North Keeling Island is named after Captain William Keeling who is believed to have sighted the island in 1609.
The island has not been inhabited for any continuous period and is in a natural state. Fortunately its remoteness from the main atoll, its difficult landing area and the absence of a reliable, fresh water supply have combined to preclude any possibility of permanent settlement. Nevertheless, small groups of Malay boats have paid visits to this island practically every year since the early days of the occupation of the southern atoll. These hazardous voyages were usually made to collect coconuts, timber and seabirds.
Late in the nineteenth century, small camps of beri-beri sufferers were maintained on the island for short periods. Twin Malay graves near the southern shore of the island mark the final resting place of a woman and a girl who succumbed to this dietary deficiency (Bunce 1988).
In November 1914 the German light-cruiser SMS Emden ran herself aground on the windswept southern reef after her unsuccessful encounter with HMAS Sydney. Not all of the survivors were prepared to give themselves up and a handful of diehards hid on the island. In October 1915 a work gang from Home Island found a number of skeletons which they buried on the shore near the wreck (Gibson-Hill 1948).
From October 1915 to January 1916, the islanders salvaged what they could from the German ship. Anything detachable and portable was removed and transported back to the landing area by trolleys that ran on narrow railway lines. The stripped hulk later slipped back off the reef into deeper water (Gibson-Hill 1948).
In 1950 a Japanese salvage company removed as much of the hull of the Emden as they could and shipped the scrap back to Japan (Bunce 1988).
Between the wars, groups of up to 20 Cocos-Malay workers were stationed on North Keeling for up to 2 weeks at a time. These parties would live in long-houses, built on the western shores of the lagoon. Once or twice a week they would receive a visit from an estate vessel which would deliver foodstuffs and water and return to Home Island with timber, coconuts and birds (Bunce 1988).
After the death of John Sydney Clunies Ross in 1944, the frequency of trips for hunting Boobies to North Keeling increased considerably. Groups of jukongs would go whenever the weather was suitable and thousands of birds would be brought down with shotguns as well as traditional flails. Barges would travel to the island once or twice a year to gather coconuts or bring back birds for Hari Raya festivities (Bunce 1988).
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the lifting of access restrictions and the acquisition of more efficient boats and weapons by the Cocos-Malay people greatly increased the frequency and efficiency of bird-hunting on North Keeling Island (Stokes 1994). In 1982, the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (ANPWS), now Parks Australia, investigated the situation and recommended urgent control of hunting (Stokes et. al. 1984).
By July 1986, agreement had been reached with the Cocos Malay people for a seabird hunting moratorium on North Keeling Island and the institution of a quota system of hunting on Horsburgh Island.