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The Fascinating History of Ni’ihau, the Only Forbidden Island in Hawaii

Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

The state of Hawaii has a historic restricted area: the small, 70-square-mile island of Niihau, also known as the ‘Forbidden Island.’

The state of Hawaii has a historic restricted area: the small, 70-square-mile island of Niihau, also known as the ‘Forbidden Island.’

It Is a Privately Owned Island

Niihau, commonly known as Hawaii’s ‘Forbidden Island’ is the only place in the U.S that has survived without electricity, running water, internet, shops, restaurants, paved roads, cars, or hotels for over 100 years now.

History says that the island was purchased by a Scottish woman Elizabeth Sinclair in 1864 from King Kamehameha V, the king of Hawaii, for a mere sum of $10,000 in gold. But there was one condition.

The king wanted Elizabeth to preserve the ‘kahiki’ or native Hawaiian culture and protect the island and its residents from outside influences. She gave her promise, and it still stands today. In the present day, the island of Ni'ihau remains under the care of the descendants of Elizabeth Sinclair and her family.

These descendants have continued to keep the island completely private and worked to protect the land from any outside influences that may try to encroach on the island.

As Bruce Robinson, the current owner of the island, says.

“Over a hundred years ago, a king asked our family to take care of the people. We’re here today for that fulfillment of that promise.”

Today the forbidden island is the only place where native Hawaiian is the most-used language. And the reason why it survived lies in its isolation from mainland Hawaii where the English language began to spread and replaced the native dialects.

Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ McHutchenson, a Gutsy Lady

The story of Niihau starts with Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ McHutchenson, who was born in Scotland in 1800. As she reached adulthood, she went on to marry a ship captain named Francis Sinclair in the year 1824. The two had six children together.

The couple led a simple life, and it was somewhere after the birth of their sixth child they decided to move to New Zealand to start a fresh life. We don’t know their real motives, but tragedy struck them in New Zealand when Francis took his eldest son out on a sailing expedition. Unfortunately, this trip turned into a tragedy. The ship sank, and there were no survivors. All cargo and lives were lost.

Elizabeth did not waste time in tears and sorrow. She was resilient, and she had 5 children to look after singlehandedly. She took over her husband’s farming business and made it immensely successful. In the year 1863, she set off to the U.S to start another farming business there.

She initially made plans to move to California, but then she heard about the pristine beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. Back then, the Hawaiian Islands were known as the Sandwich Islands. She decided to invest in these islands. She set off for the islands and soon met with King Kamehameha V, the then king of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Niihau shell necklaces for sale at Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, Hawaii

Niihau shell necklaces for sale at Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, Hawaii

Elizabeth Buys Niihau Island

The king agreed to sell Niihau Island with the condition that Elizabeth and her descendants protect the integrity of the island and keep its residents safe from all outside influences. As the king said.

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“Niihau is yours. But the day may come when Hawaiians are not as strong in Hawaii as they are now. When that day comes, please do what you can to help them.”

Elizabeth and her descendants, the Robinsons, have done their best to honor the king’s request. Niihau is a world apart from the mainland U.S despite the proximity. Despite having several permanent residents, the island has no roads, no cars, no stores, no restaurants, no internet, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing. People living there have very little contact with the outside world.

As a Hawaiian reporter, Adia White describes Niihau as ‘Hawaii circa 1864’ when she says.

"There are no paved roads, and the houses are rudimentary - they're one story with tin roofs and large yards. Wild turkey, pigs, and fish are plentiful on Niihau, and residents often catch their own food. The Robinsons order food from nearby Kauai to supplement hunting and fishing.”

The Robinsons battled to keep the island out of state control in the decades that followed. Former Hawaiian governor John Burns campaigned hard to have the Robinsons evicted, convert the island into a state park, and “help” the native Niihauans join civilization.

But since Burns’ passing, the island’s current co-owners, brothers Keith and Bruce Robinson, have continued opposing the Hawaiian authorities over their efforts to maintain Niihauan traditions.

The island today is a peaceful utopian society untouched by modern life but with the permanent residents gradually leaving in search of better opportunities, depopulation remains the biggest threat to the island’s future.

A ram skull by an old outhouse on the forbidden island of Ni'ihau, Hawaii.

A ram skull by an old outhouse on the forbidden island of Ni'ihau, Hawaii.

Can It Survive?

The outside world has slowly crept in over the years.

Generators provide the little electricity used in the homes in Pu’uwai, the island’s largest settlement, while Niihau’s only school is powered by solar energy. In fact, Niihau school is the only one in the country to be powered exclusively by solar panels.

The US military has recently established a defensive operation base there that employs many of the island's residents. Approximately 80% of the island’s income comes from this small base.

Most other income comes from seashell jewelry making. Yes, it has become stark clear that now dollars are required to maintain Niihau and more dollars means that the forbidden island needs to be made more accessible to outsiders.

But the Robinsons vow that they would do what they can to preserve the native history as they say.

“There is a feeling of inner peace and renewal that we don’t understand in the outside world. The Western culture has lost it, and the rest of the islands have lost it. The only place it’s left is on Niihau. The problem today for these natives is deciding how many concessions they will have to make to their traditional lifestyle without losing their ancient Hawaiian way of life.”

Travel Details

Let me start with a word of caution. Niihau is not your typical touristy destination. There are no hotels, restaurants, or even cab services. There are no ferry services taxiing tourists to Niihau from the other islands and no flights either.

Terrifying? isn’t it? But if you are one of those travelers who want to soak in the freshness of an unspoiled, uncommercialized Hawaii, Niihau is the place for you. As of June 2021, I could only find two options to go to Niihau, and both are exorbitantly expensive.

  • Take a helicopter tour from Kauai: Both half-day and full-day tours are available starting from 470$/person with a minimum of 5 people on board. The tour includes both air and land visits, and the scenic beauty encountered is worth the investment. Privately chartered planes are also available if you don’t want to share the ride with other people.
  • Hunting Safari- You can plan to visit Niihau through a hunting safari that costs upwards of 3000$/day per person. This would require you to complete Hawaii’s hunter education course and thereby get a Hawaii Hunter Education Wallet card. You can hunt sheep, eland, oryx, and Polynesian boar that were brought to Niihau decades ago. For more information. Check out the details on the Niihau website.

Best time to Visit: Niihau has a moderate climate throughout the year. The hottest months are from July to September, with temperatures around 87.4°F (30.8°C). The best time is July, followed by March. During these times, hotels and flights ((in nearby Kauai) might be very expensive, so it would be better to plan the bookings in advance.

Sources

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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