PIM - August 1964
An Article Published August 1964 in the Pacific Islands Monthly
I asked Mum if she had any old black and white photographs of the Marsters family. Off she went and returned with a small bundle, indeed she had found some pictures but also a little gem – a magazine called the Pacific Islands Monthly, this particular edition was published in August 1964.
Complete with brilliant adverts of the era, this issue featured a story written by W.H. Percival.
Mum – Inano - is mum to Bill (our host on the island of Palmerston), wife of the late Tuakana. Tuakana was the son of Ned, who was the son of William II, who was the son of William Marsters, founding member of this unique family. (Mum will not mind me saying that she is over eighty four years old and as sharp as a new pin). Now follows the actual feature.
Victoria Island, one of the lost islands of the Cook Group, was a reality to at least one person of recent times – William Marsters II, one-time “patriarch” of Palmerston Island, who died in 1946 at the age of 84. Marsters, the bearded figure, just to the right of the hut, claimed that he visited Victoria Island in his twenties. The photo was taken in the 1930’s.
Victoria is still marked on some maps, but not on modern charts used by local shipping. William Marsters, who died in 1946, aged 84, and who was ruling head of the Marsters clan at Palmerston Island, claimed to have visited Victoria Island. This was when he was a young sailor in his twenties – so his visit to Victoria must have taken place in the early 1880’s.
Marsters used to say that he was one of the crew of a ship that took a Jew called Levy and a gang of native labourers from Suva to Victoria Island. They were employed by a firm to plant coconuts so that future copra crops could be obtained. Marsters described the island as having a barrier reef enclosing a narrow lagoon, similar to some islands in the Lower Cook group. It was not an atoll, but an island of volcanic origin, fairly well-wooded with a typical puka tree and possessing a natural boat passage.
Marsters’ ship left Levy and his men with three or four months’ food, but the firm went bankrupt and no boats called at Victoria for eighteen months. By that time the stranded men had eaten everything edible on the island, including the coconuts they had been sent to plant, and they were rescued on the point of starvation. Some time after that Victoria Island disappeared, probably as a result of volcanic action. In early 1921, the well-known Islands skipper Captain “Andy” Thomson sailed over the spot where the island had been marked on early charts. There was no sign of the island and a search over a wide area failed to reveal it. The trading schooner Tagua, in which he sailed, was equipped with radio and an accurate chronometer, and Captain Thomson obtained his position exactly. He later reported the non-existence of Victoria to American marine authorities.
The other “lost” island that would Have come within the boundaries of the Cook Group was called Tuanaki. It was said to be some two hundred miles south or south-west of Rarotonga and to consist of three low, thickly inhabited islands with a reef. Two native seamen claimed to have seen Tuanaki from whaling vessels, and one of them said that he spoke to the people, who resembled Mangaians in dress and customs. This was in the 1840’s.
The natives of Tuanaki told him they heard of the overthrow of idolatry on Rarotonga and Mangaia, and were eagerly awaiting a visit from the missionaries.
In 1844, the Rev. George Platt, in command of a small missionary schooner, searched for Tuanaki without success. Before starting his search, the younger Williams called at Aitutaki, where he interviewed a man named Soma, who claimed to have gone ashore at Tuanaki, Soma’s story was interpreted and written down on the spot.
“Two years have passed since I saw that island. We went thither by way of Rurutu Island, and when we found it, our captain searched for the entrance and then lowered a boat into which we descended. There were six of us, the captain making seven. When we got ashore we found no one on the beach, so the captain said to me ‘Go inland and search for the people. If you find them, return here.’ The captain gave me a sword. When I reached some way inland I saw a house which was full of men. It was a house of the chief. The chief asked me, “Whence do you come, from Araura?’ (This is the old native name for Aitutaki, still known today but seldom used). I replied, Yes. ‘Come inside the house,’ the chief said. So I went inside. There were none but men there, no women, as they have a separate house. After I had sat down the chief asked again: ‘Do you come from Araura?’ To that I replied, I come from Araura. ‘Where is the captain of your ship?’ I told him he was with the boat. He is afraid lest you should kill him. ‘We do not kill men. We only know how to dance and sing. We know nothing of war.’ I then returned to the captain who asked, ‘How is it?' They are all in a house. ‘Why do they stay there?’ I do not know. The captain then went inland with me, taking with him some scissors, axes and headdresses, and then entered the house and presented the articles to the chief. The captain asked the chief his name. He replied, ‘Maeva-rua, Tuikura is my name, from Rarotonga.
The Captain and I slept there that night, whilst the boat returned to the ship, taking some food – fowls, pigs, yams and bananas. We were six days ashore there. The people are exactly like us. Their water is scooped up in a bowl, or in the leaf of the giant taro. Their dialect is that of Mangaia, and they wear the tiputa (poncho-like garment made of tapa) and use the same kind of fans as Mangaia. (As Mangaia lies one hundred and ten miles south-east from Rarotonga and Tuanaki was roughly two hundred miles south or south-west of Rarotonga, Mangaia and Tuanaki must have been close together).”
Having heard Soma’s story, the Rev. John Williams Junior, sailed off in search of Tuanaki.
On board his ship was a native convert to Christianity called Maretu, who was to stay at Tuanaki and try to convert its people. But, they never reached the island – if, in fact, it still existed. During the voyage a violent storm was encountered. Heavy winds and seas snapped a boom and one of the masts; Maretu became seriously ill; and the attempt to find Tuanaki had to be abandoned. No one is known to have visited Tuanaki after Soma and his captain spent six days there in 1842, so it cannot be stated for certain when the island slid beneath the waves, leaving no trace of its existence. However, among the scanty records of the period is one that mentions an island that disappeared of the Cook group.
A judge J. A. Wilson, is reported to have said: “A trading vessel from Auckland was used at one time in the forties to visit an island, the exact position of which was kept secret. But on a subsequent visit it had disappeared.
The Rev. W. W. Gill, a pioneer missionary in the Cook Islands, said in his Gems From The Coral Islands, published in London in 1856, that Tuanaki was known by tradition in all the islands of the Cook Group. But it had not been discovered by Europeans, and the missionaries could not obtain its exact position.
Rarotongan tradition says the Rarotongans of the pre-Christian era used to visit Tuanaki in their sea-going canoes, and that the voyage used to take two days and one night.
There seems to be no doubt therefore that Tuanaki did once exist, but there is possibly less certainty about Victoria Island. Yet Victoria’s position was reported by somebody with sufficient authority for cartographers to include it in their maps – such as the 1936 edition of Phillips’ Handy Volume Atlas of the World.
Perhaps some PIM reader may know who discovered it, or, at least, how it came to get on the maps.
ALL IN ALL A GREAT MYSTERY