Palmerston Island, Where Everyone is Related

Mar 24, 2014 10 comments

Palmerston Island is a coral atoll in the Cook Islands in one of the most isolated part of the Pacific Ocean, about 3,200 km from New Zealand. The tiny Pacific island has no airport, and is visited by a supply ship only twice a year. The journey to the island is so long and hazardous that only the most intrepid visitors ever dares to visit it. But Palmerston’s fame comes not only from the fact it is a perfect island paradise, but from its unique history.

Palmerston Atoll is made up of a number of sandy islets on a continuous ring of coral reef enclosing a lagoon. Six of them are of significant size including Palmerston, North Island, Lee To Us, Leicester, Primrose, Toms, and Cooks, that together cover just 1 square mile (2.6 km2) in area. The atoll is 11 km across and 15 km from north to south that encloses an area of 56 square kilometers of sea.


The first person to set foot on Palmerston was Captain Cook in 1777, although he had discovered the island three years earlier on another trip. Cook named the island after Henry Temple, 2nd Viscount Palmerston, then Lord of the Admiralty. The island remained largely uninhabited for almost another century when it was chanced upon by William Marsters, a carpenter and barrel maker of a whaling ship that frequented the Bay of Islands, in 1860. William Marsters was so charmed by the island that three years later he returned with a wife, the daughter of the chief of another Cook island, and her two cousins with the intention of permanently settlement on the island.

William_Marsters_IThe atoll was uninhabited at the time, and Marsters used wood salvaged from shipwrecks to build and populate a tiny community, which soon included a church, school room and homes. Marsters, together with the three women, had 17 children whose descendants make up the present population of Palmerston. Today, Palmerston has 62 inhabitants, all but three are descended from William Marsters.

Before he died William Marsters, organized the island so that each of the three wives and their descendants had a share of the main island and each of the atolls. This arrangement still stands. Today the Island has its own Council, representing the local government, and members of the three family. Marriage within a family group is prohibited.

Palmerston Islanders still pride themselves on their British heritage – they fly the British flag on special occasions, have large photos of the Queen in their homes, and remember fondly the visits of the Royal Yacht Britannia. Although it is administered by the Cook Islands government under the jurisdiction of New Zealand, in 1954 the family was granted full ownership of the island.

Life on Palmerston is simple. There are no shop, just two toilets, and rainwater is collected for drinking water. Money is only used to buy supplies from the outside world not from each other. Electricity runs from 6am – 12pm each day and again at night. A recently built telephone station provides the only permanent link to the outside world. Fish is the islanders' staple food and their only export. One or two tons of parrot fish are frozen and collected by the supply ship which comes twice a year to deliver essential supplies such as rice and fuel.

Aside from the cargo ships, the island sees about a dozen visiting boats a year bringing tourists. Since there are no resorts or hotels, by custom, the family that first greets the visitors offer them a homestay at their house.


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Islanders: William Marsters and his brood. Photo credit


Willima Marsters’ gravestone. Photo credit


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Satellite telephone and solar panels. Photo credit


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Sources: Wikipedia / National Library of New Zealand / Cookislands / Wikitravel / Palmerston Island


  1. Looks like a calm. peaceful place to relax and get away from cellphones.

  2. Wait until you get to hell to make the comparison

  3. What an odd life they must have. How hard do they work? Do they have any art or culture? Gossip or everything already known about each other?

    1. "Art" and "culture" are largely figments of your imagination. A less childish mind realizes the BS factor of living there must be MUCH lower. And no rap music hopefully!

  4. this must making dating awkward, no?

  5. The same situation can be found much closer to home. Tangier Island, Va.

    1. Hardly. Tangier Island has an airport, consistent electricity and plumbing.

  6. For about a week, maybe. How people live out their lives in such a place is beyond me.

  7. PARADISE!!! give me a one way ticket


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