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We Were Kings on Palmerston Island!

Bill Bourlet

Music
Island Packet 40
February 13th, 2018

Our boat, Music, was visiting Raratonga in the Cook Islands, where we were encouraged, despite its not being plain sailing, to visit Palmerston Island. This Island is one of a handful of Cook Islands and lies almost exactly opposite the world from Greenwich, UK. The BBC travel show called it “The Island at the end of the earth.” Palmerston is one of a handful of islands connected by a coral reef, surrounding a calm central lagoon. In this entire area, the reef sits too high in the water for any transport into the lagoon other than by small boat.

In 1863 a sailor named William Marsters, born in Leicestershire, UK, sailed to Palmerston Island with his Polynesian wife, later to be joined by her two cousins. Marsters planted cocoa nut palms, selling the oil to British merchant John Marchant, who visited twice yearly for some years, until his death. Over the years, Marsters’ three wives gave him 23 children. He partitioned the Island into three, one portion for each of his wives. In 1892, he wrote to Queen Victoria, requesting her to grant him ownership of the Island. She replied in her own hand, granting him possession.

Union Jack flying in the high street. Islanders consider themselves English, having been ceded the Island directly by Queen Victoria

The Duke of Edinburgh, onboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, has visited on several occasions, and swum off the local beach, which is now referred to as the “Duke’s Pool”. The population considers itself English and flies the Union Jack in the High Street. William Marsters is now referred to as The Patriarch and at some point, his name changed to Masters. The Island is a Protectorate of New Zealand, with presently 51 residents, all except three are his direct descendants. Since 1963, the Island has been self-governed by a council of elders, with a tendency to maintain old traditions. The Islanders have rejected an airfield and helicopter pad, but allowed the Internet.  And after a protracted dispute, a solar farm, and visits from three cruise ships, one of which specializes in islands that are off the beaten track. They might have allowed an airfield for their own use, but not under the conditions demanded by the aircraft authority. These included providing a motel for visitors stuck for several days due to inclement weather; an airport lounge, security, baggage handling, and a restaurant, etc.

Supper tonight: yellow fin tuna, caught in the fishing derby

The language spoken is abrupt and direct, resembling that of Northern England, but the people are extremely friendly, courteous and hospitable. There is no booking in advance and the cost for their hospitality is minimal:

  • $5.00 head tax to New Zealand
  • $10.00 per night per mooring ball to cover the cost of laying and maintenance
  • $50.00 per person to tour the village, only charged for visitors off cruise ships

We found gifts from ‘Yachties’ were acceptable and brought a set of bed sheets and towels, which appeared on their web site as desirable; two very large T shirts, a child’s Tonka toy truck, and a large packet of batteries. I gave Bob, our host, my dinghy anchor on departure, which he really appreciated.

Music on a mooring ball

The descendants, some of whom are quite wealthy, have spread far and wide, mostly to other Cook Islands, New Zealand and Australia. Their hospitality is such that Islanders compete to host visiting ‘Yachties’. We asked our host, Bob Masters, ‘What is your job’ to which he replied “To be friendly.” A Masters family hosts each visiting crew throughout their stay. In our case Bob Masters picked up our radio call and directed us to anchor at one of the 10 safe mooring balls, self-anchorage being difficult. While bringing us in safely in his aluminum boat through the reef passage, he informed us his family would be our hosts. He would first take us on a tour of the Island: then for lunch with his family, the latter also showing us great hospitality. They served us first and had their lunch only after we had finished and been taken to another family for tea, coffee and ice cream. This proved to be the daily pattern, except for the day of the big celebration, when we lunched together. Mrs. Masters seemed effortlessly to provide a feast for the three of us and her family of four, with copious amounts of food.

Girl’s tug of war during Constitution Day games

Each day we had a different agenda for this, their celebration week. Saturday afternoon was the big event on the High Street. All were present and all participated. We had a kids’ tug of war, followed by a sack race; then a group sack race where, of course, everyone fell over; a ladies tug of war, where even the old ones got into the action, and an egg and spoon race. Here, after much voluble discussion, the rules intended for teams of six had to be waived, as everyone wanted to participate. The race was now so long that at the end, where the winning child is usually expected to eat the egg, a draw was declared, amidst much laughter. In the big event, the men’s tug of war, one side was hopelessly outweighed, pulling the other half over in a straight line. Trying to get a better weight match proved hopeless, so all went to eat instead.

On Sunday, we were asked if we wanted to go to church. All of us agreed, including the crews of the other five boats at anchor; 100% attendance. Wow!  During the sermon we were asked a couple of questions, which we should be prepared to answer later. Well, I had said I wanted to go to church today, but not that I was going twice; the second at a church meeting in the common room, preceding the singing contest and feast. It started with a hymn, followed by the responses to the earlier questions by several congregants. It was very heartwarming to hear such solid searching into our own meaning of religion. Then we participated in the A Cappella Polynesian Singing contests, a very boisterous affair. There followed the feast, with nearly 50 bowls of traditional Polynesian food on the table, after which we, the Yachties, were returned to our boats.

What would you name this rock??

Threading our way through the reef in the sun was tricky, and that night it was blowing hard. The next evening saw the big event of the week: the Beach Volleyball contests first, with little kids followed by the teenagers and then the adults.  Volleyball is their national game. Cheating had been going on all week, but not on this occasion, where the intensity was fierce and the referees called any fouls. A young adult, a girl who had played exceptionally well, was declared MVP and her team won, just.

Bad weather delayed our departure for four days, so we were fortunate to be present for one of the Island’s Big Birthday parties, given at ages 1, 16 and 21, with the entire population in attendance. We had baked and brought along a cake with frosting, only to find the Birthday Boy surrounded by an overwhelming number of plates of food and a huge three-storey cake. What a party!

What happens when the anchor lets go and you wash up on the reef!

The days slipped by with beach combing for shells, swimming and snoozing in the hammocks. Being jumped on by the children was expected and of course part of the fun. Eventually the weather cleared and we announced our departure for the following morning. Bob and his family wished us well and God Speed, enhanced further by his wife’s gift of a basket of fruit, to send us on our way. Their hospitality was unsurpassed. We waved goodbye, promising to return one day. A sense of emotion passed over me that I won’t forget. Goodbye Palmerston!

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  1. Norm Cooper Norm Cooper says:

    Great story! Glad you were able to stop at this unique place!

  2. Corinne Whelan says:

    A very interesting and informative read – sounds wonderful. Thank- you for sharing this,
    Cheers, Corinne

  3. Yvonne Harwood says:

    Bravo Bill! A great article about a fantastic adventure.