For about a century, the phosphate mines of Christmas Island welcomed labourers from China and Southeast Asia, in particular Malaya and Singapore, who journeyed to this craggy isle, a solitary rock on the eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean, to dig, ship and die for the profits of colonial overlords. Aiding them in their, often final, tour of duty were chandlers such as Ong Sam Leong – Baba man about town, amateur mariner and tycoon extraordinaire – who rounded up recent, mostly Cantonese-speaking, migrants, ferried them to this coralline outpost and granted them all the rights of indentured men, coolies bound to the service of mining concessionaires and marked by a tattoo on their hand, who worked 74 hours a week to repay the debt of their passage and survived on little more than rice, salted fish and a dash of vegetables, for which they were charged a princely sum. Armed foremen caned laggarts, beri-beri culled the lame and those who had cash to spare sank into opiate dreams or plunged themselves into the flesh of painted ladies at a house of distant repute.
The settlement grew rather more complacent after the Second World War, though life on the island retained much of the social stratification of more glorious eras. Workers from Malaya and Singapore continued to drain the island's natural reserves, earning for their efforts the discrimination of second-hand employers and later, a battle of Conradian proportions that turned the colonists into citizens of a luckier state. There were, presumably, lots of coming and going, by steamer or flying boat, between the mines and Singapore in those decades, and it's possible that some of these commutes included the occasional free rider, oceanic wanderers that had reined in their pleopodal segments and would have never reached these parts on their own. Some probably perished in backyard kitchens, while a few may have eluded their handlers to roam local coasts until they ambled within sight of curious crowds, to which they almost certainly responded with backward lunges and the threat of stabby feet.
Widely dispersed in the Indo-West Pacific, Birgus latro is absent from the South China Sea, a biogeographical trait that may stem from a zoeal aversion to near-shore flavours or exist as a relict of once unhindered currents. Native fans of terrestrial decapods, who might fancy stumbling upon a beast in blue in ill-maintained coconut groves, must therefore content themselves with the rustlings of Coenobita, good-sized but markedly smaller anomurans that prowl unswept beaches and steal little more than the coils of dead snails. Young robber crabs also strap on – with the likely aid of their strongly chelate fourth pereiopods – empty shells, broken husks or film canisters, but as they grow, their naked abdomens deposit chitin to withstand danger and dessication, while layers of fat accumulate under the telson, the reserves of a diet of rich fruit, carrion and organic scraps. On Christmas Island, in the absence of now-extinct native rats, Birgus rule the slopes as the dominant non-bipedal predator, though this counts for little against the wheels of vehicles driven by dutiful visitors, which now squash a thousand or more crabs each year. In this age of climatic change and economic miracles, even the toughest of robbers must cede privilege to the laws of asylum, which offer a far more humane, though perhaps no less hopeless, end to desperate souls than that rendered to dispensable minions by long-dead barons and their heirs, now asleep and awaiting their fate in tombs on a hill.