- 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
A number of Niihauans left the island with departing ships—some went willingly, others were shanghaied. Two girls were kidnapped aboard the English schooner Jenny in the early 1790’s and taken as far as Nootka Sound, where they were transferred to George Vancouver’s Discovery and brought home via California, heavily acculturated, accustomed to shoes and stockings, and wary of showing an ankle as they went up and down the ship’s ladders, but homesick for poi. Vancouver put them ashore on Kauai with a handsome gift of knives, scissors, axes, and various trinkets; and one of the two, economically most desirable, got an immediate offer of marriage from a chief.
The first Hawaiian to go to London was an adventurous Niihauan who made the trip there and back on English ships well before 1800. Almost certainly there has been no twentieth-century Niihauan who has duplicated that journey.
With the rise of the sandalwood trade and then the whaling industry early in the nineteenth century, Niihau began its long drift into obscurity. It saw only a tiny percentage of the American and European ships that came to Hawaiian ports in ever-increasing numbers. A hungry trade decimated the sandalwood stands in the uplands of Kauai and other islands down the chain, but the fragrant wood did not grow on dry, low-lying Niihau. Honolulu on Oahu and Lahaina on Maui became major whaling ports, servicing and supplying fleets on their way to and from the Central and North Pacific grounds; but Niihau, with limited resources and poor anchorages, was hardly equipped for large-scale enterprise.
Though commercially unimportant, Niihau along with Kauai attracted the attention of the Russians in the Pacific. In 1816, a Dr. Georg Anton Scheffer of the Russian-American Company, acting without approval of the Czar, negotiated an agreement with the King of Kauai, who was still restless under the suzerainty of Kamehameha I. The two islands were placed under the protection of Russia, and the Russians were given a sandalwood monopoly there. Scheffer built blockhouses on Kauai, and the King supplied him with troops to hold off any attack that might come from Kamehameha. The bubble burst in 1817, when an official Russian expedition arrived, and Scheffer, discredited, was ejected from the Islands.
With the consolidation of the Kamehameha dynasty as ruler of all the Islands, royal law was promulgated everywhere, including Niihau. Edicts from the King’s court at Honolulu in the 1820’s were given a strong moral tone at the urging of American Congregational missionaries, newly arrived in the Islands; and preachers stationed in outlying villages encouraged local chiefs to enforce Sabbath observance, fight drunkenness, and extirpate infanticide.
Niihau came under the jurisdiction of a Yankee missionary at Waimea, just across the channel on, Kauai, and a beginning was made in teaching the people to read and understand the Scriptures. The work was slow. Schools were set up, staffed by native teachers; but no American preacher was settled on Niihau to lead the thousand inhabitants toward the light. The Waimea pastor occasionally left his heavily populated Kauai station to make the trip across the dangerous channel, and that was all.
Twenty years passed in this way, and then Protestant concern suddenly magnified when at the beginning of the 1840’s Catholicism gained a foothold, first through a native woman convert who went from Kauai to Niihau and set up a school, and then through the work of an Irish priest stationed on Kauai. In an effort to bring Niihauans back to the true God of Congregationalism, the Waimea pastor held protracted meetings on the island in 1842, and not long after that, zealous Protestants tore down a house which had been serving as a Catholic chapel.
Neither religion could claim control over Niihau. In the mid-forties the original Protestant pastor at Waimea died, and his successor reported that immediately the Niihauans “rushed again into many of their ancient vile practices and fooleries—even church members.” The Catholics did no better—in 1851 their Niihau schools were disbanded for lack of competent teachers. Mormonism further confused the religious picture in the fifties, without itself becoming dominant.
With mid-century came the prospect of a basic change in the condition of the Niihauans. Like all Hawaiians, they had lived immemorially in a state approximating feudalism, owing services and payments in kind to their chiefs, and holding land solely at the pleasure of their rulers. In 1848 the Hawaiian monarchy bowed to pressure from Americans and other foreign settlers who needed clear land titles to secure their investments in the Islands, and announced the Great Mahele (division of land), a landmark in Hawaiian history which inaugurated the modern commercial era, led to the growth of the great plantations, and quickly brought Hawaii firmly into the American orbit. Under the projected reallocation of land, commoners (and in certain cases, foreigners) were able for the first time to own lots outright, subject to survey and money payment. Niihauans and others announced their readiness to buy, and eagerly petitioned the government to send them a surveyor.