“It’s time to meet the piece,” announced Josh, as we alleviated ourselves of the power tools and the fine dust they had brought upon us, and admired our freshly shaped oyster shell pendants glinting in the Pacific sunshine. The fading whirr of machines gave way to the incumbent rustle of palm leaves and crashing waves out on the reef, and island tranquillity restored itself.
“This is my favourite part. We’ll shave away the bark on the back of your shell, and she’ll reveal to us the colours and lines that lie beneath. The more you sand back, the more of her character you will discover. Meeting the piece.” He repeated the last, emphasising its importance, just as the islanders had for him when he had learnt how to make traditional Polynesian necklaces, albeit through the not-so traditional method of angle grinders and Dremel guns.
That there were electric tools on Palmerston Island, a minute atoll in the heart of the South Pacific Ocean, was rather unexpected. And that there was a solar-panel field to power them, and a gigantic satellite dish to keep the inhabitants in touch with the outside world, was somewhat unforeseen too, not least because we ourselves had only accessed this far-flung paradise by sailing some 200-miles from another equally remote Cook Island. And that there was Josh from the US, and Melissa his South African wife, was momentarily perplexing, until we learned they had come to run the home schooling programme that educates some of the 50-odd occupants of Palmerston Island.
This is not the first isolated civilisation I have come across to strike me with its ability to keep up with the advances of the modern world. It is the first I have come across, however, in which nearly all of its residents are related.
I imagine you have some questions.
A man from Gloucestershire, England settled here 155 years ago to harvest coconuts. That he was actually a Gloucester man seems to be one of the many points of contention about the life of Mr William Marsters, but what is certain of him is that in 1863 he brought three Polynesian women to this uninhabited atoll, where he would set about populating the motus with palm trees and the ladies with children. Since his death in 1899 the islanders have continued to breed amongst themselves, and there are now thousands of Marsters spread across the globe, all descending from that one English sailor.
We’d familiarised ourselves with Palmerston’s history, but as the trade winds eased us toward this societal microcosm we knew as little of what to expect of its character as we did of the bark-encrusted oyster shells that awaited us. Most rumours on the cruising circuit would have us believe we were headed to the home of the last-surviving, authentic Polynesian welcome, where we were to be catered for and doted upon with a goodwill even more astounding than the well-to-do Cotswold accent with which they spoke. Others insisted it was more of an ‘Ooh-ah’-Farmer-Giles inflection.
* * *
“Get in the boat! Move along! Sit down! Sit there! Oi! Sit down there!”
This was Bob Marsters. He barked orders in his gruff-Polynesian voice as we boarded his metal dinghy from our sailboat, Blue Eye, which was tied to a mooring outside the turquoise lagoon. Having tried to obey his bellows as quickly as he shouted them – an impossible undertaking – we found ourselves being whisked ashore in a childlike silence, scared to cause big Bob any more bother than that which we seemed to have already. So much for the welcome.
Bob was the elder of one of the three families on the island, each of which has directly descended from one of William Marster’s wives. William divided the land of Palmerston into three, and to this day his boundaries are observed religiously. As is his belief in equality, which he preached until the deathbed: “If he gets a shillin’, you gets a shillin’, same as everything.” Indeed, it would become apparent to us that this principle pervades in contemporary Palmerston to an extraordinary extent.
Given Bob had made contact with us before his two rival elders, it was customary that we be at the mercy of his hospitality for our ten-day stay. Each family competes to host cruisers, not only for the honour of it, but also for the potential trading opportunities, and the modest fee they collect in mooring charges. But sitting in the shade of a tin roof on the first afternoon, listening to Bob’s indecorous jokes as he sat smoking cigarette after cigarette with a belly bulging through a Michigan sports jacket, we couldn’t help but feel somewhat underwhelmed by this “last-surviving” Polynesian culture. His wife – and incidentally also his first cousin – sat silently ignoring her husband, and the eldest daughter stared disinterestedly at her iPhone that was picking up the island Wi-Fi. The two youngest, erstwhile, attacked us with fallen palm branches and toy car missiles.
What we could not have known at this point, however, was of the inherent shyness of Bob and his kin. It was only in observing new arrivals to our flexible family in days to come that we noticed this in our hosts, and by that point we could see it was born, not of awkwardness or indifference, but of an innate humility.
Gradually we chipped away at the bark of the Palmerston shell, and with delight found that it shined beneath. Our mornings were spent playing with – or rather tolerating the blows of – the little terrors that were Henry and Medinia, and helping out Mehau, the eldest, with her chores. Picking up wheelbarrows (which Henry would swiftly jump right into) we would go about the family’s third of the motu collecting fallen coconuts – or “onuts!” as the little ones would adorably shout – which we then chopped up to feed the chickens and Eric, the pig. We’d then collect fallen branches, rotten “onuts”, and any litter, and deposit them into the great sand pits that were burnt on Saturdays. This island tidying regime was almost enough in itself to endear it to my heart, after many months spent wincing at litter-strewn paradises.
Bob’s wife, Tupo, whose soft and motherly qualities we had all quickly taken to, would then serve a plentiful lunch under the tin roof, and Bob would say grace before allowing the guests to eat first, as is Palmerston custom. At the close of this daily feast, Bob would inevitably announce, “The rest of the day is yours! First taxi back to the boats at six!” and we would spend afternoons exploring the motu, a gorgeous mass of golden sand that could be circumnavigated by foot in less than an hour, with the crystal clear lagoon to one side and a jungle of green palm on the other.
It was on one of these strolls that we came upon Josh and Melissa, and in the following days we spent carving our Polynesian necklaces, we gained a fascinating insiders perspective into Palmerston from their unique two-year experience.
“The hardest thing we’ve had to come to terms with” Josh tells us, “is the ever-increasing gap between what we can do for them and what they do for us. They’re the most generous people we’ve ever come across”. Right on cue a pupil of theirs arrived with an enormous tray of frozen steak. Try as they might to politely refuse it, the boy knows he cannot return to his parents with it, and they know it too. “That family gave us a whole load of fish last week.” Melissa laments.
The steak, by the way, is not home-grown. A supply ship delivers such goods to the island intermittently, which is paid for with the money Palmerston makes from the large quantities of parrotfish they catch, freeze, and sell to that same ship. It is a good system, ably overseen by Palmerston’s elected Executive Officer, but with the drawback that they are never sure when the ship will arrive next: such can be the uncertainty of life in the sprawling Pacific. (This explains how Palmerston can claim to have the world’s highest ratio of deep-freezers to population – it’s hard to know how long they need to keep hold of those fish.)
Palmerston possessed an irresistible charm, but – determined not be the Utopian tourist – I continued to sand back the layers, looking for the blemish amongst the beauty. It would become apparent there was one – an ugly one – but we would not discover it until after our departure. For the time being, aside from tales of the occasional family dispute, the worst I could find was an eccentric yet lovable elder, with an unhealthy fascination for all things American: from ice cream to presidents to guns.
This was Bill Marsters. He particularly enjoys being greeted as Bill Clinton so he can tell you his wife is called Hillary, which she is not. Steering the conversation away from his rejection by the Australian military, we hassled him for the gossip of the council. The most recent meeting, Bill imparted knowingly, reviewed changes to a Hurricane Shelter that the Japanese government were gifting Palmerston, an exciting and potentially life-saving development for an island entirely exposed to annual tropical storms. (Such generosity, for the rightly sceptical amongst you, often comes in handy for countries seeking votes on the international stage, a tactic that China is also not shy in implementing in the Pacific). There are as yet, however, no plans to deal with rising sea levels on Palmerston, other than to climb to the island’s highest point which stands at a giddy altitude of three metres. With a name like Refuge Hill, it is dry in all senses of the word.
Bob had been insistent we visit Bill, where we would be welcomed as if we were his own blood, and plied with ice cream until we couldn’t stand up to leave. As another Palmerston saying goes, “If one person gets a coconut, we all get a coconut”.
The paradigmatic case for this Palmerston equality was served at Sunday lunch. For over a hundred years the Marsters have ventured to the uninhabited motus to go ‘birding’: that is, the hunting of the bosin bird. Hunting is really not an appropriate term for what is in reality the picking up – literally – of bosins that are old enough to have shed their youthful feathers, but too young to have learnt to fly. Cruel as it might seem, the reason this tradition has survived is, one, that it is only practiced on the first weekend of the months from June to August, and, two, that only enough are taken so as to provide each islander with half a bird. In this way, bosin populations have always recovered for the following year. It is a humbling display of conservation you will often find amongst peoples living on the fringes of a globalised world.
Because we were, by local definition, family, we were treated to the succulent half-bird we had been allocated. Thanking Bob for sharing with us all that his family had, he philosophised for me: “We live in the moment, and the moment is when you’re poor. When you’re poor, you’re living.” I nodded a smile, appreciating the gist of this unanticipated Bob-wisdom, and starting to see his bright colours and lines that lay beneath.
I wanted to tell him he was amongst the richest men I knew, but the chance was lost when somebody threw praise across the table for his singing that morning. Donning our Sunday finest, we had attended the service in the cosy church on the sandy high street of the island. This was almost entirely to listen to the famous Polynesian singing, which over the course of a soul-stirring hour the Marsters proved they were masters of. Not that they’d admit to it. Bob’s modest nature swatted off the compliment with a knee-jerk joke: “That’s not my best singing. I’m best after a few beers, but I’m singing sober this morning!” And so he chuckled, rolling himself another cigarette.
* * *
It took many hours of diligent sanding to bring up the deep greens of my oyster shell pendant, that I had carved into a crescent moon. Many hours to find the lines that ran through it as it descended from a dark hue to a bright white tip at the lower edge. Many hours before I could stand back and realise I had unearthed its character; that I had met my piece.
The bark-encrusted shells of the Marsters also took time to sand back, to reveal the lively and lovely characters with all their idiosyncrasies and unique marks. It too had taken some diligence, but as we sailed away with heavy hearts for the next part of our journey, we felt honoured to have met the Marsters. Beautiful people, living a beautiful way of life, on a beautiful island.
But, just as oyster shells will not be without blemishes, there are faults to this society too. The wind was kicked from our stomachs a few weeks later, when we discovered that a male-adult of Palmerston had been arrested and taken to the Cook Island capital, Rarotonga, on multiple charges of child sex offences. This was a result of events, obviously unbeknownst to us, which were taking place whilst we were on the island, and for many years beforehand. It is both painful and unhelpful to conjecture as to how these unspeakable acts occurred within such a tight-knit community, and I can only imagine the hurt and shock it must have caused to the victims and the population of Palmerston.
* * *
Throughout our shell-shaping sessions, Josh warned us that we were engaged in a process with no discernible end. One could delicately shave at the corners of the piece ceaselessly; obsessively trying to shape it to just as you envisaged with all the slightest imperfections eradicated. But at some point you have to say enough is enough and call the piece finished, because as much as you want to ascribe a character to it, you must remember the piece had its own character already. It was discovering its essence that you set out to do in the first place – albeit with your own preconceptions of what it might ultimately look like – and it’s important not to lose sight of that at the end, even if what you see isn’t perfect.
I have worn my pendant every day since we left Palmerston a year ago. It is still a precious token that reminds me of a special place, but unavoidably it took on another meaning after the shocking revelations reached us: if you hold something up to the light, you will eventually find the faults it harboured the whole time. The blemishes in my piece serve to remind me that, as idyllic as a society might appear, it is the design of fallible creators: human beings.
It is also human beings, however, that can provide prevailing beauty, and it is in this way I will remember the Marsters of Palmerston Island: glinting in the Pacific sunshine.