We sailed to Palmerston Atoll from Rarotonga, and were glad to see the low lying main island after three days of a hard breeze and a lumpy sea. As we neared the reef, I radioed Palmerston Administration and was instructed to follow two men in the skiff to a mooring ball: “Look for the two dark skinned men with great big smiles.” Sure enough, we were expertly showed to a mooring ball by Edward and Simon Marsters, two brothers who were to be our hosts.
The Marsters Dynasty
Palmerston holds a unique place in the Cook Islands – indeed, in all of Polynesia – for its peculiar history. It was settled in 1863 by William Marsters, and was uninhabited at the time of Marsters’ arrival. His three Polynesian wives (cousins) came from Penrhyn to the north, and the families they began were the start of the three Marsters lines, the Tepou, Akakaingaro, and Matavia, who still populate Palmerston today. William Marsters himself left behind twenty-one children when he died in 1899; today there are thousands of Marsters living all around New Zealand and the Cook Islands.
Only members of the Marsters family are allowed to live on Palmerston. The island residents share the main island as their home, each family branch living in one section. They have divided up the other smaller islands in the atoll; asking permission to visit or camp on an island that “belongs” to a different family is expected and honored by all. The families share the fishing grounds. And there is a loose rotation system about greeting the arriving boats. A few days into our visit, I asked Edward how it is decided which family hosts which guests, and he responded, “whoever gets there first,” but there was a sly smile on his face, and we could tell that he was in part telling the truth but also maintaining a bit of the Marsters myth and mystery.
Indeed, the stories abound regarding the families arguing over visiting yachts. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course: in reality, they maintain a kind of rotation system that seems to work. But the myth of the families warring over their guests underlies some of the deeper troubles this island has faced in its short history. Rivalry between the families has always existed, and violence has been a traditional method of solving conflict. At various points throughout the twentieth century, Palmerston has faced the worrisome trend of declining population. Illiteracy has always plagued the residents. And certain opportunities like the one presented by the recent debacle over the Marsters Dream — a Norwegian fishing vessel that the islanders were to utilize and share for the benefit and profit of all — have been squandered in the past due to an inability to get past personal differences.
Given a difficult and isolated history, the balance that Palmerston is working towards today is remarkable. Palmerston is in fact a social experiment in the works. Aside from the church one would expect to find in the center of the island, Palmerston boasts a school house for its current sixteen pupils, a central administration, and an internet connection and phone. But it is not blindly marching toward modernization. The islanders have discussed satellite television, for example, and, for the present, have decided against it. Indeed, the Palmerston islanders cling to their historical roots, maintain a strict Christian belief system, and still settle island matters through the traditional Island Council, which consists of the two eldest members of each family branch. Since no Polynesians were living here when William Marsters arrived, they are the only island in the Cooks which has never operated under traditional Polynesian system of Ariki (chiefs) and are immensely proud of their independence and self-governing spirit.
This independent spirit is central to the Palmerston psyche, and, with a degree of effort and determination, to its governing structure as well. Unlike the other outlying Cook Islands, Palmerston has almost all of its government “departments” under its own control. Health, Education, Energy, and Agriculture come under the Palmerston Administration, whereas these departments are managed by the central government in Rarotonga for the other Cook Islands. The Island Secretary, Tere Marsters, proudly described the modernizing process of Palmerston’s infrastructure to us. Mostly, he emphasized how this affords them a sense of control over their future. At the very heart of the Palmerston way of life there is an inherent balance between past and future. They modernize in order to remain independent, and their independence allows them to maintain their traditional customs, and a certain distance from mainstream society. We spent an afternoon at the home of Tere and his wife,Yvonne, whiling away hours discussing the benefits and pitfalls of 21st century technological advancements.
A Balancing Act
I was struck by the similarity in the choices we make raising our children aboard a sailboat. Take satellite communications, for example. Tere himself can imagine how this might be simultaneously useful and harmful to the island ways. On Momo, we’ve been running away from the pernicious effects of marketing all these years, while simultaneously utilizing the best of modern technology to get us around the world. The Palmerston residents’ isolated lives are not unlike ours in some ways: they make choices that benefit their population, and at the same time they keep at bay those elements of mainstream society that they deem ill-suited to their lifestyle.
We came to see Tere and Yvonne Marsters as the embodiment of the balance between tradition and modernity. Educated in New Zealand and Australia, Tere devotes his time to making Palmerston what he believes it should be. Besides serving as Island Secretary, Tere is also acting minister in the island’s church when the Reverend Matakere is away. Tere is keen to bring Palmerston under a modern vision of efficiency and independence but is cautious in his efforts, noting how in the past Palmerston has seen “modern, educated” people come in with big ideas that simply do not work.
Meanwhile, Yvonne teaches many youngsters who are the first in their families to read properly. Rules of fairness and nonviolence dominate her lessons (three children were suspended for fighting while we were there). Her commitment to progress in Palmerston is palpable. In the classroom, a world map dominates one corner, showing the vessels and people the children of this island have met over the years. Yvonne considers this contact vital to broadening the students’ minds. Yet moving forward does not mean abandoning the island’s traditions. Indeed, the school curriculum is a strictly Christian-based program, based on individual learning tracks for home-schooled children. The dual themes of safeguarding their history while also taking responsibility for their own destiny is a constant theme on this island, one that people like Tere and Yvonne Marsters believe to the bottom of their Palmerston souls.
One of the most fascinating things about Palmerston is their relationship to sailing vessels like us. From their earliest days, the people of Palmerston relied on trading with passing yachts, and this custom continues today. We made contact in Rarotonga with some of the Marsters family and delivered boxes of fresh produce and newly issued passports; others coming after us were bringing a shipment of handheld VHFs and other supplies. Since the supply vessel comes around only a few times a year, the people welcome yachts that can bring them items from the “main” island. But their very dependence on small vessels like ours affords them the independence that they so avidly seek to maintain. This is counter-intuitive at first: you’d think that their reliance on the delivery of goods from outsiders would put them at a disadvantage.
But there’s a balance in this too, just like everything else on this island: by maintaining the trading tradition they proudly attribute to their “father,” William Marsters himself, the people of Palmerston remain who they are, and stop the tide of tourism. They compare themselves to other Cook Islands where an airstrip has brought hotels and organized tours, and dread the day this might occur on their island.
Indeed, the Cook Islands has the highest tourist-to-islander ratio of the South Pacific islands, according to our Moon Handbook: tourists outnumber residents 4:1 every year, compared to 2:1 in Fiji, 3:1 in Samoa, and 1:4 in Tonga. But the people of Palmerston wish to keep those crowds on Rarotonga, Aitutaki and even faraway Manihiki, where an airstrip brings visitors to its pearl farms every week. Not that the Palmerstonians don’t benefit from being within 300 miles from the “main island.” Everyone we met proudly displayed months worth of pizza, ice cream, and other snacks from “Raro,” deep frozen in several freezers – they don’t romanticize a life of fish and
coconut alone. But on the whole, they prefer to keep the concentration of consumer society on the main island, and they clearly do not want conventional tourism to find its way to their island. The much debated airstrip would provide emergency medical care, of course, but it would also unleash a tide of tourism that they prefer to live without. For the most part, the people of Palmerston feel that their relationship with the fifty or so yachts that stop in each year provides them exactly what they need: necessary supplies, and contact with the outside world, on their own terms.
And so we learned that the tradition of “hosting” visiting yachts has many benefits for the Palmerston islanders and fits precisely with who they imagine themselves to be. Their legendary hospitality is deeply rooted in the importance of meaningful individual contact. The cultural exchange that transpires on a very personal level each time they meet a passing yacht is something they prefer to serving large groups of tourists. The idea of turning Palmerston into one more island with resort accommodations is abhorrent to some of them. Cooking up a fabulous parrotfish feast for visiting yachties comes naturally; becoming part of the service industry would not. As one proud Marsters put it: “I don’t want to clean a toilet in a hotel; that’s beneath my dignity.”
As a boat benefitting from the Palmerston tradition, we relished our time there. Our hosts, Edward and Simon and Shirley Marsters, insisted on sharing their recently delivered cabbage and tomatoes with us during our time there, cooking up one delicious meal after another. Shirley baked us fresh bread almost every day. On several occasions, they baked parrotfish in the traditional umu oven, served with their home recipe of salt-water and coconut milk brine.
Our daughters played with the children of Palmerston, exploring the pathways and beaches of the small main island every day. One day, Bernie and I went fishing on the reef with the men, while our young daughters stayed on the island with Shirley. Sunday dinner was a big event, as we were joined by the family Elder Taepae and his daughter Marama (who, along with Yvonne, teaches at the school). We ate fish, chicken, and a Palmerston specialty of tropic bird (they call it the “Bosun Bird” and are one of the few islands who eat it). We did our best to reciprocate throughout the week, bringing coffee cake and hot sauce, dried fruits and more hot sauce, leaving some musical instruments for the Youth Group, and participating in a sewing project with the school children.
On our final day in Palmerston, our new friends came to Momo to share one last coffee. Six young children scampered around on deck while we swapped a few more stories with the adults below. Finally, they all piled into their skiff once more and waved enthusiastically as they swerved away. Those great grins will stay with us for a long time.
You cannot help but notice that this place is a world apart, and you cannot help but hope it remains that way. But it is not isolated and backward, not by any means. Literacy rates are up; family feuds are down. And, unlike many of the other Cook Islands whose populations are slowly diminishing, the population of Palmerston has in recent years stabilized and even increased (the current number of permanent residents is somewhere around 70, although it fluctuates due to extended stays in Rarotonga and mission work abroad).
An Island unto Itself
The balance here is both remarkable and tenuous. But make no mistake: this is not an island caught between past and future; it is, rather, positioning itself there with great effort. I wondered as we sailed away how the island will look in ten years, hoping with all my heart that they win the battle against the airstrip. What the future holds is anyone’s guess, but the people of Palmerston are doing their best to ensure that they guide themselves there.
(This story appears in the April 2010 issue of Blue Water Sailing magazine. )