I’ll admit, I have a bit of a fascination with the TV show Hawaii-Five-0. It’s a blandly satisfying mix of action scenes and nearly static characters, but explosions and guns aren’t why I’m fascinated with it. No matter how much the episodes resemble each other week to week I can’t quit watching it because it’s just so different from Tennessee, and it has great beauty shots every time it comes back from commercial. (I can’t quit watching Nashville for similar but opposite reasons.) From time to time I learn something interesting just by virtue of its physical and cultural distance from me. Last time it was about the history of money, and this time it’s the Forbidden Isle.
Hawaii is made of eight major islands and a lot of smaller specks of land not quite big enough to geographically justify being called an island. The one I want to talk about is Ni’ihau, the Forbidden Isle. For perspective the largest Hawaiian island, and the one the state is named for, is 4,028 square miles and has a permanent population of 185,079. The smallest island (not including the bits and specks of land too small to be called an island) of Kaho’olawe is 44.6 square miles and has no permanent population. Ni’ihau ranks seventh of the eight major islands in size and population with an area of 69.5 square miles and a population of 170 (2010 census).
Now that the facts and figures are out of the way, let’s get to the interesting part. Ni’ihau’s nickname, and the reason for it, are what caught my attention. Turns out that Ni’ihau is called the Forbidden Isle because it’s private property owned entirely by the Robinson family. Showing up without an invitation is trespassing, and the Robinson family doesn’t appreciate uninvited visitors. The island has been off limits to the general public since the 1930’s and even family members of island residents need special permission to visit.
In 1863 Elizabeth Sinclair left New Zealand with her extended family intending to buy a ranch in Vancouver. When Canada didn’t prove to her liking the family moved on to Hawaii, then often referred to as the Sandwich Islands. The family decided against buying various tracts of land in what is now downtown Honolulu, Waikiki Beach, and Pearl Harbor at which point King Kamehameha IV made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Kamehameha offered them the island of Ni’ihau which was home to approximately 600 native Hawaiians. After the dust settled the family had traded 68 pounds of gold (then $10,000 and roughly $1.4 million at the time of this writing) for the 69.5 square mile island. (Try here for a snapshot of what the island was like when the Sinclairs bought it.)
Before the family took possession the island was considered property of the Kingdom of Hawaii and after the sale the native residents were allowed to stay. Turns out that this wasn’t one of those incidents where the white man got one over on the natives. Kamehameha saw the Sinclair family coming and took advantage of the opportunity to make some easy money on some land not worth much. At the time the Sinclair purchased the island it was lush and green from two years of abnormally high rainfall, but it usually averages no more than 25 inches per year making it difficult to grow much on the island. The residents had been trying for years to buy the island from the Kingdom but couldn’t raise the money due to the barren nature of the island. However, as often happens with real estate, the family did end up with the better end of the deal just by holding onto the island for 150 years while the Hawaiian islands became a tourist mecca.
The purchase of the island may have turned out to be something of a good thing for the natives that lived on it. Elizabeth Sinclair and her heirs turned out to have a healthy respect for native Hawaiian culture and history and have preserved a lot of Hawaiian heritage over the past 150 years as the rest of the islands were acquired by the United States and progressively modernized and became more homogenized with mainland US culture. To this day Ni’ihau is undeveloped and is in a condition pretty close to what it looked like before European explorers discovered the islands in the 18th century seemingly thanks to the stewardship of Keith and Bruce Robinson, current owners and 5th generation heirs of Elizabeth Sinclair. Keith Robinson is an environmentalist and is acclaimed for using the remote island to nurture varieties of plant life that are extinct on all the other islands of Hawaii.
Legally speaking, residents of the island are ‘guests’ and can be evicted at the discretion of the owners, but Robinson provides housing and some healthcare, such as vaccinations. When the family operated a cattle ranch on the island most of the natives were employees and all were provided free meat. There are conflicting reports, but it seems that these days most of the natives have to spend at least part of the year working on the neighboring island of Kauai because the Robinsons haven’t had a lot of success at making money on Ni’ihau. Most food and supplies are brought over from Kauai and the primary monetary influx to the island is from the US Navy that rents part of the island for a radar station to monitor the Pacific Missile Range Facility . The island has recently been opened up to a limited amount of tourism in the form of day tours on the island. The other major source of income on the island is collection of the unique shells that wash up on the island’s beaches. Leis and other native art made from Ni’ihau shells are highly sought collectibles in the art community.
The Robinsons have had to fight fiercely to maintain the island as their own property. They’ve used income from their other holdings in Hawaii to subsidize life on Ni’ihau and pay taxes. They’ve faced a fair amount of opposition from Hawaiian sovereignty groups demanding the island be seized and turned over to the residents. There have been demands that the state use eminent domain to turn the island into a state park, and an effort by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare large chunks of the island off limits due to the endangered plants. They’ve reportedly also turned down very lucrative monetary offers from the US government as well as large commercial interests. There’s even a 2005 documentary about the Robinsons and their fight to keep the island private. So far the Robinsons have successfully resisted any attempts to open up the island and it will be interesting to see how the island fares as the next generation of Robinsons takes over.
- A good portion of this comes from here and here.
- The Boston Globe Travel section has an interesting article about the tours.
- An interesting essay written by owner, Keith Robinson.
- A very interesting story about attempts to protect the Hawaiian monk seal and the tensions it causes with local citizens.