- 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
No man is an island, we know; and Islands themselves in our time have been steadily stripped of their isolation and their integrity, in the Pacific, the great ocean of atolls and archipelagoes, long waves beat on coral reels as they did when Melville came, and Cook, and the earliest Polynesian voyagers; but now there are jet contrails in the sky, and fallout from nuclear tests comes down impartially on palm tree and penthouse.
Of all places in the Pacific, Hawaii is the only one which has been fully integrated into the modern world. The island chain, lying just within the Tropical zone and strung out from southeast to northwest across the path of the trade winds, was annexed by the United States in 1889 and admitted to statehood in 1959. It shares with the rest of the Union all the marks of involvement in present-day American life—benefits which have been incalculable, and burdens which include the still vivid agony of Pearl Harbor. Hawaii, as much as any other part of the United States, knows what the twentieth century is about.
But not quite all of Hawaii. The westernmost inhabited island is Niihau, separated from the larger island of Kauai by a channel seventeen and a half miles wide and twenty-five hundred feet deep. Between Kauai and its arid, low-lying neighbor, Niihau, the modern era comes to an end in deep water.
Almost one hundred years ago Niihau was bought outright from the Hawaiian monarchy by a family of immigrant Scots, who settled there to raise sheep and cattle. They virtually stopped the clock in mid-nineteenth century. As Hawaii became more and more cosmopolitan, Niihau, with its few hundred inhabitants, remained the one island where native blood and native tongue ran almost pure. With the twentieth century, monarchy gave way to territory and then to state, but Niihau managed to stay practically untouched by the shifts of government. When the Islands were opened tip to the tourist trade, Niihau, only one hundred and fifty miles from the busy capital of Honolulu, on Oahu, continued unknown, remote, and mysterious.
Three generations have passed since the island became private property, and though outside pressures on the owners have never been stronger, the urge to seclusion and the resistance to change persist. If any island is inviolale, it is Niihau; if any man is an island, it is Niihau’s patriarch.
Late in the eighteenth century—toward the end of the pre-white period of Hawaiian history—there were four main political divisions in the islands. Kauai formed one of these, along with Niihau, which alternated between modified independence and subjection to its more populous neighbor. Over a number of years the great warrior king Kamehameha I fought his way up the archipelago from the island of Hawaii, extinguishing independent native government as he went. He menaced Kauai in 1795–1796, but his attempts at military subjugation were unsuccessful, and unification was finally completed by diplomacy early in the nineteenth century. Over the same years white contact with the islands had begun and was intensifying. As it happened, Niihau’s experience of the outside world was never again to be so inclusive.
Oahu was the first Hawaiian island sighted by the discoverer Captain James Cook in January, 1778. Driven off from an anchorage there by winds and currents, Cook came upon Kauai and Niihau, where he spent a few days replenishing stores. The natives eagerly traded their yams and salt for pieces of iron, and relations were cordial all through Cook’s brief stay. When he stood away to the north on February 1, he left behind sheep and goats and the good seed of melons, pumpkins, and onions, “being very desirous of benefitting these poor people, by furnishing them with some additional articles of food.” Cook, more scrupulous than many other commanders, also made efforts to prevent his diseased sailors from infecting the natives as they had done—much to his chagrin elsewhere in the Pacific. He had given orders that no new members were to stay ashore overnight; but violent surf on January go prevented a loading party of twenty-one men from coming back to the ships, and they were not picked up until the next day. Only eleven months later Cook was in the Islands again, this time at the other end of the chain. He was mortified to find that the bad seed of venereal disease had travelled the 225 miles from Niihau to Maui ahead of him.
After Cook, Niihau’s experience with white men was like that of a hundred other Pacific islands. For thirty years ships put in there more or less regularly, buying hogs, yams, and other vegetables. At least one sailor, “immoderately fond of women,” jumped ship; others tried and failed. A merchant captain left three men to search for sandalwood and pearls—Niihau had neither, though Kauai had both. A convict from the British penal settlement at Botany Bay in Australia made his way to the Islands and stayed on in the service of the ruling family of Kauai and Niihau. Possibly at his instigation, a small shore party from a visiting ship was massacred on Niihau in 1796, and in reprisal buildings, canoes, and plantations were burned for a mile around the spot where the murders took place. Niihauans, by this time equipped with firearms, exchanged shots with the ship’s pinnace.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All this gave something of a sharp edge to attempts, originating in the Democratic party, to bring Niihau to conformity with the rest of the territory. Not long after World War II, researchers discovered a legal circumstance which, on the face of things, gave the territory title to some lands on Niihau. The position was this: statute law at the time of the sale to the Sinclairs provided that school and church sites could not be disposed of to private buyers as long as they were being used for their intended purpose. There were certainly school sites on Niihau in the i86o’s, according to teachers’ running reports—four in 1862, three in 1865, two in 1866, and one (at Puuwai village) in 1867. But the whole issue remained clouded because for the crucial years of 1863 and 1864, the years of the Sinclair takeover, no documents could be found in public repositories.
All through the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the clan and the government co-operated to maintain roads on Niihau. Government money was spent on this and on installations at a landing pier; and these facts too were made the basis for government claims against the Robinsons.
Action proceeded slowly, hampered by lack of continuity of personnel in the attorney general’s office and in legislative committees. The Robinson family, of course, showed no interest in initiating activity. Reports were filed, surveys projected, further investigations ordered; but the position remained substantially what it was when the Senate committee brought back its disparaging report just after World War II.
Massive inertia in regard to changing control of land has been characteristic of Hawaiian politics ever since the growth of the great estates late in the nineteenth century; and the Niihau case, in one of its aspects, is merely a reflection of this.
In the meantime the Niihauans live on, happy in their day-to-day life, and, as always, affectionately respectful to Aylmer Robinson. In 1963 he is a spare and vigorous seventy-five-year-old, unshaken in his conviction of righteousness in his dealings with his charges. Change is inevitable, but it will occur at an evolutionary rate as long as Aylmer Robinson stands between Niihau and the outside. The Niihauans themselves recognize that they are different, not only from the rest of the world but also from other Hawaiians. In their non-English-speaking microcosm, they have kept the speech patterns that were peculiar to their end of the island chain in pre-white days, though the allegorical richness of classical Hawaiian thought and expression has long since withered away. In their church they celebrate God in Hawaiian-language hymns of their own composition; their secular festivals are not the holidays observed by most Americans, but birthdays and other occasions of a simple, basic sort. In numerous other ways their universe is bounded by their coast line.
It seems, oddly enough, that change may be forced upon Niihau by conditions over which even the Robinsons cannot exercise control. Over the last decade the economy of the island has been faltering. There were several years of drought between 1950 and 1960, and as water sources dried up, the cattle and sheep population had to be cut back sharply. A cactus blight, introduced on Kauai, where the plant had become a pest, spread to Niihau, where cactus had been one of the principal stock feeds on arid grazing land. This further cut down herds and also lessened the number of wild pigs. A parasite attacked the blossoms of the keawe tree, essential to the honey industry, and production fell off badly. Commercial fishing off the island greatly reduced the Niihauans’ own catches. In drought years Niihau wool, one of the big exports, was at a disadvantage in a competitive market: it was burr-laden and stained by dry red dust; and because of lack of water it could not be washed before export. Hard to sell, it sometimes stayed in storage for seasons before being moved.
Faced with multiple problems, Aylmer Robinson tried to revive the economy. Egyptian cotton would grow very well on Niihau, but the federal government refused the island a quota. Keawe wood made excellent charcoal, but Japan could undersell Niihau on the west coast of the United States. Old Hawaiian fishbreeding ponds were restored to offset losses caused by commercial fishermen, but the principal product was mosquitoes. The situation is made more critical by the fact that Niihau, alone among rural areas in Hawaii, has been in the middle of a minor population explosion, and though the Robinsons have kept every man on the payroll there is clearly no economic justification for maintaining the island in its present condition.
Should the economy cease to be viable, the Niihauans would find it very difficult to take up life anywhere in Hawaii except at the Robinson ranch on Kauai. Over the course of the years, some Niihauans have moved away and found work on other plantations, on the Honolulu waterfront, and on inter-island ships. But in the event of a final exodus, a long-range educational program, in English, would be necessary to fit everybody—men, women, and children—for normal existence on the outside. This, of course, could not begin to take account of all the adjustments they would have to make, and its very inauguration would depend on the word of Aylmer Robinson, whose whole life has been dedicated to slowing the rate of change on Niihau. His grand plan has always been, as he explained to an Interior Department official in 1946, to preserve intact the Hawaiian cultural pattern. In practice this meant preserving not pre-white Hawaiian culture, but the missionary culture of the nineteenth century, transmitted in the native language, and leaving language alone reasonably intact among the native institutions. Even with this limitation, however, the Robinsons’ efforts in behalf of the diminished Hawaiian race have far outstripped those of the state government.
The Niihauans have no real sense of the past that was theirs before 1864, when the Sinclairs bought their land; and they have at most an uncertain future. They concentrate their best hopes upon their Protestant God, and at the same time they continue to show an unswerving trust in the Robinsons, believing that no harm can befall them as long as the haku watches over them from Makaweli, where a great window in the west wall of the old home frames a hundred years of island history, poignantly quiet across the water.