PO Box 156, Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands


An interesting story is told of William Marsters by Thomas Trood who was at one time the British Vice Consul at Apia, Samoa. Thomas Trood died in 1916 but in 1912, published an article entitled “Island Reminiscences – a graphic detailed romance of a life spent in the South Sea Islands”.

My book, “The Masters of Walcote” includes his chapter on “A Pearl Shelling Enterprise” which tells of an adventure that Marsters had BEFORE he started working for Brander and eventually ended up on Palmerston Island. It also took place not too long after Marsters arrived in the Pacific. 

I added this article into the Walcote book because it came to light after the publication of my first book “Stories of Palmerston”. It was Gerald McCormick, a scientist working in the Cook Islands and an avid William Marsters historian, who located the article. It is a rare glimpse into William Marsters and his adventures not long after his arrival in the Pacific. It was by someone of authority who had had direct contact with him and who was in a position to have recorded the event. 

William Marsters came to Trood’s attention around about 1858. He had heard that Marsters had mentioned that on his way to the Pacific by way of Honolulu, he had come across an island with an abundance of pearl-shell. The island was located to the north-east of Penrhyn and inhabited by cannibals, but the potential value of the pearl-shell could be worth the risk.

In the mid-1800s pearl shell was a highly valued commodity for buttons in Europe. It was selling for £120 a ton (around about £50,000 in today’s money so it was worth considering the investment). Trood and other potential investors persuaded Marsters and investigate the possibility of retrieving some of this bounty.

To tell the story briefly, quite a lot of money was invested. Marsters was sure he could locate the island again, and that he’d be able to employ divers from among his wife’s family in Penrhyn. However, several unusual incidents occurred on the journey to Penrhyn and when they arrived on Penrhyn, Sarah’s father, the chief refused to provide divers for the venture. The island they were seeking was tapu (taboo). The venture had to be called off.

Trood reminisced about what could have been, and at one stage later on in his South Pacific career he considered going in search of the island again with divers offered by Brander who later employed Marsters in the Cook Islands. But Trood reconsidered…”Divers or no divers, the venture stood think with dangers.” 

Trood left Marsters on Manihiki and never saw him again although he obviously kept track of his whereabouts for several years after as he knew when Marsters had arrived on Palmerston Island, and that he eventually died there.

(from maureenhilyard.blogspot 2009)

Middle family?

Checking through an interesting discussion on the Genealogy.com Marsters Family Genealogy Forum I found a thread that was debating the issue of who was the “Middle Family” and why were they called the Middle Family when they say they are descended from the first wife of William Marsters. 

If you read any documented genealogy, and researched material as in the “Stories of Palmerston” or “The Masters of Walcote”, you will see that Akakaingaro (who was named Sarah by William Marsters) was in fact married to William Marsters according to pre-missionary custom on Penrhyn island. 

I am descended from Sarah’s family (my lineage is William I, William II, Tearaia, Jane, me). Akakaingaaro / Sarah’s family is often referred to as the “first family” because of his marriage to her. William had a liaison with another woman on Penrhyn before he married Sarah, but even she is not referred to as his “first family” even though Arehata had a daughter, Litia (in Penrhyn, and Ritia in Rarotongan).

It is this acknowedged marriage on Penrhyn that identifies Sarah as the head of the “first family”. However, when it comes to the allocation of land her descendants are referred to as the “middle family”. The other two (de facto) wives of William Marsters were allocated the beach sides of the island.

The sections are marked out by trees and stone edged pathways. In the middle section are some communal usage areas eg the church, the water tank and their “mountain” or “refuge hill”. This is a slight mound in the middle of the island where the families frequently ran for safety during the hurricanes of the early days. Even today it provides the island’s residents with some protection during high seas.

(from maureenhilyard.blogspot 2009)

Matavia or Matauia?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, one of the things that William Marsters demanded of his children on the island was that they only spoke English in public.

But he did allow some leeway for the parent who had been introduced to the island. He allowed them to teach their children a second language, their introduced parent’s tongue, so that the children were mainly bilingual.

The problem is, that if they had been able to talk to each other in their second language, they probably wouldn’t have been able to understand much of each others language because they would have learned to speak the dialect of their parent, and that may not necessarily be the language of the family next door..

Many of the men from the second generation married women from the Northern Group. Those wives from Penrhyn or Manihiki would have used the name Matauia. My great grandmother Teipoitemarama was from Rakahanga.

However those wives from the southern group, including Rarotonga, would have called her Matavia. The name identifies a regional lineage. From those that I have met who use the name Matavia, most are not from her lineage.

Those who are descended from the Matavia lineage (and I already show my lineage because our family use the name Matavia) are very staunch about using her name correctly – and rightfully so. It is the name as she would have been called on Penrhyn, and that is Matauia.

(from maureenhilyard.blogspot 2007)

Rules and regulations

Another significant edict that William Marsters made for his wives and children was that he would only allow English to be spoken on Palmerston Island.

It was noted by one of his grandsons that Marsters was often used as a translator between traders and the local islanders. This particular position of importance was probably one of the reasons why he was allowed to take his family on board during some of his trips. However, despite this knowledge and skill he possessed as part of his working life, when it came to his personal domain – Palmerston Island – on which he made the rules and regulations, English was to be the one ‘public’ language spoken outside the home.

William Marsters insisted that his children married spouses from other islands. The concession that he made for the native languages of their spouses if they continued to live on Palmerston was that the families could speak their own languages and dialects within the confines of their own homes.

This was probably one of the first situations in the Cook Islands where bilingualism was encouraged or at least condoned and where the children got to be fluent in their two home languages. It also meant that within the homes of each of the families, they were able to continue to learn the culture of their “alien” parent which later contributed to a range of craft goods that was heavily influenced by the cultures of the northern group islands from where many of the son’s wives originated. 

This earlier generation were profuse producers of these intricately woven goods which were readily snapped up by visiting yachties and cruise vessel visitors, and their production greatly enhanced the meager incomes of the families despite selling their goods very cheaply. It seems that whatever was taught in the homes of the families was their own concern, as long as the children were also taught to understand and to speak English fluently so that they could read the Bible and understand the sermons of their grandfather’s latter years.

The English language they learned was of course his form of English. For years his brogue was described as that of a Gloucestershire farm boy. However, as has been found through the research of parish records and census documents, he was actually a Leicestershire farm boy. The Gloucestershire accent that the linguists identify is a bit of a mystery.

Linguistic experts seem to be quite sure of the accent, and there is a possibility that between the years of the 1841 census and the 1851 census when he was 20 years of age, he could very well have lived elsewhere. The 1851 census does not specifically mention an occupation for Richard. It simply describes him as the “farmer’s son”. So although he was at home, he could have been in between jobs otherwise I feel sure that his occupation would have been listed. It appears that he did remain in Walcote, and by the end of the year was a married man, although maybe not to the woman he really wanted.

(from maureenhilyard.blogspot 2007)


But what makes a hero appear to fall from grace to perhaps become an anti-hero?

Again, sticking to Google, the definition that illuminates certain characteristics about our family hero includes: “…The character [has] ambiguous morals, or character defects and eccentricities…” Marsters may not totally be described as a hero.

There were some definite shortfalls in his character. He wasn’t an axe murderer or anything terrible, but it cannot be denied that he had some “character defects and eccentricities” . These had already been noticed by observers who met him during his travels around the Pacific (refer to “Stories of Palmerston – Sisters of the Sun”).

Most significantly, it must be admitted that he did have an unusual attitude towards marriage and friendship. He married Akakaingaro (whom he called Sarah) soon after he arrived in Penrhyn around about 1856 and took her and their children with him on his journeys around the islands as he worked on the trading boats.

It was not too long after he arrived on Palmerston in 1863 with Sarah and his two sons, that he engaged in a polygamous relationship with his wife’s cousin, Tepou, who had originally been brought from Penrhyn to look after Sarah’s young children.

He later also became involved in a relationship with Matavia, the wife of his best friend. Jean-Baptiste Fernandez who had left his wife behind on Palmerston while he worked on the whaling ships in the region. Yet, although Portugese Fernandez would have been surprised by his wife’s coffee-coloured children on his return, it did not appear to spoil is relationship with his best friend and drinking buddy.

All told, Marsters had 22 children to these three women on Palmerston. And apparently they lived quite harmoniously together – each with their own residences around the island (refer “The Masters of Walcote” Chapter 1.)

This attitude to multiple relationships at the same time could possibly have evolved from England where (in 1851, as Richard Masters) he married Charlotte Farmer from his home village of Walcote (most probably at his father’s coercion) to legitimize his son. Yet a couple of years later he also had a daughter to a woman called Sarah who may have lived in a de facto relationship with him – she was named Sarah Masters on the entry of their daughter’s baptism record in the St Leonards Church, in Misterton.

On Palmerston, he openly engaged in the polygamous relationships with his recognized wife, Sarah and her cousins Tepou and Matavia. Yet, despite his own situation, he did not allow his sons to behave similarly which exemplifies the “…ambiguous morals, character defects and eccentricities…” of the definition above

(from maureenhilyard.blogspot 2007)