William Marsters and Palmerston Island


Feb 16, 2015 by Andy

If you have ever dreamed of visiting an unspoiled tropical paradise, Palmerston Island would fit the bill perfectly. A circular coral reef enclosing a lagoon, comprising several tiny islets - their combined area being just one square mile - it looks every inch a remote paradise island. Indeed, it is so remote it was not even shown on maps until 1969, and even now supply ships visit just a few times a year and internet access is limited to four hours a day. The history of Palmerston, however, may surprise you.


The early years

Discovered by Captain Cook in 1774, Palmerston Island was named after the man who was then Lord of the Admiralty, the second Viscount Palmerston. In the late eighteenth century the island was uninhabited, although Cook did find some graves there.

In the early 1860s, a man called William Masters, later Marsters, arrived with his three wives (although it is not clear how many, if any, of them he had actually married and in any case, he had left a wife and children behind him in England). They brought with them several children.

Originally a ship's carpenter and barrel-maker, Marsters was an adventurer who, some claim, had made some money in the California gold rush of 1848-55, and over the next decade he worked hard, planting thousands of coconut trees and improving the island at his own expense. During this time Marsters acquired another wife and more offspring; by the time he died, he had 17 children and 54 grandchildren.

In the early 1890s, the British government annexed Palmerston Island and Marsters negotiated with the authorities to secure a lease, effectively becoming its ruler. He took to religion and built a church, which became a central element of island life - and remains so today.

By the early 1970s, there were more than 1,000 of Marsters' descendants living on Palmerston or neighbouring islands and countries, but all regard the island as their 'spiritual home'. In 1954, the family was given complete ownership of Palmerston Island, although the governments of the Cook Islands and New Zealand administer it. Today, three large branches of the family still live there.



Palmerston Island has long fascinated visitors for many reasons, but particularly because all of its residents speak English - with a distinctive and old-fashioned accent. Linguistics experts say that it is most similar to an old Gloucestershire accent, although Marsters himself was born in Misterton-with-Walcot, in Leicestershire. The residents also use many phrases (and swearwords!) that have long since faded from use in the UK.



Today Palmerston Island is a tiny, but thriving, community, the only one of the Cook Islands to have a rising population. Many visitors have commented on the kindness of its inhabitants and their dedication to their community. William Marsters was 78 when he died in 1899, but the legacy he left behind him continues to this day, and seems set to remain for many years to come.