Palmeston location map
Although they're called the Cook Islands, Palmerston is the only one 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.

William was born a Masters and his name became corrupted to Marsters, possibly because of the way he pronounced it. He said he was originally from Birmingham in the Midlands of England but it's commonly believed he grew up in Leicestershire where the accent would have made it sound like there was an "r" in the middle. To this day, islanders still speak with remnants of an old fashioned English twang which linguists say (confusingly) resembles a Gloucestershire accent.  But modern communications are gradually eroding that.  

Palmerston was annexed to the UK on 23rd May, 1891 and soon after, the British Government granted William a 21 year lease on the island, after a long war of words in the corridors of British power while a Scotsman contested William's claim.

The Marsters family were granted full ownership of Palmerston (excluding 10 acres reserved to the government) in perpetuity in 1954 by means of an amendment to the Cook Islands Act passed by the New Zealand Parliament.

Three branches of the family remain and each has a section of the main island for houses and crops, and parts of the other islets. Marriage within a family branch is prohibited. The Islanders are also fiercely loyal to Her Majesty the Queen (Queen Elizabeth II) who they say is a distant relative.

For more about those royal connections, click here and about the unique accent click here

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.

Lifeline to the world
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 photo far right shows how big and sturdy the timbers are, and still how perfect.  Today, the building is used as a storeroom and cyclone shelter.
Population 58
0.8 sq mls/2.1 sq. kms

Access: Very difficult.
Occasional boats from Rarotonga

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.

By the time his 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. 

William Marsters home on Palmerston
Interior of William Marsters house
310 mls/ 500 kms
North West of Rarotonga

William Marsters
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.
Left ro right: Looking down the main street and across the lagoon.  Office buildings Palmerston style.
The Pastor's house

Ships visit with supplies only a few times a year, so  the HF telephone station (above right) provides the only permanent link with the outside world.  But the internet has reached this remote atoll...access is available four hours a day. Visiting yachts help supplement the island's supply needs.

William Marsters gravestone
Side view of Marsters house
Direct descendant, Simon Marsters
Left to right: A young islander next to William's grave on Palmerston.  A proud Simon Marsters in front of William's original house.  As in previous generations, Islanders are experts at fishing
More about the modern day Marsters of Palmerston

Religion plays an important role in everyday life on Palmerston.  William Marsters was converted to Christianity by the 19th century English missionary, the Rev. John Williams, who persuaded him to build the first church.    This is a more recent construction after the original was destroyed in a cyclone.    Services are held daily and several times on Sundays.  Islanders dress up in their finest clothes.

Islanders also celebrate the arrival of Christianity with an annual gospel day.  Read the only published account of this holiday and holy day through the eyes of one of the young islanders
Birds abound
Palmerston is home to thousands of sea birds,some very rare
The main street
Solid timbers
Net fishing on Palmerston
Sunday best
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Palmerston from the air
Pastor's home
Unspoiled Palmerston
The remoteness and inaccessibilty means the island remains unspoiled
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Palmerston's solar power station
The next generations will have a brigher life thanks to the sun.  On the 21 February, 2015, the island came into the 21st century with a round the clock power supply for the first time.   A solar power station was switched on, replacing the diesel generator on which the islanders have relied for decades.  It also means the island is no longer dependent on the infrequent cargo ships which delivered (or more often than not didn't deliver) the fuel for their generator.
 Photo: Cook Islands News
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.

Palmerston from the space shuttle
Palmerston as seen from the space  shuttle
The settlement is top right

Inside the church on Palmerston
Palmerston island church
ISLANDS: SOUTH  Palmerston    You might also like: A rare insight into daily life