Line Islands


Flint Island is located 685 nautical miles south of the equator. It is about 86 miles S.S.E. of Vostok Island, 125 miles S.W. of Caroline Island (now Millennium Island), and 390 miles N.N.W. of Papeete, Tahiti.

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It is a narrow coral island, two and a half miles long, N.N.W. and S.S.E., tapering toward both ends from a greatest width of half a mile. Its greatest land height is 22 feet. When visited by the brig Porpoise of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, February 5, 1841, it was reported to be thickly wooded. Since then, most of the forest has been replaced by coconut palms. 

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The island is surrounded by a narrow fringing reef, which extends nearly half a mile of the northern point. The surf breaks heavily on the east side, and also to some extent on the lee side. There is no safe anchorage. Landing is not easy, even at a spot on the northwest side where a break has been blasted through the fringing reef.

No information is available as to the first discovery of Flint Island, except that it was about 1801. It is said to have been named by Captain Keen in 1835. Various voyagers sighted the island during the first half of the 19th century, but not even the U.S. Exploring Expedition landed. The island was claimed by American guano diggers under the U.S. Guano Act of 1856, but apparently it was not occupied by them.

Some time in the 1870's Flint Island was leased by Great Britain to Houlder Brothers and Co., of London, for when John T. Arundel was field manager. Extensive guano digging was carried on, especially between 1875 and 1880. Communication was chiefly with Papeete, but an occasional vessel arriving at Honolulu from Flint Island or leaving Honolulu for that island, gives us information concerning activities.

Some idea of the difficulties encountered may be had from the following report of the Hawaiian brig W.H. Allen, Captain R.B. Chave, published in The Friend (Honolulu) in 1876. "Left Papeete harbour August 2nd at 5 p.m., in tow of the steam tug Scotia. Struck fresh breeze from E.S.E., which continued to Flint's Island, where we arrived on the 4th at 6.30 p.m. and brought up at the moorings under the west side of the island. On the 5th landed passengers and freight; on Monday, the 7th, a heavy sea set in on the reef, which continued until the 8th, rendering it impossible to communicate with the shore. Slipped from the moorings at 5 p.m. on the 10th with fresh breeze from the E. varying to E.S.E."

The moorings referred to be consisted of a buoy anchored in 95 fathoms off the landing. Here guano was shipped. The guano was dug in the central part of the island and carried on a tramline to the landing. Traces will remain of the raod-bed as suggested on the chart. The excavations have filled with brackish water and form two or three small lagoons. There is no fresh water other than that caught from rain.

In 1881, Mr. Arundel commenced to plant numbers of coconut palms on Flint, as an independent venture of his own. His ware-house for copra and houses for the overseer and workmen were just southeast of the landing, where the guano diggers' camp had been. Arundel and Company withdrew from this region before 1890.

An outstanding event in the history of Flint Island was a total eclipse of the sun, visible there January 3, 1908. The eclipse was observed by an expedition from Lick Observatory, financed by W. H. Crocker. Professor and Mrs. W.W. Campbell headed a group of observers, including Aitken, Albrecht and Perrine from Lick, Lewis from Berkeley, and Abbot from the Smithsonian Institution. They were transported from Tahiti to Flint Island on the U.S.S. Annapolis, arriving December 9, 1907. A private expedition, organized by F. K. McClean, brought astronomers from Sydney. Rain threatened to spoil the eclipse, but it cleared in time to allow valuable observations to be made. The eclipse was 27 seconds ahead of calculated schedule. The sky above Flint Island was found to be four times as bright as over Mount Wilson, California. The position of the observation spot was determined to be 11 degrees 25' 27" S., 151 degrees 48' 15" W. Mr. Mortimer was resident on the island at the time.

In 1911 the island was leased to S.R. Maxwell and Co., Ltd. About thirty native workmen, under a white manager, cared for the harvesting of copra from about 30,000 coconut palms. The latest report is that the island has been abandoned. This has not been verified. On October 16, 1934, the Bishop Museum's Mangarevan Expedition stopped at Flint Island, and botanical collections were made by Dr. H. St. John and F. R. Fosberg. In Bishop Museum Occasional Papers, vol. XII, no. 24, they list 36 species of plants and discuss the vegetation. They say:

"The original vegetation of this island has been practically destroyed, and the island is now an intensively cultivated copra plantation. Introduced weeds are abundant around the houses and in the plantation under the coconut palms. Carica papaya grows, apparently spontaneously, here and there in the plantation. Around the houses several edible and ornamental plants are cultivated." Only traces of the original flora exist.

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 1st June 2012)