The Forbidden Island of Niihau

Apr 30, 2020 | General Information

Located 18 miles from Kauai, across the Kaulakahi Channel, Niihau is the oldest of the inhabited Hawaiian islands. It is also the least changed. The people of Niihau speak Hawaiian as their primary language and Niihauans still fish and hunt for their main staples of food. In 1864, Elizabeth Sinclair, Scottish owner of a plantation in New Zealand, purchased Niihau from King Kamehameha. Remarkably her descendants, the Robinsons, made a commitment to the maintenance of the Hawaiian culture.

An arid island, Niihau didn’t have any trees. Aubrey Robinson, grandfather of the current owners Bruce and Keith Robinson, planted 10,000 trees per year during his ownership of the island. This huge reforestation project increased rainfall and native plants and bird species have thrived and inland lakes developed. Niihau’s shores provided safe havens for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Imported big game herds now roam Niihau and join with the wild boars and feral sheep.

Nihau’s history was full of violent conflict prior to and after Kamehameha’s unification of Hawaii in 1795. At first, after bloody battles, he failed to conquer both Kauai and Niihau. Niihau was ruled by chiefs (ali’i). Northern Niihau’s chief, Kahelelani, unified the island by defeating another of the island’s chiefs named Kawaihoa. But in 1810 Kamehameha finally managed to conquer Niihau. Niihau’s surrender was made by Kaumualii, king of Niihau. After Kamehameha’s death in 1819, his widow, Kaahumanu, kidnapped Kau mua lii and forced him to marry her. Thereafter Niihau became part of the unified Kingdom of Hawaii.

Nicknamed “the forbidden island,” Niihau is generally off-limits to all but the Robinson family and their relatives, U.S. government personnel, and invited guests. The Navy operates a tracking device atop the island’s 1300-foot cliffs. This is part of Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility. Periodically US missile defense tests are conducted at the site. Income from this facility provides the island with much of its economic base.

Beginning in 1987, a limited number of activity tours and hunting safaris were opened to tourists by brothers Bruce and Keith Robinson.Today some 200 locals live on the island along with the many free roaming animals. Niihauans have become famous for their beautiful leis crafted from tiny seashells that populate their beaches and the sale of shell jewelry provides an additional source of local income. These intricate Niihau shell leis can sell for thousands of dollars a piece.