PO Box 156, Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

William Marsters – Palmerston

For many years the origins of William Richard Marsters were relatively unknown. He had passed on snippets of his former life to his family and friends yet it appeared that he told different versions depending on whom he was telling.


He was born Richard William Masters in 1831 and originally left England after a disagreement with his family. Within the family of Palmerston, it is told that he came to the South Pacific via the goldfields of California, then to Hawaii before arriving on Penrhyn in the Cook Islands around about 1856. Despite already having a daughter to Penrhyn woman Arehata, he married a Penrhyn chief’s daughter Akakaingaro. Perhaps he found her name difficult to pronounce (although it was said that he was an interpreter on several occasions on trading boats in the Pacific) but he called his wife Sarah.  My book, “Masters of Walcote, Leicestershire provides a reason for why he chose this name.

Marsters  worked on trading vessels travelling around the Cook Islands and other islands of the South Pacific and it is told he also travelled to Australia. On several of these voyages it is know that he took his wife and two young daughters with him. During one of these travels he dropped his wife off in Samoa. Tragedy struck when his elder daughter, Ann, died by drowning.  The family returned to Penrhyn, and from there to Manihiki where Marster recruited labourers for Suwarrow and then to Manuae. His second daughter, Elizabeth, died on the island of Manuae of unknown causes. After some time, the family were picked up and transported first to Aitutaki and then to Palmerston. Accompanying the family was Sarah’s cousin, Tepou who had been brought to the island to help Sarah with her two sons Joel and William who was born just before they landed on the island. Also with them was a friend and fellow trader, Jean Fernandez and his wife, Matavia.

Life was difficult for the family, but William demonstrated remarkable leadership on the island, organising buildings to cater for the family and the workers who had been brought in to do the planting. The buildings were firmly constructed to cater for the storms that frequently lashed the area. Sharing of chores and regular routines for the inhabitants of the island meant that when Brander’s ship finally returned to pick up his goods, Marsters had created a little village in which the inhabitants, mainly his own family, were firmly established.

After Brander died, his widow  and her new husband claimed that the island was theirs by virtue of inheritance through Brander. Marsters disagreed and refused to remove himself or his family.  After several years of building up a strong community and culture on the island, was able to establish legitimate ownership of the island for his family by applying for a license to live and cultivate on the island, from the United Kingdom Government on 12th May 1888.

One of the more interesting stories about William Marsters is  relates to the many ‘wives’ that he had. It was said that his wife Sarah was not unhappy about sharing her husband’s affections with her cousin Tepou, and later also with Matavia, the wife of  Jean Fernandez.  His friend had left his wife behind in Marsters’ safe keeping while he worked on the local whaling ships. As Fernandez was a dark Portugese he was no doubt surprised to find that his wife also had fair skinned children. However, from the stories about the pair, the extra-marital affair did not appear to affect the friends’ relationship as drinking buddies. Fernandez later died in an accident on Rarotonga.

Stories of Palmerston” tells about what is known about William Marsters from the time he arrived around in the Pacific about 1856 until he died in May 1899. He was survived by his three wives on Palmerston and 23 children many of whom were still living on Palmerston Island at the time. During his lifetime he established rules and regulations on the island which for many years enabled the three families to live harmoniously, each with their own designated areas on the main islet, and on the smaller sandy islets around the lagoon. The fish from this lagoon and the coconut crops on the islets around it provided the basis of their diet. William left a legacy for his descendants. It lies in the land which he worked hard to establish for future generations.

Family members moved away from the island as population growth created difficulties for sustainability and inevitably between the three families. Young couples were attracted by the opportunities to establish life elsewhere in New Zealand and Australia. Some have never returned. Their children and their children’s children may never get to see Palmerston Island and access to the little atoll is not easy. There are no flights to the island, and boat transport is infrequent. Yet, for many people who claim a relationship to the Marsters family, there will always be a connection to the island and especially to William Marsters, the man who made it all happen