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Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave

9. Palmerston

page 31

9. Palmerston

A black and white sketch of the island Palmerston.

A harp-shaped atoll with 35 islets and a continuous ring of reef surrounding a shallow lagoon, 9.6 × 7 km. Land-area: 2 km2 (estimate).

Position: 18°04′S, 163°10′W.

Population: 1966: 86, 1971: 72. 1975: 80.

Palmerston to Equator: 2003 km, to Rarotonga: 500km, to Aitutaki: 366 km, to Suwarrow: 533 km, to Pukapuka: 842km.


This atoll has no Polynesian tradition, although it must have been inhabited at least temporarily in pre-European days, for 12 ancient graves and a number of stone adzes have been found (1). An ancient name of the island is said to be Avarau, which means: two Hundred Harbours (2).

In a list of islands visited by Polynesian navigators Smith placed the name Palmerston preceded by a questionmark to an island named Uru-Pukapuka-Nui (3). On Forster's version of a Tahitian list of island names the island is identified as O-Rimatema (4).


Captain Cook discovered the island during his second voyage on June 16, 1774. The next day he came close to the atoll and counted 6 islets, but he did not see any people. No place to anchor was found (5).

Cook returned to the island on his third voyage. It was sighted on Sunday, April 13, 1777, and next day four boats were sent ashore to get food for the cattle. Cook himself went ashore too. He found there a great number of frigate birds (kota'a), tropic birds (tavake), and two kinds of boobies (ngoio). He also saw a large number of red crabs (tupa), and some small brown rats. Just before sunset on Thursday, April 17, everybody was back on board, and the ships set sail to the westward (6).


On his first passing the island Cook called it Palmerston in honour of Lord Palmerston, First Lord of the Admiralty (7). In the Journals of the third voyage the name is written as: Palmerstone Islands (8), Palmerstons Island (9), and Palmerston's Islands (10). The Maori pronunciation of the name is Pamati.


W.W. Hill thought that the mutineers of the “Bounty” touched at the island on their way to Tahiti in May, 1789 (11). This might be based on the fact that Captain Edwards in search of the mutineers found on the island a yard marked “Bounty's Driver Yard”, and also some spars with “Bounty” written on them. As they were all lying on the beach at high-water mark, and worm-eaten, they were more likely the spars lost while the “Bounty” was at Tubuai (12). The London Missionary Society, formed in 1795, purchased a ship, the “Duff”, and placed it under the command of Captain James Wilson. The “Duff” sailed from the Thames on Aug. 10, 1796 with a party of missionaries. They reached Tahiti on March 6, 1797. On its way to Tonga the “Duff” came to Palmerston on April 1, 1797, and boats went ashore to gather coconuts. After a second visit to Tahiti, the “Duff” sailed again for Tongatabu on Aug. 4. Again boats were landed at page 32 Palmerston where thirty-four breadfruit trees, eighteen plantains, and seve[gap — reason: illegible] “vi” apple trees (mango?) were planted (13).


The island became the scene of the first commercial enterprise in the Cook Islands, when on July 15, 1811, Captain Michael Fodger of the brig “Trial” Landed a Captain John Burbeck, with three other Europeans, an American, a Brazilian, and several Tahitians to collect bêche-de-mer and shark-fins (14). When King Pomare II promulgated the Bible-inspired new laws for Tahiti and Eimeo (Moorea) on May 13, 1819, he expressed his intention of appropriating Pal merston's Island as a place of banishment for Tahitian convicts (15). The new laws for Huahine and Sir Charles Sander's Island, promulgated in Way 1822, stated that murderers and those promoting rebellion and war shall be transported to a distant land, ununhabited by men — such as Palmerston's Island (16).


At about 1850 the “Merchant of Tahiti” called at the island, and found four white men, headed by Jeffrey Strickland, in a starving condition. In return for their passage to Rarotonga, the four men handed all their “rights and titles” to the island to the master, Captain Bowles, who is said to have passed these rights on to John Branden, a Scotsman and trader in Tahiti. On a date unknown, Branden placed on the island a man, named Sweet. In 1863 Captain Hart of the “Aorai”, a vessel belonging to Branden, found on Hervey Island (Manuae) a man, named Masters, and took him to Palmerston to replace Sweet. Masters with his women and one or two children landed on the atoll or July 8, 1863 (17). Others give the year as 1862 (18). At present the name of Palmerston's founding father is written as Marsters, but in the official records it is more often spelt as Masters (20). William Marsters died in 1899 (19). The youngest daughter of William Marsters died on Febr. 5, 1973. She was believed to be more than 100 years. She was known as Mrs Titani Tangi.


Palmerston was annexed to Great Britain by Commander C.L. Kingsmill on May 23, 1891. The population in 1902 was 115 (21). Sometime after the annexation the British Government granted William Marsters a twenty-one year lease (22). Presumably the lease was twice renewed and exspired at the end of 1953. An Amendment to the Cook Islands Act of 1954 vested the land in the native inhabitants as customary land (23).




196:33; 242:75; 161:57








9b:92–96; 9c:849–857; 9d:1011–1012; 113:60–69




9b:92, 94, 96










19:47, 49; 219:92–95


348:34; 63:346


189:II 140


189:II 177, 179–180; 453:369




57:219; 289; 17:134








66:287; 68:562