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Cabinet papers: The last King of Cocos loses his palace

Oceania House on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Photo: 老站出售panoramio老域名出售 The Cocos Islands.

A broadside view of the wrecked German raider Emden after her encounter with HMAS Sydney near Cocos Island. Photo: Charles Edwin Bean/Australian War Memorial

An unidentified seaman on the quarter deck of HMAS Sydney looks at the wrecked German cruiser Emden Photo: Australian War Memorial

The last remnant of colonial grace and favour, the ancestral pile of the Clunies-Ross family on the Cocos Islands, fell to modern Australian in 1991.

The Hawke government agreed to pay $1.55 million to buy Oceania House, built from materials shipped from Scotland on a promontory overlooking the main Cocos lagoon, and its grounds, the vestige of the days when the family ruled the islands as their own private fiefdom.

They had hung on to the house and bit of land as their dynastic sole island possession after their former labourers voted to become part of Australia in 1984.

A Scottish merchant seaman, John Clunies-Ross, settled the islands in 1827 and used Malays brought to serve in a previous English settler’s harem and indentured labourers to work on palm plantations.

In 1886, Queen Victoria gave the family the islands “in perpetuity”. The male of each new generation declared himself King of the Cocos Islands.

Over the years the Clunies-Ross chain of islands in the Indian Ocean, 2700 kilometres north-west of Perth, saw HMAS Sydney fight the German cruiser Emden in 1914 and visits by Charles Darwin in 1836 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1954.

But a year after the Queen’s visit, Australia took administrative control from Singapore.

Subsequently, constant media coverage in Australia of the Clunies-Ross family and their virtual slaves ensured the family’s days of empire were numbered.

The Clunies-Ross feudal style of rule upset many Australians but it endured for three decades until Malcolm Fraser’s government in 1978 forced the family to sell for $6.25 million or face compulsory acquisition.

The Clunies-Ross were allowed to keep the home and land.

But in 1983, a year before the Act of Self-Determination voted 229 to 28 (with two informals) in favour of being integrated with Australia, Canberra reneged and told the family to leave.

John Clunies-Ross won a High Court of Australia case that found resumption of Oceania House was unlawful.

But the Hawke government ordered that the family shipping company which had been bought with the sale of their island birthright could not be awarded any government work and Clunies-Ross went bankrupt.

In March 1991 Territories Minister David Simmons told the cabinet that the government had promised to purchase the property for them as part of negotiations during the lead-up to the Act of Self-Determination and did not want to be seen as using the house as a carrot for a pro-Australia vote.

“If purchase is not agreed, the Commonwealth may be seen to be going back on an undertaking to purchase the property given at the time the Cocos Malay people voted for integration with Australia at a United Nations-observed Act of Self-Determination,” he said.

“The government could argue that circumstances have changed since then. Declaring North Keeling Island a National Park or Reserve will have strong support from environmental interests.”

Pulu Keeling National Park was declared in 1995, long after Oceania House was sold to the Australian government and John Clunies-Ross left Cocos and went into exile in Perth, broken and impoverished.

Cabinet records release

Cabinet records for 1990 and 1991 held by the National Archives of Australia became eligible for access from January 1, 2016. Information about the cabinet records, lists of the documents and copies of key cabinet documents, including selected submissions and decisions, are available on the Archives’ website (naa.gov备案老域名). Click on the “Collection” tab, then “Popular research topics”, then “Cabinet”.

Requests for access to records not already released may be made via RecordSearch on the Archives’ website.

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