An Ocean Full Of Faces
A bright full moon pushes through the blue haze of the daytime sky over The Settlement. The warm November breezes herald the approach of another hot sub-tropical summer, and excuses are made all through the town to eschew haste for leisurely engagement to the business of survival. Yet some of the island’s inhabitants have no time for this relaxed philosophy. From all directions They come, caring nothing for demarcation lines between man and motor. On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red. One hundred million bundles of busy legs exchanging their sunless burrows for the shining, sandy shores of the beaches beyond the palm trees and the bubbling blue waters of the ocean beyond. Not for them the pleasures of this sinewave surfer’s paradise, but the unquestioning duty, the unwavering need to spawn the future. Just as they did last year, just as they will next year and for all the years to follow. They are the red crabs of Christmas Island.
“The whole place is overrun with curious red crabs as much as 18S in. across. They are excellent tree climbers, and once a year there is a regular migration of these crustaceans who travel in bodies like ants, taking 15 days on the journey, and returning inland after hatching their eggs.” – The Examiner – Launceston, Tasmania, 14 May, 1901, expedition of Sir John Murray.
In 2002, the Australian documentary series Island Life explored the far-reaching impact of this remarkable species, endemic only to Christmas and Cocos Islands (both Australian territories), and the increasing threats it faces by humanity and its influence. Two in particular currently affect the fate of the red crabs. Caring little for the presence of Christmas Island’s self-appointed owners – predominantly European and Chinese – crabs unwittingly braving the tarmac often fall victim to the heavy tyres of mining trucks filled with the precious phosphate that gives the locals their main economy. Fortunately, miners are reasonable people and awareness programs have made good progress in teaching them of the importance of preserving the rare local fauna.
“On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red.”
Far less reasonable is the second, and far more deadly, threat the red crabs face. Accidentally introduced into the local ecology from Africa a century ago, the yellow crazy ant today decimates all that stands in its path. “Listed among the 100 most devastating invaders of the world,” says Wikipedia (the entry has an extensive references section), “it has invaded ecosystems from Hawaii to Seychelles, and formed supercolonies on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.” Formic acid, their chief method of attack, blinds their prey, eroding areas of its body or simply causing it to starve to death. Large and unwieldy in comparison to its tiny and determined predator, the red crab has little chance of escape. Equally disadvantaged are its distant relative, the coconut (robber) crab, and other mammals and plant life sharing the surrounding environment.
The outlook was fairly grim in 2002, with fully a third of the total red crab population wiped out by the unstoppable invaders. That same year however saw major countermeasures launched by local wildlife officers. Ground and aerial baiting efforts using fipronil, a fish protein-based poison lethal to insects but not their victims, has proved highly successful in curbing the yellow crazy ant population. Like the Borg, however, the interlopers do not give up easily, and the long battle continues, the standing death toll massive. For the time being at least, the red crabs continue to fill the streets for every November’s mass migration.
It was the terror of the seas. Its name was spoken with fear and awe. It had weaved a path of destruction that was spoken of with disbelief in every port across the South China Sea. Now it’s luck was about to run out as it headed for the remote, palm-covered atolls known by their inhabitants as the Keeling Islands. The final battle was about to begin.
Once the private retreat of a rich Englishman and his harem of forty Malay women, today’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a quiet adjunct of Western Australia and home to a small population of Europeans and Malaysians who make a living from tourism. Sitting about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka, the Cocos have always been of strategic importance because of their location within major shipping lanes. This was all the more important in 1914 when the crew of the German cruiser SMS Emden, after months of successfully capturing and sinking almost every Allied ship it had encountered between Bengal and Keeling, decided to make for the Cocos and disable the vital wireless and cable relay on the archipelago’s Direction Island. Not only were the Cocos important to shipping during World War I, serving as a stopover point for ANZACS headed to the Turkish battlefield, but also a vital communications link between Australasia and Europe. For the other side therefore, it was an important link to sever.
The Battle of Cocos began on November 9th, 1914, when a landing party from the Emden stormed Direction Island and destroyed the relay station. Unbeknownst to the Emden was the fact that long before their plans of sabotage had been made, a convoy of ANZAC ships bound for Turkey were at this moment heading through the Indian Ocean. To make matters worse, one of the locals had managed to send an SOS to Allied forces before the communications station was damaged. Dispatched from the convoy to investigate the message, the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney encountered and engaged the Emden in what would be one of the first naval battles of the war.
“It was the terror of the seas. Its name was spoken with fear and awe.”
The battle would prove to be fairly one-sided. While the Emden’s guns were capable of striking a target at longer range, the Sydney’s were more powerful, and after two hours of continuous fire, the wounded Emden beached itself on North Keeling Island. The Australian cruiser then pursued and disable Emden’s supporting collier, before returning to its original quarry four hours later. However, despite its battle damage, the Emden and its remaining crew refused to surrender, until two more direct hits from the Sydney convinced those aboard to hoist the white flag. The German casualties were high: 131 dead and 65 injured. All the survivors, including the Emden’s captain, the Hanoverian Karl von Muller, who had earned the respect of the Allies for his policy of treating captured crews with civility, were made prisoners of war.
Or not quite all: 50 of the Emden’s personnel, led by First Lieutenant Helmuth von Mucke, still remained on Direction Island. The original landing party, sent to wreck the communications relay, had never returned to their vessel and had witnessed its destruction from afar. Having annexed Direction Island and its population in the name of Germany, von Mucke realised he and his men would have to make a break for freedom before the Sydney came for them the next morning. He commandeered the nearby 123-ton schooner Ayesha, planning to head for the neutral territory of Dutch-controlled Indonesia. Strangely, the captured Cocossians were more than happy for the theft to take place, even willingly offering von Mucke and his men provisions for the journey. It was only when the curious First Lieutenant put to sea that he discovered the Ayesha’s truly dilapidated state. For von Mucke, the voyage back to Germany would be a long and arduous one, and an adventure that would ultimately make him an ardent pacifist and him at odds with Adolf Hitler in the future.
Few film-makers have made use of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands outside of tourism. However in 2006, writer/director Jurgen Stumpfhaus and his crew visited the Australian territory to re-enact the Battle of Cocos for his two-part docudrama, Hunt The Kaiser’s Cruisers. Though made for German television, the miniseries was dubbed into English and screened in other parts of the world, as well as being given a DVD release. Episode 1, ‘The Caravan Of Sailors’, recreates the Emden’s dramatic rise and fall, as well as the fate of von Mucke and his men as they try desperately to get home through allied nations in the Middle East. Naturally, it paints the picture from the German side and even features an in-depth interview with von Mucke’s son, who understandably regards his late father as something of a hero. Von Mucke senior is portrayed as an unflappable leader of men, projecting an air of confidence he often did not feel for the benefit of his crew, and with an almost zealous belief in their survival. The kind of person you’d want to have on your side if you had to spend months walking through the deserts of Arabia and fending off warlords and bandits, for instance.
The Cocos really form just a small part of the program, but it stands as a rare example of their use in film and for that, Hunt The Kaiser’s Cruisers is worthy of mention – even if it is mainly enjoyable for the story that unfolds after the battle.
“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” – Bertrand Russell
Somewhere in the fog-enshrouded Andean highlands of Columbia, a squad of soldiers is dispatched to a remote outpost to find out what happened to their missing comrades stationed there. However, attempts to unravel the mystery only beget more questions and before they know it, the soldiers are unwittingly re-enacting the fate of their predecessors. The claustrophobic thriller of The Squad next time on World On Film. See the trailer below.