FAMILY FEUDS SPOIL IDYLLIC COOK ISLANDS ATOLL

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When HRH Prince Phillip visited Palmerston atoll in 1977 on HMS Britannia, the islanders say he made a deal with them. "Today the ship is yours and the island is mine," he told them. The swap saw the entire Palmerston population eat and drink on the royal yacht for a day. The Duke spent his day swimming in a bluewater pool that would later be renamed "Duke's Pool." The bluewater pool used to be known as Why E'lie - "Why you lie?" Florence Syme-Buchanan in the following COOK ISLANDS NEWS (On Line April 15, 1999) feature presents a glimpse into a fragment of Palmerston's past, and the feuding between families that threatens to spill into the next century.

History has it that two lovers would meet at night at the bluewater pool. After promising to rendezvous, one of the lovers failed to turn up -- thus, Why E'lie.

Palmerston, a group of tiny atolls circled by a reef that's 11 kilometers at its widest point, is home of three branches of the Marsters family. They are all descendants of William Marsters I, an Englishman from Gloustershire who settled on the uninhabited island with a Penrhyn wife, Akakaingaro, in 1863. He later married Tepou Tenioi and Matavia, both of Penrhyn. With his three wives, Marsters had 21 children. William Marsters ruled and made all the laws on this island of just two square kilometers. He set up a unique patriarchal system that, although modified in recent times, still exists today. Within two years of his death, serious family feuding erupted between the three branches.

DISPUTES

In 1901 the dispute over who would be the new island leader got so serious that William II would petition help from the British colonial government. Colonel Gudgeon intervened. The will of William Marsters I was produced, and according to the wishes of the patriarch, his eldest son Joel was appointed island leader by Gudgeon. Although much of the feuding has been settled, disputes still erupt from time to time on this tiny spot in the Pacific where Marsters descendants speak archaic English with a Gloustershire accent. The friction today is mostly with the central government, which great grandson Bill Marsters III accuses of "interfering, disrupting and unsettling" life on Palmerston.

NEW FRICTION

Appointing Jane Marsters Dean as the government's Palmerston rep. rather than an independent person lacked foresight. Some family members have bucked Dean's authority. An outspoken, capable woman Dean has tried to rein in those who reject her as boss. This created new friction on the island. The Palmerston Chief Executive Officer spends most of her time stationed in Rarotonga and has been recalled to explain what she did with money meant for the Palmerston Island Council. Palmerston Island has always been a law unto itself. An Act of Parliament "to recognize and give effect to the customs and traditions of the people of the island of Palmerston as they relate to the local government of that island" was passed in 1993. Fifty people, all descendants of William Marsters I, remain on Palmerston Island today. Their main income is from half a dozen government jobs and exporting fish to Rarotonga on infrequent inter-island boats.

MIGRATION

Over the years, most Palmerstonians shifted to main island Rarotonga, New Zealand and Australia. Today it's estimated that there are about 2,500 Marsters, all who can trace their lineage back to the adventurer from Gloustershire. The John family of Penrhyn can trace their lineage back to Matavia, William Marsters’ third wife. She is said to have first had two children to a Chilean husband -- Juan (John) Bautista Fernandes -- a close friend of William Marsters. Fernandes apparently returned to Palmerston after a visit of many months to Rarotonga to find Matavia pregnant with Marsters’ child. The Chilean left for good, settling in Rarotonga. Fernandes drowned after falling off a yacht berthed at Avatiu harbor. GOLD NUGGETS

Before their friendship ended, Fernandes used to fashion gold jewelry for Marsters’ children. The gold came from three jars of nuggets William Marsters had accumulated during the California gold rush. Every Christmas, Marsters would toss handfuls of nuggets into the air to amuse his many children with "gold nugget scrambles."

ISOLATED

The original home of William Marsters, built of huge timber beams from the sailing ship Thistle that ran aground on Palmerston reef, still stands today. It is to be renovated. However, the original structure will not be changed, says Bill Marsters. A church also built from sailing ship beams was partly damaged by a hurricane and had to be pulled down some years ago after the wood became worm eaten. Palmerston islanders have little contact with the outside world. There are no phones, television or email. Inter-island boats visit there every two to six months. The islanders can barely receive Radio Cook Islands. Contact with Rarotonga and other islands is through VHF radio. Visits by passing yachts and cruise ships are welcome diversions. They trade or earn money by selling fish, local food and handicrafts. The remaining Palmerston islanders now want an airstrip built on their island, says Bill Marsters. If this happens, their isolation would become just a memory and change forever this secluded spot where patriarch William I started his own island kingdom.

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