Island Stayaway

Tiny, remote Palmerston Island hosts a few dozen residents and zero visitors.
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Apr 6, 2014 | By Brandon Workman

Robinson Crusoe, Lost, Gilligan’s Island, and plenty of others. Chances are some tale of being stranded on an island has captivated you. It’s probably the internal conflict of 1) living in a tropical paradise and 2) being completely cut off from the outside world. Which hand prevails varies by person, by scenario, and probably by island.

But for those living on remote Palmerston Island, there was no shipwreck that got them here. Largely cut off from the outside world, this is—and has been for centuries—everyday life. It’s what the island community has always known. And with a multi-day, sometimes-treacherous journey required to reach the nearest neighbors and a dangerous reef obstructing sizable ships from approaching, sparsely populated Palmerston will likely remain that way.

Really a coral atoll in a remote stretch of the Pacific Ocean, Palmerston Island was first discovered by westerners in 1774 by Englishman Captain Cook. When he and his crew explored the island three years later, they found it unpopulated save for some ominous ancient graves.

Nearly a hundred years later, fellow Englishman William Marsters (then spelled Masters), a ship’s carpenter and barrel maker, set sail for Palmerston Island and arrived with two Polynesian wives. His course of action: scavenge shipwrecks to build shelter, annex the island from the British government, take on a third wife, and populate a community.

As for how he fared: his shipwreck-scavenged home stands to this day (the only structure to survive a vicious cyclone in the 1920s), he was granted full possession of the island by Queen Victoria, and he fathered 23 children. 

That’s legacy.

But it’s doubtful that legacy will change anytime soon. Now, more than 100 years later, a scant 60-something people, nearly all of whom can trace their lineage directly to Marsters and one of his three wives (and debatably a fourth), call the island home.

While the island hosts everything its inhabitants need – food, shelter, one telephone line, basic electrical infrastructure, and even occasional internet access—an economy whose highlights include fishing and bird feather trade isn’t exactly what you’d call a growth opportunity.

But that’s okay to Palmerston residents. They just call it home.

Images via Amusing Planet.