Henderson Island (Pitcairn Islands)
Henderson Island is an uninhabited raised coral atoll
Raised coral atoll
A raised coral atoll is a typical atoll which has been lifted high enough above sea level by tectonic forces to protect it from scouring by storms and enable soils and diverse – often endemic – species of flora and fauna to develop...

 in the south Pacific Ocean, that in 1902 was annexed to the Pitcairn Islands
Pitcairn Islands
The Pitcairn Islands , officially named the Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands, form a group of four volcanic islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. The islands are a British Overseas Territory and overseas territory of the European Union in the Pacific...

 colony, a South Pacific Dependent Territory of the United Kingdom
British overseas territories
The British Overseas Territories are fourteen territories of the United Kingdom which, although they do not form part of the United Kingdom itself, fall under its jurisdiction. They are remnants of the British Empire that have not acquired independence or have voted to remain British territories...

. Measuring 9.6 kilometres (6 mi) long and 5.1 kilometres (3.2 mi) wide, it has an area of 37.3 square kilometres (14.4 sq mi) and is located 193 kilometres (119.9 mi) northeast of Pitcairn Island at 24°22′01"S 128°18′57"W. The island was designated a World Heritage Site
World Heritage Site
A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a place that is listed by the UNESCO as of special cultural or physical significance...

 by the United Nations in 1988. It is unsuitable for agriculture and has little fresh water. There are three beaches on the northern end and the remaining coast comprises steep, mostly undercut, cliffs up to 15 metres (49.2 ft) in height.


Although Henderson is virtually uninhabitable, archaeological evidence suggests that it was inhabited by a small Polynesia
Polynesia is a subregion of Oceania, made up of over 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean. The indigenous people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia are termed Polynesians and they share many similar traits including language, culture and beliefs...

n permanent colony between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. The reasons for the group's disappearance are unknown, but are probably related to the similar disappearance of the Polynesians on Pitcairn Island
Pitcairn Islands
The Pitcairn Islands , officially named the Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands, form a group of four volcanic islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. The islands are a British Overseas Territory and overseas territory of the European Union in the Pacific...

, on whom the Hendersonians would have depended for many of the basics of life. The Pitcairn Polynesians may in turn have disappeared because of the decline of nearby Mangareva
Mangareva is the central and most important island of the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia. It is surrounded by smaller islands: Taravai in the southwest, Aukena and Akamaru in the southeast, and islands in the north...

; thus, Henderson was at the end of a chain of small, dependent colonies of Mangareva.

On 29 January 1606, Henderson island was discovered by Portuguese sailor Pedro Fernandes de Queiros, who named it San João Baptista. On 17 January 1819 the island was re-discovered by British Capt. Henderson of the British East India Company
British East India Company
The East India Company was an early English joint-stock company that was formed initially for pursuing trade with the East Indies, but that ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent and China...

 ship Hercules, and named Henderson Island. On 2 March 1819, Captain Henry King, sailing aboard the Elizabeth, landed on the island to find the king's colours already flying. His crew scratched the name of their ship into a tree, and for some years the island's name was Elizabeth or Henderson, interchangeably.

The crew of the sunken Nantucket whaleship Essex landed briefly on the island, staying from 20 to 27 December 1820. Three of the crew – Thomas Chappel, Seth Weeks and William Wright – stayed and survived until their subsequent rescue on 9 April 1821, while their companions sailed on for South America in three whaleboats. The castaways reported having seen human skeletons in a cave.

In August 1851, visitors from Pitcairn Island also found skeletons in a cave and wreckage on the adjacent beach. After a party of Pitcairners collecting miro wood rediscovered the skeletons in March 1958, a medical examination was carried out and it was determined the bones were of Caucasian origin, and they were then buried in a shallow grave inside the cave. Finally, an American survey team examined the bones in 1966 and buried them in five coffins in the left hand corner of the cave, tightly jamming a large cross between the ceiling and rock floor at the entrance. They concluded the remains were of five or six people, one of whom was between three and five years of age. It is presumed they were the survivors of a shipwreck who died of dehydration.
In 1957 a twenty seven year old American, Robert Tomarchin, lived the life of a castaway on the island for approximately two months, accompanied by a pet chimpanzee, apparently as a publicity stunt, until he was rescued by people from Pitcairn in two longboats.

In the early 1980s, American businessman Arthur M. Ratliff expressed interest in establishing a small settlement with an airstrip, cattle ranch, and mansion on the island. The Pitcairn Island Council approved his plans in April 1981 but the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, commonly called the Foreign Office or the FCO is a British government department responsible for promoting the interests of the United Kingdom overseas, created in 1968 by merging the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office.The head of the FCO is the...

 overrode the decision and vetoed the proposed development, after environmentalist groups had lobbied to protect the natural ecology and environment of the island which was listed as a World Heritage site in 1988.

Natural resources

Since the introduction of aluminium-hulled long-boats in the 20th century, Pitcairners have made regular trips to Henderson to harvest the wood of miro and tou trees. Usually they only venture to Henderson once per year, but may make up to three trips if the weather is favourable. Pitcairners carve the wood into curios, from which they derive much of their income.


Henderson Island is a raised coral atoll, that with Pitcairn, Ducie
Ducie Island
Ducie Island is an uninhabited atoll in the Pitcairn Islands. It lies east of Pitcairn and has a total area of , which includes the lagoon. It is long, measured northeast to southwest, and about wide. The island is composed of four islets: Acadia, Pandora, Westward and Edwards.Despite its...

 and Oeno
Oeno Island
Oeno Island or Holiday Island is a coral atoll in the South Pacific Ocean, part of the Pitcairn Islands overseas territory.-Geography:...

 Islands, forms the Pitcairn Island Group
Pitcairn Islands
The Pitcairn Islands , officially named the Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands, form a group of four volcanic islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. The islands are a British Overseas Territory and overseas territory of the European Union in the Pacific...

. The nearest major landmass is more than 5,000 kilometres away. This coral limestone
Makatea, or Mangaia-te-vai-tamae, is a raised coral atoll in the northwestern part of the Tuamotus. It is located 79 km southwest from Rangiroa to the west of the Palliser group. It is surrounded by spectacular cliffs, rising to a plateau 80 meters above the sea level. This island is...

 island sits atop a conical (presumed volcanic) mound, rising from a depth of roughly 3500 metres. Its surface is mostly reef-rubble and dissected limestone; an extremely rugged mixture of steep, jagged pinnacles and shallow sink holes, and the island is encircled by steep, undercut limestone cliffs on all but the north side. There are three main beaches, on the north-west, north, and north-east sides, and the north and north-west sides are fringed by reefs. The depression at the island's centre is thought to be a raised lagoon. There is only one known fresh water spring. The surrounding ocean rises about one metre at spring tide.


Apart from five species found bordering the beaches, including coconut palms, the vegetation is undisturbed. Henderson Island is covered by 5–10 m tall tangled scrub forest, more thinly covered in the central depression. It has 51 native species of flowering plants, ten of which are unique to the island (endemic). Dominant tree species include coconut, Pandanus tectorius
Pandanus tectorius
Pandanus tectorius is a species of Pandanus that is native to Malesia, eastern Australia, and the Pacific Islands. Common names include Thatch Screwpine, Hala , Bacua , and Vacquois ....

, Thespesia populnea, Tournefortia argentea, Cordia subcordata, Guettarda speciosa
Guettarda speciosa
Guettarda speciosa, colloquially called beach gardenia, or zebra wood, is a species of shrub in the family Rubiaceae found in coastal habitats in tropical areas around the Pacific Ocean, including the coastline of central and northern Queensland and Northern Territory in Australia, and Pacific...

, Pisonia grandis
Pisonia grandis
Pisonia grandis is a species of flowering tree in the Bougainvillea family, Nyctaginaceae.-Description:The tree has broad, thin leaves, smooth bark and bears clusters of green sweet-smelling flowers that mature into sticky barbed seeds....

, Geniostoma hendersonense, Nesoluma st.-johnianum
Nesoluma st.-johnianum
Nesoluma st.-johnianum is a species of plant in the Sapotaceae family. It is endemic to Pitcairn.-Source:* Waldren, S. 1998. . Downloaded on 22 August 2007....

, Hernandia stokesii
Hernandia stokesii
Hernandia stokesii is a species of plant in the Hernandiaceae family. It is found in French Polynesia and the Pitcairn Islands.-Source:* Waldren, S. 1998. . Downloaded on 21 August 2007....

, Myrsine hosakae
Myrsine hosakae
Myrsine hosakae is a species of plant in the Myrsinaceae family. It is endemic to the Pitcairn Islands.-Source:* Waldren, S. 1998. . Downloaded on 22 August 2007....

, and Celtis sp.


The island is home to four endemic land bird species – the Henderson Fruit Dove, Henderson Lorikeet, Henderson Reed-warbler
Henderson Reed-warbler
The Henderson Reed Warbler , also known as the Henderson Reed-warbler, is a species of Old World warbler in the Acrocephalidae family. It is found only on Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairn Islands. Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical dry forests. It is threatened by habitat...

 and the flightless Henderson Crake
Henderson Crake
The Red-eyed Crake or Henderson Crake is a species of bird in the family Rallidae.It is endemic to Henderson Island in the southeast Pacific Ocean....

. Of the fifteen non-endemic seabird
Seabirds are birds that have adapted to life within the marine environment. While seabirds vary greatly in lifestyle, behaviour and physiology, they often exhibit striking convergent evolution, as the same environmental problems and feeding niches have resulted in similar adaptations...

 species found, nine or more are believed to breed on the island. Breeding colonies of the globally endangered Henderson Petrel
Henderson Petrel
The Henderson Petrel is a ground-nesting species of seabird in the Procellariidae family. Adult species measure on average 37 cm. It has a uniform grey-brown plumage...

 formerly existed on Ducie, but were wiped out by invasive rats by 1922. It is believed to now nest uniquely on Henderson island.

The invertebrate species are largely unknown but a third of the known snails and insects are endemic. There are no native mammals but the Pacific rat
Polynesian Rat
The Polynesian Rat, or Pacific Rat , known to the Māori as kiore, is the third most widespread species of rat in the world behind the Brown Rat and Black Rat. The Polynesian Rat originates in Southeast Asia but, like its cousins, has become well travelled – infiltrating Fiji and most Polynesian...

 abounds. A skink
Skinks are lizards belonging to the family Scincidae. Together with several other lizard families, including Lacertidae , they comprise the superfamily or infraorder Scincomorpha...

 (Emoia cyanura), and the green sea turtle
Green Sea Turtle
The Green sea turtle or green turtle is a large sea turtle of the family Cheloniidae. It is the only species in the genus Chelonia. Its range extends throughout tropical and subtropical seas around the world, with two distinct populations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans...

 have been identified, and an unidentified gecko
Geckos are lizards belonging to the infraorder Gekkota, found in warm climates throughout the world. They range from 1.6 cm to 60 cm....

 has been reported. Bones associated with prehistoric Polynesian occupation sites dating to somewhere between 500 and 800 years ago include those of the Polynesian Storm Petrel, Marquesan Imperial Pigeon
Marquesan Imperial Pigeon
The Marquesan Imperial Pigeon or Nukuhiva Pigeon is a pigeon which is endemic to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia. This pigeon is only found in some valleys in the western part of that island...

, and Polynesian or Pacific Imperial Pigeon which are no longer found on the island, and two others, Christmas Shearwater
Christmas Shearwater
The Christmas Shearwater, Puffinus nativitatis, is a medium-sized shearwater of the tropical Central Pacific. It is a poorly known species due to its remote nesting habits, and it has not been extensively studied at sea either....

 and Red-footed Booby
Red-footed Booby
The Red-footed Booby, Sula sula, is a large seabird of the booby family, Sulidae. As suggested by the name, adults always have red feet, but the colour of the plumage varies. They are powerful and agile fliers, but they are clumsy in takeoffs and landings...

, that visit but no longer nest. It is hypothesized that the Polynesian settlers may have driven these bird species, along with six terrestrial snail species, to local extinction, and this loss of a ready and regular food supply may have contributed to the Polynesians' subsequent disappearance.

Biological risk

Land bird populations appear to be relatively stable but there is high risk of introduction to the island of predators, disease vectors and diseases by unauthorised landings of yachts. Introduction of the Eurasian black rat
Black Rat
The black rat is a common long-tailed rodent of the genus Rattus in the subfamily Murinae . The species originated in tropical Asia and spread through the Near East in Roman times before reaching Europe by the 1st century and spreading with Europeans across the world.-Taxonomy:The black rat was...

 or the domestic cat would be likely to cause almost immediate extinction of the ground dwelling Henderson Crake and possibly other species. The endemic birds may have no immunity to the fatal avian pox which is transmitted by biting flies such as hippoboscidae
Hippoboscidae, the louse flies or keds are obligate parasites of mammals and birds. In this family there are winged species which can fly at least reasonably well, as well as others with vestigial or no wings which are flightless and highly apomorphic...


A program of poison baiting aimed at eradicating the Pacific rat was launched by a collaboration including the Society for Protection of Birds, The Nature Conservancy and the US Fish & Wildlife Service in August 2011.

Further reading

  • Jared Diamond
    Jared Diamond
    Jared Mason Diamond is an American scientist and author whose work draws from a variety of fields. He is currently Professor of Geography and Physiology at UCLA...

    , Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), ch. 3.
  • Nathaniel Philbrick
    Nathaniel Philbrick
    Nathaniel Philbrick is an American author and a winner of the National Book Award for his 2000 work of maritime history In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. He is member of the Philbrick literary family.-Life:...

    , In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
    In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
    In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is a National Book Award winning work of maritime history by Nathaniel Philbrick. It tells the story of the Whaleship Essex from the point of view of Thomas Nickerson who was a fourteen-year-old cabin boy on the Essex. The book is based...

    , Penguin Books
    Penguin Books
    Penguin Books is a publisher founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane and V.K. Krishna Menon. Penguin revolutionised publishing in the 1930s through its high quality, inexpensive paperbacks, sold through Woolworths and other high street stores for sixpence. Penguin's success demonstrated that large...

    2001. New York.

External links

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