Kauai, a place all its own

Tectonic drift has isolated Kaua‘i from its sister Islands, invisible even from O‘ahu, the closest of the main Islands, which lies 70 miles to the east. Only Ni‘ihau and a few surrounding islets are visible from Kaua‘i, fragments of a once larger island. Beyond are the rocky pinnacles and atolls that stretch 1,200 miles to the west.

When King Kamehameha I (Kamehameha the Great) created the Hawaiian kingdom in 1795, only Kaua‘i remained beyond his grasp. Two plans to attack Kaua‘i had failed. The first, launched from O‘ahu in 1796, was forced back by a storm that caused losses of men, canoes and supplies. Kamehameha returned to Kailua-Kona, where he remained for six years. Heading back to O‘ahu en route to Kaua‘i in 1803, he arrived just as an epidemic of either cholera or typhoid fever broke out, again decimating his forces, the king also falling ill, but recovering, with the planned attack on Kaua‘i once again cancelled.

Although Kamehameha would never again mount an offensive against Kaua‘i, the island would be offered to him in 1810, when Kaua‘i’s King Kaumuali‘i declared himself Kamehameha’s vassal, naming him as his heir, thus disinheriting his son, George Humehume.

Humehume had spent most of his life away from Kaua‘i, having been placed in the care of American sea captain James Rowan who, in exchange for a cargo of sandalwood, took the five-year-old boy aboard, introducing him to the outside world on a year-and-a-half-long voyage that ended in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1805. Humehume, calling himself George Prince, received a missionary education before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps, fighting in the War of 1812, where he was wounded and discharged. Joining the Navy in 1815, he served in the Mediterranean. Now, at 21, he was ready to return to Kaua‘i, the island kingdom he expected to rule.

Things had dramatically changed on Kaua‘i since Humehume’s departure in 1804. The first upheaval began in 1815, following the arrival of Georg Scheffer, a Bavarian-born surgeon in the employ of the Russian-America Company.

Befriending Kamehameha after curing him of a fever, Scheffer aroused the distrust of chiefs who suspected his motives. Their suspicions proved well founded when Scheffer departed O‘ahu early in 1816, setting sail for Kaua‘i with three ships and a plan to preserve Kaua‘i’s independence by placing the island under the protection of the Russian Czar.

Kaumuali‘i accepted, seeing Scheffer’s offer as a reprieve from the surrender of his kingdom to Kamehameha. Preparing for a military response from Kamehameha, Scheffer had fortifications built on a hill overlooking Waimea’s south coast waters, and on a North Shore hillside overlooking Hanalei. Kaumuali‘i, growing uncertain of Scheffer’s intentions, withdrew his support. With Kamehameha’s forces en route, Scheffer departed in 1817. Kaumuali‘i was exiled to O‘ahu and forced to marry the Queen Regent, Ka‘ahumanu.

Humehume returned to Kaua‘i in 1820, securing a place on the brig Thaddeus, after it disembarked the first company of U.S. missionaries in Honolulu, continuing on to Kaua‘i with two missionary couples.

Biding his time as he adjusted to a culture no longer familiar to him, Humehume married and had several children. When Kaumuali‘i died in 1824, Humehume unsuccessfully sought to rally support to his cause as rightful heir. He was easily defeated by the troops sent to quell the rebellion. Exiled to O‘ahu, Humehume died in 1825 in an influenza epidemic.

Kaua‘i’s story as a place apart begins with tales of the
menehune. Elfin in size, but master builders, prodigious of strength and speed, they were credited with construction on a grand scale. It is on Kaua‘i that tales of menehune are widely told, perhaps a link to a time 16 or 17 centuries ago when the first settlers to Kaua‘i arrived from the Marquesas, a chain of islands about 2,000 miles southeast of Hawai‘i.

Several centuries later, the Marquesans were followed by Polynesians from the islands of Ra‘iatea and Bora Bora in the Tahitian archipelago. The Marquesan Hawaiians were subjugated by the larger, more numerous Tahitians. The Tahitian word for a slave is
manehune so it’s easy to see how the word could have evolved.

Mythic history also links Kaua‘i to the volcano goddess Pele and her love for the handsome Kaua‘i
ali‘i (chief), Lohiau, whom she met while visiting Kaua‘i as she searched the Islands for a congenial home. It was while she was on Kaua‘i that the hula was first danced, performed at Pele’s request by her younger sister Hi‘iaka, whose dances told of Pele’s tempestuous life and her love for Lohiau. A halau hula (hula school), just uphill of the beach at Ha‘ena, focused on training dancers in the sacred hula.

By the time the first missionaries reached Kaua‘i in 1820, much had already changed. However, they were not the first outsiders to reach Kaua‘i. The first was British Captain James Cook, who made his first Hawaiian landfall in 1778, coming ashore at Waimea, on Kauai’s south coast, accompanied by the ship’s artist John Weber, who recorded life on Kaua‘i as it was then.

The impact of the trade vessels and whaling ships that followed began to quickly impact the traditional lifestyle, but even greater impact would follow the arrival of the first missionaries aboard the same ship that brought Humehume back to his island home.

While Kamehameha had been able to maintain the ways of old, that system collapsed within six months of his death in 1819. The arriving missionaries found themselves poised to replace the gods of old with New England-style Christianity, their schools providing a bridge to the ways of the outside world.

The first mission was established in Waimea, a steepled church soon rising above the surrounding thatched hale (houses). The larger Wai‘oli Mission (Hawai‘i’s best preserved mission and an historic attraction along with the adjacent missionary home) was established at Hanalei in 1834, with a third mission established at Kōloa in 1842. Missionary schools educated many children, preparing them for a future very different from that of their parents. That future would focus on plantation-grown sugar and the self-contained lifestyle it created. With plentiful fresh water and deep, rich soil, it’s not surprising that Hawai‘i’s first successful sugar plantation would be on Kaua‘i.

In 1835, Kamehameha III, seeking new revenues for his modernizing kingdom, approved a lease for the Kōloa Plantation, its 980 acres leased for $300 per year to Honolulu-based Ladd & Company. A new era that would last more than a century and a half had emerged. By 1900, Kaua‘i was home to eight large sugar plantations, tens of thousands of thirsty acres planted from Kekaha in the west to Kōloa in the south, Līhue in the east to Kīlauea in the north. As the major commercial enterprise, the plantations were cities unto themselves, employing the majority of island labor force, providing housing, transportation, entertainment and later even electricity to local residents through the power generated at sugar mills. Growing cane provided the island with landscaped beauty but that too is now history.

While the beauty remains, the last of Kaua‘i’s plantations closed in 2009. Sugarcane and the plantation lifestyle that had nurtured generations drew to a close as the 21st century began. Yet for all that has changed, Kaua‘i retains the unique sense of a place apart, separated by both the ocean and a unique mix of myth and history.