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A Millennium Story: The King of Fanning Island (1)

[See also the postscript:  The King of Fanning Island (2).]

[Click here to go to a research posting on this subject.]

Those readers of Ayrshire Notes who were breathlessly awaiting the mis-called Millennium Dawn on the 31st December 1999 may be aware that the first glimpses of this new dawn were seen, about half an hour after noon, on the other side of the globe from an island known as Millennium Island. Note 1  This uninhabited island, formerly known as Caroline Island, is in the Line Islands, which constitute part of the country known as Kiribati. Note 2

Also in the Line Islands is a larger, and inhabited island, called Fanning Island or, in the native language, Tabuaeran Atoll.  It has an Ayrshire connection as the following article, taken from the 1892 Ayr Observer reveals:-

"Captain William Greig, who was known all over the Pacific Ocean as the "King of Fanning Island" is dead.  He died at the residence of his son-in-law, Captain J Reed, 932 Filmore Street, at nine o'clock on Wednesday evening, at the advanced age of 71.  Captain Greig was a native of Ayr, and went to sea before he had got into his teens. At the age of 23 he was master of a fine barque trading from Great Britain to the ports of South America.  Forty years ago he made his first and only voyage to the Pacific, and left his vessel in Valparaiso.  From there he went to Honolulu, and spent several years trading among the islands.  Thirty-five years ago he bought a schooner and went to Fanning Island, then owned by an English firm.  Greig liked the place, and undertook to develop a trade in guano, but the firm failed, and Greig bought the entire island from them.  His first move was to get married, but in order to do so he had to go to Honolulu, nearly a thousand miles away.  The daring Scotchman made the voyage safely, and carried his bride back to his lonely island kingdom.  He then sailed in his schooner in quest of labour to work the guano deposits and look after the big grove of cocoanut [sic] trees which were growing on the island.  Contented and happy, Greig passed many years on the little island and reared his family, caring nothing for the world from which he was divided by hundreds of miles of broad ocean.  The first visitors to Captain Greig and his island home were a couple of British warships, the Caroline and Cormorant, commanded by Captain Sir William Wiseman, who presented Greig with a handsome flag and placed the island under British protection.  On the following day the entire crews of the ships landed, and the flag was hoisted and honoured with a royal salute.  Greig entertained his visitors royally, and was dubbed by the officers of the ship as 'The King of Fanning Island'.  Soon after Greig took possession of Washington Island, Note 3  about 60 miles from Fanning, and shortly had natives at work there also.  He made frequent trips from his home to Washington, and several times narrowly escaped being wrecked.  Both islands are coral reefs, and have been the scenes of some disastrous shipwrecks.  Not long after Greig took up his residence on the island a French barque was driven ashore during a storm, and but for the assistance rendered by Greig the entire crew would have been drowned.  The boats were gone, and the dismantled wreck was lying on her side with the breakers going clear over her.  The crew were all on the after part of the wreck holding on for their lives, totally unable to help themselves.  Greig dragged a small skiff over the reef, and at the risk of his life rowed out to the wreck five times, and got every man safe on shore.  Had the boat been upset the sharks, with which these waters abound, would have made short work of the daring sailor.  As the years went by many a ship called at the island for copra and guano, and quite a trade was built up with the two islands.  As his family grew old enough to require schooling they were sent to Honolulu to be educated.  At different times thousands of natives of the south seas have worked for Greig, on his lonely islands, but he was never known to have the slightest trouble with any of them, and he was loved and respected by all who knew him.  His family are now grown up,  His oldest daughter is married to a man named Anderson, who is Governor of Washington Island.  Another resides in San Francisco, and is the wife of Captain Reed, owner and master of the brig Douglas, and it was at there house he breathed his last.  One of his sons is a recent graduate of Herald's Business College, and was with his father when he died. Mrs Greig is still alive, and is down on the island.  She knows nothing of her husband's death, nor will she until the brig Douglas sails into the harbour at the island with the body of the island monarch on board.  Captain Greig's death was caused by gangrene, which set in after he had his left foot amputated.

"Fanning Island is a coral reef, and is circular in form.  It lies in latitude 3 degrees 51 minutes north, longitude 159 degrees 22 minutes west.  The estate will be divided among the eight children, and the business will be carried on by them just as if Greig was still alive". Note 4

It is probable that William Greig can be equated with the William Greig who was born in Ayr on 23rd November 1821.Note 5   His parents were David Greig, stone dyker, and Agnes Brown.  They had married on 18th September 1802, at which time David Greig is described as 'dyke builder in this parish', while Agnes Brown is described as coming from the parish of Straiton. Note 6   William was the youngest of at least eight children, including an earlier William, christened in 1812, but presumably dead by 1821. Note 7   Agnes Brown, died of inflammation on 17th May 1822.  She was aged 40. Note 8   The lack of any further notice of the family in the parochial records suggests that the widowed David Greig may have moved from Ayr shortly afterwards.  There are a few fugitive references to David Greig, or Gregg, in the records of the Town Council.  In 1800 he was engaged in making a stone dyke around the Town's Common, and become involved in a dispute as to the line of the dyke with John Boyle In Townhead of Ayr.  Boyle came to the Common, 'threw down a part of the dyke, and by force prevented [Greig's men] from proceeding in the building'. Note 9   He had previously had cause to petition the Magistrates in 1799, shortly after he and David Wilson had gained the contract to enclose part of the Town's Common.  Wilson was the tacksman of one of the quarries at Townhead:  Greig's complaint was Wilson was supplying stone so slowly that he was unable to build the dyke at the necessary speed to complete it within the contracted time.  This case rumbled on before the Magistrates until December 1801, when the dyke is stated to be 'now finished'. Note 10   Greig's petition of 1799 gives his address as 'Bankend', and he may be meant in the 'John and David Gregg, near Barhill' who owe the merchant William Galbraith 9s 8d in 1796. Note 11

Fanning Island was discovered by Edmund Fanning in 1798.  It was annexed by Great Britain in 1888 as its site in the centre of the Pacific made it ideal for a cable station, which was replaced in 1963.  Fanning was also the first to sight Washington Island, also in 1798, which was annexed by the British in 1889.  Edmund Fanning (b.1769, d.1841) was known as 'The Pathfinder of the Pacific'.  He was born in Stonington, Connecticut.  His voyage through the Pacific in 1797-98, besides discovering the island that bears his name, demonstrated the economic potential of the Pacific.  He had left New York with nothing but a few trinkets for trading, and by astute trading in sealskins, tea, silk and the like, returned to New York, the voyage having made a net profit of over $53,000 for the owners, and $15,000 for Fanning himself. Note 12

Today, Fanning Island has a population of 1309.  The economy is still largely based on copra processing, though the cable station has been superceded by improved communications.  The island is developing a niche as a port-of-call for cruise liners.  Fanning Island and Washington Island today belong to Fanning Island Plantations Ltd.

I would be happy to hear from anyone who knows more of William Greig and his story, especially anything which would indicate whether the Greig family is still involved in Fanning Island Plantations Ltd.

Rob Close

This article was first published in Ayrshire Notes No. 18 (1999).    Back to top

Postscript:  The King of Fanning Island (2).

  1. I assume no reader of Ayrshire Notes needs to be told that the 20th Century and the 2nd Millennium will end on 31st December 2000, D.V.
  2. Formerly the Gilbert Islands, part of the British colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Kiribati became an independent republic in 1979. The name is pronounced 'Kiribass'.    Back to text
  3. Now known as Teraina. In 1990 it had a population of 936.    Back to text
  4. Ayr Observer, Tuesday 16th August 1892, 4f. The obituary notice is taken from the San Francisco Examiner of 29th July 1892, and is also reprinted in the Ayr Advertiser, Thursday 18th August 1892, 5c, and Ayrshire Post, Friday 19th August 1892, 3d. The San Francisco Examiner belonged in 1892 to William Randolph Hearst, the model for Citizen Kane: it was his first paper, bought in 1887, when he was 24.    Back to text
  5. OPR 578/10, Ayr Parish, Births 1820 - 1840, p.105.
  6. OPR 578/8, Ayr Parish, Marriages 1761 - 1819.
  7. These names are taken from the current edition of the International Geneailogical Index: John, christened 27.6.1803; Marion, christened 21.1.1805; David, christened 22.8.1806; Agnes, christened 27.6.1808; Margaret, christened 3.10.1810; William, christened 4.9.1812; James, christened 8.2.1814; Elizabeth, christened 18.6.1819
  8. OPR 578/13, Ayr Parish, Deaths 1820 - 1854.
  9. South Ayrshire Libraries [SAL], B6/35/33, Warrants of Decreets 1800 - 1807, 1800 Bundle, no.27, Petition, David Gregg to the Magistrates.
  10. SAL, B6/35/33, Warrants of Decreets 1800 - 1807, 1802 Bundle, no.14, Petition, David Greig to the Magistrates.
  11. SAL, B6/35/32, Warrants of Decreets 1793 - 1799, 1796 Bundle, no.24, Summons, William Galbraith against Thom, &c.    Back to text
  12. Dictionary of American Biography, Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Vol.VI, Echols - Fraser, London, 1931, 266-267.    Back to text

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