The first European to sight the island was Richard Rowe of the Thomas in 1615.
Captain William Mynors of the Royal Mary, an English East India Company vessel, named the island when he sailed past it on Christmas Day, in 1643.
The island was included on English and Dutch navigation charts as early as the beginning of the 17th century, but it was not until 1666 that a map published by Dutch cartographer Pieter Goos included the island. Goos labelled the island "Mony" or "Moni", the meaning of which is unclear.
English navigator William Dampier, aboard the privateer Charles Swan's ship, Cygnet, made the earliest recorded visit to the sea around the island in March 1688. He found it uninhabited. Dampier wrote an account of the visit. Dampier was trying to reach Cocos from New Holland. His ship was blown off course in an easterly direction, arriving at Christmas Island twenty-eight days later. Dampier landed on the west coast, at "the Dales". Two of his crewmen became the first Europeans to set foot on Christmas Island.
Captain Daniel Beeckman of the Eagle passed the island on 5 April 1714, chronicled in his 1718 book, A Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo, in the East-Indies.
Among the rocks then obtained and submitted to Murray for examination were many of nearly pure phosphate of lime. This discovery led to annexation of the island by the British Crown on 6 June 1888.
Phosphate mining began in 1899 using indentured workers from Singapore, Malaya, and China. John Davis Murray, a mechanical engineer and recent graduate of Purdue University, was sent to supervise the operation on behalf of the Phosphate Mining and Shipping Company. Murray was known as the "King of Christmas Island" until 1910, when he married and settled in London.
After the war, seven mutineers were traced and prosecuted by the Military Court in Singapore. In 1947, five of them were sentenced to death. However, following representations made by the newly independent government of India, their sentences were reduced to penal servitude for life.
At Australia's request, the United Kingdom transferred Christmas Island's sovereignty from Singapore to Australia, with a $20 million payment from the Australian government to Singapore government as compensation for the loss of earnings from phosphate revenue. The United Kingdom's Christmas Island Act was given royal assent on 14 May 1958, enabling Britain to transfer authority over Christmas Island from Singapore to Australia by an order-in-council.