I was looking at some microfilms that contain records from the British Colonial Office. The ones that I have access to have largely melted over the years in the tropical heat, but there are certain files that are still preserved.
One that I came across today dated from 1918 and was about an application by some British citizens to gain permission “to work certain islands in the China Sea between Singapore and Hongkong.”
The documents in this file demonstrate that British officials were not sure if they had the authority to grant such permission, but in the end a certain “Mr. Risley” (who appears to have been an official working for Under Secretary of State George Fiddes, who in turn served Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour) made the following comment:
“. . . while a claim to the sovereignty over these islands may eventually be made by one of the Powers whose possessions lie in the China Seas, there is nothing to show that any such claim has ever been put forward in the past.
“In these circumstances and in view of the fact that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty attach importance to the occupation of the islands by British subjects, Mr. Balfour sees no objection to the grant of the authorization desired by the petitioners.”
Given what is happening today, and what we know of the history of this region, this is a fascinating comment as it shows that there was a person in 1918 who essentially said, “Someday some country might claim this territory, but no one has done so yet, so. . . . let’s claim it for ourselves while we can.”
What did they want to do with the islands? Apparently on some of the 11 islands under discussion there was potential to harvest and produce guano, copra and rubber.
And who were the British subjects who wanted permission “to work certain islands in the China Sea between Singapore and Hongkong”? So far all I have seen is the mention of some people surnamed “Judson, Bell and Shelley-Thompson.”
I’ll try to look more into this issue later, but for now, here is the (damaged) version of the file that I found this information in (CO 273/475 3884).
Perhaps this is an historical episode that is already well-known. If it is, my apologies for repeating something we already know. If, however, it is not well-known, then. . . we have something new to research.