A unique family​ saga

William Marsters' claim and the Scotsman who challenged it

Palmerston shoreline, Cook Islands

William Marsters first laid claim to Palmerston in 1888. In the 25 (or maybe 24*) years since his arrival on the remote island, he 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 Scotsman, George Darsie who was determined to take the island for himself. He was the husband of Princess Titaua of Tahiti who, herself was the widow of John Brander who arranged for William to be taken to Palmerston in the first place.

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

*The year of William's arrival on Palmerston is disputed


William Marsters letter, Wiliam Marsters signature

From a three page letter in William's own handwriting dated January 6th, 1888. It's addressed to the Governor of Fiji who is in charge of Britain's interests in the Western Pacific. Marsters writes:

"I wish to apply to you...about the posession of Palmerston Island as I wish to claim it as my own"

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 again in the 1954 amendment to the Cook Islands Act in the New Zealand Parliament which bestowed legal ownership of most of Palmerston 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

This is important on two counts. Firstly, this "investment" in Palmerston 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 or some similar goldrush. 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.

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". He claimed the island was uninhabited which clearly it wasn't. 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). John Brander's own application around the same time for a licence was denied on the grounds Evans already held one.

The British Government supported William's claim to the island, but Scotsman, George 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. Fijian Princess Titaua (Mrs Darsie) claimed her late husband left the island to her in his will. (Author's note: I have a copy of the will and there is no specific mention of Palmerston in it)  The following are extracts from the key items of correspondence exchanged between London and the South Pacific

1 FEBRUARY, 1888: Mr R Hexham, Acting British Consul in Rarotonga to Sir John Thurston  (BRITISH HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR THE wESTERN pACIFIC AND GOVERNOR OF fIJI)

"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."

Fiji was under French rule at the time, hence the reference.  Meanwhile, the British Government saw potential military value in Palmerston. Hexham ends his letter with a somewhat chilling 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."

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 but the war of words wasn't over 

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. Darsie 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 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 George Bowles who was Master of the British Brig 'Tawera'. Bowles says that he took posession of Palmerston for John Brander in December, 1860 while commanding the French Protectorate barque 'Sultan' which Brander owned.

I did in the month of December one thousand eight hundred and sixty take full and entire possession of the island known as the name of Palmerston’s Island with all its Islets, Reefs, Lagunes for and on account of John Brander Esq of Tahiti and on the same date did land a gang of men and women with an Overseer to work the same Island for the said John Brander Esq and that the said island has been in Possession and is still in Possession of John Brander Esq  

Brander claims he has actually 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. 

1889-1891: Investigations and more letters

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 Secretary of State for the Colonies in Downing Street, London. In it Darsie says he will "do what is possible to obtain a revision of the decision re Palmerston". And in another letter (13 February, 1891) he threatens to resort to legal proceedings. The Colonial Secretary (Lord Knutsford) doesn't reply in person. It's clear that the patience of officials in London is running out and as far as they're concerned the matter is closed. 

17 April, 1891: From the Colonial Office in London 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 after 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. Strictly speaking it's a licence from Queen Victoria and is a formal contract between Her Majesty who is named as the owner of the Island* 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. Ten acres of the home Island (including the site of the radio station and its ancillary buildings, the site of the water supply tanks and equipment, and the site of the schoolhouse) were reserved for government use. The rest was handed over to Marsters and a unique dynasty was (all but) secured.

* In 1888, Great Britain unilaterally declared the Cook Islands to be its "Protectorate"

Lease to Palmerston island


A number of extensions were granted to the lease, but it was another 62 years before William's legacy was truly secured. In 1954, the Parliament of New Zealand who governed the Cook Islands at the time passed an amendment to the Cook Islands Act. That granted the Marsters family ownership of Palmerston in perpetuity, excepting the ten acres previously reserved to the government. 

The final part of the saga

Marsters the man and his ignonimious end

  The content of the pages headed "Marsters of Palmerston" are the product of original research by the website author and all rights are reserved and all sources acknowledged here. ​The author is a journalist, not an academic but you are welcome to use this material in academic research with the suggested citation "John Roberts, author of www.cookislands.". Please contact the author about use for any other purpose


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