|Palmerston sits like a delicate necklace in the blue body of the Pacific, its coral reef and white beaches strung with six sandy motu scattered through it and a surrounding vast lagoon.
The little islets including Palmerston, North Island, Lee To Us, Leicester, Primrose, Tons and Cooks cover a total land area of about two square miles but the coral reef is about 3,600 acres edging a seven mile wide sparkling blue lagoon. Flecked with kaoa, or coral heads, it is the lagoon which is the main source of income to this tiny community.
Vegetation is verdant. Palm trees, pandanus and natives. Shellfish are part of the daily diet and profuse. The Parrot fish are abundant and always a regular on the table; and often exported to Rarotonga when the ship comes in.
The Story of William Marsters
But Palmerston’s fame comes not only from the fact it is a perfect island paradise. Its history is unique in the Cooks. And though Captain Cook may have finally landed in 1777 having bypassed it in 1774, it is William Marsters – a ship’s carpenter and barrel maker – who arrived in 1863 complete with two Polynesian wives (and a third to be quickly acquired shortly after) who has made the island a story teller’s true treasure.
Marsters arrived from Manuae and annexed it from the British government before siring a large family of about 23 children. Each wife had her own home after he divided the land into three and he had his. He is believed to have come from Leicestershire and though known as Masters at that stage, some think that because of the broad accent the R was added.
Whatever, by the time his youngest daughter Titana Tangi died in 1973 there were over a thousand Marsters living either in Rarotonga or New Zealand. And though only about 50 now live on Palmerston or as it is familiarly known to the Marsters, Home Island, there are three branches of the family which are descended from one of the three wives, and marriage within a family group is prohibited.
Although it is administered by the Cook Islands government under the jurisdiction of New Zealand, all descendants regard the island as their ancestral home and in 1954 the family was granted full ownership of the island.
A Beautiful Cook Island Settlement
This island paradise houses one of the most beautiful settlements in the entire Cooks. Immaculately kept, visitors are welcomed warmly; most of whom come from the frequent yachts exploring the seas and gaining passage by small boats through the one main opening. Wisely they usually come during the cyclone off-season for hurricanes can disturb the tranquillity of this peaceful place. Fortunately they have been unable to destabilise the original home Marsters built from the timber of shipwrecks which were sunk over three metres into the ground to ensure a deep foundation that has kept it intact for over 100 years.
Abundant Sea and Bird Life
As expected, living off the land is paramount in this remote spot. Fish, taro and breadfruit is abundant. However, there is another delicacy – the Red Tail Tropic Bird, or the Bosun Bird which is culled every 28th day of the month from the first Saturday of June until the end of the year. Established by the Patriarch himself, it seems to have not only kept the bird population sustainable over the last 100 years but also provided a supplement to the daily diet of fish – if you like Bosun Bird of course. Fortunately the Palmerstonians do.
Also part of the environmental programme is the thriving green turtle population which is a protected species.
Life on Palmerston
With no airport or airline services and strongly reliant on the irregular cargo boat service, Palmerston is surprisingly well-equipped with modern day amenities. Electricity runs from 6am – 12pm each day and again at night. Freezers keep the parrot fish frozen, ready for consumption and export. The economy is based on fishing, copra and bird feathers with a small degree of tourism. And a public telephone provides a permanent link to civilisation.
Whilst in the Yacht Club, Palmerston Island t-shirts and craftwork can be purchased along with a cold beer! The rewards of being given a Marsters greeting when stepping out of that cargo cabin onto pearly white sands are rich – as is the discovery of a superb example of a micro-community living on their own terms.