My Palmyra

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My Palmyra


Personal account of Judge Henry E Cooper, owner of Palmyra at the time, from his time on Palmyra hosting several scientists studying plant and animal life. Includes two photographs and a variety of detail on their daily routines and the reactions of local animal life to their presence.


Judge Henry E. Cooper


Mid-Pacific Magazine




Public Domain





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Palmyra Islands, the palm-fringed group of atolls which almost became the cause of international complications a few years ago, the purchase of which by Judge Henry E. Cooper of Honolulu necessitated the interchange of correspondence between the State Department at Washington and Downing Street, and a hurried trip of the U. S. S. California, under sealed orders, have finally been taken possession of formally by their new owner. Just what Judge Cooper thinks of his South Sea possession is told in the following article by him, following his recent return from the south, where, in company with C. Montague Cooke and J. F. Rock, scientists, he went, saw, and was conquered by the virgin beauties of the little-visited islets:

To fully describe all that we saw and the experience that we had on our trip to and our exploration of the Palmyra Islands would take nearly as much time as we spent on the trip, for no two days were alike and there was always something new to attract our attention during our stay on the islands.
With the exception of the first night and the following day, when it was a trifle boisterous, it was a jolly trip; ladies’ weather for the most part all the way down. In the doldrums we had the usual squalls with rain and a bit of wind. But nothing went wrong, not a rope or sail carried away, and the Luka proved a most satisfactory craft.

On the second day out we made two discoveries: first, that our principal water tank was empty, the water having gone out through a hole in the bottom; second, that one of our large life-preservers that was lashed on the side of the Luka had been carried away by the heavy seas of the night previous. The first incident appeared to be rather serious, but there were two tons of ice in the refrigerator, and we figured out that the natural melting of the ice would furnish us with what water was needed, and this proved to be the case. The loss of the life-buoy concerned us somewhat, as we feared that some inter-island steamer might pick it up and the ever-ready rumor-maker might fashion a story of the destruction of the Luka.

On the seventh day out we ran down to the locality where we expected to find the islands. But they were not in sight. The log showed the proper distance, and the noon observation proved us to be where the islands should have been according to the chart we had been using. We hastily consulted another chart and found that we had ten miles further to go. We had been on deck for a short time, when the man in the rigging called "Land ho!" And sure enough we could see a fringe of cocoanut leaves just above the horizon directly ahead. As the island rose from the sea we all became enthusiastic, almost wildly so, as we saw the numerous islets strung around on the reef about three-quarters of a mile inside the line of breakers. It surely looked like fairyland, and each islet was completely covered by a luxuriant forest in which cocoa-palms pre-dominated. The land and water coloring cannot be described by words, and only an artist could give an idea of its beauty.

We landed on "Home Island" on the afternoon of the eighth day from Honolulu, and immediately set up our tent on the weather side. As night settled down we began to wonder if we would need our mosquito nets, but it passed without a sound or other sign of the pest, and we realized that there were none. Neither were there house flies, fleas or other noxious insects. The hermit crab was the only creature we had to deal with, and to get rid of him we had "picking times," when we would go out with a bucket, pick them up and put them in boxes and bags and deliver them to a sailor from the Luka, who would take them out to sea and dump them overboard.

Our first meal on the beach was cooked over a roaring fire and consisted of roasted fish and eggs. The eggs of the black and white tern proved fine eating. Later we added cocoanut crabs to our menu. These proved delicious eating, as they feed exclusively on cocoanut, and their flesh is of a most delicate flavor. The large ones were about the size of a good-sized hen. They are very nearly the shape of a lobster and as easily handled ; the stories about their warlike nature are without foundation.

The next day my guests began their exploration preparatory to making collections of the flora and fauna of the islands, while I began to build our permanent camp and the planting of our gardens ; bananas, mangoes and various kinds of vegetables. We also planted some sugar cane furnished by the director of the planters' association experimental station. The cane grew well at first, but was later attacked by the hermit crabs and destroyed by them, notwithstanding our efforts to protect them by numerous "pickings." A thorough campaign against these pests would have resulted in their extermination, but as it was we could only keep them partially subdued.

The heliotrope tree furnished the foundation blocks for the house, as samples left by the Japanese showed them to be firm and tough.

About the fourth day it began to rain and things were getting uncomfortable in the tent. We hurried the work on the house, and my friends suspended their work to help. We put on one side of the roof in a drenching rain and moved in.
All about our house there were numbers of the white tern, or "love birds." They were very beautiful, and so tame they would flutter about us all day long; the most interesting thing about them was the manner in which they reared their young. A single egg would be laid on a tree without a nest to prevent it from rolling off. A slight depression or a twig was the only protection, and the young would be hatched and cared for in the same place until able to fly. There were myriads of the black and white terns on the bird islands. It was nesting time while we were there, and at first I was somewhat timid about walking through their colonies on the sands. It seems as if they might at least give one a good threshing with their wings, and I carried a stout stick in my hand the first few trips, but soon learned that they would do no harm. Many remained on their nests and could be easily picked up.

All around on the inside of the horseshoe line of islands there is a stretch of fine white sand which is covered by about two feet of water at high tide, but which is nearly bare at low water. One can wade about between the islands and also from the islands to the deep water lochs, as we called them to distinguish between them and the lagoon proper.

One of the most enjoyable afternoons to me was spent in drifting over the reef in a skiff with a water glass over the stern, through which could be seen the wonderful colors, including all shades, from the reds to the most delicate of pink, with dashes of brilliant purple shading into lavender and lilac, interspersed with great blotches of yellow set off with radiant bits of pure white sand. The fantastic forms of the coral, and the many hued fishes made a fascinating spectacle that could be viewed again and again without tiring.

Our life on the islands was as nearly back to nature as I ever expect to experience. There was absolutely no cause for labor so far as an existence was concerned, which, combined with a charm of freedom from business cares made our stay unique and refreshing.

The temperature varied from seventy eight to ninety degrees, only two days showing a maximum. The routine of the day was a plunge in the swimming pool at six in the morning, first looking to see if there were any sharks about; then a half-hour devoted to breakfast; then work until eleven; then an hour in the shade, with perhaps a light lunch; then work till five o'clock, which was often prolonged until late in the evening, when the tide went down and we found ourselves at the other end of the island. We then indulged in the new sport of "dragging the boat," as we named it.

The only evidence of previous occupants was an open shed, apparently erected by Japanese, there being many rough wooden ber of earthen jars of evident Japanese boxes with Japanese characters and a num-manufacture. There was also an open fireplace, built of brick with a Japanese impress. These all proved of considerable usefulness to us in our early days on the island. Many of the jars were filled with water, constantly renewed by rainfall. The boxes furnished fine kindling wood and supplemented the cord of split firewood. Just what the Japanese were doing is difficult to say, but the evidence is that they were there for bird-catching purposes. There was a large hole in the rear of the shed, partially filled with skeletons of birds. The broken parts of two canoes indicated that occupation had ceased three or four years before our landing.

The size of the cocoanut, and species of heliotrope trees, which appeared to be in flower all the year around, puts in mind the possible industry of bee-keeping.
Other large trees were wiri-wiri, which is not to be confounded with our tree, the wili-wili, being a distinct genus. Considerable forests of these trees were found on several of the islands. Another group of trees was found on another island, which I believe to be identical with the holei tree in our Hawaiian forests. There were also considerable forests of pandannus, of a different species from our own, having leaves longer and of a finer texture. The largest tree on the island belonged to the wiri-wiri family, being twenty-one feet in circumference five feet from the ground and with a height between eighty and one hundred feet.

Of the possible industries, copra-making clearly takes the lead. About one-half of the available area is now covered with cocoanut trees, but many of these will have to be removed, as they are too thick to bear heavy crops.

The great supplies of fish should be taken advantage of in some way, possibly by the erection of a cannery. Mullet are in great numbers; also many other edible fish, including ulua, houmea, moi, uhu and others whose names I fail to remember. It seems strange to speak of fish being tame, but the first mullet were brought in by one of my friends, who scooped them up with his specimen-collecting net ; and the use of a rough Chinese-made net, which we put together at the islands, yielded us a boat-load in a few hours. Five hundred of them were brought back in pickle and will be sampled in a few days to ascertain their condition.

A rather novel condition has been developing during the past few days. A number of gentlemen have asked me to sell some of the smaller islands for the purpose of locating their outing headquarters. This at first appeared to be impracticable, because of the lack of transportation, but on further inquiry it seems that transportation could be arranged for by means of an auxiliary-propelled sailing vessel sufficiently large to accommodate twenty-five or thirty persons.
The total area, as calculated by the survey department from data in its possession is 351 acres. The smallest island has an area of thirty-one hundredths of an acre and the largest is forty-eight acres.

We had an interesting drill on the way home. We had taken down a pen of Plymouth Rock chickens and turned them loose on Home Island. We found that they did well, but concluded not to leave them there, not feeling it right, as we did not know how they would thrive. Half way on our return trip, whilst I was attending to them, a hen flew out of a crate, and after circling about the ship fell into the water. She had come too far to be left without an effort at rescue. The Luka put about and headed for the bird, which was sitting on the water like a duck. As we came alongside one of the sailors jumped overboard and threw her on the deck. The maneuver took four minutes, and he in turn was hauled aboard by his companions.

Probably the earliest description written of Palmyra Islands is to be found in a book printed in 1851 and dedicated by its anonymous author to Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the famous novelist. R. Rudland Bode, of Honolulu, has supplied the following extract from this book:

"Palmyra Island is without exception the most singular formation I have ever seen. We landed on the east side, the vessel having suddenly shoaled her water when about two miles from the breakers observed upon the land. We hove to in six fathoms; bottom, white sand and coral. A ridge of breakers extends half a mile from the southeast point of the island, and a similar one runs off the northeast point, which help to form a concave crescent, within which the water is placid ; but the island itself elicited our astonishment. We landed without difficulty on a flat contained between the two curving points of the breakers, which had on it barely sufficient depth of water for us to track the boat a quarter of a mile, when we reached an islet, with its luxuriant foliage growing apparently from the very surface of the water; and then we discovered that Palmyra islets. A rock flat, from six to eight miles and is more properly an archipelago of in circumference, is covered with water from ankle to knee deep, save where it is studded with islets placed indiscriminately. The islets rise only a few feet above the level of the water, and are composed of gray crystal rock, with a super-surface of grass, vines and trees common to the tropics, the cocoanut and pandanus being amongst them. Some of the islets appear exclusively appropriated to the cocoanut tree; on others, a strong parasitical vine, with broad, deep-green leaves, has overrun the pandanus and other trees and en- shrouded them in its own peculiar livery; and when at a distance it is hard to persuade yourself you are not surveying the ruins of buildings. On one of the eastern islets a remarkable tree stood distinct from the others like an obelisk. So regular had the outline been formed from the base to the summit, by the close investiture of the smoothly overlapping leaves of the vine, that we believed it to be a monument raised by the wrecked people, until by landing we convinced ourselves to the contrary. (Information had been given to the writer of the wreck of an American whaler with 2200 barrels of sperm oil, but no trace of this was found.) Birds and fish were alike unscared at the presence of man; and fairly or unfairly I pursued one fish in the shoal water till I ran him aground. Sharks were numerous, and so voracious that they attacked both the boat and the steering oar as we were pulling ashore. Birds were innumerable, and it being the season of incubation, I never witnessed such a scene in my life. You could not move your foot without crushing eggs, and the cries of the birds as they arose just above your head and darkened the air, were deafening, and more peculiar than any combination of sounds I ever listened to. Green water extends off the south side of the island between two and three miles, and a distinct line of breakers runs from the southwest point about three-quarters of a mile. A vessel might anchor in the bight on the south by west side, but she would have to warp into a berth, as sunken patches of rock lie scattered about with very little water upon them; they are ob- served from aloft, but the sea was so smooth and still that they were unnoticed from the deck. On the west and north sides the appearance is more that of the Paumutu Isles; the surf breaks on a stretch of white sand, above which springs the green foliage. That we might have nothing to reproach ourselves with, we sent thirteen volunteers to scour the island in search of any vestige of the wreck; they returned next day to the vessel, having seen no signs of man or his work. They reported occasional chasms of deep water on the shoal flats, and brought off two green turtle, and by the tracks they conceived the latter were numerous. From a series of observations, we made the island to be in latitude 5° 51' N., longitude 162° 10' W. ; the chart placed it 20° further to the westward.”

From a more recent work, Mr. Bode also gives the following quotation:

"The Fanning Group of islands consists of four discovered by Captain Edmund Fanning, an American navigator. They stretch from 1° 47' N. to 5° 49' S. and from longitude 157° 29' W. to 165° 11' W. The most westward and evidently the last formed of the group is Palmyra. Palmyra represents the second stage in the formation of a coral, island; it now consists of fifty-eight small islets, thickly clothed with vegetation, and arranged in the form of an elongated horseshoe, opened to the westward and enclosing four lagoons."

Original Format



Judge Henry E. Cooper, “My Palmyra,” Palmyra Archive, accessed August 11, 2020,