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The Fascinating Story of the Forbidden Island of Niihau

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

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.

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.

It is a privately owned island with an estimated 170 plus residents.

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. And you need to ‘get invited’ by the owners to visit this exclusive place.

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.

The story of Niihau

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 what real motives were 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 make 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.

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.

“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.”

Sinclair 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.”

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

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.”

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 22, 2021:

Thanks Flourish for your comments. And interestingly it is in the US and away from any modern amenities for the past 100 years or so.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 22, 2021:

Very interesting! I’ve never heard of this island!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 22, 2021:

Thanks Cristina

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 22, 2021:

Thanks Devika

Cristina Vanthul from Florida on March 22, 2021:

Very interesting and kudos to the Robinson family for keeping it as natural as possible. I'm sure many would have sold out to the state and let it become a park at the native inhabitants' expense. As much as I would love to visit this island, I'd rather know it's left in it's pristine state without many tourists there.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 22, 2021:

ravirajan01 I like how you share informative hubs and present with good photos. Such information is a mystery to me.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 22, 2021:

Thanks, Rosina.Surely I will check it out

Rosina S Khan on March 22, 2021:

What an island of Niihau! Away from all the luxuries and comforts of life and following ancient traditional life. This is so very spectacular. Thank you, Ravi, for sharing.

By the way, Ravi, I will be happy if you check out my new article. (user id: surovi99)

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 22, 2021:

Thanks Chirangada

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 22, 2021:

Thanks, Bill.I love history and try to update myself as much as possible.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 22, 2021:

Thanks, Miebakagh for your comments

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on March 22, 2021:

An interesting and informative article about the forbidden island of Niihau.

I wasn’t aware of this fascinating place. The World is full of such wonderful places.

Thank you for sharing this well written article.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 22, 2021:

I always enjoy your articles, my friend. They are interesting, informative, and often fascinating.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 22, 2021:

To preserve and maintain any ancient good custom is an excellent thing. I take it that the peace the Robbisons feared to loss is the Haiwainian simple way of life. That said, the introduction of a strange culture like a eating life style, can introduce strange disease. Things like this point can cause fear. Let the native paradise continue.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 22, 2021:

Thanks, Ann for your comments

Ann Carr from SW England on March 22, 2021:

It would be such a shame to lose this. Why do we always have to spoil things by 'updating' them? We are ignorant and pompous when we do such things, thinking we know best and are always right. That kind of existence can teach us much.

Thanks for the education.

Ann

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