An Englishman's legacy

Owned by the descendants of its English founding father
The only island Captain Cook set foot on himself

LOCATION: 500 kms/310 mls North West of Rarotonga  
ACCESS: Very difficult. Occasional boats from Rarotonga
LAND AREA: 2.1 sq. kms/0.8 sq. mls


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 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. Six main islets and multiple rocks and sandbanks are scattered around the lagoon which stretches for 39 sq. kms. Islanders live on the eastern most islet which they call Home Island. 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. Life on Palmerston has a rhythm of its own and includes daily church services.  Everywhere is immaculately tidy. 

Around the reef are six groups of islets (motus). These are North Island, Lee To Us, Leicester, Primrose, Tom's and Cooks. Leicester may have been named after the English county of Leicestershire where founding father, William Marsters grew up

Palmerston from the space shuttle
  Photo: NASA

"The Telecom"
A vital link to the outside world


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 

Palmerston as seen from the space shuttle Photo: NASA

"The Telecom"
A vital link to the outside world

Palmerston as seen from the space shuttle
Photo: NASA

Cargo ships call in with supplies only a few times a year, so visiting yachts help supplement the island's needs.  The big dish may look out of place but it provides the only permanent link with the outside world. The internet has also reached this remote atoll although hours of access are limited and the connection can be "tempramental"


William Marsters of Palmerston, Cook Islands

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 (according to official records). 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. Marsters had 17 children by his Polynesian wives and 54 grandchildren before he died on 22nd May, 1899, aged 78

By the time William's youngest daughter, Mrs Titana Tangi died in 1973, there were over one thousand Marsters living in Rarotonga or New Zealand. Few remain on Palmerston...but wherever they live, they all consider it their homeland


Another Marsters legacy is the unique way in which Palmerston islanders speak - the legacy of an old English accent which some say resembles that of Gloucestershire

more about the linguistic legacy


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 fourth photo shows how big and sturdy the timbers are, and still how perfect.  It was also one of only two buildings to survive a disasterous hurricane in 1926. Today, the building is used as a storeroom and cyclone shelter



William Marsters was converted to Christianity by the 19th century English missionary, the Rev. John Williams, who persuaded him to build the first church


Islanders dress up in their finest clothes for services held daily and several times on Sundays in the more modern replacement church


Much of daily life revolves around the sea. Fishing is particularly good near "Kick Me Arse Rock". William Marsters gave it that name after he had a particularly fierce fight one day against the wind and tide. 


Parrot fish are the island's main cash crop. They're dried or frozen and shipped to Rarotonga. The local diet is supplemented by baby Bosun birds and coconuts.   

A natural rhythm

Daily life on Palmerston has a rhythm of its own. Although (or because) the population is so small, everything is carefully organised, nothing is ever thrown away if it's likely to come in useful one day and everywhere is immaculately tidy. Former New Zealand Herald journalist , Sandra Paterson, who now lives on Rarotonga spent five weeks helping at the local school and wrote a fascinating insight into island life. 
Click here to read it.  She also encouraged one of the island's children to write about  gospel day on Palmerston which is both a holy day and a holiday.  Click here to read that

Inside a Palmerston home...and the scenery islanders wake up to every morning



Students from the island's Lucky School have an extended class every Thursday morning learning about gardening which is taken by the agriculture officer on Palmerston. The Adaptation Funded PEARL Project has provided the materials for a shade garden and cabbages, string beans, bokchoi and cucumbers are now thriving.  Photos: Climate Change Cook Islands which is responsible for overseeing such initiatives


Bill Marsters set up a rescue programme on Palmerston for the Pacific Green Turtle. The species is officially classified as endangered and the programme gives the turtle a helping hand in life from the point of hatching until the juvenile stage when it can be released back into the wild (as in the second of these pictures). These beautiful shots were taken by Matthew Mumford of New South Wales, Australia who kindly let me share them with you. Matthew says he feels extremely fortunate to have visited Palmerston and it's something he won't forget in a hurry.