The Rich History Behind Hawaii's "Forbidden Island"
| LAST UPDATE 09/11/2022
Millions fly to Hawaii for vacation every year, but there is one Hawaiian island that, for most, is off-limits. In fact, this mysterious island has been cut off from the world for almost 150 years…
The Road Less Traveled
Most of the Hawaiian islands are no mystery - in fact, they are a holiday favorite for hordes of people who want to enjoy a tropical paradise, calling for Pina Coladas and Polynesian dancing.
But this enchanting pacific region does hold a fascinating mystery, which can be seen just at the edge of the breathtaking blue and pink horizons. We’re talking about a distant island tucked miles away - still part of Hawaii, but with its own strange secrets which set it apart from the rest.
On The Horizon
In fact, it is most visible from the shores of the large and populous island of Kauai, with its distant mountain peaks seemingly jutting out of the blue depths of the Pacific. While many people wouldn’t think twice about this land in the distance, it is very unique and distinct from any other nearby land.
And for the native people of Hawaii, this island is particularly symbolic - it is a reminder of a promise that was once made to their ancestors over 100 years ago. Because the process of colonization has had such a devastating effect on the indigenous culture of Hawaii, this perfectly preserved island is particularly special.
Of all of the islands scattered across Hawaii, this island is the smallest. Its name is Niihau, and it is found only 17 miles from the coast of Kauai. On this special island, the indigenous culture of Hawaii is still practiced and preserved. And until recently, few non-Hawaiians were even aware of its existence.
But how is this possible when nearby islands like Maui or Oahu are so incredibly popular as tourist destinations? Well, that's because the island is closed off to all visitors. It is so secluded, in fact, that it has even been nicknamed "the forbidden island."
Sold To The Highest Bidder
For over 150 years, no outsiders had ever set foot on the shores of Niihau, and the reasons why are rather complicated. Considering how many adventurers and explorers are drawn to Hawaii and the countless other regions of the pacific ocean, it's surprising that Niihau has remained so untouched.
But the “forbidden” nature of the small island goes back to 1864, when a Scottish homemaker and farmer named Elizabeth Sinclair, who already owned a plantation in New Zealand, cast her eyes on Hawaii. She purchased the island from King Kamehameha V, the leader of Hawaii at that time, for $10,000.
A Prophecy Is Born
But all those years ago, the hospitable king had one condition to add to the contract before Sinclair could purchase the island outright. He asked the Scotswoman to make a single pledge to him, one that would dictate the future of Niihau even beyond both of their lives.
Though it wasn't an official clause, it was a heart-rending piece of advice for the entrepreneurial woman. And in 2002, the New York Times reported what the king had 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."
The Traditions Live On
It was a desperate and ominous request from a loyal leader, and though many buyers might have ignored his words, the Sinclair family took Kamehameha's advice seriously. From the year they first purchased Niihau, they began their efforts to preserve the island and its rich Hawaiian culture.
The native culture was known as “kahiki,” and for the next 150+ years, the Sinclair family would continue to preserve both the environment and the kahiki of the island. Today, the native language is still the predominant language spoken on Niihau - one of the last locations where that is still the case.
But, unsurprisingly, not every single aspect of the native culture was prioritized. The family did make the decision to impose some of their foreign rules on the locals. In particular, they enforced the mandatory rule that every Sunday, all islanders on Niihau would have to attend church services.
The Sinclairs were a devoutly Calvinist family, so for them, this rule was a vital one. Luckily it was not a difficult rule to enforce, as the Niihauans had pre-established contact with Christian missionaries long before Sinclair's arrival, and many had already converted. Sunday Service quickly became the norm on Niihau.
Over the decades, the family took a broader interest in Niihau and the surrounding Hawaiian islands. One such person was a grandson of the original Sinclairs, named Aubrey Robinson. Robinson had set about establishing a sugar plantation on the neighboring island of Kauai.
With Robinson living across the way, this leads to some fortuitous changes for his grandparent's island. He pledged to plant 10,000 trees on Niihau every year, and he fully committed to the task. In the next few decades, rainfall increased considerably, making Niihau far more inhabitable.
A Historic Pandemic
Due to the productive preservation efforts in Niihau, the island continued through the century as a peaceful and happy place where the language and traditions of Hawaii thrived. But as the world entered the 1930s, Niihau would be officially closed off to the world. What happened?
Though it was considered a bit extreme in the decades to follow, the post-2020 world can probably relate to what happened next. In the 1930s, the polio epidemic was tearing through the Hawaiian islands. And the Robinsons (who were now the guardians of the island) enforced a ban on all outside visitors.
Everything Shut Down
Bruce Robinson, a Sinclair descendant and one of the nephews of the 1930s guardian of the island, was interviewed about this strange period in Niihau's history. He told Good Morning America, "My uncle wanted to protect the residents here from the epidemic."
"It was forbidden to come out here unless you had a doctor's certificate, and there was a two-week quarantine," he continued. "it worked. We never got polio out here." The island successfully avoided the threat of polio, but when vaccines were released and the virus was officially contained, Niihau still remained closed.
The Mystery Begins
Like all things, once something is forbidden, most people can't help but become interested. As the years continued on and Niihau continued to be a forbidden zone in the region, many outsiders were intrigued by the remote island destination. What was really going on here?
The Robinsons were surprised by the fascination many outsiders had with their island. After all, there were still a handful of locals who lived their entire lives on Niihau. "[Locals] go back and forth all the time. In fact, every person on Niihau has been to the mainland," Robinson said. "They know all about it. "
The Inhabitants of Niihau
And that wasn't all. Contrary to popular opinion, the Niihau islanders were not a remote tribe of people stuck in time, with no contact with or knowledge of the modern outside world. "It's a well-traveled population – totally bilingual, some working on three languages," Robinson insisted.
"While it is an ancient type of culture, they're a very modern type of people." But of course, the appeal of living on remote Niihau was its slow, laidback, somewhat old-fashioned way of life. Residents were still regularly farming and fishing to maintain their food supplies and even to make money.
An Average Day On The Island
There are also other ways to earn a living on Niihau. For example, some islanders are gainfully employed on the Robinsons' ranch, and there is always plenty of work that needs to be done. But of course, due to the secluded nature of Niihau and the lack of opportunities, some native Niihauans do need support.
This often comes in the form of welfare payments to sustain some households, which comes straight from the pockets of the Robinsons. To them, these payments, along with employment and even free homes, are just part of the promise their ancestors made to King Kamehameha V.
Only The Basics
And it doesn’t end there. The Robinsons and their family before them pour various resources into the island, to promote the welfare of the locals there. They even provide free education and meat to the children who grow up in Niihau, though they still tend to live minimally.
One of the most glaring parts of the island's neglected infrastructure is the lack of running water. Most residents of the island don't have access to water from faucets, and they collect nearly all of their water from rainfall. Rainwater is collected throughout the year and used for bathing and sometimes drinking.
Off the Grid
If the lack of diverted water seems strange, then this next feature of the island is sure to be surprising. In Niihau, there is no electricity - islanders live virtually entirely off-grid, with home appliances and electronic devices powered by solar energy. To some, this way of life may seem unnecessarily primitive.
But Bruce Robinson insists that this is not the case, telling Good Morning America, "Every house has solar power. Every house has its own water system. At the time when we had hurricanes, where the rest of the islands took months to recover, Niihau took three days, and we were back on our feet; the schools were running and everything."
With no electricity, how much more different could Niihauan life be from the outside world? Well, they have no motor vehicles either. To this day, most Niihau residents get from place to place on horseback! This isn’t difficult, however, considering that Niihau is small and the public infrastructure is very compact.
Speaking of public infrastructure, how do residents get their dried foods and other essentials? Well, every week, a barge arrives from nearby Kauai, carrying goods and produce for the locals, which are typically sent over by relatives on the “mainland.” Locals can buy anything - excluding alcohol, tobacco, and firearms.
Empowerment For Locals
While the basics are all covered on Niihau, for the most part, the island cannot provide everything. It’s not at all uncommon for residents to travel to Kauai for schooling and medical care and even to stay there for long periods. This often results in residents considering Kauai as much their home as Niihau.
While the lifestyle of a typical Niihauan may sound grueling, spent working hard on the ranch or in Kauai while taking great strides to survive and keep their families afloat, that isn’t really true. In fact, the residents of Niihau live a relatively laid-back lifestyle and have plenty of free time.
Locals spend their leisure time doing pretty much what anyone else would be doing in Hawaii - they are regularly swimming, sunbathing, or simply watching the turquoise waves roll by. And when they’re done with that, they often enjoy movies or TV shows on their tablets.
And despite how secluded Niihau is, the islanders there love Hawaiian music just like everyone else in Hawaii. Even here, native music is a core component of local culture, and Niihauans will often spend their time playing the guitar or ukelele while other villagers dance along.
Since the beginning of their ownership of the island, the Sinclairs, and now Robinsons, have been very encouraging of practically all aspects of native Hawaiian culture. After all, their number one priority as stewards of Niihau has always been to preserve the island and its people.
And it all went back to that single royal request made to Elizabeth Sinclair 150 years ago. "We've tried to maintain the request of the king when it was turned over," Bruce elaborated while talking to reporters at Good Morning America. "We maintain the island for the people and continue to work it as he had."
“The Rest of Time”
In the eyes of the family, and in his own words, Kamehameha V had passed on his royal duties to them. "When the king sold the island to the family, he said to the family, 'These are now your subjects,'" Robinson shared. "'You are to take care of them the best you can for the rest of time.' And our family has continued that."
"[Niihau is] an island that's maintained the original Hawaiian lifestyle, the kahiki lifestyle, which is traditional – back to the 1800s and earlier. And it's still alive today, and it's working," Robinson continued on, sharing his love for the island. But as with any great responsibility, there are downsides too.
The Pressure Is On
Unfortunately, as the world around them modernizes rapidly, Robinson has said that Niihau is "under extreme pressure from the outside world," which has begun to demand that the island be open to the rest of the world. For Robinson, his family's highest goal was "trying to save it from that."
Helen Matthew Robinson, the former head of the Robinson family, once told The New York Times in 1970 that the source of this external pressure was confusing. "It's just a little cattle ranch we operate in our own way," she said. "There's nothing sensational about [Niihau]. I don't see why everyone is so interested in it."
Desperate To See
It’s no surprise that after almost 100 years of complete privacy and separation from the outside world, the people outside of Niihau have only become more interested in the remote region. Outside of the people who live on the island, only a few living people have ever set foot on it.
In fact, the only living people who have ever touched down on Niihau include its 170 inhabitants, the Robinson family, and a small smattering of US navy personnel and government officials. These were the only people to ever witness the goings on of the island, no matter how badly the most intrepid tourists may want to visit.
One Last Wish
However, the long-established exclusivity of the island hasn't stopped many of those tourists from trying. "We've had a lot of requests – including [from] people who are about to die – and they have to come over and see the last place on earth they haven't seen," Robinson told Good Morning America.
The requests keep flooding in with more and more people desperate to visit the "forbidden island." But even the most famous and esteemed figures don't have a chance. Just to make it clear how impossible a visit to Niihau would be for the average person, even rockstar Mick Jagger was refused a visit.
What About The Neighbors?
While people from around the world have had their visitor requests rejected by the Robinsons, they can take some comfort from the fact that even the citizens of neighboring Kauai have never had the chance to explore Niihau. For them, the mysterious island is just a silhouette across the sea.
But despite its remoteness, many other native peoples across Hawaii greatly appreciate the island and consider it to be very culturally significant. One such person is Kauai resident Mike Faye, who explained how he felt about the island while being interviewed by Good Morning America.
A Source of Comfort
"Growing up as a kid, in the mornings, the sun would reflect off the mountains [in Niihau], and it was almost like you could reach out and touch the place," Faye explained. "Niihau was always like a silent sentinel out there across the ocean, giving us some comfort from storms and the wide-open ocean out beyond."
In the eyes of Faye and many other Kauai locals, Niihau is a mainstay of the islands. No matter what happens, even if they will never set foot on it, the remote island will always be there. "Niihau gives us that point on the horizon out there. It's close. It's always there. It guards us from that side of the world."
The Wildlife of Niihau
As we have mentioned, the restrictions placed on Niihau for decades have gone far in preserving the native culture of the island and its people. For the Robinsons, and the Sinclairs before them, supporting the people of Niihau will always be their top priority. But its wildlife has also benefited from these restrictions.
In fact, the same plant and animal species that covered the island 150 years ago are still alive and well all these years later. All with the exception of the Hawaiian monk seal, or the "llio-holo-i-ka-uaua," which is currently registered as an endangered species in Hawaii.
“Dog That Runs in Rough Water”
The monk seals unusual name actually means "dog that runs in rough water" in the native Hawaiian language. But it seems that the waters around Niihau and neighboring islands have become a little too rough for the Hawaiian monk seal. While speaking with Robinson, Good Morning America reported it as the world's most endangered seal.
As of 2010, when the interview took place, there were only 150 recorded monk seals in the Hawaiian islands - and more than half of those seals could be found in and around Niihau. It is the most comfortable place for Hawaiian monk seals to come ashore, and seal sightings on the island are common.
A Rocky Relationship
But unfortunately, the co-existence of Niihauan islanders and Hawaiian monk seals has not been easily achieved. Robinson went on to explain to Good Morning America that "the natives knew that the seals took so much food that they felt it endangered their existence, so they killed all the seals."
Fortunately, the islanders failed to drive the species to extinction, and the Robinsons have gone to great lengths to ensure their survival - and hopefully, their proliferation. "So, what we're doing now is working with the federal government, helping with the seal count and seeing what we can do to save them," he continued.
A Fortunate Few
Despite the decades that have been shrouded in mystery, in recent years, the tides of Niihau have begun to turn. The Robinsons have decided to open up strictly limited, low-impact tours to the island - meaning that some lucky tourists have been permitted to explore the formerly forbidden island.
While tourists can walk the beaches and even swim in the oceans surrounding the island, they are supervised by guides. "The limited tourism that we're doing now is good in that it helps to defray that cost," Robinson has said. "But the real benefit to us is that it's low impact. We like the low-impact tourism."
"Only Place Left"
But what can visitors expect from a foray onto Niihau? Robinson has given some hints as to the island's biggest appeal for tourists. "When you come out to Niihau, what you are immediately going to notice is the peace and quiet [and] the fact that you're going out to a beach that doesn't have any people on it."
"It doesn't have a lot of foot tracks on it. It's an open, empty beach," he continued. "[There's] 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."