- 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
Small, drought-ridden Niihau, however, produced no economic surplus to meet the cost of land, and the disappointed islanders lived out the fifties under a lease agreement with the monarchy. Even this proved burdensome, and the King’s agent on Niihau complained endlessly that he could not collect the rent money. Thus Niihau’s lands had not been disposed of permanently when the sixties began; but very shortly, and quite spectacularly, a buyer appeared.
On September 17, 1863, the three-hundred-ton Bessie anchored in Honolulu Harbor, bearing fine Merino sheep, a cow, hay and grain, chickens, jams and jellies, books and clothing, a grand piano, and thirteen members of the Sinclair family. The ship’s captain was Thomas Gay, but the undisputed leader of the expedition, loved as much as she was respected, was Gay’s mother-in-law. She was sixty-three-year-old Eliza McHutcheson Sinclair, widow of a Scot who had once saved the life of the Duke of Wellington by his skillful navigation.
Honolulu society heartily welcomed the newcomers, eminently respectable and wealthy as they appeared. They met Samuel Chenery Damon, the American seamen’s chaplain and an influential man in the community; Bishop Staley of the Anglican Church; and Robert Crichton Wyllie, a fellow Scot and minister of foreign relations in the Hawaiian government. The Sindairs were very receptive to Honolulu hospitality, and even more to island real-estate prospects. They were in the market for land.
A quarter-century before, Eliza Sinclair and her husband Francis had migrated from Scotland to New Zealand, where they had taken out grazing land. Now father Francis was dead, drowned on a coastal voyage, and some of the Sinclair children were married and had children of their own. As the clan multiplied, so did its land needs. Eliza’s strong desire to keep her family intact meshed with her adventurous son Francis’ plan for another migratory voyage. The inadequate New Zealand holdings were disposed of, and the Sinclairs sailed in their ship, the Bessie, for the northwest coast of America to scout territory in British Columbia.
The Sinclairs were disappointed in the Northwest, with its uncleared forest and its untamed Indians. They left Puget Sound armed with a letter of introduction from a Hudson’s Bay Company man to a colleague in Hawaii; twenty-eight days later they dropped anchor in Honolulu Harbor. Chile had been on their list of possibilities—a number of New Zealand families had already settled there—but once in Hawaii they took their time, considering several potential ranch sites. The Great Mahele had dotted the land with tiny native lots, so that it was difficult for a big buyer to put together a sizable holding. But this was not the case on Niihau, where the natives had been unable to purchase. In January, 1864, two of Eliza’s sons, Francis and James, acting for the clan, put a proposition to the monarchy. They would buy the island outright for $6,000. The King’s cabinet council considered the offer, and made a counterproposal—$10,000 for a fee-simple title, or a lease for $750 a year. The Sinclairs elected to buy. The sale was concluded at the monarchy’s price on January 23, 1864, with the warm approval of Foreign Minister Wyllie, who expressed his satisfaction at seeing people of such substance settled in Hawaii.
What had the Sinclairs bought? For just under twenty-two cents an acre, they got seventy-two square miles of land, mostly low-lying, hot and dry, sparsely wooded, and uncertainly watered. Just across the channel on Kauai, rain, trapped in high mountains, was superabundant, but the same mountains cast a rain shadow over Niihau, and natives there had to depend on small catchments and wells that yielded only brackish water. The Hawaiian staple of taro, an irrigated plant from which poi was made, would not grow; and trees were so scarce that the islanders had to barter for wood to build canoes. There were periodic temporary emigrations. Nathaniel Portlock, there in the 1780’s, had traded iron for yams; and immediately many newly rich Niihauans took their western wealth to Kauai, where the living was easier. Droughts were chronic: when Vancouver had brought the two Niihau women home from their involuntary journey to the Northwest, he had put them ashore on Kauai because most of the Niihau population had gone there to escape an extended dry period.
Unsatisfactory for Hawaiian wet agriculture, Niihau offered better prospects for livestock. It had one great advantage. Elsewhere in Hawaii the ubiquitous dogs of the Polynesians were a menace to sheep and cattle; on Niihau, bounded by coast line rather than fences, this problem was quickly mastered. However, the hardy descendants of the goats left by explorers in the early days of white contact stayed on, close-cropping the grass and causing erosion until the early twentieth century, when they were finally eradicated.