In 1863 a British sailor, a ship’s carpenter and barrel maker named William Marsters (born “Masters,” but probably called “Marsters” because of his thick British Midlands’ accent) landed on Palmerston, a small atoll in the Cook Islands, as an employed caretaker, tasked to protect the island raise coconuts there for a Bristish businessman in Tahiti. Marsters had left his wife and two children in England to sail the seas, perhaps to seek his fortune in the California gold rush, perhaps just to escape. By the time he arrived in a sparsely inhabited Palmerston he had spent a few years in the Cook Islands and had already found a new wife there. Then he married another. And another. And, according to a meticulously researched account offered by CookIslands.org.uk, he married a fourth. With these wives Marsters had 17 children. Those children had children, those children had more. To avoid severe genetic problems Marsters divided his descendants according to three clans depending on which wife was the child’s mother; he forbade intermarriage within clans. By 1973, when Marsters’ youngest daughter died, there are over a thousand descendants of Marsters living in the Cook Islands’ main island of Rarotonga or in New Zealand. Marsters himself died of malnutrition in 1898 after a blight wiped out the islands’ coconot trees.
Today there are only about 50 Marsters on Palmerston, though the many other Marsters view the islands as their ancestral home. Daily life on Palmerston is slow and peaceful. Most Marsters family members are devout Christians–the relaxed pace of life on the island almost always includes a daily visit to church. Today Marsters descendants on Palmerston speak, says “The Marsters of Palmerston: The linguistic legacy,” “‘the most British English’ of the Cook Islands” with “a very special chanting melody.” Essentially this is a Victorian Gloucestershire accent that over time has meshed with cadences from Māori. According to linguist Sabine Ehrhart-Kneher, who wrote of the English spoken on Palmerston, Marsters forbade his wives and children from speaking Māori.
Over the years Marsters had leased the island of Palmerston from the British and in 1954 an amendment to the Cook Islands Act passed by the New Zealand parliamanet the Marsters won “full ownership”of the land. Barring unforseen circumstances, English-speaking Marsters will be the main residents of Palmerston for years to come. Than again, “unforseen circumstances” are pretty much the only way to explain how a family of English speaking Marsters came to “own” a Pacific island in the first place.
CookIslands.org.uk’s page on the Marsters claims to be “the definitive story of a unique family saga.” It certainly seems to be. | More CookIslands.org.uk pages on Palmerston and the Marsters, like Palmerston: An English Legacy and William’s Claim to the Island…and the Scotsman Who Fought Him For It.
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