In the Nineteenth Century both American and British ships were aware of the Canton Island and its usefulness as a safe haven - despite the lack of fresh water! The British claimed that Captain Gibson of the Curacao visited in 1850. The Americans claimed that their whalers frequently stopped off on the island In fact one whaler got a little too close and ended up running aground in 1854. The name of that ship was the Canton!
Enderbury was discovered by an American captaining a British ship - which kind of precedes events in an odd sort of way. It was named after a whaling merchant (Endbury). There was some guano digging in the Nineteenth Century - but the sources were quickly exhausted. There was nowhere to actually land ships safely, so it was always tricky going from ship to shore and so this probably helped keep the commercial viability of any colony to a minimum - or at least until the development of long distance planes - see below.
It was not until the late 1930s that Canton's ownership was determined. It was actually a curious event that drew both British and American attention to the islands. In July 1937 there was a total eclipse of the sun and Canton was an ideal place to view it from. New Zealand and the US sent a team of observers to the island. Whilst there, they not only saw the eclipse but they also saw a lagoon that would be perfect to land sea planes in. This was the era of long distance clippers. That meant that staging posts on long haul flights in calm waters were essential. It was recognised that New Zealand and Australia needed a chain of these staging posts. The Americans also foresaw the value of a chain of islands extending across the vast Pacific. Therefore when the British made a move to claim the islands by sending a more formal expedition there in 1937, the Americans were very close behind with their own expedition to push its own claims on the island. The result was a very curious stand off (see map and image of camps) Both sides waited for the diplomats to resolve the impasse and generally got on amicably with one another. It did not take long for the diplomats to agree to share the island under a joint condominium as of 1939. This was just in time for world war two and the strategic implications were probably also part of the equation for both countries.
In 1939 Pan Am was granted the rights to build an airport/airport and the British were to have access to the facilities for a reasonable fee. It would become a vital staging post between Manila and Australia and from California to New Zealand. These facilities were to be massively expanded during World War Two as the islands found themselves surprising close to the front line of Japanese expansion.
The British would administer the islands from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The islands became independent in 1979 as part of the Kiribati chain.