Palmerston Atoll is made up of a number of sandy islets on a continuous ring of coral reef enclosing a lagoon. Six of them are of significant size including Palmerston, North Island, Lee To Us, Leicester, Primrose, Toms, and Cooks, that together cover just 1 square mile (2.6 km2) in area. The atoll is 11 km across and 15 km from north to south that encloses an area of 56 square kilometers of sea.
The first person to set foot on Palmerston was Captain Cook in 1777, although he had discovered the island three years earlier on another trip. Cook named the island after Henry Temple, 2nd Viscount Palmerston, then Lord of the Admiralty. The island remained largely uninhabited for almost another century when it was chanced upon by William Marsters, a carpenter and barrel maker of a whaling ship that frequented the Bay of Islands, in 1860. William Marsters was so charmed by the island that three years later he returned with a wife, the daughter of the chief of another Cook island, and her two cousins with the intention of permanently settlement on the island.
The atoll was uninhabited at the time, and Marsters used wood salvaged from shipwrecks to build and populate a tiny community, which soon included a church, school room and homes. Marsters, together with the three women, had 17 children whose descendants make up the present population of Palmerston. Today, Palmerston has 62 inhabitants, all but three are descended from William Marsters.
Before he died William Marsters, organized the island so that each of the three wives and their descendants had a share of the main island and each of the atolls. This arrangement still stands. Today the Island has its own Council, representing the local government, and members of the three family. Marriage within a family group is prohibited.
Palmerston Islanders still pride themselves on their British heritage – they fly the British flag on special occasions, have large photos of the Queen in their homes, and remember fondly the visits of the Royal Yacht Britannia. Although it is administered by the Cook Islands government under the jurisdiction of New Zealand, in 1954 the family was granted full ownership of the island.
Life on Palmerston is simple. There are no shop, just two toilets, and rainwater is collected for drinking water. Money is only used to buy supplies from the outside world not from each other. Electricity runs from 6am – 12pm each day and again at night. A recently built telephone station provides the only permanent link to the outside world. Fish is the islanders' staple food and their only export. One or two tons of parrot fish are frozen and collected by the supply ship which comes twice a year to deliver essential supplies such as rice and fuel.
Aside from the cargo ships, the island sees about a dozen visiting boats a year bringing tourists. Since there are no resorts or hotels, by custom, the family that first greets the visitors offer them a homestay at their house.
Islanders: William Marsters and his brood.
Willima Marsters’ gravestone.
Satellite telephone and solar panels.