PALMERSTON

An Englishman's ​​legacy

500 kms/310 mls North West of Rarotonga      
Access: Very difficult. Occasional boats from Rarotonga
Population: 58    2.1 sq.kms/0.8 sq. mls

ABOUT PALMERSTON

Although part of the Cook Islands, Palmerston is owned by the descendants of 19th century Englishman, William Marsters. It's the only island on which Captain Cook ever set foot himself. He discovered it on his second voyage in June, 1774, but it wasn't until Sunday, April 13, 1777, during his third Pacific voyage, that he went ashore. He and his crew took on board supplies of "scurvy grass, palm cabbages, birds, fish and cocoanuts etc" , but they didn't find any fresh water. He landed on a tiny coral atoll which (according to "A Gazeteer of Central Polynesia" published in 1857) was not more than three feet above sea level but had numerous trees and bushes on it and the remnants of a canoe.  Cook named the tiny and remote island after Lord Palmerston who was First Lord of the British Admiralty and father of a future British Prime Minister. The ancient name was supposedly Avarau, meaning 200 harbours.

Acccording to 19th century British missionary, the Rev William Wyatt Gill, the Bounty mutineers also touched on Palmerston but decided it was not quite what they were looking for

GETTING THERE

With no airstrip and no regular boat service, it's not easy. Ask at the harbour master's office on Rarotonga about any planned sailings or to see if any private yachts are heading that way. It's typically a two or three day journey by sea in often difficult conditions

WHAT TO EXPECT

Palmerston is an atoll made up from the summit of an old volcano which rises 4,000 metres (13,123 feet) from the ocean floor. At its highest point, it's just 4 metres (13 feet) above sea level. The land near the reef is infertile, but there are typical atoll tree crops of coconut and pandamus. The island is a major nesting site for the green turtle and rare seabirds. 

Daily life on Palmerston has a rhythm of its own and includes daily church services. Although (or because) the population is so small, everything is carefully organised, nothing is ever thrown away if it's likley to come in useful one day and everywhere is immaculately tidy. 

OFF THE MAP

The island is so remote, it wasn't even properly located on maps until 1969! Up and till then, its position was based on Captain Cook's original charts which showed it 10 miles away from where navigation satellites have now confirmed it really is. Around the reef are six groups of islets, the largest being Palmerston. The others are North Island, Lee To Us, Leicester, Primrose, Toms and Cooks. Leicester is thought to have been named after the English county where founding father, William Marsters grew up. 
Cargo ships visit with supplies only a few times a year, so visiting yachts help supplement the island's needs.  The big dish may look out of place but it provides the only permanent link with the outside world. The internet has also reached this remote atoll...access is available four hours a day. 

Palmerston as seen from the space shuttle
Photo: NAS A

A link to the outside world

THE MARSTERS LEGACY

All the islanders are descended from one Englishman, William Marsters - described by some as a labourer and others as a carpenter and barrel maker - who arrived from Manuae on 8th July, 1863. Contemporary reports say he was accompanied by three Polynesian women, at least one of whom he had married. 

He subsequently ended up with four wives, although it's not clear whether he married more than one. And that was after deserting his first wife and two children in England. Masters had 17 children by his Polynesian wives and 54 grandchildren before he died on 22nd May, 1899, aged 78

Another Marsters legacy is the unique accent with which Palmerston islanders speak

Learn more about the linguistic legacy

By the time William's youngest daughter, Mrs Titana Tangi died in 1973, there were over one thousand Ma(r)sters living in Rarotonga or New Zealand. Fewer than 60 remain on Palmerston...but wherever they live, they all consider it their homeland

THE HOUSE THAT WILLIAM BUILT

William Marsters built his own home on Palmerston from shipwreck timbers and driftwood found on the shores at the time of his landing. And it's still standing after more than 150 years...only the corrugated roof is recent and the the original is still underneath. The fourth photo shows how big and sturdy the timbers are, and still how perfect. Today, the building is used as a storeroom and cyclone shelter

THE CHURCH

William Marsters was converted to Christianity by the 19th century English missionary, the Rev. John Williams, who persuaded him to build the first church

RELIGION

Islanders dress up in their finest clothes for services held daily and several times on Sundays. Today's church is a more recent replacement for the original

SEA LIFE

Much of daily life revolves around the sea. For generations, islanders have been expert fishermen

NATURE'S BOUNTY

Parrot fish are the island's main cash crop. They're dried or frozen and shipped to Rarotonga. The local diet is supplemented by baby Bosun birds and coconuts.   

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT DAILY LIFE ON THIS REMOTE ATOLL.  READ A RARE AND FASCINATING INSIGHT BY CLICKING HERE

Read about Gospel Day on Palmerston - holy day and holiday