E N D P I E C E
The Marsters of Palmerston
An atoll among the Cook Islands in the South Pacific
has been home to a single, but divided, family for more than 100 years.
David Brettell paid them a visit.
Palmerston Atoll was so small and delicate I was not sure whether it was me or the island that was moving. Diesel fumes and the thudding engine on the ship had been replaced with a fresh sea breeze and a white-sand beach – but my body was still swaying.
On 8 July 1863 William Marsters, an Englishman, arrived on this square mile of uninhabited coral sand with two Polynesian wives – later there was a third. He came to collect bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) and never left. When he died, 36 years later, there were 17 children and the foundations of a dynasty which stretches throughout the Cook Islands to Aotearoa/New Zealand and beyond. Today every one of Palmerston’s 63 residents is still a Marsters.
We had landed on the anniversary of Father Marsters’ arrival. The trip had been arranged by a group of descendants returning to their ancestral home after 30 years away. I had just happened to be in the right place and hitched a ride.
Our journey had been arduous. Within an hour I had parted company with my seasickness tablets. Driving rain and sea water flooded the deck. The Polynesians took it all in their stride, laughing and singing as they caught up on decades of family news.
I talked with Hebrew, a fifth-generation Marsters who had left when he was ten to live in Aotearoa. He pointed out to sea: ‘That’s where Palmerston is. Follow your eyes along the horizon and you’ll see the sky darken under the rainbow’s end. For 31 years I’ve dreamt about this moment, slept with it, lived it in my mind time and time again –
coming home.’ Eventually the darkening patch of sky turned into slithers of land, a string of green beads threaded by a coral reef: Palmerston.
We anchored outside the lagoon and were carried ashore in small metal dinghies. I was greeted by Gramp, Father Marsters’ grandson and head of the ‘middle’ wing of the family. On his death, Father Marsters split the island into three, one section for each wife. The ‘middle’ section included the ‘mountain’, a mound of excavated sand seven metres high on which the islanders sought safety during hurricanes.
Gramp showed me around. The ‘main street’ was a sandy path arched with young palms. Everything was neat and tidy; wooden houses with corrugated roofs, each with a small garden marked out with up-turned green bottles. Gramp’s house was modern; open-plan and airy, with running water, flush toilets and an electric generator. From the deep-freezer he pulled out a young green coconut, cut off the top and inserted a straw. The milk was sweet and refreshing.
I was invited fishing by Gramp’s son, Bill Marsters. After passing through the coral reef into the dangerous waters of the ocean we paused for a brief prayer – I needed some faith. The swell rose to three times our height, there were no life-jackets or spare out-board motor and every fisherman had a horror story about being washed overboard or stranded with a broken engine.
Two hours later we returned with three nine-kilo vahoo. Everybody helped process the catch. The fish were skinned with pliers and the best meat filleted for export. Nothing was wasted; the bones and the skin buried in the sand as fertilizer. In the calmer waters of the lagoon the islanders dived for velvet-skinned clams.
The evenings were spent sitting and chatting in an open-sided hut in front of the house. Anyone who passed would stop to talk. One night I caught up with Hebrew. His vision of paradise was much as he had left it, but living in paradise was not the same as visiting it. Underneath the surface the family had problems: some of them wanted an airfield built; others had never wanted the new church.
The old church had been built in 1914 from the deck timbers and cabin doors of a wrecked French ship, La Tour D ‘Auvergne. The new church was built of breeze-blocks and timber sheets. The Reverend Bill Marsters told me the old church was rotten. Gramp had said it was part of their heritage and should have been kept. Gramp and the Reverend were brothers but they no longer talked. On Sundays they held separate services; Gramp and his family in his house, the rest of the island in the church.
Sunday was observed by everyone, and any work – even swimming – was frowned upon. The call to prayer was sounded by the striking of a ship’s bell. With each deep tone more islanders appeared; the men in long trousers and pressed shirts, the women in elegant white dresses and hand-made raffia hats.
The Reverend made ‘the family’ the theme of his sermon, recounting the arrival of Father Marsters; a story of determination and contentment. If he had overcome all the difficulties that faced him, so could the family gathered around him now.
Later, at Father Marsters’ graveside, each visiting family member stopped to reflect. The sun was hot, the sea breeze whistled through the palm trees, the water in the lagoon gently lapped the beach. Hebrew laid a hand on the gravestone as if on the old man’s shoulder: ‘Don’t worry, Father. It’ll be all right.’
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