Niihau and Lanai: Some Men are Islands


"What you see ahead is Niihau, the Forbidden Island," the chopper pilot said, as his flying-machine went quack-quack-quack across the seventeen miles of channel that separated this small arid place from the friendly green island of Kauai. "We'll be landing pretty soon," he went on, "but I just want you to know that I can't show you any of the people, we can't enter the village - you won't even be able to see it, I'm afraid. In fact, most of the island is off limits, and it has been for over a hundred years." And then he steered us south, through the clear Hawaiian air, into the nineteenth century.

Hawaii is full of marvels, but one of the strangest aspects of this chain of eighteen islands is that two of them are private property, and neither of them is owned by an ethnic Hawaiian. some characters in literature also have private islands: they take possession of islands in much the same spirit that they head into exile - in Shakespeare's The Tempest Prospero does both. Usually, a person seeking an island craves simplicity and glories in a world that is still incomplete, and therefore full of possibilities. Anything can happen on an island - guilt can be expiated (Robinson Crusoe), the forces of good and evil can emerge in the breasts of castaways (Lord of the Flies), love can be discovered (The Blue Lagoon), so can a great fortune (Treasure Island) or a true paradise (Typee), or a kind of hell (Conrad's Victory); it can be the setting for a great departure (the Nantucket of Moby-Dick), or for the oddest landfalls on earth (Gulliver's Travels). It is impossible to imagine these island episodes unfolding on the mainland.

The common denominator is not the landscape of the island, or its location on the globe, but rather the fact of a place being surrounded by water - the character of the water itself is the magic element, offering the islander transformation. the water, seemingly nothing, is everything - a moat, a barrier, a wilderness, the source of food and hope, the way out. The ocean - as any true seagoing person will testify - is not one place but many. The sea has specific moods and locations, as any landscape of hills and valleys does. It even has thoroughfares. Oceania is full of ancient named waterways - the paths to other islands or archipelagos. A piece of water off the Big Island is known as Kealakahiki, "The Way to Tahiti" (a 2,500 miles away), one of the great canoe routes. A person who emigrates to an island is obviously different from a native islander. there is something rather suspect about a person who seeks to recapture island innocence. but in any case it is a futile search, because no one really can take possession of an island. Being the monarch of all you survey is in reality a mainland conceit; on an island it is you who are possessed. Islands have a unique capacity to take hold of their inhabitants, whether they be natives or castaways or potential colonizers, and that is perhaps why islands are so rich in myths and legends. 

An island ought to seem fragile and isolated, and yet I visited fifty-one islands in Oceania and every one of them seemed like a thing complete in itself, self-contained and self-sufficient, because of the surrounding water. Whether that was an illusion or not I don't know, but this sense of mystery and power must communicate itself both to those who are native to the islands and those who seek them. There is something princely in the very situation of someone who builds a house on an island and lives in it. but an island is much more than a principate. it is the ultimate refuge - a magic and unsinkable world. Owning an island is something like having this entire world to yourself, where you can do as you like - making your own rules, fulfilling a vision or a fantasy. The two private islands of Niihau and Lanai are dramatic examples of that, but they are moving in totally different directions.

Niihau is quite small and so obscure and so seldom visited it is called "The forbidden IIsland." Hawaii's second private island, Lanai, is fairly large and has not been much on the tourist map and is hardly known, except as a Dole plantation. Its nickname is "The Pineapple Island." Each place is extraordinary in its own way. the owner of Lanai is just now ending its seventy-year tradition of pineapple-growing and has invested heavily, with two luxury hotels, in the tourist industry. In great contrast to this, the owner of Niihau long ago decreed that nothing would change on his island and his descendants have kept to that promise - forbidding any outsider from entering the community of Hawaiian-speaking people, or looking closely at the land or its inhabitants.

"If any island is inviolate, it is Niihau," Hawaii's historian Gavan Daws wrote almost thirty years ago; "if any man is an island, it is Niihau's patriarch."

One of the pleasures of the Hawaiian island derives from the fact that no beach is private. A tycoon might have a mansion jammed squarely against the sand, but the law allows you to use that same beach, sunning yourself and swimming in the surf. the beaches belong to everyone. And even on the most remote or exclusive beaches there is public access. the single exception to this is Niihau. I wanted to take my collapsible kayak there. I was told that this was out of the question, that the sand and even the water around the island - to ten fathoms - was private. Because of its isolation, Niihau has acquired an extensive mythology - the unknown always passes for something particularly wonderful. the very idea of Niihau fascinates people in Hawaii, and to nearly everyone it suggests Shangri-la. Tell someone you've been to Niihau and their face becomes brilliant with curiosity.

"What was it like?" they say. "I'll bet it was fantastic."

A No Trespassing sign is like catnip to a travel writer. I was determined to find out about the island, and to visit i if possible. I discovered that there were occasional helicopter tours, but - to maintain Niihau's low profile - the service was never advertised. In the end, interviewing informants, and finding the chopper, and making the trip, turned out to be a bit like mounting an assault on Alcatraz, another Pacific island that Niihau physically resembles.

Niihau was sold for $10,000 to a family of wealthy wandering Scots by the Hawaiian king (Kamehameha V) in 1864. the family successfully transformed this Polynesian volcano into a Scottish estate, turning the islanders into tenants and themselves into lairds. They were muscular Christians. They decreed that everyone on the island would attend church. They discouraged smoking. They forbade the drinking of alcohol. they fortified the church and distributed Bibles, in the Hawaiian language. Even today, in an island on which the main language is Hawaiian, the only reading material in that language is the Bible and the hymn book, and the same prohibitions persist. Little wonder that (as a former resident wrote in 1989), "A favorite pastime of the children is trying to stump each other by reciting phrases from the bible" - guessing chapter and verse. fishing, manual work and games are forbidden on the sabbath. In theory it is a sober and pious island of twelve Hawaiian families (inevitably related). Ask anyone in Hawaii and they will tell you that it is a unique preserve of native culture, of people living in the old way, fishing and farming, preserving the island traditions.

this is of course ridiculous. At best the island is a throwback to the days of soul-saving missionary paternalism in which the hula was banned and singing generally disapproved of, and islanders seeking work were allowed to look after the owner's livestock. It is an insular ghost from the age when Polynesia was condemned as lazy and needing to stone for its Original sin. Oddly enough, the island and the stubborn, backward-looking Robinson family which owns it have more defenders than attackers, because casual onlookers enjoy the fantasy that an island has been trapped in time - indeed, that traditions have been preserved. Although last year the islanders voted Democratic (for the popular and progressive mayor of Kauai, JoAnn Yukimura), the Niihauans have usually been as staunchly conservative as the Robinson family - they voted against statehood in 1959, the only precinct in the islands to reject joining the United States. Yet it is not possible to stop the clock, even on an offshore island.

So what is Niihau tradition now? It is the language - perhaps the only community in the entire state whose daily conversation is Hawaiian. It is the preservation of family units - and extended families - which are said to live in harmony. It is the practice of fishing - but only by the men and boys; the women are home-makers, and many of them search the island's beaches for the tiny Niihau shells, which they pierce and fashion into precious and exquisite necklaces - much coveted by people the world over who appreciate their rarity. And it is churchgoing. Apart from all that piety, Niihau tradition is now also welfare checks, food stamps, soda pop and canned food. In the houses with electrical generators, it is video machines. The windward side of Niihau is so horrendously littered with plastic rubbish that has floated from the other island that it was pictured as a sort of spoiled Eden in a recent Time magazine. There is no hula, there are no canoes. And their racial purity is another myth, for there is a strain of Japanese blood on the islands.

"They don't live as Hawaiians," cultural historian Sol Kahoohalahala told me. "They have a poor diet and as a result they have severe health problems."

If the culture had been intact and the people had retained their old island skills and pleasures, the experiment of isolating these Hawaiians might have succeeded. but it has been a failure. What remains is the language, and the Robinson family prevents any outsider from studying it there. It is possible that, with such a small number of people speaking Hawaiian in Niihau, the language will degenerate as the people have and become extinct. It was more the rule that when a Niihauan left the island he was regarded as tainted and was forbidden to return. this is no longer the case. Niihauans regularly cross the channel in a Vietnam war surplus landing-craft to Kauai to work on the Robinson estates, to collect their welfare checks, to buy food and visit relatives (there are large communities of Niihau families on Kauai), or to attend parties - where drinking and smoking are cheerfully tolerated. On my furtive flying visit to the island I traveled in a helicopter which was the property of the Robinson family - at $200 per person a trip this is obviously a way of paying the upkeep of the chopper, which is also used for medical emergencies (there is no hospital on Niihau).

We banked past the cliffs that rose to 1,000 feet and we landed on the deserted southern end of the island, where some of Captain Cook's sailors (including his first mate William Bligh) spent one night in 1778. they were the first white men to step ashore in the Hawaiian Islands. Cook had unexpectedly discovered the Hawaiian Islands - and this unexpectedness was arranged for him, because Cook had a genius for anticipating islands. Like the Polynesian navigators he could read the pattern of the sea, the configuration of waves, the movements of seabirds, the sight of turtles, the quality of light. But Hawaii - his first sight of Oahu - loomed up out of the ocean, without any warning. And he had not expected to see high islands in the North Pacific. He then spotted the islands of Kauai and Niihau, and while he was still reflecting on whether they could be inhabited, he saw canoes, three and four men in each one. The islanders spoke, "and we were agreeably surprised to find them of the same nation as the people of Otaheite (Tahiti) and the other islands we had lately visited." Cook's meticulous collection of word lists came in handy, and even the crew knew enough of this Tahitian-like language to ask for food - hogs, breadfruit, yams, water. The words were the same.

"How shall we account for this nation spreading itself as far over the vast ocean?" Cook wrote, deeply impressed. but he was aware of the fragility of the culture he had encountered, and knowing that his men were carrying venereal disease he had made a rule that his men were not to fraternize with island women. Offending men were ordere4d by cook to be flogged. the encounter could not have been stranger if cook had come from outer space, and more than anything it resembled the meeting of Martians and Earthlings - indeed, cook was seen as possibly supernatural, the embodiment of the god Lono (Orongo in Rapa Nui), whom they believed would appear to them on a floating island, which was exactly what the Resolution looked like. there was iron all over the ship, and the metal was like treasure to the islanders. Reckless greed and impatience overcame the islanders' fears - and besides, such creatures, being foreigners, were outside the kapu (taboo) restrictions, which were severe in Hawaii. Pilferage was immediate, anything made of metal was stolen; this led to quarrels, one of them fatal, when one of Cook's lieutenants shot an islander.  

Two days after sighting the islands, and in spite of Cook's strict precautions, a few of his men got ashore on Kauai and infected some island women. this also happened on Niihau, and there was soon an epidemic of syphilis and gonorrhea on the islands which vastly reduced the population. Ironically, many of the men had picked up the disease in 1777 from women in Tahiti, who had caught it from the French sailors. the Niihauans who visited Cook's ship asked the captain whether they could leave a token behind. cook agreed and the islanders but locks of their hair and left them on the ship, as an act of faith, for having something so personal as hair (or nail parings) empowered the owner to cast deadly spells. Cook took on drinking water from the springs of Niihau and set off to look for the Northwest Passage.

I walked down an ancient lava flow to lean over the steep rock walls and listen to the crashing of surf and the cries of seabirds in Keanahaki Bay. In the distance I could see the simple wooden structures of the island's only village, Puuwai, as we made the hop to the rocky plain at the northern end. Niihau is very arid - the island recently suffered a seven-year drought - but if there is rainfall it descends on Puuwai, where it is collected in cisterns. Beneath the chopper I could see what is actually a devastated ecosystem - the effects, many of them visible, of hungry cattle and sheep, wild pigs and herds of wild horses. The browsing animals had started the damage, wind-erosion had done the rest. The whole place has the rather tragic look of a Utoia gone wrong, and it has the curiously dusty and deprived atmosphere of a penal colony. Even in 1863 the Hawaiian staple food, taro, would not grow on the island because of poor soil, and good trees were so scarce they had to be shipped from Kauai. the situation is much worse now. There has been no apparent re-afforestation. it is an island without any visible topsoil. the vegetation that exists is kiawe tree, a thorny bush akin to mesquite. Charcoal made from this wood by the islanders is greatly in demand elsewhere in Hawaii, and the kiawe flower results in delicious honey that is collected by Niihau's beekeepers. but these remain cottage industries.

The protected anchorage at this northern end of the island, just inside Puukole Point, is where the landing-craft - with its food and its passengers - creeps from the sea to the sand. the great black volcano just offshore is Lehua Island, a state seabird sanctuary, on which Hawaiian structures and caves and freshwater springs have been studied. Walking the beach at the northern end of Niihau I kept wondering what I would do with this island, if I owned it. I knew that I would not want to see it nibbled to death by wild animals or blown, grain by grain, into the ocean. It was admirable that its people still spoke their mother tongue; Niihau Hawaiian is regarded by some linguists as the purest form of the language. but it was a pity that they could not share it, nor did they know the history of their people before the traders and cattle farmers, and the vengeful God of the Old Testament, and the missionaries who convinced them that they were sinners.

Isolation had not worked. There is something fundamentally subversive about the master-servant relationship, and a haole family lording it over dusky islanders is hardly likely to be a blueprint for Utopia. Even if that had worked, corruption had set in with the first video machine, if not with the first transistor radio. "the intention was that the island would not change, but of course it has, inexorably. Just as mice can nibble a mansion and turn it into a ruin, the animals and alien plants have caused the ecology to degenerate; the people's diet has altered, and perhaps their outlook has adjust4ed, too, as their trips across the channel have become more frequent. An island can be owned; but people cannot be owned, nor can they be managed as though they were cattle or, worse, as though they were vaguely animate and supine museum exhibits. so the answer is obviously that the Niihauans themselves would have to be consulted about the future. they are notoriously wary of strangers' questions, as I discovered - even on Niihau they regarded my questions as niele - nosy. they are said to be intensely proud of their difference, their separateness.

Ideally, the islanders would choose not be invaded by tourists, but to be put in touch with other Hawaiians - poets, dancers, ethnographers, linguists, farmers - in the hope that their community might be rejuvenated, and gain a measure of self-sufficiency. that could eventually lead to revitalizing the Hawaiian language in the rest of the islands.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The island of Lanai is a different experiment altogether. No one objected to my collapsible kayak - the little airline that flies in from Honolulu is used to dealing with kayaks, surfboards, scuba gear and high-powered rifles (there is hunting on Lanai), as well as Louis Vuitton golf-bags and Chanel hat-boxes. Lanai has some of the simplest as well as the most sumptuous accommodations in Hawaii, and the island is unique in welcoming the backpacker as well as the billionaire. Like Niihau, Lanai passed from the control of the Hawaiian monarchy into private hands - in fact, it was once owned by the same family that now owns Niihau. After several incarnations - as a ranch, as a promised land (the Mormons owned it for a while), as a glorified botanical garden and game park - James Dole bought it in 1922 and planted 15,000 acres of pineapples. The company town, a cluster of simple houses on a grid of narrow roads, rejoices in the name Lanai City and for seventy years nearly all its 2,200 inhabitants - largely of Filipino or Japanese ancestry - worked for Dole, in the labor-intensive business of pineapple-growing.

Because of high labor coast, pineapple is ceasing to be a commercially viable crop in Hawaii - such enterprises are cheaper and simpler in the Philippines and in Central America. but there was no serious suggestion that the dole plantations would close until five years ago, when the swashbuckling investor David Murdock took control of Castle & Cooke (which had owned Dole, and the island of Lanai, since the 1950s). Realizing that the pineapple plantation had no future, Murdock sized up Lanai and concocted a scheme on a grand scale for the entire island. He was uniquely privileged to do this; after all, he owned the island. The island had one hotel - a modest and charming gold building with ten rooms, at the top end of Lanai City, called inevitably the Lanai Hotel. Taking advantage of the island's vistas and two distinct climate-zones, Murdock specified that his first luxury hotel would be built in the cool hills above Lanai City, amid the mists and the Norfolk pines. this, the Lodge at Koele, has turned out to be, in style, a sort of turn-of-the-century Anglo-colonial hunting lodge, with verandas and vast fireplaces, that would not look out of place in the highlands of Kenya. The second hotel, Manele Bay, Murdock placed fifteen miles distant, on a spectacular sweep of bay, above a sandy beach, and it has the look of a grand Mediterranean villa - stucco, tile roofs, elaborate gardens.

In the beginning, the sudden change bewildered the people of Lanai City, who had known only the pineapple business and the company routine. There was an over-our-dead-body faction, advocating the status quo - this group has diminished in size but is still vocal, because the nearest island to Lanai - Maui - has seriously and seedily degenerated into a destination that in large part looks like a suburb of San Diego. there was a we-don't-want-rich-people faction which wondered aloud about the implications of luxury hotels on the island. There is a more moderate Lanaians-for-sensible-growth faction, which wishes to have a say in determining the island's future. Mr Murdock has listened to all the contending points of view, sometimes with patience and forbearance, sometimes with the blustering megalomania and single-mindedness one associates with General Bullmoose. there is a strong feeling that Mr Murdock has everything to gain if the islanders are happy and prosperous, even if it means change. And there is an undecurrent of anxiety - terror is perhaps a truer word - that Mr Murdock might get sick of spending his money and sell the whole operation to the Japanese, who would ruthlessly Niponize it, subdivide it and turn it into a golf paradise and labor camp, a combination that has worked well for them elsewhere.

but in all this turbulence an unexpectedly serene thing has happened. the children of these pineapple-pickers, who had fled the island for more congenial and better-paying jobs on other islands or on the mainland - most of them young people - began to return home, to work in the hotels, literally rejuvenating an island of aging plantation workers. The manager of Koele, Kurt Matzumoto, is a native of Lanai and so are nearly all his staff.

"I would never have come back here to pick pineapples," Darek, a van-driver, told me at Manele. "But this is different. This is a job I like."

"My parents wanted me to come back to Lanai," Linda told me. "But I didn't want to. there was just the plantation and working in the fields for five dollars an hour." And she laughed, thinking about it. but as soon as Linda, who had been working as a waitress in San Diego, heard about the hotels, she returned to her island home and her parents and a job in the dining-room at Manele. I heard that same story over and over. some people like Perlita had been working in the pineapple fields for ten or fifteen years and were now on the hotel staff. "My father worked in the fields for forty-five years," a Lanai teacher, Dick Trujillo, told me - we were in the S & T, having fishburgers, in one of Lanai City's plate-lunch establishments. "He was against the changes. but there was a plantation-mentality on Lanai - the sense that you can't better yourself, that there are managers and field workers - two classes - and if you are the child of a field worker you have no right to go to college or getter yourself." After graduating from the University of Hawaii he had worked for a while in Honolulu, but the traffic, the high cost of living, and the stress of city life had caused him to gravitate back to Lanai, with its quiet pace, a luxuriant garden in the yard of each tidy bungalow.

"We are a throwback, about twenty-five years behind the times," Henry Yamamoto said up at the Ranger's Office of the Lanai company where he supervises the hunting on Lanai - particularly the monthly Damage Control Hunt. he said that they were trying to keep the deer to a controllable level, about four thousand. As for the ending of pineapples and the beginning of the hotels, "We were due for a change." Nearly every person I spoke to on Lanai mentioned the strong sense of community on the island. that neighborly spirit is not a myth. The friendliness is evident in the casual good humor of the people and their candor with strangers. "I want to return to Lanai when I finish college," Roderick told me. His major was recreational leadership, but his summer job was waiting on tables at Koele. "I'd like to give something back to the community." that expression of loyalty and gratitude is not a sentiment that is voiced much these days on other islands, and I felt sure that it was inspired by the good feeling of Lanai. The ethnic Hawaiians on Lanai are actively interested in their history and culture, studying traditional music and dance, as well as art. Under a supervised program set up by Castle & Cooke, the skilled people of the town did nearly all the artwork - the murals, the decorations, the painted flowers on the new hotels.

Hawaiians date their history on Lanai from about the fifteenth century, and the island is rich in old Hawaiian sites - temples, house-platforms and petroglyphs carved into rock. No extensive archeological digging has been carried out, and so whenever I walked through the tall grass or across a wind-blown hillside to one of these bouldery ruins I felt a sense of excitement. though any number of guidebooks, or the directions of islanders, can lead you to these sites, the places themselves are unimproved and look undisturbed - there are as yet no signs, no arrows, no plaques. the silence and the look of abandonment gave me the illusion of being a solitary discoverer. After experiencing the gourmet cooking and the sybaritic life at the hotels at Koele and Manele Bay, I set up camp near Shipwreck Beach, on the northern shore of the island. I pitched my tent in a grove of kiawe trees, out of the wind, at Halulu. This windward side was very surfy but absolutely deserted and wonderful for snorkeling and hiking.

In the night the branches of the kiawe trees rubbed and muttered, sounding like live creatures. to the east I could see the bright lights of Maui, and across the moon-whitened surf of the channel the towering dark shape of Molokai. In the mornings, before the wind intensified, I paddled along the reef. About two miles up the coast there was a rusted hulk of a Liberty Ship that ran onto the reef. I paddled to it and closer I saw that the remains of many other whips were evident - the wooden decks of smashed ships lay on the beach, twisted in frayed fishing-nets, and further on were the beached and dented containers that had been flung from the deck of more recent wrecks. This sis said to be the best area of the island for beachcombing - for glass floats and shells and messages in bottles. There were deer tracks all over these beaches, though I did not see any of the cautious creatures, and for a day and a half I did not see a single human being. Beaching my kayak and wandering across the dry cliffs that were blasted by the wind - this side of Lanai has the look and feel of a Scottish moor - I came across petroglyphs and stone terraces that could have dated from the reign of Kamehameha I, the king who succeeded in unifying the Hawaiian islands in 1795. It is said that the spent his summers on the opposite side of Lanai - and it is a historical fact that he lived from time to time on Lanai. He is strongly associated with Kaunolu - an eerie and extensive site on the southern side of the island - but as a Hawaiian historian told me on Lanai, "That could be just a case of 'George Washington slept here.'"

I loaded my kayak on my jeep and traveled down dirt roads to other beaches, to paddle; and then across the island to look at the strange rocky plateau in the northeastern art of the island called the Garden of the gods, an place where the wind moaned through the long needles of drooping pines and the great boulders that had been exposed by erosion had the look of altars and temple ruins. Crossing the Munroe Trail at an altitude of 2,000 feet I needed to put on a sweater against the cold drizzly air. The stereotype of a Hawaiian island is sunny beaches and funny shirts, palm trees and surfers. Lanai has those, but Lanai has much else. Passing the pineapple fields and heading down Fraser Avenue, past eh numbered streets into Lanai City - the simple houses, the grocery stores, the lunch rooms, the bakery, the laundromat: all wooden buildings - it is difficult to rid yourself of the impression that you are in some ingenious theme park of the Hawaiian past. 

But the old-fangled appearance of the town is not an illusion, and not a fake. With the simple sepia look of an old photograph, it is a living breathing remnant of old Hawaii - a plantation town of the sort that flourished all over the islands before the Second World War, and before mass tourism. Almost every building in Lanai City looks as though it could be dated 1935. Remaining true to their past, conservative by nature, the Lanaians never saw much point in modernizing, and anyway the company owned most of the houses. Lanaians with money bought expense, sturdy vehicles - the only conspicuous sign of material wealth is a person's pick-up, and the island is a four-wheeler's dream.

The $300 million that Castle & Cooke has invested in the island is not immediately obvious. The excellent high school is at one side of town, the new housing at the other side. In Lanaian terms the luxury hotels and the golf course are remote and hidden - as they should be. It would be a shame if the pleasant homely character of the place changed, and Eighth Street was turned into a shopping mall. It5 could still happen - nothing is more expensive than preserving the past - but so far it looks as though the owner has found a way of rejuvenating the island without spoiling it.

An extract of the text from THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA by Paul Theroux, published in London by Hamish Hamilton, 1992. 

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