- 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
The muscular strength of the Niihauans was itself deceptive. Hawaiians as a race continued to be highly susceptible to heart and vascular disease, and Niihauans as much as Hawaiians elsewhere. Niihau’s diet in the postwar years was overstocked with canned goods and bottled soda, along with the traditional fish and poi, turkeys and hogs hunted on the island, rice in enormous quantities brought from Kauai, and vegetables grown in plots at Puuwai village. Niihauans overate—eight thousand pounds of poi alone in an average month for two hundred and fifty people; and this added to their health problems.
The forties, fifties, and sixties brought with them a certain level of material modernity. Some families bought gas-operated refrigerators. The Robinsons finally installed a radio-telephone linking Niihau with Makaweli, supplementing but not superseding the carrier pigeons and signal-fire beacons used for decades. Niihauans spent some of their money on mail-order goods, and many cowboys went out on the job carrying transistor radios tuned to Kauai and Honolulu stations. A few years ago a California scientist collecting shallow-water fish off Niihau was sociably waved ashore for a conversation by two Hawaiian cowboys. One had his radio with him. It was broadcasting the Dow-Jones industrial index, but the information must have been esoteric, since the Hawaiian had no clear idea where the American mainland was.
One area in which Robinson control remained totally unimpaired was politics. Ever since the first elections under the territory at the turn of the century, the Niihauans had voted solidly Republican. Up through the twenties there were a few stray votes for Home Rulers and Democrats, but in the thirties these virtually disappeared. When the statehood plebiscite was held in June, 1959, Niihau was the only precinct in the whole of the Hawaiian Islands to vote against full membership in the Union. Residents of Hawaii took part in a presidential election for the first time in 1960, and patriotic pride in the occasion was high. The turnout was impressive, the accuracy of the tallying less so. Successively announced “official final” figures veered almost with the trade winds. Kennedy ultimately won Hawaii’s three electoral college votes on a recount; but for a day or two it looked almost as if Niihau’s 99-to-0 vote for Nixon would carry the Islands for the Republicans.
This kind of monolithic behavior at the polls had previously prompted state Democrats to question Niihau’s election procedures. They were particularly interested to learn that no authorized election inspector from the Democratic party was ever present when votes were counted. Again, on the figures, no Niihauan ever spoiled a ballot—the same people who failed the armed forces literacy test passed the effective test of political literacy. All through the period of American rule, ballots in the Islands had been printed in Hawaiian and English, so that the Niihauans’ inability to cope with the major language of American politics would not necessarily disqualify them from voting validly. But on nearby Kauai, an island with a much more effective educational system, spoiled ballots ran about ten per cent in an average election. Questioned on the matter a few years ago, Aylmer Robinson said he was a Republican, though by no means a solid party man, and Niihauans also happened to be Republicans. His family took no interest in politics, he said; they merely arranged for election supplies to be taken to the island, and for the results to be flown out again by carrier pigeon—nothing more. He was sure that the election inspectors were men of integrity. He might have added that no political rallies, or even election posters, have ever been seen on Niihau.
As in prewar years, access to the island remained limited; the only regular connection was by Robinson sampan from Kauai, and the family dictated absolutely the composition of each load of passengers. Relatives and friends of the Niihauans could make visits of up to a few weeks, but even in this case the Robinsons discouraged extended stays. Politicians and civil servants with legitimate credentials were allowed to carry out their assignments; and scholars and scientists were assisted by the Robinsons. Publicity was shunned as always; and the press was totally excluded except on very rare occasions, such as a governor’s tour.
This restriction was occasionally subverted. In 1957 a newspaperman flying over Niihau in a light plane was forced to crash-land; providentially, he was carrying his camera. Again, in 1960, a bearded reporter paid some Kauai fishermen to take him to Niihau and put him ashore before daybreak. His presence (but not his profession) was reported to Aylmer Robinson, who made a special trip to remove the “vagrant” to Kauai. The Robinsons, justifiably enough, complained to the reporter’s newspaper about the trouble caused by the incident.