Palmerston, 367 km northwest of Aitutaki, is an atoll 11 km across at its widest point. About 35 tiny islands dot its pear-shaped barrier reef, which encloses the coral head-studded lagoon completely at low tide. Although Polynesians had once lived on what they called Ava Rau ("200 channels"), Palmerston was uninhabited when Captain Cook arrived in 1774.
William Marsters, legendary prolific settler, arrived here in 1863 to manage a coconut plantation. He brought with him from Penrhyn his Polynesian wife and her cousin, who were soon joined by another cousin. Marsters married all three, and by the time he died in 1899 at the ripe age of 78 he had begotten 21 children.
Thousands of his descendants are now scattered around the Cook Islands, throughout New Zealand, and beyond, but the three Marsters branches on Palmerston are down to about 50. The grave of William Marsters the Patriarch may be seen beside the church. The current island patriarch, Reverend Bill Marsters (born 1923), has a mere 12 children.
The three Marsters families, the Tepou, Akakaingaro, and Mataiva, live on tiny Home or Palmerston Island on the west side of the atoll, where they grow taro and sugarcane in pits.All 35 islands are divided into sections between these three families, members of which cannot intermarry within their own group.
Many of the older residents suffer from asthma. Like lonely Pitcairn Island where the inhabitants are also of mixed British descent, on Palmerston the first language is English, the only island in the Cooks where this is so. And as in any small, isolated community, there's some tension between the families. In 1995 officials from Rarotonga arrived on Palmerston and by playing one group off against another, succeeded in undermining the authority of the island council and imposing centralized rule on independence-minded Palmerston.
The central government wants to build an airport on Toms Island, two islands away from Home Island. Meanwhile the launch Marsters Dream runs monthly from Rarotonga to Palmerston bringing ordered supplies and taking away parrot fish. The vessel carries 13 passengers who must batten down inside for the 24-hour journey from Rarotonga. Contact Marsters Marine on Rarotonga. It'll also be able to arrange accommodations with families on the island.
About a dozen yachts call at Palmerston each year, and since boats drawing over 1.5 meters cannot enter the lagoon, they must anchor outside the reef. Yachties can hail "Palmerston Island" over VHF channel 16 when they're within 15 km of the atoll. The Republic of Palmsterston Yacht Club near the church in the center of the village provides cooking facilities, a washing machine, toilets, and hot showers (rain water) to yachties. Cold beer is sold daily except Sunday.
As soon as a sailboat is sighted there's a competition among the islanders to see who can get out first in a small boat to meet the yacht. That person's family then becomes the hosts of the visitors on Palmerston. The Marsters people told us that as long as we were on Palmerston we were regarded as Marsters too, and we certainly felt like part of the family. Every day we shared meals with them, joined them on fishing trips, etc.
After crossing the Pacific, Palmerston became the highlight of our trip. We certainly didn't regret checking for their mail at the post office before leaving Rarotonga, or bringing magazines, books, coffee, tea, sugar, and fresh fruit. Such goods are always needed. We'd also been in touch with some Marsters people on Raro who gave us bananas and presents to take along. This atoll is certainly worth a stop, although the anchorage can be difficult.