- 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
On Pearl Harbor Day—Sunday, December 7, 1941— a Japanese fighter plane, disabled over Oahu, came down on Niihau. For the island, which was quite without speedy means of communication, this was the first intimation that there was a war on. The pilot, though shaken up, survived the emergency landing; before he recovered, however, the Niihauans took him prisoner and got hold of his papers. The Robinsons’ supply boat was expected shortly from Kauai, but the Kauai military authorities ordered them not to make the trip that week, and so the pilot had to be held on Niihau for several days. On December 12 he escaped from his makeshift prison with the help of a Japanese resident of Niihau named Harada, who worked for the Robinsons as a beekeeper and handyman. The pilot recovered his pistol, and Harada carried a shotgun, the only other weapon on Niihau. Aware of the danger, the Niihau men got their families out of harm’s way while the two Japanese searched the deserted village for the pilot’s papers, taken at the time of his crash. Frustrated, they burned one of the village houses. About dawn of the next day a Hawaiian named Benehakaka Kanahele, along with his wife, decided to see what was going on. They had just reached the village when they were captured by Harada and the pilot, still in possession of the island’s only firearms.
The Kanaheles were kept under surveillance by the Japanese for some time. Then Benehakaka, a very large man, seized a split-second opportunity and attacked the pilot. His wife grappled with Harada. The pilot pulled his pistol out of his boot and shot Kanahele three times before the huge Hawaiian picked him up and threw him with tremendous force against a stone wall, killing him. Kanahele then turned on Harada, who instantly shot himself in the stomach with the shotgun. The fighting war on Niihau was over. Kanahele, with three bullets in him, walked back to the village, to survive as Niihau’s only winner of the Purple Heart.
After the war the territorial legislature declared itself determined that Niihau should not continue in its old condition. A Senate committee went on an investigative tour, and brought in an adverse report announcing that the entire community of Niihau was out of step with the times. Long before, in the 1890’s, Francis Gay, one of the clan, had made a public statement of the family’s attitude toward the Hawaiians of his day. He characterized them as ease-loving, cheerful, generous, and amiable, but irresponsible, lacking in forethought, pliant, and terribly susceptible to political corruption. “It is perfectly impossible,” he said, “that they should be able to form any estimate of the needs of an intelligent and civilised country; many of them, enfranchised citizens, … still live on fish and poi.” There was nothing unusual in this point of view at the time; and given its assumptions, there was a clear need for stewardship of the kind exercised by his family.
In the 1940’s the Robinsons remained paternalistic in their attitude toward the Hawaiians, but in the meantime many things had changed around them. The Senate committee, whose chairman had Hawaiian blood, found the stewardship still in effect—baneful effect. Niihauans, they said, lived in complete subservience to the owners of the island; and “kindly and paternal as the dominion of their landlords is, it is still irreconcilable with the principles of liberty and the freedom of individuals upon which our Nation was founded …” In the committee’s opinion, no one born and raised on Niihau would have a chance of decent survival in competition with free men in the Hawaiian Islands or the Union generally.
Here was a new declaration of war; and a longdrawn-out battle of attrition began in which the territorial legislature made marginal gains without ever completing what it saw as its duty—to bring Niihau into line with the rest of the Islands. There was strong support for the Robinsons among leaders of the Hawaiian community.
After 1945 the island tenants continued to work for the Robinsons, living in their archaic style, earning between one and three thousand dollars a year, owning little property other than their horses, living in Robinson-supplied wooden houses, eating Robinson-supplied food. Everyone had house and garden free of charge, whether there was a breadwinner in the family or not. They saw less of the Robinson clan than their grandfathers had. Aylmer Robinson, bachelor son of a marriage between Aubrey Robinson and a cousin, Alice Gay, made regular trips to the island, but no one lived permanently in the old homestead, and it stood quietly deteriorating, its garden undisciplined and its turn-ofthe-century library yellowing on the bookshelves.
Hawaiian foremen supervised the daily work; and the Robinson social policy was administered by the preachers and elders of the native church and the schoolteachers, chosen by the Robinsons from among island residents. Standard English-language texts were used in Niihau’s school, but the language of work, worship, and play was, as always, Hawaiian; the alien tongue continued to be discarded after children left school. As a result of increased attention from the territory, the school extended its services to the eighth grade, but even so no Niihauan ever managed to pass a modern armed services literacy test.