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Palmerston Island part of the Cook Islands.

Populating Palmerston Island: One Man, Three Wives and A Desert Island Paradise

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Palmerston Island is part of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. This island is one of the six main islands located on a coral atoll and is the only one that is inhabited. Palmerston Island is one of the most isolated places on earth, and almost all of its inhabitants today are related to each other, as they are all descended from one Englishman who settled there about 150 years ago.

Where is Palmerston Island?

Palmerston Island is situated on a coral atoll (known as Palmerston Atoll), which is a coral reef enclosing a lagoon. Islands commonly form around the rim along the top of the reef. Apart from Palmerston Island, there are five other large islands on this atoll – North Island, Leicester, Primerose, Toms, and Cooks.

Palmerston Island and the Cook Islands map. (Ras67 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Palmerston Island and the Cook Islands map. (Ras67 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The closest place to Palmerston Island that has a significant population is Rarotonga, the most populous of the Cook Islands. Rarotonga is located about 500 kilometers (310 miles) to the southeast of Palmerston Island and it takes about two days of sailing to get from one island to the other.

Nevertheless, ships between the two are few and far between, meaning that one may have to wait for several months before a ship comes along. Sailing seems to be the only way to get to Palmerston Island, as it is too far from anywhere for a normal helicopter to fly to and the area is not conducive for sea planes to land.

When Was Palmerston Island Discovered?

Palmerston Island was first discovered in 1774 by Captain James Cook during his second voyage. It was, however, only three years later, on the 13 th of April 1777, during his third voyage, that Cook set foot on Palmerston Island. At that time, the island was uninhabited, though there is evidence that it had once been settled by the Polynesians. Cook named the island in honor of Henry Temple, 2 nd Viscount Palmerston and Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty at that time.

Captain James Cook first discovered Palmerston Island. (Trzęsacz / Public Domain)

Captain James Cook first discovered Palmerston Island. (Trzęsacz / Public Domain)

After Cook left, Palmerston was left untouched for about eighty years. On the 8 th of July 1863, an Englishman by the name of William Marsters (a corrupted form of Masters) arrived on Palmerston. Marsters is said to have seen the island three years before while working on a whaling ship. He was so charmed by its beauty that he decided to settle there permanently. In 1863, the island belonged to a British merchant by the name of John Brander and Marsters was hired to work as the island’s caretaker.

Marsters Settles Palmerston Island

Marsters was born in Leicester around 1831 and had been either a laborer or a carpenter and barrel maker before going to Palmerston Island. When Marsters set foot on the island he brought his three wives along with him. One of them was Akakaingaro (known as Sarah), the daughter of a Cook Islands chief, while the other two were her cousins. Today, there are three families living on Palmerston Island, each being descended from one of Marsters’ three wives.

When Marsters settled on Palmerston Island he took three wives. (michelle250 / Pixabay)

When Marsters settled on Palmerston Island he took three wives. (michelle250 / Pixabay)

When Marsters first landed on Palmerston Island, it was uninhabited, so he had to build everything from scratch. Using shipwreck timber and driftwood, Marsters built a house for his family, which is still standing today, though it is now used for storage and as a cyclone shelter. Later on, a church, a school, and more houses were built. As caretaker of the island, Marsters was to plant, tend to, and harvest coconut trees. Every six months, Brander would send a ship to the island with supplies and food. In return Marsters would give the merchant coconut oil.

The Fight for Palmerston Island

In 1888, Brander died and Marsters laid claim to Palmerston Island. This was contested by George Darsie, a relative of Brander who laid his claim on the basis of inheritance through bloodline. On the 23 rd of May 1891, Palmerston Island was formally annexed by the British Empire, and after a long war of words with Darsie, Marsters was eventually granted a 21 year lease on the island. Eventually, Marsters’ descendants were granted full ownership of Palmerston Island in 1954 when the New Zealand Parliament passed an amendment to the Cook Islands Act.

William Marsters on Palmerston Island. (Afrodita nz / Public Domain)

William Marsters on Palmerston Island. (Afrodita nz / Public Domain)

Marsters himself died on the 22 nd of May 1899 of malnutrition after his coconut trees were destroyed by blight. Nevertheless, before his death, he was able to divide the island into three parts, one for each of his wives and descendants. According to records, by the time of his death Marsters had 17 children and 54 grandchildren. Other reports claim this figure was higher with him fathering at least 20 children. Almost all the inhabitants of Palmerston Island today are descended from Marsters and there are many more Marsters living in Rarotonga and New Zealand.

Top image: Palmerston Island part of the Cook Islands. Source: Guille / Adobe.

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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