This New Zealand protectorate is one of the most isolated communities in the world. Palmerston Island is the westernmost islet of a coral atoll belonging to the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Just sixty two people – all from the same bloodline – occupy the remote island, which sits approximately 2,000 miles (3,200 km) northeast of New Zealand and 2,850 miles (4,590 km) southwest of Hawaii.
While the enclave is an island utopia, paradise comes at a cost: Palmerston lacks an airport, gas station, grocer, and hospital. There are no cars, marinas, hotels, or restaurants. Yet despite this lack of amenities, one family has managed to prosper on the island for over one hundred and fifty years.
Palmerston Island is located on the summit of a submerged ancient volcano (also known as an atoll) which rises 13,123 feet (4,000 m) from the ocean floor. The atoll is composed of more than a dozen sandy motu (coral islets) which loosely form a ring along a coral reef and enclose a lagoon.
The largest of the motu are North Island, Leicester, Primerose, Toms, Cooks, and Palmerston – the last being the only permanently-inhabited island of the atoll. The islets are wooded with coconut palms and pandanus, and together they cover about one square mile (2.6 km2) of land.
The atoll’s lagoon measures seven miles (11km) across and spans 22 square miles (56km2). The coral reef occupies 5.6 square miles (14.5 km2) and protects the islands from large ships: Over the years hundreds of boats have struck the coral formation hiding just below the surface.
Access to Palmerston is limited. The island lacks an airport and the reef is too near the water’s surface for sea planes to land. Helicopters don’t have the range. Boats are the only option, but the island has no harbor and a treacherous approach which has taken the residents a lifetime to master.
Traveling to Palmerston Island by ship can take 8-9 days, and during that time travelers will not see land, encounter another boat, or see a plane in the sky; for a week it feels as if you are the only beings in the world.
Palmerston and its neighboring motu offer inhabitants a sunny, tropical climate – but paradise has its warts in windy weather and the occasional storm. In fact, things did go wrong on Palmerston eight times in the last one hundred years when hurricanes struck in 1883, 1914, 1923, 1926, 1931, 1935, 1942, and 1967.
Explorer James Cook(left) is credited with the modern era discovery of the islands, and as a result they bear his name today.
After Cook disembarked from the atoll, the remote motu did not witness human occupation for more than eight decades. When Englishman William Marsters encountered Palmerston in the mid-nineteenth century, he immediately fell in love and sought to take up residence.
At the time Palmerston Island was owned by British merchant John Brander, who would later appoint Marsters caretaker. The arrangement was symbiotic: While living on the island Marsters planted, grew, and harvested coconut trees.
Every six months Brander would send a ship to the island with food and supplies. Marsters would send coconut oil back.
The patriarch in Palmerston’s history hailed from Leicestershire of the English Midlands. William Marsters (right) was born in 1821 (another source claims 1831), and had become a ship’s carpenter and barrel maker before eventually setting off to sea in the mid-nineteenth century.
[ Marsters was born “William Masters.” His name is thought to have been corrupted through pronunciation over time. ]
William Marsters would tire of his journey, and as one version recounts, he would disembark in 1859 when the ship stopped in Tahiti. During his time there, he became acquainted with Tahitian-based trader John Brander, then-owner of Palmerston Island.
When Brander’s island caretaker quit, he reached out to Marsters, who by this time was on another Cook Island: The once-populated Manuae (now abandoned – map).
When Marsters arrived on the island as caretaker in 1863, he was accompanied by three Polynesian wives (the second and third were cousins of the first). This resulted in a unique domestic arrangement which split the island’s population between multiple families who still populate the island today: the Tepou, the Akakaingaro, and the Matavia.
Marsters divided the island into sections giving himself and each wife their own space. He then spent years building a community using salvaged timber from shipwrecks.
The first structures were homes for each family, followed by a church and then a schoolhouse. Marsters house featured the most robust construction; pilings salvaged from three different ships sunk over 10 feet (3m) into the ground have helped keep it intact for more than a century (above).
Marsters’ home was described in a New Zealand newspaper dated 1894:
The timber, excepting being cleaned and in some instances planed, was used just as it came from the wreck.
The result is that he has rafters 24 by 24 ; ridgepoles, 12 by 12; uprights, 18 by 12 and 18 by 24 ; door posts, 24 by 24; while the boarding of the houses and the flooring are of 12 by 4 and 4 by 3, resting on timbers 18 by 12 and other light pieces of timber.
The doorsteps are of 18 by 12 and 20 and 25 feet long. The nails used in the houses are ship’s bolts.
In 1888 William Marsters laid claim to Palmerston Island after owner John Brander passed away. The claim was contested by Scotsman George Darsie, a relative of Brander who argued for inheritance via bloodline.
Marsters would ultimately emerge the victor when Queen Victoria granted him possession of the island by way of a 21-year lease.
For 36 years William ruled over his parcel in the Pacific, but the limited resources eventually took their toll. When his coconut trees were destroyed by blight in 1899, the 78 year-old Marsters fell ill and died of malnutrition on May 22nd of that year.
The island’s founding father was laid to rest in the church cemetery, his grave marked by a monument today (below left). Marster’s three wives are nearby, buried together in a crypt in the cemetery (above).
“There were 33 persons on the island. Marston (sic) had married a half-caste kanaka woman and was the father of eleven sons and four daughters. All the islanders speak English fluently and the family appears to live on the happiest of terms.” ]
Life on Palmerston
The islands have some natural groundwater, but the primary source of drinking water is captured rainfall. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two large stone cisterns (left) helped store the captured precipitation.
Today homes have their own water supplies via individual plastic cisterns, however after several months the personal water catchments usually run dry. When this happens, the community reservoir is used.
Life on Palmerston offers many things, but none of them are a variety in diet: Atoll delicacies are limited to coconuts, parrotfish, shellfish, and wahoo – and that’s to say nothing of the “Bosun Bird” (or red-tailed tropic bird).
This seabird (and fellow atoll resident) offers a flavor oft described by visitors as gamey, unique, and perhaps something of an acquired taste. The atoll is also home to a thriving green turtle population, however they are a protected species and thus left alone. Palmerston does have a toilet – two of them, in fact.
However if residents want to go to the bathroom they must go outside, because Palmerston homes don’t have indoor plumbing.
Despite only two restrooms, queues haven’t been an issue. In other news, coconuts are high in fiber.
“Welcome to my world, a land of white sands and coconuts. Nothing goes wrong in Palmerston.”
-Bob Marsters, mayor
There are two main streets, and they’re dirt, but they have street lights. There are no shops or grocery stores.
Rations are limited to what residents are able to catch. Ergo, when they are not hosting visitors, fishing occupies most of the day for men on the island. Women teach, fashion clothing and jewelry from materials sourced on the islands, and prepare food for meals and storage.
A favorite dish is parrotfish, baked in a traditional umu oven and served with a homemade broth of salt-water and coconut milk brine. They assure it tastes better than it sounds.
On the 28th day of the month, from June to September, the Palmerstonians cull the full-grown Bosun birds from neighboring motu in the atoll. This schedule of limiting Bosun harvesting was brilliant foresight by William Marsters to ensure preservation of the seabird population.
Less successful have been the attempts to sustain the parrotfish population, which has seen a decline due to overfishing. In the 1990s the island council attempted to put a two-year ban on the catching of parrotfish, but the need for food and money forced residents to break the rule just months into the ban.
“All the people fighting wars should just come to Palmerston and go for a swim, play some volleyball. No need for all that fighting and killing everybody, no-one fighting here.”
– Bob Marsters, mayor
Palmerstonians are passionate about religion. Ever since English missionary John Williams converted William Marsters to Christianity in the 19th century, island residents have not been allowed to do much on Sunday except go to church.
The original church was destroyed in a 1926 typhoon; it was rebuilt years later and today it stands as one of the newest (and sturdiest) buildings on the island.
Generally life on Palmerston appears to be good. As Mayor Bob says:
“You are free to do what you want to do.”
Kids love to play “hit, bat, run,” a game suspiciously similar to baseball. In the afternoon some will go swimming and others play volleyball. A group of men gather around the satellite TV to watch rugby while the women relax on hammocks by the beach.
The only thing missing is alcohol: Until the next freighter arrives, the island is dry.
Visiting ships are hosted by one of the Marsters families, who take turns hosting each guest. This includes assistance with mooring, the ferrying back and forth between the boat’s place of anchorage and Palmerston, the feeding of visitors, and tours.
However don’t expect a free lunch; the people are kind but they don’t offer such hospitality without getting something of value in return.
If you do visit Palmerston, come prepared as it is custom for the host to receive goods or services from the guests in exchange for the hosting.
Palmerston’s remote location makes it difficult to maintain a trade or currency market, limiting the islet’s capacity for economic growth.
The atoll’s “industry” is limited to fishing, tourism, and copra, with fish being the island’s only significant export.
[ Usually rarely visited, Palmerston attracted an unprecedented 108 boats in 2010. ]
Freighters collect frozen parrotfish from the island in exchange for food and supplies such as rice and fuel. Parrotfish prices fluctuate, but on a good day Palmerstonians can fetch between $3 and $5 per pound.
Working against the Palmerstonians is the lack of a consistent and reliable distribution network, which hampers the island’s ability to get products to the marketplace.
Residents repay supply ships with hospitality and fish when the vessels steam through every six months – if they come at all.
A few years ago a freighter didn’t come for 18 months, according to current Mayor Bob Marsters. The islanders survived, but resources were exhausted and tensions were high.
“The day the freighter arrives it’s like Christmas Day.”
– Mayor Bob Marsters
Employment options on Palmerston are understandably lacking. The island boasts just three government-sponsored positions, none of which experience turnover:
Diesel generator operator: Manages generator that powers the lights and nearly two dozen buildings.
Teacher: The “Palmerston Lucky School” accommodates students age 5 to 17.
Customs and Quarantine Administration: Check in visiting boats and cargo ships, collect tariffs.
Palmerston’s population has fluctuated over time, but at its zenith around 300 people managed to coexist on the small island between 1950 and 1970.
Today just sixty two call the island home – a third of whom are children. Elders fear the number may fall with the latest generation showing more interest in leaving to pursue greater opportunities abroad.
[ An 85-year-old woman on the island had fourteen children but lost count of the number of grandchildren. Today just three of her children live on the island, the rest having relocated to Australia and New Zealand. ]
All but two residents are descendants of William Marsters and fall into one of three families.
William had six children with his first wife, a woman he had assumed was his second cousin. However when she was young she was sent to live with another family member. She was, in fact, Bill’s first cousin. Says Bob Marsters today of Williams’ marriage:
“Her father and my father were brothers. I didn’t know it, but by the time we found out it was too late and we already had kids… There’s nobody on the island, that’s why the intermarriage is going on.”
1925 photo of Marsters family on Palmerston, William Marsters II is in the center:*
The residents unrelated to Marsters include a Fijian nurse on a single-year residency and a school teacher by the name of Rose Clark, who fell in love when visiting the island on which her father had shipwrecked over fifty years ago.
[ In the 1950s Lt. Cdr. Victor Clark’s boat – the Solace – was shipwrecked near Palmerston, and for the nine months it was being repaired he lived on the island with the Marsters clan. ][ When Victor Clark died at age 97, his daughter Rose made the journey to Palmerston to scatter Victor’s ashes. According to Rose, “it was his favorite time of his life.” ]
Important issues are dealt with by Palmerston Island’s council, a six-member panel which consists of two representatives from each family. The etiquette, generosity, legal system, religion, and traditions have all been passed down from generation to generation.
Only one marriage law exists, and it restricts marrying within one of the three families. They are a kind and peaceful people, but there are disagreements between the families on occasion.
The tension is understandable considering they live with sixty one of their extended family in a confined and isolated space. Disagreements are often benign, and when visitors arrive the hospitality and smiles are usually quick to return.
“They’re such a family-orientated community – it’s very beautiful. I’ve learned a lot about their closeness while I’ve been here.”
– Rose Clark
For more than one hundred years the islanders kept diligent record of council meetings, court proceedings, and official letters. Unfortunately the records were recently lost in a fire at the church where they were stored.
The Cook Islands National Archives in Rarotonga maintains copies of some of the original documents; records show that the Māori language was in use on the island for many decades after settlement.
One 1908 agreement was written completely in Māori and is reproduced here with the original spelling, punctuation, and capitalization:
Oct 21 1908 Palmerstons ‗ 1. E ture teia i aika tika e i aka mana ia e te au Koura e i aka tika ia ei ture tina mou ki te Enua hei te ra taua ture Ko ki Kopara o te enua hei — Ko te papa e inangaro i te Kopara Ka tuku mua aia e rua pau Moni ko te ture ate Kopara Kare rava e akatika ia to Kopara me Kore e tutaki ia teia moni hei 2. Ko te tangata e aka tuke i teia ture hei ka akautu ia aia e rima paunu 5-00 John Marsters Carry James Marsters x Tom Marsters x Aaron Marsters William Marsters.
English translation: “October 21st, 1908 Palmerstons1. This law is an agreement about the authorization to dry copra and this agreement will hold as law for this island. This is our copra law for this island.—He who requires copra will be granted by this copra law two pound-weight. This agreement will not stand if payment for this is lacking. 2. If any person alters this law, he will be fined five pounds. [signed] John Marsters Carry James Marsters Tom Marsters Aarom Marsters William Marsters.”
The atoll is decently equipped, given its location and lack of resources. Preferred power is solar with backup gasoline generators offering assistance when necessary.
The supply ships bring the island gasoline, but the supply doesn’t always last until their next visit. When the generators do have gasoline they are run from 6 a.m. to noon each day, and again at night to power streetlights, small home appliances, and freezers (which keep the fish frozen until the next freighter arrives).
“I don’t get bored here, but I get discouraged. I swim, fish, play guitar, talk – that’s about all.”
– Shekina Marsters, 16
Transportation on the island is generally poor, but really just unnecessary. There are no cars but a handful of mopeds can be spotted. What visitors will see most often are the small boats, owned by nearly every household and a key cog in the Palmerston fishing and tourism industries.
[ When the oldest inhabitant, 92-year-old Mama Aka, went for dental work on Rarotonga, it took her four days to get there. After the procedure she had to wait six months for a ship to bring her back. ]
Two telephones allow the islanders to stay in touch with friends and family around the world, and the recent addition of Internet access thrust Palmerston into the twenty first century – although both are only available four hours a day.
The island’s homes offer more than you might expect: Some have refrigerators, satellite TV, VCRs, and washing machines.
“We were made to enjoy the world, enjoy the fresh air, enjoy the sunshine, enjoy the things God put us on the earth to enjoy. He didn’t put us on the earth to kill other people or hate other people.”
– Bob Marsters
A passage from a book about Palmerston Island by author Susan Casey describes the experience thus:
If heaven were a color, it would be tinted like this. You could fall into this water and happily never come out, and you could see it forever and never get tired of looking. There could be no confusion about who called the shots out here, at this gorgeous, haunted, lush, heavily primordial place, with all its unnameable blues and its ability to nourish you and kill you at the same time.
• The ancient name of the island was Avarau, meaning “two hundred harbour entrances.”
• Palmerston Island is the only island in the Cook Islands Group for which English is the native language.
• By the time William Marster’s youngest daughter Titana Tangi died in 1973, there were over a thousand of his descendants living in Rarotonga and New Zealand.
• The highest point is only 13 feet (4 m) above sea level; it earned the nickname “the Mountain.”
• Until 1969, the island was misplaced on maps since Captain Cook’s original charts had misidentified the exact location of the island by about 10 miles. Satellite technology eventually corrected Cook’s centuries-old error.
• For the Marsters story in more detail, click here.
• Since no Polynesians were living on Palmerston when William Marsters arrived, it is the only island in the Cooks which has never operated under traditional Polynesian system of Ariki (chiefs). The later discovery of primitive tools, several basalt adzes, and 12 ancient graves leads some to believe the atoll had been inhabited long before Cook discovered it.
• Pacific Expeditions operates M/V Bounty Bay, a sport and tourism vessel with routes to Palmerston from Rarotonga. Guests on PE ships can enjoy diving, eco-adventure, and underwater filming.
• In the Palmerston Yacht Club (pictured above), visitors can purchase Palmerston Island t-shirts and craftwork. There is also a bar – but it has no beer.
• Respect the locals: The Palmerston Islanders are honest, hardworking and dedicated people. They have great respect for their religion and traditions; however they are not orthodox and enjoy a good party as much as the next man. Visitors should consider bringing gifts or supplies. Petrol, reading material, and fruit are always appreciated.
• Palmerston Island is sometimes compared to Pitcairn Island, as both are remote islands supporting small English-speaking populations.
Access can be obtained through one of the seven designated ports of entry: Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Penrhyn, Pukapuka, Manihiki Tauhunu, Manihiki Tukao, and Atiu. Plan to arrive during daylight, and upon approach contact the Palmerston Administration on VHF Channel 16 or sideband at 1830 utc/4038 MHz.
Clearing fees in Rarotonga are NZ$25 at Customs & Immigration. As of 2014 the only other fees on Palmerston are $5 per person to check in and $10 per night for the mooring. Don’t be afraid to ask Palmerstonians what to bring in advance; often they will request specific goods or people brought over and they will be very grateful to you if you can oblige.
For example, they always appreciate when visitors pick up their mail from the post office in Rarotonga. Gifts of fishing hooks and lures, school supplies, or staples are very much appreciated.Their preferred items are clothes, staple foods like rice and flour, gasoline (as much as you can carry), VHS movies, and educational tapes and toys for the children. Don’t bring alcohol, firearms, or ammunition – but do bring fishing line and tackle.
And of course no visit is complete without a game of round-robin volleyball with the islanders. When visitors depart, the Island Administration issues official “departure certificates” to commemorate the visit.
• Sleep: By custom, the family that first greets visitors will offer a stay at their house.
• Mooring: The moorings at Palmerston consist of chain wrapped around and through small coral heads or anchored under coral flanges. The moorings were originally installed not by the islanders themselves, but by passing ships equipped with appropriate scuba equipment. Moorings are inspected at the beginning of every season. In addition to mooring, vessels drop anchor for additional support to avoid the reef. For additional mooring tips at Palmerston, click here.