- 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
Goats remained, but half of the island’s population soon departed, irrevocably deprived of any hope of getting title to land on their home island. Just before the Sinclairs came, there were almost 650 Hawaiians on Niihau; two years later there were 325, and the population continued to decrease, levelling off later in the century below 200. Immediately on taking over, the Sinclairs bought out a chief who owned two parcels of Niihau land, and this left just one Hawaiian landowner on the island, a man named Papapa, who had managed to buy fifty acres when the island was thrown open for purchase during the 1850’s. Papapa retained his lot for fifteen years while the Sinclairs developed their 46,ooo-acre holding around him. Eventually he sold to the clan, with the understanding that he could live out his life on his land.
The Sinclairs established themselves on a bluff at Kiekie overlooking a stretch of westerly coastline. Here they lived for a few years until Mrs. Sinclair, growing old, began to feel the heat of the Niihau summers. Then land was bought on the western side of Kauai, in spectacular, magnificently rich country; and there the old lady settled with most of her children around her. The Kauai ranch, called Makaweli, became the economic center of the Sinclair operations.
The style, of life they developed there and on Niihau was one that fully justified for them the long migration that had brought them from Scotland to the North Pacific. They worked hard, the rewards were great, and their souls were their own—and God’s. The younger generation quickly took on the tone of the congenial land around them. They learned the island language and became expert horsemen; and the men and boys learned to ride surfboards like natives.
On Niihau the Hawaiians made their own adjustments. They continued to fish and grow vegetables and to practice some of their old crafts, making mats celebrated for their soft texture and intricate weave, and stringing leis of shells peculiar to their coast line. These they sold to outsiders at good prices. For the rest, they abided by the total prohibition on liquor imposed by the dry Scots, halfheartedly sent their children to school, worshipped at the Puuwai village church with its New England steeple and native pastor, and worked for the Sinclairs, tending the stock which grazed among the ruins of old grass huts and abandoned altar sites. In at least one basic way their life had not changed much. They had merely traded an alii for a haku — a chief for a master. The classic relation between Hawaiian and white man in the nineteenth century was one of muted feudalism, in realization of the common benefits to be obtained from ready service on the one hand and good management and protection on the other; and nowhere was this better exemplified than on the Sinclair lands.
The hierarchy of authority came to a peak in the remarkable person of Eliza Sinclair, as vital as she was charming. Mrs. Sinclair was as old as the century, and she died in 1893. Control of the expanded and flourishing family estates passed to her grandson Aubrey Robinson, who had made the trip in the Bessie as a ten-year-old. Under his management massive irrigation works and reforestation programs were carried out at Makaweli, and both there and on Niihau he introduced many species of animals and plants in a continuing attempt to produce a diversified ecology —the first Arabian horses ever seen in Hawaii, game birds, coffee, tea, honey bees, cotton, and several new varieties of trees.
Aubrey Robinson was a well-educated and much-travelled man who had earned a law degree from Boston University and toured much of Europe and the Orient before coming back to the Islands to stay. Nothing that he saw in the outside world, however, changed his view of the family’s duty toward the Niihauans. It was a stern duty, expressed in the language of a fundamental Christianity totally unaffected by the religious and social modernism of his times. Soon after Aubrey assumed leadership, Hawaii passed under American control, but the new territorial government failed to pick up responsibility for Niihau as it began to do for the rest of the Islands. As the old Hawaii faded and disappeared elsewhere, the Robinsons’ will to keep Niihau unchanged grew in strength.
When it came Aubrey’s turn to die in 1936, the press obituaries described him as a man who paid his debts and taxes, and as a great patron of church and missionary work. At his death the family estates were assessed as worth more than three and a half million dollars. Of this Niihau contributed only $225,000; and its economy was beginning to show signs of strain which were to become more pronounced as time went on. Clearly, strong reasons other than money guided the Robinsons in their defense of the island against the outside world.
The outside world was at that moment on the point of breaking in. As the political situation in the Pacific worsened during the thirties, military installations in Hawaii were strengthened. An Air Corps colonel visited Niihau and was disturbed to see a great amount of open country that might possibly be used as a base for a surprise air attack. The Robinsons’ workmen began to plant windbreaks, and to furrow flat land to make it unusable by airplanes.