4 In 1886, the Clunies-Ross family was granted title in perpetuity by Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, with each successive Clunies-Ross being popularly called the Cocos “king” until the islands were sold to the Australian government for S$16 million in 1978.5

In 1857, Britain annexed the islands before making them a dependency of the Straits Settlements in 1903, though the Clunies-Ross family remained the de facto owner of the islands.6 In 1946, when the Straits Settlements was broken up, the Cocos Islands and Christmas Island became administratively part of the Colony of Singapore.7

Australian interest in the Cocos
In 1948, the Australian government expressed interest in the Cocos Islands. The attraction was the 2,250-metre airstrip laid by the Royal Air Force during World War II. The Australian Department of Civil Aviation had plans to develop air services between Australia and South Africa for Qantas Empire Airways (now known as Qantas Airways).8 In its 2 October 1948 report on Singapore’s attitudes towards the Cocos, the Australian Commission noted that Singapore considered it accidental that the Cocos Islands were its dependency. The colony was said to have “no real connections” with the islands and allocating funds to them was “bitterly resented”.9

Approached by the Australians, on 21 June 1949 the British government responded that it “saw no objection in principle”, based on the attitude of Singapore towards the islands, so long as the Australian government was responsible for carrying out any required upgrading to the airstrip.10 The British also indicated that they preferred the Cocos to be leased from the Clunies-Ross trustees.11 However, negotiation between the Australian government and Clunies-Ross trustees led nowhere. The Australian government thus went back to the British on 24 August 1950, this time enquiring about the transfer of administrative responsibility of the Cocos Islands from Singapore to Australia.12

On 14 February 1951, the British agreed to the transfer, provided Australia met certain conditions. One requirement was that Australia should facilitate the transfer of the Malay population who did not want to remain on the islands to North Borneo. Another was that those who chose to remain be granted Australian citizenship.13

Negotiations and announcement
Negotiations for the proposed transfer of the Cocos Islands were carried out between the British and Australian governments. The Singapore legislative council and a representative of the Clunies-Ross family were also “briefed in confidence”.14 The Singapore and Australian governments agreed that announcement of the transfer should be carried out with minimal publicity.15 The Singapore government announced the transfer on the night of 22 June 1951, and the news was reported in the local newspapers the following day.16

Delays in the transfer
Following the announcement, there were some concerns that delayed the finalisation of the transfer. The first was the “secret” nature of the negotiations.17 Several members of the Singapore legislative council claimed that some council members had been left out of the negotiation process, thus compromising Singapore’s interests in the Cocos Islands.18 However, then Colonial Secretary W. L. Blythe responded that all members of the legislative council had been properly consulted about the transfer.19

The second issue was whether the interests of the islands’ residents had been properly considered.20 Responding to the claims, then Minister for the Colonies John Dugdale explained that the residents were not consulted beforehand because the majority had indicated they would be migrating to North Borneo.21 Dugdale claimed that there was already a steady stream of people leaving Cocos Islands even before Australia had mooted its request.22

Franklin Gimson, then governor of Singapore, returning from his visit to the Cocos Islands on 25 and 26 August 1951, said that he had been informed by R. MacLean, then administrator of Cocos Islands, that 833 of the 1,170 residents were prepared to leave the islands before the transfer.23 Gimson noted that during his visit, his party met the residents to “make sure they understood the reason for the transfer”.24

The third complication was the concern that Australia was not prepared to grant full citizenship to residents who chose to remain on Cocos Islands after the transfer. As the residents were based in the external territories of Australia, they “would not have the right of residence in Australia” and “would be subject to the restrictions of the White Australia policy”.25 The secondary status that Cocos islanders would inherit under Australian sovereignty was also raised by some members of the Singapore legislative council.26

In response, the Australian government assured the Singapore legislative council that the remaining residents of Cocos Islands would be “well looked after and given remunerative employment”.27 However, Australian assurances fell short of granting full citizenship to the Cocos islanders. Although the islanders would be given “some assurances of sympathetic consideration should any seek residence” in Australia, they were generally restricted from entering Australia.28

Another issue was identifying the appropriate legal method and instruments required for the transfer. For Australia, the transfer of Cocos Islands could be finalised with an act of acceptance. However, on the British side, things were more complicated if the transfer was to be “beyond the possibility of legal challenge”.29

The transfer of Cocos Islands had to go through the following steps: 1) The Australian parliament would introduce a bill for an act to request and consent to the transfer of Cocos Islands; 2) the British parliament would then introduce a bill for an act to enable the Crown to transfer authority over Cocos to Australia; 3) once the necessary legislation was passed, the Australian parliament would seek legislation to accept the transfer; 4) the British would then follow up with an order in council to detach Cocos Islands from the Colony of Singapore and transfer the islands to Australia on the date that the Australian acceptance and administration legislation came into effect.30

Between November 1954 and March 1955, the legal processes required to make the transfer legally unchallengeable began in Australia, moved to Britain and then went back to Australia. The transfer was set for 23 November 1955.31

Singapore’s reaction
In Singapore, the government had earlier released a statement explaining its agreement to the transfer. It noted that Cocos Islands were not vital to Singapore’s strategic interests, nor was Singapore able to defend the islands.32 However, there remained some discontent in Singapore. Some members of the legislative council, such as M. P. D. Nair, felt that the decision to transfer Cocos Islands should have been postponed until the new government, which would have an elected legislative assembly, could be consulted.33

There was also concern over the status of the 350 Malay islanders who would become Australian citizens without the right of residence in continental Australia.34 The concession by the Australian government that any request for entry by these islanders would be given “sympathetic consideration” was considered a poor offer, but these complaints were made with resignation as to the outcome.35

Under “The Cocos Islands Order in Council, 1955”, Cocos Islands ceased to be part of the Colony of Singapore and was placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia on 23 November 1955.36 The formalities were extremely low-key, without any Singapore official present and without formal addresses or special publicity. Cocos Islands continued to be run as a territory of Australia until 1984, when the inhabitants of the islands voted for integration with Australia.37

1. Singapore, Colony of Singapore Government Gazette Supplement, no. 105, Sp.S 396, 9 December 1955, 1721–3. (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SGGSLS-[HWE])
2. The Singapore Colony Order in Council 1946, G. N. 2 of Government Gazette, 1 April 1946, 2–3 (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SGG); “White Paper on Malaya,” Straits Times, 26 January 1946, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Alan Kerr, A Federation in These Seas: An Account of the Acquisition By Australia of Its External Territories, With Selected Documents (Barton: Attorney General's Dept, 2009), 288. (Call no. R 325.394 KER)
4. “The Cocos Islands in War and Peace,” Straits Times, 10 May 1946, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Brian Williams, “Reign of Cocos ‘King’ Will Soon Be Over,” Straits Times, 14 July 1978, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Cocos Islands in War and Peace.”
7. “White Paper on Malaya.”
8. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 268–9.
9. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 269.
10. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 269, 289.
11. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 270.
12. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 270.
13. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 273.
14. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 272.
15. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 273.
16. “Australia to Administer the Cocos,” Straits Times, 23 June 1951, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Secret Document Told of Transfer,” Straits Times, 4 July 1951, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Cocos Transfer under Fire,” Singapore Free Press, 11 July 1951, 5; “Councillors ‘Consulted on Cocos Transfer’,” Singapore Free Press, 5 July 1951, 1 (From NewspaperSG); “Secret Document Told of Transfer.”
19. “Councillors ‘Consulted on Cocos Transfer’.”
20. “Cocos: S’pore Consulted,” Straits Times, 28 June 1951, 1; “Singapore and the Cocos,” Straits Times, 26 June 1951, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Councillors ‘Consulted on Cocos Transfer’.”
22. “Councillors ‘Consulted on Cocos Transfer’.”
23. “Gimson Returns from Cocos,” Straits Times, 28 August 1951, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 275.
25. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 273.
26. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 277.
27. “Australia’s Assurance,” Singapore Free Press, 11 August 1951, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 275.
29. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 278.
30. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 281.
31. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 287.
32. “The Cocos - It’s All a Matter of Defence,” Straits Times, 20 January 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)33. “It’s All a Matter of Defence.”
34. “These 350 Malays become Australians,” Straits Times, 27 January 1955, 2; “The Commons and the Cocos,” Straits Times, 2 February 1955, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “Commons and the Cocos.”
36. Singapore, Colony of Singapore Government Gazette Supplement, 1721–3.
37. Kerr, Federation in These Seas, 288.

Further resources
1,000 People Want to Leave When Island Rule Changes,” Straits Times, 27 June 1951, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Cocos Bill – Another Step,” Straits Times, 23 February 1955, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Cocos Bill Is Read in Commons,” Singapore Free Press, 27 January 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Cocos Islands Transfer,” Singapore Free Press, 3 November 1954, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Cocos Islanders Are Moving Out,” Straits Times, 3 June 1949, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Cocos Switch,” Straits Times, 23 November 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Cocos Take-Over,” Straits Times, 11 November 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Cocos Transfer,” Straits Times, 10 December 1955, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Cocos Transfer – All Clear,” Straits Times, 23 June 1955, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Cocos Transfer Surprised Them,” Straits Times, 5 July 1951, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Colony Still Runs Cocos,” Straits Times, 21 July 1952, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Commons Approve Cocos Transfer,” Singapore Free Press, 8 February 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Ex-Singapore Man Will Greet Queen,” Singapore Free Press, 8 January 1954, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Future of the Cocos Malays,” Singapore Free Press, 24 January 1955, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Gimson to Visit Cocos,” Straits Times, 24 August 1951, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Governor at Ease in Talks with Headmen,” Straits Times, 29 August 1951, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Islanders to Quit Cocos,” Singapore Free Press, 17 April 1947, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

‘King’ Will Stay after Cocos Transfer,” Straits Times, 4 November 1954, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

MPs Agree to the Cocos Transfer,” Straits Times, 2 February 1955, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

‘Must Obey King’, Say Cocos Men,” Straits Times, 27 August 1951, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

No Date Yet for Cocos Transfer,” Straits Times, 24 June 1951, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Ross Sells Airstrip,” Singapore Free Press, 16 February 1953, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Safeguarding the Rights of Cocos People,” Singapore Free Press, 1 February 1955, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Singapore and the Cocos,” Straits Times, 26 June 1951, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Speeding Up Cocos Island Transfers,” Straits Times, 19 March 1950, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

The Move from the Cocos,” Straits Times, 17 July 1951, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Transfer of Cocos Approved,” Straits Times, 9 February 1955, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Trip Is Prelude to Cocos Transfer,” Straits Times, 6 July 1951, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 23 July 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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