Palmerston Island is one of the most remote atolls in the Cook Islands, home to just 70 people. Sandra Paterson went there as a volunteer teacher – and discovered a unique community with one telephone and one surname.
Standing on the wharf, I have a sudden wave of anxiety. The yacht we are about to board looks tiny and vulnerable, and I wonder if I am putting my 10-year-old daughter at risk. But there’s no way around it: the island which has fascinated me for so long is 500 km away, accessible only by yacht or cargo ship.
As the misty peaks of Rarotonga fade from view, the Southern Cross heaves up and down through a big swell and a crew member throws up from the top of the mast trying to disentangle a sail. By day we sit on deck, surrounded by bananas and boxes of cabin bread; by night we top-and-tail in a tiny berth.
Then, quite suddenly, through a grey dawn, and after two days and two nights at sea, there it is: Palmerston Island, a tiny low-lying atoll fringed with palms. A dinghy bounces across rough waters, and a man with a large grin reaches out and touches the yacht.
As the first person to do so, and according to a longstanding Palmerston tradition, Simon Marsters is now the yacht’s official host, providing food and accommodation and a safe passage through the reef. Hosting is considered an honour, and there are often several little boats racing to touch a new arrival.
“Welcome to Palmerston,” he says, hauling boxes of food into the dinghy and offering a raincoat as shelter from the spray.
As the dinghy bobs its way towards the shore, the “main street” comes into view. With no cars on the island, and no grass to speak of, it is but a wide avenue of white sand: on one side, a beautiful little wooden church; on the other, a house made entirely from woven kikau, or palm fronds, with brightly-coloured washing strung outside.
Next to the church stands a hut made of enormous wooden beams with a sloping tin roof. This is the home made from shipwreck timber by William Marsters, a farmer’s-son-turned-adventurer who came to the island from England in 1863, and who proceeded to populate the place with considerable help from his three Polynesian wives. The ‘Tin House,’ as it is known, is the only building to withstand the many cyclones which have ravaged the island; and the Marsters bloodline now numbers in the thousands, proud members of a family dynasty now scattered across the Pacific.
The church bell still bears the name of a ship-wrecked vessel, the Thistle; and on Sundays it can be heard across the island announcing the four services of the day. Williams Marsters was a tough but respected patriarch of strong religious persuasion, and even today his descendants still refer to him as ‘Father’ and observe the Sabbath with diligence: children are to play quietly between services and no swimming is allowed, even in the very hot, humid summers of the 18th parallel south.
Today there are 68 permanent residents on Palmerston – nearly all of whom share the Marsters surname. They are divided, along with the land, into three family clans, one from each of William Marsters’ wives; and marriage within a clan is forbidden.
As the bell tolls across the island, the congregation arrives in formal dress, the women wearing hats woven from baby palm fronds and fancy dresses, often with bare feet beneath. Sweat beads the forehead of the preacher, in white suit and tie, as the sound of a traditional hymn in beautiful multi-part harmony rises above the trade winds. The songs are in Cook Islands Maori, the sermon in English. William Marsters banned his Polynesian wives and 22 children from speaking their native tongue in public; and Palmerston is today the only island in the Cooks where English is the first language.
“As Palmerston people, we are proud of our English heritage,” says island secretary Tere Marsters. “We continue to speak English, the language of Father, but we sing in Maori, the language of our mothers. There is pride in being different from the rest of the islands [in the Cooks].”
Sunday lunch finds us sitting around a long table with Tere and his wife Yvonne in their woven kikau house. Like many islanders’ homes, it is more of a compound than a house: one hut for sleeping, one for washing, one for cooking and eating. A sea breeze blows in through open side- panels propped up on a stick; and more thatches of kikau lie outside on the white sand, drying out in the hot sun. Two large freezers serve as kitchen benches; and the stove, like everything else, sits directly on the sand floor.
It means brushing your feet before you get into bed at night, but otherwise, says Yvonne, a sand floor is very practical.
“Some people mop their kitchen floor, I rake mine!”
The vegetables on the table come from the freezer. Planting is difficult due to the lack of real soil on the island - and the cargo ship from Rarotonga brings supplies only three or four times a year. Most families buy four or five months of groceries at a time, and there’s no lack of storage room: Palmerston has the distinction of more freezers per capita than anywhere else in the world.
Power comes mainly from the island’s diesel generator, which supplies electricity for 12 hours a day: 6am to midday, and 6pm to midnight, just long enough to keep the freezers functioning. Any task requiring power – baking, photocopying, a load of washing – has to be completed by lunchtime.
The capacity to freeze is critical to the island’s small-boat fishing industry. Early Saturday morning finds Simon Marsters and his nephew David, towing a dinghy across the coral reef, eyes skimming the shallow water for a flash of colour indicating the brilliantly-hued parrot fish – a popular item on the menus of Rarotonga’s restaurants, with its soft, white flesh.
Simon, the Government Representative on Palmerston, tells me not to worry about the sharks, their dark fins barely four metres away.
“If they chase you, jus’ walk into the net and they will follow.”
The net is paid out quickly in a semi-circle, and then we run, gumboots filled with water, chasing the fish into captivity. A late breakfast comes straight out of the abundant lagoon - raw fish and clam - washed down with fresh coconuts from a nearby islet.
We motor back towards the main island, the lagoon achingly beautiful in multiple shades of turquoise. One hand on the motor, Simon points out various landmarks around the atoll - Primrose Island, Halfway Rock and Kiss-me-arse Rock, the latter named by old William Marsters after he managed to sail past it one day without having to tack.
To the unlearned ear, the Palmerston way of speaking sounds like a mix of English, Polynesian and vaguely Jamaican accents. Rachel Hendery, a linguist from the Australian National University, visited the island last year and made voice recordings of all the adults and most of the children. Still processing the data, she says there is definitely a “touch of a British accent,” most noticeably in the older and middle-aged generations.
The most reliable research indicates William Marsters came from the village of Walcote, in Leicestershire, and while the British-sounding lilt has become less pronounced over time, it does appear to be from the north of England.
Rachel says the unusual grammatical features are those common to people speaking English as a second language, even though English is the Palmerstonian’s first language.
“They might say, for example, ‘my childrens’ or ‘they is going.’ I think this is the way William Marsters’ Polynesian wives must have spoken, and that it has been handed down through the generations. It is wonderfully unique. ”
We pull into the beach, and the fishermen finish cleaning the fish next to a favourite swimming spot, where laughing olive-skinned children dive off the coral, keeping a wary eye out for sharks. Originally called Vai Eli, the spot is now also known as the ‘Duke’s Pool,’ in honour of Prince Philip, who swam here in the 70’s during a rare visit from the Royal Yacht Britannia.
Monday morning finds the children lined up in two lines, hair neatly smoothed with coconut oil, feet bare and dusty, outside the delightfully-named Palmerston Lucky School. There are 24 students, from five to 18-years-old, all together in the same classroom. Their education is surprisingly solid - and every child can read – thanks to a dedicated staff and the introduction six years ago of the ACE curriculum, a correspondence-like programme which allows pupils to work at their own pace on their own work.
I listen to the younger children reading out-loud under the shade of a tree. One of the seven–year- olds tells me she saw a big shark out on the reef at the weekend with her father. What did you do, I asked.
“Oh, I jus’ hit it on the head with a stick.”
Clearly both courage and elegance run in the blood of Marsters women.
I am privileged to sit with the three oldest mamas on Palmerston one afternoon for a cup of tea, all of them sisters in their late 70s or 80s, with long grey hair gracefully wound into buns and faces beautifully etched by decades of sunshine and smiles. Over cabin bread and jam, we talk about breast-feeding customs, the island’s historical connections with England, and the cyclones which have ravaged the atoll over the years.
Three hours later, afternoon tea comes to an end, and it is time for me to call the cargo ship company about a return passage. Communication with the outside world is difficult: there is one communal telephone, on the outside of the tiny Telecom building, and up to 10 people at a time can be waiting to use it. For local use, every house has a marine radio and a call sign - and even young children can be heard calling a friend using formal “Alpha Sierra, do you copy” radio etiquette.
The ship is delayed. And then delayed some more. Our two-week trip becomes five weeks - of hot sun and cold showers, of learning hymns and eating lots of fish. My daughter wears a uniform and goes to school with bare feet; and we share in community events: hunting the bosun bird, painting a house, and celebrating the opening of the new mission house.
Finally, on “boat day”, as the children excitedly call it, a small fleet of dinghies takes passengers bound for Rarotonga out through the reef in a big swell, and we are hauled up the heaving sides of a cargo ship in a few terrifying seconds. With a wave, the fishermen turn and motor back through the reef, and soon the tips of the palm trees fade from view.