Palmerston Islands mark the point farthest south in our circuit of the central Pacific atolls. The northern islet is 1082 nautical miles south of the equator. The atoll is about 280 miles south of Suvarov Island, 360 miles southeast of Rose Atoll, 400 miles eastward of Niue Island, and 270 miles northwest of Rarotonga, from which it is administered.
The atoll consists of a continuous ring of reef, surrounding a shallow lagoon. It measures about 4.1/2 nautical miles (one report gives 6.1/2 miles) north and south, by 2.3/4 miles wide. There is no safe anchorage, and ships cannot enter the lagoon, although the skilful native boatmen make use of two narrow boat passes north of the western islet, the northern one being said to have about eight feet of water through it.
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On the reef are eight small islets, with a total land area of about 1,000 acres. All of the islets are wooded, with thick stands of coconut palms, pandanus, and native trees. Many of these lean to the west and southwest, attesting the strong winds which are experienced, especially during January and February. Native arrowroot is said to grow well. There is no water on the islets, other than that which is caught from rainfall. Giant clams are found on the reef, and fish are plentiful.
The atoll was discovered on June 16, 1774, by Captain James Cook, on his second voyage to the south Pacific, in the British ships Resolution and Adventure. He named the atoll in honour of Lord Palmerston, one of the Lords of the Admiralty. The chart which he drew at the time still forms the basis of the present nautical charts.
On his third voyage to the Pacific, Captain Cook again visited the atoll in the Resolution and Discovery. In order to obtain fresh green food for the cattle he had on board, four days, April 14, 1777, were spent, hove-to off the west side. Landings were made on two of the islets, and in addition to cattle feed the men obtained 1,200 coconuts and many fish, for their own food. Interesting observation regarding coral reef formations, birds, fishes, crabs and rats are recorded in the account of the voyage. There was no sign of inhabitants, except part of a canoe, cast up on the reef.
On April 1, 1797, the London Missionary Society's ship Duff, under Captain James Wilson, also visited Palmerston, landings being made for coconuts on the same two south-western islets.
In 1862 William Marsters* (also spelled Masters) went to Palmerston to manage the island for a trader named Brander. The trader did not return, but Marsters stayed on with his family, and in 1892 he was granted a lease to the island by the British Crown. He was married to a woman from Penrhyn Island, and he also left children by his wife's sister and a third Penrhyn woman. The descendants in these three lines make up the present inhabitants of the island. At first they intermarried. More recently they have married people from Penrhyn, Manihiki, Rakahanga, and Aitutaki, and have developed a strong and healthy population which numbers up to 100.
William Marsters died in 1899, and was succeeded by the eldest son of his legal wife, William Marsters, 2nd, who was 72 years old in 1935. The present lease is made out to all of the descendants through the heads of the three families. The people speak a peculiar dialect of English, and are an honest, hard-working, and law-abiding group. Their settlement of clean, attractive houses is located on the northern part of the western islet.
Despite their industry, they have met with one misfortune after another. In December, 1883, there was a severe storm, which destroyed all of their coconuts. The hurricane of 1914 wrecked houses and crops. In 1923, a hurricane levelled 27 of 30 homes, and destroyed the crops. During March to April, 1926, the island was hit by another hurricane. Men, women, and children pitched in to repair damage and replant coconuts. They were just beginning to recover from that disaster, and gales experienced during January and February, 1931, when another hurricane ravaged the island, in February, 1935, leaving the inhabitants dependent almost entirely upon fish for food. Relief was sent them on the New Zealand government ship Matai, but the people, with food supplies low, and their resources nearly gone, were having great difficult in making another start.
The island is under the New Zealand Cook Islands Administration. A school was maintained by the London Missionary Society, with an enrolment of about 38. In 1936 the population numbered 90.
Copra has been the chief product of the atoll. Tropic bird feathers also have had some commercial value. Pigs and fowls are raised for home consumption. About once a year a schooner calls to collect the copra and bring food and other supplies.
*All in the Family
The missionaries weren't the only Englishmen to have lasting impact on the Cook Islands.
In 1863 a farmhand from Gloucester named William Marsters accepted the job as caretaker of tiny, uninhabited Palmerston Island, an atoll sitting all by itself northwest of Rarotonga. He took his Cook Islander wife and her sister with him. They were joined by a Portuguese sailor and his wife, who was a first cousin of Mrs. Marsters.
The Portuguese sailor skipped the island within a year, leaving his wife behind. Marsters then declared himself a minister of the Anglican church and married himself to both his wife's sister and to her first cousin.
Marsters proceeded to start three families, one with each of his three wives. Within 25 years he had 17 children and 54 grandchildren. He divided the island into three parts, one for each clan, which he designated the "head," "tail," and "middle" families. He prohibited marriages within a clan (in a twist of logic, he apparently thought sleeping with your half-brother or half-sister apparently wasn't incest).
Obviously there was a lot of marrying outside the clan, for today there are uncounted thousands of Marsters in the Cook Islands and New Zealand. All trace their roots to Palmerston Atoll, although only 50 or so live there.
William Masters died in 1899 at the age of 78. He is buried on Palmerston near his finely crafted homestead.