The History of Ni’ihau
from Time Immemorial to Today

If you’re curious about visiting Ni’ihau, you might also want to know more about its history and culture. After all, these factors play a huge role in travel, especially to a destination as unique as Ni’ihau.

On this page, you’ll learn all about the history of the island of Ni’ihau, from its violent volcanic formation to human settlement and the Ni’ihau you can visit today.

5+ Million Years Ago: Formation of Ni’ihau

History of Ni'ihau - Volcano

Like all of the Hawaiian islands, Ni’ihau was formed through volcanic action. Using the age of its neighbor, Kauai, as an estimate, we can safely assume that the island of Ni’ihau first formed at least 5 million years ago. (Kauai is estimated to be 5.1 million years old.)

Despite being the westernmost inhabited island in Hawaii, Ni’ihau is not the westernmost island; it is the westernmost of the Southeastern or Windward Islands. There are still 130 other islands in addition to the seven inhabited islands, and most of these comprise the Northwestern or Leeward Islands.

Despite its proximity to Kauai, Ni’ihau has a very different climate – likely as a result of its unique volcanic formation and age. Where Kauai is humid and lush – it is nicknamed the Garden Island –, Ni’ihau is dry and arid. It has limited geologic formations such as mountains or cliffs to capture passing clouds and create moisture on the island, which leads the climate to be more like the African savannah than a tropical oasis.

Pre-1800s: Polynesian Settlers & Native Hawaiians

Niihau History - Christopher P. Becker (polihale.com)
Photo credit: Christopher P. Becker (polihale.com) via Wikipedia Commons

The history of Ni’ihau dates back to the 4th and 7th centuries CE. Anthropologists believe that the original settlers of Hawaii were Polynesians who migrated northwest from the Marquesas Islands between the 4th and 7th centuries CE and then from Tahiti during the 9th or 10th century.

The Polynesians who arrived brought with them their native seeds, plants as well as animals. Not to mention their distinctive cultural traditions and excellent farming and fishing skills. To this day, the strong Polynesian agricultural tradition continues with Hawaiians. 

Around the 17th century, Ni‘ihau welcomed Kahelelani, its first great ali‘i (chief), who lent the name for the famous kahelelani shells. Kāʻeokūlani was another important ali‘i in the history of Ni’ihau. Prior to Hawaii’s unification, Ni‘ihau was divided into northern and southern portions. Kāʻeokūlani was the ruler of the north portion who wanted to achieve Ni’ihau unification. He and his brothers finally unified the small island after defeating his main rival, chief Kawaihoa in the battle of Pali Kamakaui. From this moment on, Kāʻeokūlani became Ni’ihau’s ali‘i, banished Kawaihoa to the south end of the island and moved to the middle of the island to exercise his power as the new ali‘i.  

Niʻihau and its people remained independent until 1810, when Kamehameha I, the founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, annexed the island. 

As for the lifestyle, Ni‘ihau people’s traditional customs were mainly similar to that of the rural areas on the other islands. Natives would use grass to build homes using grass and resorted to fishing as their primary source of food.

Mid 1800s: Arrival of Non-Hawaiians

History of Niihau - Francis Sinclair
Photo by Francis Sinclair

If the Sinclair family hadn’t arrived on the island, the history of Ni’ihau would be completely different today. 

Back in 1863, Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair was a Scottish widow and the matriarch of the Sinclair family who lived in New Zealand. In the search for new cultivable land, Elizabeth and her family moved to Canada. However, the family soon realized it was nearly impossible to clear the wild and undeveloped Canadian lands for agriculture. 

Elizabeth had decided to move to California when Henry Rhodes suggested that they sail to Sandwich Island instead. King Kamehameha IV offered Elizabeth the island of Ni’ihau for purchase in 1864. Her children and grandchildren arrived on the island and decided to buy it. After paying a final purchase price of $10,000, Ni’ihau Island was Elizabeth’s and her family’s. Since then, Elizabeth, her family, and her descendants continue to run the island and almost exclusively inhabit it along with a few natives.

Ni’ihau has always been a secluded island, with two events revealing the resistance to allow visitors. In 1915, Sinclair’s grandson, Aubrey Robinson, closed the island to most visitors and allowed the entrance of native’s relatives with special permission only. Then, in 1952, the island altogether banned visitors, protecting the locals from a polio plague that was taking place in the Hawaiian Islands. 

Early 1900s: The Ni’ihau Incident

Ni'ihau Incident - Crashed Plane

Ni’ihau’s enigmatic character is interesting all on its own. However, a traumatic event that took place there drew even more attention to the secluded island. 

Shigenori Nishikaichi was a Japanese pilot of a Zero aircraft who was returning to the carriers and seven other fighter pilots after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As they came back, a flight of nine American Curtiss P-36A fighters appeared out of nowhere, ambushed the Japanese pilots, and fired at the Zeros. However, the Zeros outperformed the American Curtiss and defeated the American planes, which went down one after another. 

During the aerial battle, a bullet had hit Nishikaichi’s Zero gas tank, and, all of a sudden, Nishikaichi’s Zero fell behind the other planes. His superiors told him to land on Ni’ihau and await rescue by a Japanese naval submarine. His landing on the island would leave a lasting mark in the history of Ni’ihau. 

Despite several maneuvers, his plane crash-landed in a native’s backyard, Howard Hawila Kaleohano. Kaleohano rushed to the scene, removed the dazed pilot, his sidearm, and what looked like official papers. Soon after, he called two Japanese residents who lived in Ni’ihau. 

One of them, Yoshio Harada, arrived at the scene, where Nishikaichi told him everything about Pearl Harbor. Without saying a single word about the attack, Harada told fellow locals to aid Nishikaichi. Pearl Harbor news had not reached Ni’ihau yet. However, its residents were aware of tense relationships between the US and Japan. 

Later that day, armed Nishikaichi and Harada held Ni’ihau’s natives as hostages and burned the home of Hawila Kaleohano, who had found Nishikaichi after his plane crashed. Eventually, two resident Niihauans, Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele and his wife Kealoha “Ella” Kanahele, who were also held hostages killed Nishikaichi whereas Yoshio Harada committed suicide.  

2000s: Ni’ihau Today

Visit Ni'ihau - Holo Holo Charters

When King Kamehameha IV sold Ni’ihau to Elizabeth, he did it with the condition of preserving Ni’ihau’s culture and the life of its native inhabitants. A promise that the Sinclair family has honored to this day. 

The current owners are Bruce and Keith Robinson, great-great-grandsons of Elizabeth. Ni’ihau’s inhabitants still follow the kahaki, a traditional Hawaiian lifestyle dating back to the 1800s. Ni’ihau’s residents live an austere lifestyle. They don’t pay rent, have no telephone services, and use horses or bicycles as their primary form of transportation. Ni’ihau has no paved roads or power lines. There’s no proper plumbing or running water either as water comes from rainwater catchment. The Polynesian fishing and farming traditions are still alive for some inhabitants, and many natives resort to these skills to support themselves. The residents have also preserved their linguistic heritage and speak the Niʻihau dialect of Hawaiian as their first language

As for the population, according to the 2010 census, 170 people are living on the island. However, visitors who have stepped on the island affirm only 35 to 50 people inhabit Ni’ihau. 

Ni’ihau’s history, culture, and enigmatic charm have drawn the attention of thousands of people from all over the world. However, Bruce and Keith Robinson continue honoring their promise of protecting Ni’ihau’s culture and inhabitants, which means restricting foreigners’ access to the island as much as possible. 

While the Robinsons brothers still forbid any contact with the locals and restrict access to most parts of the island, they have allowed brief visits since the mid- 2000s. Visitors have only three and a half hours to explore the unspoiled beauty of one of Ni’ihau’s rustic coasts, Nanina Beach.  Besides these brief tours, the policy remains the same, only natives and relatives of the Robinsons family can enter the island. It doesn’t matter who you are; both brothers have turned down offers from celebrities, royals, and the ultra-rich who want to spend a few days exploring the island and getting to know the locals. 

Have other questions about the history of Ni’ihau? Comment below.

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