A three page letter in William's own handwriting  dated January 6th, 1888 is addressed to the Governor of Fiji who is also in charge of Britain's interests in the Western Pacific
William Marsters signature
William Marsters letter
*The arrival year in Marsters letter (1864) contradicts the log of the ship which landed him.  That says it was 8th July, 1863, and this is also confirmed by records in the UK's Commonwealth Office (as was).   But the date is contradicted by the 1954 amendment to the Cook Islands Act in the New Zealand Parliament which bestowed ownership of most of Palmerton to Marsters and his descendants.  That says it was 1862! 

For now though, let's continue with William's letter...we learn next that he has been busy planting coconut ("cocoanut") trees - "about two hundred thousand" of them - paid for out of his own pocket.
William Marsters letter extract
William Marsters first laid claim to Palmerston in 1888.   In the 25 (or maybe 26*) years since his arrival on the remote island, he'd planted tens of thousands of coconut trees, and turned the tiny atoll into a home for himself, his wives and children.  A letter in his own handwriting tells the story. 

But his claim was  very strongly contested by a Scotsman, George Darsie who was determined to take the island for himself. 

Detailed research in the UK's national archives has turned up documents which recall vividly what went on in the corridors of power in London during this battle for ownership.   It's a long story, but a fascinating one.

Palmerston shoreline
Palmerston is still covered in coconut trees which William planted by the tens of thousands
I gratefully acknowledge the meticulous research by John and Julie Davies at the UK's national archives.   It was done because - in their words - "we wanted to try to repay, at least in part, the overwhelming hospitality we received from everyone living on the island, especially from Bill Marsters and his family" when they visited Palmerston in September, 1998.   That research has enabled me to share this part of the Marsters story with you.
The copy of the letter is courtesy of Pam Vowles from England to whom I am also most grateful.
This is important on two counts.   Firstly, this "investment" in the island forms part of the basis for William's request to take ownership of the island...and secondly, it prompts you to wonder whether he did indeed arrive on the island with a legacy from his time in the California gold rush of 1848-55.    Writing from Palmerston in 1998, the Rev. Bill Marsters says William "came away with a find of three jars or jimmy-johns of gold nuggets". 

And William rounds off his letter by urging the authorities to think of his family....

Spread across two pages of the letter, William says:
"I should like to register the island in my name as I think it will be a great pity to drive my children away from the island as it is the only home they got,"  And he goes on to ask if Mr Darsie can drive him away from Palmerston without compensating him for the improvements he has made over the past ten years.

Lord Knutsford
Letter extract
The British Government supported William's claim to the island, but Scotsman, Geroge Darsie from Anstruther in  Fife fought for nearly four years to claim it for himself.   He married the widow of John Brander who put William on the island in the first place.  Mrs Darsie claimed her late husband left the island to her in his will.  The following are extracts from correspondence that went on between London and the South Pacific.
28 May, 1888:  Sir John Thurston (in Fiji) to Lord Knutsford, Secretary of State for the Colonies (in London)
"After consultation with the Chief Judicial Commissioner, I came to the conclusion that....British protection might be extended to Mr Marsters...I have granted him a lease for five years at the nominal rent of Five pounds per annum"

The lease was granted on 12th May, 1888 (see below)

Pictured right:  Lord Knutsford and  top left, Sir John Thurston,
1st February, 1888:  From Mr R Exham, Acting British Consul in Rarotonga to Sir John Thurston, British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific
"I consider myself that Mrs Darsie has not a shadow of a claim and that it has now only been raised when she heard the Island was valuable...I think it a pity if the place should fall into French hands."

And clearly the British Government saw potential value in Palmerston too.  Exham ends his letter with a very interesting observation....

"I may add that there is a very large lagoon at Palmerston and with a very small outlay, the entrance could be made wide enough and deep enough to allow any ship of war to enter."

13 October, 1888:  From George Darsie (in Tahiti) to Sir John Thurston (in Fiji)
This letter was sent a few weeks after the granting of the five year lease to William.  He copies the letter to the Under Secretary for the Colonies in Downing Street, London complaining about "the extraordinary conduct of William Marsters in unlawfully attempting to take the island for himself."

"The property belonging to Mr Brander and his wife was divided by the French law courts in 1881 and Palmerston Island fell to the share of Mrs Darsie, formerly wife of Mr John Brander, now my wife....an error has been made by Her Majesty's government in granting a lease or license to Wiliam Marsters , and I formally protest against the acts of William Masters or Marsters, and request your exellency to use such steps as you consider necessary to prevent him from doing further wrong, and I will be legally justified in using force to remove him..."

In support of his claim, Darsie submits a sworn statement (dated 5th February, 1868) from the Master of the British Brig 'Tawera', George Bowles.  Bowles says that he took posession of Palmerston for John Brander in December, 1860 while commanding the French Protectorate barque 'Sultan' which Brander owned.  Brander also says he has had possession since 1857 when he put workers on the island to plant "cocoanuts" make "cocoanut" oil, cure beche de mer (sea cucumber) and raise hogs

The Emigration Department in London investigates further and in a note to the Colonial Office dated 8th February, 1889 says "I have no record of any licence to either Mr Darcie (sic) or to Mr Brander issued by the Emigration Commissioners".   But Darsie doesn't give up....More letters follow in 1890 and 1891, one direct to the Colonial Secretary himself in Downing Street, London, who doesn't reply in person.  It's clear that as far as London are concerned the matter is closed.

13 February, 1891:  From the Colonial Office to George Darsie
"His Lordship has carefully considered the grounds, as set out in this and previous letters from you upon which you base this claim, but afer perusing a detailed report from Sir J Thurston on the subject he has arrived at the conclusion that your or Mr Brander's dealings with Mr Marsters did not establish a title to the island..."
On 12 October, 1892, a 21 year lease commencing in January of that year is granted.  It's actually a licence from Queen Victoria and is a formal contract between Her Majesty and William Marsters, albeit signed on the Queen's behalf by the British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific and Fiji Governor, Sir John Thurston.   The Marsters dynasty is secured.
Palmerston lease
Colonial Secretary, Sir John Thurston
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And if that isn't complicated enough, Queen Victoria had granted a 7 year licence on 19 March, 1867 to John Lavington Evans of Victoria, Australia giving him "the sole and exclusive right to plant cocoa-nut trees and export cocoa-nut oil from an island in the South Pacific Ocean called Palmerston Island".  That licence was revoked two years later  (on 7th September, 1869) by the Secretary of State for the Colonies after a four month notice period. (Source: Victoria Government Gazette, Oct 8, 1869) So far, I haven't been able to find out the reason for revokation, or why Evans was granted the licence in the first place.
An article in Australia's 'Melbourne Argus' of 16th April, 1888 describes how the barque, 'Queen's Island' met Marsters as she sailed past Palmerston.  It gets his surname wrong, but says: "There were 33 persons on the island.  Marston had married a half-caste kanaka woman and was the father of eleven sons and four daughters.  All the islanders speak English fluently and the family appear to live on the happiest of terms....Marston stated he did a good trade in copra with small vessels."
William Marsters and family
A previously unpublished photo of William's descendants (William II is in the centre), provided to me by the great great granddaughter (by way of William and his first wife), Yolande Browne of New Zealand (now deceased).   Her grandmother, Munokoa Nono Vakai is on the second row, third from the left with the long hair.  Marion Marsters tells me her grandfather, Ned is in the back row holding her father, the Rev. Bill Marsters.  And she says the photo was taken in 1925.    Email me if you can identify any of the others in the photo.  
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