Letter from Judge Cooper to the Governor of Hawaii

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Letter from Judge Cooper to the Governor of Hawaii


This letter, with a 1922 preface and explanation from the Navy (who retained the original letter), was written by Judge Henry E. Cooper of Hawaii, to then Governor of Hawaii, W.F. Frear. According to the letter, Cooper was concerned that a British consortium were making plans to claim and occupy Palmyra (which he owned at the time) on behalf of Britain.

The contents of the letter are not entirely consistent with other accounts, but because of Cooper's position as owner of Palmyra and being a prominent local Judge, the Navy took his report seriously. His letter is clearly alluding to an air of conspiracy around the British consortium's actions, which he may have exagerated to create a sense of urgency. That being said, later reports and documents proved the British were interested in acquiring Palmyra, and and believed it was already their possession.


Judge Henry E. Cooper




Office of Naval Intelligence




Public Domain



Text Item Type Metadata


11 February 1922
The attached correspondence is forwarded in case the Department considers this matter of sufficient importance to be taken up with the State Department in regard to the status of Palmyra Island
L. McNamee
Captain, US Navy
From: Intelligence Officer, 14th Naval District
To: Director of Naval Intelligence, Washington, DC
  1. There had recently been received in Honolulu an inquiry addressed to Mr. W.R. Castle of this city, by his son of the same initials now in Washington, regarding the status of Palmyra Island.  From information on file in this office it appears that both Great Britain and the United States claim sovereignty over this atoll, but the claim of the former Kingdom of Hawaii to the island was better than either that of the two aboved mentioned nations.  Upon annexation of Hawaii by the United States the sovereignty of Palmyra became vested in the United States.

  2. Enclosure one summarizes the relation of the Hawaiian Government to the island and this letter caused the formal annexation of Palmyra by Rear Admiral Southerland in April 1912 when that officer was Commander-In-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, with his flag on the USS West Virginia.  This action of Admiral Southerland was reported in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser of Honolulu, April 20th, 1912.

  3. Sometime later Mr. H.E. Cooper, the present owner of the island, received a registered title in the Land Court of Hawaii in accordance with the Torrena System of registering titles after some litigation with the hairs of one of the previous owners.

  4. In November 1917 the Intelligence Officer for this district reported that Mr. Cooper was negotiating a sale of this island to Carl Ensolven, the latter claiming to be a representative of the California Packing Company, whose intention, it was said, was to establish a fishing cannery there.

  5. Within the last year a Colonel Edward Meng, his wife, and a young man by the name of Edward Benner lived on Palmyra for about a year presumably to develop it as a copra plantation.  Colonel Meng is a British subject, said to be a veteran of the World War, having served in the British Army.

  6. It is understood that Mr. H.E. Cooper has leased the island to a company that intends to develop it as a copra plantation, and this lease carries with it a right of purchase by the company, except that Mr. cooper desires to reserve two of the small islets in this atoll group for himself.  Mr. Cooper applied to the head of the Survey Department of the Territory of Hawaii for some means of identifying the two islets he desired to retain, and the latter applied to the Navy for a copy of the mosaic photograph taken by our Naval Aviators about three months ago.  This request has not been acceded to as more information regarding the sale of this island is considered desirable before any assistance in consummating such sale is rendered.

  7. The question arises as to whether the British Government is still attempting to claim sovereignty over Palmyra and as to whether the sale of this atoll to other than American citizens would be considered good policy by the Navy Department.
Hon. W.F. Frear,
Governor of Hawaii
Sir: In RE Palmyra Island
Palmyra Island was discovered by Capt. Sawle of the American ship Palmyra Nov. 6th 1802.  This island was surveyed by Commander J.S. Skerrett, USS Portsmouth, in 1874.  The observation station about two cables North East of Palm point is in latitude 5°49’ North, longitude 126°11’ West.

Capt. Zenas Bent and J. Wilkinson settled on the island sometime in the late 50’s and made considerable improvements thereon.  In 1862 Bent and Wilkinson filed a petition with the Minister of the Interior, Prince Kamehameha, asking that the sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom be extended to the Island.  At a cabinet meeting held February 26, 1862, Kamehameha IV granted the petition and issued a letter of authority authorizing Capt. Bent to take possession of the island as Hawaiian Territory.  Capt. Bent proceeded to the island in the Schooner Louisa and took possession of Palmyra Island in the name of his Majesty Kamehameha IV on the 15th day of April 1862.  On the 18th day of June, 1862, Prince Kamehameha, Minister of the Interior, issued a formal proclamation reciting that the Island of Palmyra had been taken possession of with the usual formalities by Capt. Bent and that the Island was henceforth to be considered and respected as part of the domain of the King of the Hawaiian Islands.
The Republic of Hawaii ceded to the United States of America and all rights of sovereignty of whatever kind in and over the Hawaiian Islands and their dependencies.  The Congress of the United States accepted the cession so made by Joint Resolution approved July 7, 1898.

Senas Bent and J. Wilkinson were at the time of making their petition naturalized citizens of the Hawaiian Kingdom.  Capt. Bent afterwards transferred his interest in the Island to Wilkinson.  Wilkinson then married a subject of the Hawaiian Kingdom and subsequently died leaving the Island to his widow by will.  His wife Kalama married a Hawaiian subject and afterwards died leaving no issue.  Her husband and brother who survived her, being her heirs at law, conveyed their interest to the Pacific Navigation Co.; the Pacific Navigation Co. conveyed to W.L. Wilcox; W.L. Wilcox conveyed to W.A. Kinney; W.A. Kinney conveyed to Fred Wundenberg; Fred Wundenberg died leaving the Island to his widow by will; and I derived title to the Island by deed from Mrs. Wundenberg.  All of these conveyances have been duly recorded in the Registry of Conveyances in Honolulu.

About the year 190s Father Emanuel Rougier purchased Fanning and Washington Islands.  In June 1911, Father Rougier proceeded to London for the purpose of disposing of the Islands.  After several months of negotiations a preliminary agreement of sale was entered into with a British syndicate headed by a Mr. Armstrong.  In November 1911, Father Rougier returned to Honolulu and informed me of the sale of his islands and asked if I would sell Palmyra.  This I declined to do.  Soon after Father Rougier’s arrival in Honolulu a Mr. J.H. Hayward arrived from Montreal.  He had been selected as an expert by the syndicate to report on the sale.  His report being favorable the sale was to be consummated for the sum of $350,000.  Mr. Hayward asked if I would sell Palmyra saying that his principals desired to secure all of the outlying islands in the immediate vicinity of their intended purchase.  He said they desired to secure a surrender of sovereignty of Palmyra Island to the British crown.  I again refused to sell. Father Rougier who was present at this interview remarked that Palmyra Island was at present a British crown land and that he had seen the island so registered in the office of the Lord Commissioner of the Pacific at Suva, Fiji.  I denied the correctness of the statement in regard to sovereignty and the interview ended.

Father Rougier and Mr. Hayward sailed in the American Schooner Luka for Fanning Island Nov. 9 1911.  Mr. Hayward early in December leaving Father Rougier on Fanning Island, returned to Honolulu.  He informed me that his report would be favorable and that the purchase of the Islands would be consummated.  He then urged me to make an offer to sell Palmyra and I again refused; he left soon after for Montreal.  Capt. Fred Miller of the Luka on his return with Mr. Hayward informed me he had a charter from Father Rougier for the schooner Luka to leave here on the 10th of this month so as to leave Fanning Island for Honolulu about the 15th or 16th of this month.  Yesterday he received a cable from Father Rougier cancelling the charter and saying that he had gone to Suva on the Makura that had called for him at Fanning Island.  I know no possible business that would call Father Rougier to Suva unless it may be to give him an opportunity to secure the right of possession to Palmyra Island from the Lord High Commission of the Pacific.

Bearing upon this situation I desire to call your attention to the fact that Fanning Island was discovered by Capt. Edmund Fanning of the American ship Betsy in 1798 and was recognized as American Territory until Capt. Henry English established himself there in 1855 at which time the Island was placed under a British Protectorate by Capt. W.H. Moorhead, R.N. who visited the Island in October of that year in H.B.M.S. Dido.

Since the incident of my last meeting with Father Rougier I have been making inquiries and have learned through Capt. Rosehill who has lived here many years that during a visit to Palmyra Island in 1897 he found a board tacked on one of the cocoanut trees on which was roughly marked the fact that the Island had been taken possession of during that year by the Captain of a British cruiser, the name of the Captain and the cruiser he does not remember.  He took down the board and brought it back to Honolulu and delivered it to the then owner of the island, Mr. W. ?. WIlcox.  The above incident is the only possible claim Great Britain can have for claiming sovereignty over the island.

It seems quite certain that there is an effort being made to secure Palmyra under British sovereignty.  I protest against this action and ask as soon as may be that the American flag be raised over the Island with such formality as will preclude any further aggression on the part of any British subject or the British government.

Irrespective of my individual right in the premises, I desire to call your attention to the strategic position of Palmyra Island, as it is situated at the meeting point of the great circle route from the British colonies to the mainland of the United States and from Panama to India and the British possessions in that direction.  It is also about half way between the Hawaiian Islands and the Samoan group.  The enclosed lagoon is nearly three quarters of a mile in extent and possesses deep water separated from the ocean only by a small barrier reef.  Mr. Hayward frankly admitted that it was the purpose of the syndicate whom he represented to shut out all possible interference with their scheme of establishing a coaling station and commercial depot at Fanning Island.  Soundings and surveys were made of the harbor and it is proposed to dredge to a depth of thirty-five feet.

I respectfully suggest that prompt action be taken to prevent hostile occupation by anyone claiming under British authority.

Signed, Henry E. Cooper


Judge Henry E. Cooper, “Letter from Judge Cooper to the Governor of Hawaii,” Palmyra Archive, accessed August 11, 2020, http://palmyraarchive.org/items/show/239.