William R. Marsters

Palmerston Island, Cook Islands

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About Palmerston

Created on Monday, 11 August 2008 00:42 Published on Tuesday, 10 October 2006 06:00 Hits: 8326

View of Palmerston from the lagoon


In my book of compiled "Stories of Palmerston" there is a chapter called "The Island where Nobody wanted to live" pp98-102. It is taken from a book called "Sisters in the Sun" by A.S. Helm and W.J. Percival (1973). For a price, I was able to get publishing rights for the section of this book about Palmerston - one of the stories in the book that are no longer in print. In fact I too have run out of those books and may need to reprint them if there is enough interest. This Chapter gives some history of Palmerston Island before William Marsters settled on it. The island is now vested in the Marsters family. The chapter begins...

"In contrast to most of the Cook Islands, the Polynesian history of Palmerston is scanty indeed. According to a tradition narrated by Mr Araitia Tepuretu, M.B.E., of Rarotonga, Palmerston was discovered many generations ago by a Polynesian named Ti, who settled there with a group of his people. They found the island insufficient for their needs as it was a low atoll and did not produce enough food. Ti and his followers had come from Aitutaki, 198 miles away, the nearest of the Southern Cook group to Palmerston.

They did not stay long at Palmerston, and, again under the leadership of Ti, they sailed off in search of a new home. Ultimately they settled in Niue, finding that island adequate to their need.

Palmerston has a Polynesian name, but Mr Tepuretu could not recall what it was. The Reverend Gill, an early L.M.S. missionary in the Cooks and the author of some books about them, stated that Palmerston was known as Avarau.

Twelve ancient graves were found on Palmerston Island according to the Reverend Gill, and numerous basalt adzes have been picked up on the island. These adze heads were of different sorts and sizes, and some were embedded in the roots of coconut palms. Thirty or forty of them were found in the central area of the main island. Captain Cambridge donated a fine specimen of these adzes to the Cook Islands Library and museum in Rarotonga, where it is on display.

Drift canoes from Atiu and Aitutaki could fetch up at Palmerston with the south-east Trade winds, and the voyagers could easily have returned in January and February when the north-west Trades begin.

Although the first white man to discover the then uninhabited island was the famous British navigator, Captain James Cook, who visited Palmerston on his second voyage, it is possibly one of the few islands sighted by Magellan on his historic voyage over four centuries ago, and named by him San Pablo.

Ten days after leaving Raiatea (now in French Polynesia) Cook was near an island in the southern Cooks. Shortly after sunrise on Thursday 16th June 1774, the lookout saw tall coconut palms in the distance, indicating the existence of a low-lying atoll. Soon they could see the islets joined by a reef enclosing the central lagoon. Although Cook sailed along the coast he could find no place to anchor, or any sign of life on the various motu. However, he noted the large number and variety of birds, and the plentiful supply of fish.

 Cook named the atoll Palmerston in honour of the second Viscount Palmerston who served for forty years in the House of Commons and who was at that time the First Lord of the Admiralty. He was the father of Lord Palmerston who later became Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Leaving the island, Cook sailed west by south, and with the help of a strong easterly wind the ship made such good progress that Niue was reached four days later.

In less than three years time Captain Cook was back at Palmerston, for as day broke on the morning of Sunday 13th April 1777, the island was sighted again. However, it took until 8pm on the following day before the ships were close enough to shore for Cook to despatch four boats, three from the Resolution and one from the Discovery, to search for a good landing place. Cook had cattle on board and these animals were almost starving, so it was essential that food be procured for them. Because of the deep water no anchorage could be found for the two large vessels. The boats, however, landed on an islet on the south-east of the atoll, and they returned early in the afternoon with young coconut palms as food for the cattle, and a large quantity of purslane (pokea), a fleshy weed-like plant, which Cook, called “scurvy grass” as he found it excellent in preventing scurvy. The collected food had to be carried half a mile along the reef through waist-high water.

Before evening, Captain Cook and Captain Clerke went ashore in a small boat. They landed at one of the boat passages, and found that the island was not more than three feet above sea level, with the soil consisting of coral sand and a small amount of dark mould.

When Captain Bligh, on return to England after the famous mutiny of the bounty, told his tale, the British Admiralty determined to bring the mutineers to justice as soon as possible. The Pandora, a frigate of twenty four guns and 160 men, was commissioned for the task and placed under the command of Captain Edward Edwards, a most cold and cruel character whose reputation ever since has been tarnished by his treatment of his prisoners.

The Pandora arrived at Tahiti on 23rd March 1791, and very soon, seven of those who had been left on the Bounty when she was seized by the mutineers came on board, and later another seven were captured. Although some of them had not actively participated in the mutiny, Edwards had them all handcuffed and put in close confinement, with their legs in irons. They were all placed in a small deckhouse on the after-part of the quarterdeck and two armed sentries were stationed upon the roof of the prison with orders to shoot if the prisoners attempted to escape, or even if they tried to communicate with the Tahitian friends who came off to see them.

Captain Edwards’ instructions were to search for the mutineers at Tahiti and the neighbouring islands, and he carried out this order in an attempt to find Fletcher Christian and the eight others. On 8th May 1791, the frigate left Tahiti accompanied by a small schooner that some of the mutineers had built in Tahiti. Calls at numer-ous islands were made, without success. It was then that Palmerston had its next recorded visitor, for the Pandora and the schooner called at Palmerston.

Lieutenant Corner was landed with a party on one of the islands of Palmerston and they found a yard and some spars marked with broad arrows, denoting that they were from one of His Majesty’s vessels. The yard was marked “Bounty’s Driver Yard”, and the spars also had “Bounty” marked on them, from which Edwards deduced that he was close on the track of the men he was looking for. However, these spars were all lying at high-water mark, and they were worm-eaten from long immersion in the sea. They must have been the spars lost when the Bounty was being warped through the shallow lagoon at Tubuai in the Austral group, now part of French Polynesia, and when it became necessary to lighten the ship. Some booms and spars were cast off and moored to a grapnel, but a strong wind cast them adrift and they were lost. The normal set of wind and current could easily have taken them north-west to Palmerston.

The discovery of this evidence induced Captain Edwards to cause a most thorough search to be made of all the islets around the Palmerston reef, and while this was being conducted a strong wind forced the Pandora out to sea. Then thick and hazy weather closed in over the area, and the small schooner and a jolly boat, which had been launched from the Pandora with a midshipman and four seamen on board, became separated from the frigate.

Edwards and his men found the schooner when they reached Samarang, in Java, after the Pandora was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland. But the jolly boat, which was without food except for one piece of salted beef, was never seen again. Perhaps the men returned to Palmerston, to live on the uninhabited atoll until they died. They may even have reached Suwarrow Island, and the three skeletons found there could have been those of British sailors from the Pandora. Or, more likely, as with countless others lost in the vast Pacific, they drifted helplessly until death by hunger and thirst overtook them.

Having failed to find the mutineers at Palmerston, Captain Edwards continued his search elsewhere.

In 1797 the London Missionary Society’s ship, Duff, was bound for Tonga from Tahiti, and stopped off at Palmerston, which was still uninhabited. On 1st April 1797, after several attempts had been made to land, one of the Tahitians on board swam ashore. After staying a few minutes on the island he returned and stated that he had taken possession of it for young King Pomare II of Tahiti. Part of a double canoe was found lying on the beach, and appeared to have been there for a considerable time.

Later, the Tahitians landed and brought off coconuts and caught some of the seabirds. Numerous sharks were seen around the island and some of them were also caught and taken on board the Duff.

The first European settlement at Palmerston was an abortive one, but was the first commercial establishment in the Cook Islands.

Simeon Lord, a former convict who had been emancipated in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, was a most enterprising merchant who was involved in pioneering the South Pacific sandalwood trade and was prominent in New Zealand trade circles. At the beginning of the nineteenth century a flourishing trade had grown up of supplying beche-de-mer, the edible sea-slug found in abundance in many Pacific Islands’ lagoons, in dried form, to the China market, where it fetched a good price. Fiji was a splendid source for beche-de-mer, but, as Simeon Lord knew, the risks of landing men on those then warlike and cannibal islands were very great. He therefore directed Captain Michael Fodger, who was master of Lord’s brig, Trial, to land Captain John Burbeck on uninhabited Palmerston Island with three other Europeans, plus an American, a Brazilian, and several Tahitians to collect beche-de-mer, shark fins and anything else of commercial value. Burbeck knew the central South Pacific well, having twice visited Tahiti in command of the schooner Venus. Fodger landed the party on 15th July 1811, and then sailed away.

The following year, on 26th September 1812, Fodger again left Port Jackson (Sydney) on the brig Daphne for Calcutta, via the Eastern Pacific, where he expected to collect sandalwood, pearl shell and other islands’ produce for the Bengal market. Fodger was a vicious scoundrel with no feelings for anyone but himself. On his voyage east he sailed past Palmerston presumably out of curiosity as to the fate of the men whom he had left here. When seven miles off shore the vessel was hailed and boarded by a swimmer. He brought the news that Burbeck and another European were dead. Another European had been speared, but was possibly still alive, while he himself had been hiding in the bush for the past thirteen months. It thus appeared that trouble had broken out within a few weeks of the party being put ashore. The crew of the Daphne offered to forego their wages and remain on half rations if Fodger would attempt to rescue the wounded European. Instead, Fodger pressed on to the Austral Group.

Retribution overtook Captain Fodger when his Tahitian and Tuamotu divers finally murdered him.

Another Sydney-side vessel, the brig Governor Macquarie, under Captain R.S. Walker, called in at Palmerston during March or April 1813. No trace of any inhabitants was found although there was a cache of beche-de-mer in a spoiled state.

About 1850, the Merchant of Venice, a ship belonging to J. Dunnet, called at the island and found there four white men, headed by Jeffrey Strickland. They were starving, and had probably been employed by a merchant to collect beche-de-mer and turtles for the Chinese market.

These men made arrangements with Captain Bowles, master of the Merchant of Tahiti, to give them passage to Rarotonga. In return they passed over to him their ‘rights and titles’ to the island. After the death of Dunnet, Captain Bowles is said to have passed these ‘rights’ to John Brander, by whom he was then employed. Brander was a Scottish planter and trader who had settled in Tahiti and had mar-ried into the Tahitian royal family. Brander then placed a man named Sweet on Palmerston, again presumably to collect and cure beche-de-mer. Another account states that he decided to establish a coconut plantation. Sweet tired of the lonely life and demanded to be taken off.

In 1860 the Rev. William Gill met a numerous family on the island of Mangaia in the southern Cook Islands, who had drifted from Fakaofo, one of the Tokelau Islands, via Nassau Island in the northern Cooks and Palmerston, a distance of 1,250 miles to the south-east. There is no indication as to how long they stayed on each of the two intermediate islands, and whether they found them occupied."