Cocos Islands (kōˈkōs) [key] or Keeling Islands, officially Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands, two separate atolls comprising 27 coral islets (2001 pop. 621), 5.5 sq mi (14.2 sq km), in the Indian Ocean, c.1,400 mi (2,250 km) SE of Sri Lanka. They are under Australian administration. Only three of the islands are inhabited: West Island, which has an airport and the largest community of Europeans; Home Island, the former headquarters of the Clunies-Ross Estate and inhabited mainly by Cocos Malays; and Direction Island, which has an aviation-marine base. West Island is the capital. The predominant religion is Sunni Muslim; the major languages are English and a Cocos dialect of Malay. The economy is based on aviation and government facilities maintained by the Australian government. Coconuts are harvested, but most copra production ceased in the 1980s; there is some tourism and fishing. An administrator, appointed by the governor-general of Australia, heads the government. The unicameral legislature consists of the seven-seat Shire Council, whose members are popularly elected for two-year terms.
Discovered in 1609 by Capt. William Keeling of the East India Company, the uninhabited Cocos Islands were settled in 1826 by Alexander Hare, an Englishman. A second settlement was founded in 1827 by John Clunies-Ross, a Scottish seaman, who landed with a group of Malay sailors. In 1857 the islands were annexed to the British crown. Queen Victoria granted the lands to the Clunies-Ross family in 1886 in return for the right to use any land on the island for public purposes. In 1903, as a dependency of Britain's Singapore colony, the islands were included in the Straits Settlements; they were placed under Australian administration in 1955. In 1978, Australia purchased the Clunies-Ross family's interests in the islands, except for the family estate, and island residents voted to become part of Australia in 1984. Australia purchased the last Clunies-Ross-owned property in the islands in 1993.