For the early canoe explorers who originally mapped the South Pacific some 3,000-5,000 years ago, the Phoenix Islands must have been diminutive in comparison to the lushness and largesse of other Pacific islands such as Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, and Samoa. Archeological evidence indicates that there have been a few settlements in the Phoenix Islands, but because of their isolation from larger population centers, these early settlers never stayed for very long. These islands, unlike their southern counterparts, have inferior water sources, dooming long-term self-sufficient settlements.
In the 1800s, American whalers from Nantucket and New Bedford, Massachusetts, discovered the rich concentration of sperm whales in the Pacific. Much of the historic whaling grounds were located in what were to become Kiribati waters. At times, more than 600 whale ships plied these waters and whalers were so effective that even today the waters surrounding the Phoenix Islands are largely devoid of sperm whales. Relics of the whaling days litter the islands. Examples of these artifacts include: rusted iron grown into coral, ballast stones and muntz metal sheathing.
Based on observations made during his five-year voyage (1831-1836), Charles Darwin published an explanation for the creation of coral atolls in the South Pacific in 1842. In his descriptions of the various islands, Darwin specifically mentions Phoenix (Rawaki) and Sydney (Manra) islands.
Also in the 1800s, these islands became the target of guano harvesting. Some of the islands were knee-deep in birds and their phosphate-rich guano. After years of use by British and American guano mining and shipping companies, the Phoenix Islands were placed under the jurisdiction of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in 1937. Two years later, the United States became interested in these islands, and claimed Kanton and Enderbury islands.
In 1937, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan tried to fly from Lae in Papua New Guinea to Howland Island, one of the islands of the Phoenix archipelago that is under United States jurisdiction. Their plane disappeared on July 2, and no traces of it were ever found. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) hypothesize that Earhart took a wrong turn and crashed on Nikumaroro Island in the Phoenix Islands. TIGHAR has conducted many expeditions to the Nikumaroro since the late 1980s, but has yet to find conclusive evidence that Earhart crashed there.
The two countries agreed to jointly control these islands for a period of 50 years, which started in 1939, and ended prematurely in 1979, when Kiribati declared independence. During the decades of British and American control, several plans to settle the Phoenix Islands were established as ways to relieve the imminent overcrowding on the Gilbert Islands or to start copra (dried coconut meat) farms, but, by 1963, all had failed.
Kanton atoll has seen the most use over the years, perhaps due to its relatively large size (8 square kilometers) and protected lagoon. Pan American Airways started using Kanton Island’s lagoon in 1939 as a refueling spot for seaplanes en route to New Zealand. During World War II, the United States military used Kanton as a base of operations in the Pacific and built a landing strip on the island. Later, NASA used Kanton as a satellite tracking station and the United States Air Force tracked missiles in the Pacific from this atoll until the mid 1970s. Today, Kanton is the only island with a local population made up of only government employees and their families.