A true atoll, Palmerston Island consists of a number of sandy islets on a continuous ring of coral reef enclosing a lagoon. The largest of the islets include Palmerston, North Island, Lee To Us, Leicester, Primrose, Toms, and Cooks. The total land area of the islets is approximately one square mile (2.6 km²). The coral reef covers about 3,600 acres (15 km²). The lagoon is some seven miles (11 km) across, covering an area of 56 km². There are several small passages through the reef for boats, though there is no safe entry for large ships. At a latitude of 18 degrees south, Palmerston enjoys a tropical climate but is exposed to severe hurricanes. A particularly destructive series of storms occurred during the 1920s and 1930s.
All the islets are wooded with coconut palms, pandanus, and native trees. There is some natural ground water on Palmerston but water captured from rainfall is preferred for drinking. Shellfish inhabit the reef, and fish are abundant although there are concerns about overfishing. The population consists of approximately fifty inhabitants, all descended from an Englishman named William Marsters (see history, below). The economy is based on fishing, tourism, copra, and bird feathers, though Palmerston’s extreme remoteness makes a cash market difficult to maintain. Electricity and other modern utilities are available on the island. A recently built telephone station provides the only permanent link to the outside world. The island has no airport or regular air service, but cargo ships visit a few times a year.
Palmerston was discovered by Captain Cook in 1774, but he did not land on the island until 13 April 1777. He found the island uninhabited, though some ancient graves were discovered. Cook named the island after Henry Temple, 2nd Viscount Palmerston, then Lord of the Admiralty. The ancient name of the island was supposedly Avarau, meaning “two hundred harbour entrances.” In 1863 William Marsters, a ship's carpenter and barrel maker, arrived on Palmerston from Manuae with two Polynesian wives and annexed the island from the British government. He added a 'third wife' and sired a large family of some 23 children, whose descendants now inhabit Palmerston. Thus, Palmerston Island is the only island in the Cook Islands for which English is the native language. William Masters, originally thought to have come from Leicestershire England, is now thought to have come from Gloucestershire, which might explain why his descendants now spell the name "Marsters" due to the Gloucestershire accent. By the time his youngest daughter Titana Tangi died in 1973, there were over a thousand Marsters descendants living in Rarotonga and New Zealand. Though only some fifty family members remain on Palmerston, all Marsters descendants consider the island their ancestral home. In 1954 the family was granted full ownership of the island. Three branches of the family remain on Palmerston, each branch being descended from one of Williams 'three wives', marriage within a family group is prohibited. Palmerston is now administered by the Cook Islands government in association with New Zealand.
Scratch My Arse Rock: popular fishing spot supposedly named by Masters
- The slice of paradise with a West Country lilt - Telegraph
- Alleyne, Richard:"'Islanders speak with a West Country accent'"The Daily Telegraph,April 29, 2008.
- The English legacy of Palmerston Island
- Cook Islands website page on Palmerston Island Revised January 20, 2007
- Jane's Cook Islands website page on Palmerston Island Rev. 30 November 2007
- Tourist account of Palmerston Island
- Palmerston Island Photos from a 1973 visit.
- Map of Palmerston Island Maps of all the Cook Islands with Palmerston