- Historic Sites
Niihau A Shoal Of Time
For a century Hawaii’s westernmost island has stubbornly resisted the tides of change
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
No man is an island, we know; and Islands themselves in our time have been steadily stripped of their isolation and their integrity, in the Pacific, the great ocean of atolls and archipelagoes, long waves beat on coral reels as they did when Melville came, and Cook, and the earliest Polynesian voyagers; but now there are jet contrails in the sky, and fallout from nuclear tests comes down impartially on palm tree and penthouse.
Of all places in the Pacific, Hawaii is the only one which has been fully integrated into the modern world. The island chain, lying just within the Tropical zone and strung out from southeast to northwest across the path of the trade winds, was annexed by the United States in 1889 and admitted to statehood in 1959. It shares with the rest of the Union all the marks of involvement in present-day American life—benefits which have been incalculable, and burdens which include the still vivid agony of Pearl Harbor. Hawaii, as much as any other part of the United States, knows what the twentieth century is about.
But not quite all of Hawaii. The westernmost inhabited island is Niihau, separated from the larger island of Kauai by a channel seventeen and a half miles wide and twenty-five hundred feet deep. Between Kauai and its arid, low-lying neighbor, Niihau, the modern era comes to an end in deep water.
Almost one hundred years ago Niihau was bought outright from the Hawaiian monarchy by a family of immigrant Scots, who settled there to raise sheep and cattle. They virtually stopped the clock in mid-nineteenth century. As Hawaii became more and more cosmopolitan, Niihau, with its few hundred inhabitants, remained the one island where native blood and native tongue ran almost pure. With the twentieth century, monarchy gave way to territory and then to state, but Niihau managed to stay practically untouched by the shifts of government. When the Islands were opened tip to the tourist trade, Niihau, only one hundred and fifty miles from the busy capital of Honolulu, on Oahu, continued unknown, remote, and mysterious.
Three generations have passed since the island became private property, and though outside pressures on the owners have never been stronger, the urge to seclusion and the resistance to change persist. If any island is inviolale, it is Niihau; if any man is an island, it is Niihau’s patriarch.
Late in the eighteenth century—toward the end of the pre-white period of Hawaiian history—there were four main political divisions in the islands. Kauai formed one of these, along with Niihau, which alternated between modified independence and subjection to its more populous neighbor. Over a number of years the great warrior king Kamehameha I fought his way up the archipelago from the island of Hawaii, extinguishing independent native government as he went. He menaced Kauai in 1795–1796, but his attempts at military subjugation were unsuccessful, and unification was finally completed by diplomacy early in the nineteenth century. Over the same years white contact with the islands had begun and was intensifying. As it happened, Niihau’s experience of the outside world was never again to be so inclusive.
Oahu was the first Hawaiian island sighted by the discoverer Captain James Cook in January, 1778. Driven off from an anchorage there by winds and currents, Cook came upon Kauai and Niihau, where he spent a few days replenishing stores. The natives eagerly traded their yams and salt for pieces of iron, and relations were cordial all through Cook’s brief stay. When he stood away to the north on February 1, he left behind sheep and goats and the good seed of melons, pumpkins, and onions, “being very desirous of benefitting these poor people, by furnishing them with some additional articles of food.” Cook, more scrupulous than many other commanders, also made efforts to prevent his diseased sailors from infecting the natives as they had done—much to his chagrin elsewhere in the Pacific. He had given orders that no new members were to stay ashore overnight; but violent surf on January go prevented a loading party of twenty-one men from coming back to the ships, and they were not picked up until the next day. Only eleven months later Cook was in the Islands again, this time at the other end of the chain. He was mortified to find that the bad seed of venereal disease had travelled the 225 miles from Niihau to Maui ahead of him.
After Cook, Niihau’s experience with white men was like that of a hundred other Pacific islands. For thirty years ships put in there more or less regularly, buying hogs, yams, and other vegetables. At least one sailor, “immoderately fond of women,” jumped ship; others tried and failed. A merchant captain left three men to search for sandalwood and pearls—Niihau had neither, though Kauai had both. A convict from the British penal settlement at Botany Bay in Australia made his way to the Islands and stayed on in the service of the ruling family of Kauai and Niihau. Possibly at his instigation, a small shore party from a visiting ship was massacred on Niihau in 1796, and in reprisal buildings, canoes, and plantations were burned for a mile around the spot where the murders took place. Niihauans, by this time equipped with firearms, exchanged shots with the ship’s pinnace.