As with most islands, the history of Kauaʻi is charted by arrivals. The arrival of plants and animals, the arrival of humans, the arrival of European explorers, the arrival of disease, the arrival of missionaries, the arrival of sugar, the arrival of the tourist horde.
Like other Hawaiian Islands, Kauaʻi grew up in relative isolation. That is, until Captain Cook first landed in Waimea on the island's Westside in 1778. This transformational point in the island's history brought disease, new commerce, new technology, new religions and new ways of doing things. And while the broad strokes of Kauaʻi's history connects with that of the other islands, it has a fiercely independent streak that goes back to the days of the Hawaiian kings. In some ways this independence remains a common denominator for life on the island today. Under the leadership of moʻi (island king) Kaumualiʻi, Kauaʻi and Niʻihau were the last of the Hawaiian Islands to join Kamehameha I's kingdom in 1810. Unlike the other islands, they did so peacefully, more than 15 years after the rest of the islands were bloodily conquered.
But Kauaʻi was slow to grow. It remained a sugar-plantation island into the 20th century – with notable migrations of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino workers. It only became iconic as a tropical paradise after WWII, when Hollywood glamorized Lumahaʻi Beach in Mitzi Gaynor’s South Pacific (1958) and the long-gone Coco Palms Resort in Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii (1961). In 1982 Kauaʻi was hit by Hurricane ʻIwa. Just 10 years later, it was again devastated by Hurricane ʻIniki, the most powerful hurricane to ever strike Hawaii; it left six people dead, thousands of people homeless and caused $1.8 billion dollars of damage statewide.
Around six to 10 million years ago, volcanoes formed the islands of Kauaʻi and Oʻahu, the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands in geological time – the surrounding islands popping above the Pacific Ocean just 500,000 years ago. From this remarkable birth, the air, wind and currents transformed the land from volcanic rock to the tropical paradise you see today.
The beginnings were slow. Seeds borne on currents, in logs or on bird feathers found their way to the island. Each new introduced species changed the islands' ecology forever. And it happened way less frequently than you would imagine. Given the isolation of the archipelago, many experts postulate that successful introductions of species only occurred once every 20,000 or 30,000 years.
The First Settlers
Exactly how and when Kauaʻi was first settled remains a controversy. Most archaeologists agree that the first humans migrated to the Hawaiian Islands from the Marquesas Islands. This settlement marked the end of a 2000-year period of migration by ancient seafarers, originally from Southeast Asia, that populated Polynesia.
Most original scholarship places the date of the first Hawaiian settlers around 500AD. More recent radiocarbon dating, combined with tracking of linguists, culture and other factors, places the date closer to 1000 to 1200 AD. The last migrations likely started from Tahiti. Known as the Long Voyages, they lasted from 1000 to 1400AD and were likely voyages of discovery and not settlement.
The Tahitians also brought with them new gods, like Kāne, lord of creation and his opposing force Kanaloa; Lono, the god of peace, and Ku, the god of war.
These new dates offer an almost revolutionary perspective to Hawaiian history. What was considered a thousands-year-old culture may have developed in a much shorter time. Some point out that the original settlers could have been subdued by more powerful later migrations, thus justifying the mythology of the menehune ('little people' who were forced to live in the mountains).
The original settlers made their journeys in double-hulled canoes 60ft long and 14ft wide, without any modern navigational tools. Instead they relied on the ‘star compass,’ a celestial map based on keen observation (and perfect memory) of star paths. They had no idea what, if anything, they would find thousands of miles across open ocean, though many scholars now indicate that they brought with them the tools and resources they would need to populate a new world (seeds, women and children, plants and animals, gods and mythology). Amazingly, experts estimate that Hawaiʻi’s discoverers sailed for four months straight without stops to restock food and water.
By and large, the consensus is that Kauaʻi was the first island to be settled in the archipelago. These first settlers likely lived in caves, later building more substantial structures and small villages.
The Ancient Way of Life
Ancient Hawaiians had a hierarchical class system. At the top were the aliʻi nui (high chiefs, descended from the gods), who each ruled one of the four major islands (including Kauaʻi). One’s rank as an aliʻi was determined by one’s mother’s family lineage, making Hawaii a matrilineal society.
The second class comprised aliʻi ʻai moku (district chiefs) who ruled island districts and aliʻi ʻai ahupuaʻa (lower chiefs) who ruled ahupuaʻa, pie-shaped subdistricts extending from the mountains to the ocean. Also ranked second were the kahuna (priest, healer or sorceror), experts in important skills such as canoe building, religious practices, healing arts and navigation.
The third, and largest, class were the makaʻainana (commoners), who were not chattel of the aliʻi and could live wherever they pleased but were obligated to support the aliʻi through taxes paid in kind with food, goods and labor.
The final kaua (outcast) class was shunned and did not mix with the other classes, except as slaves. No class resented their position, for people accepted the ‘natural order’ and based their identity on the group rather than on their individuality.
Although the hierarchy sounds feudal, Hawaiian society was quite different because aliʻi did not ‘own’ land. It was inconceivable to the Hawaiian mind to own land or anything in nature. Rather, the aliʻi were stewards of the land – and they had a sacred duty to care for it on behalf of the gods. Further, the ancients had no monetary system or concept of trade for profit. They instead exchanged goods and services through customary, reciprocal gift giving (as well as through obligations to superiors).
Strict religious laws, known as the kapu (taboo) system, governed what people ate, whom they married, when they fished or harvested crops, and practically all other aspects of human behavior. Women could not dine with men or eat bananas, coconuts, pork and certain types of fish.
Surfing in Hawaii goes back to the beginning, when early Polynesian settlers brought the practice of bodyboarding to the islands. It was on Hawaii that the practice of standing on boards really took hold and surfing held a central part in local culture with surf competitions, prized breaks that only the royalty could ride (and plenty of leftovers for the commoners), and intricate cultural traditions that guided the selection, creation and storage of surfboards made from koa, wiliwili and breadfruit wood.
From Hawaiian Kingdom to US Territory
When esteemed British naval captain James Cook inadvertently sighted the uncharted island of Oʻahu on January 18, 1778, the ancient Hawaiians’ 500 years of isolation were forever lost. This new arrival transformed Hawaii in ways inconceivable at the time.
Strong winds on that fateful day pushed Cook away from Oʻahu and toward Kauaʻi, where he made landfall on January 20 at Waimea Bay. Cook promptly named the islands the Sandwich Islands, after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich.
Cook and his men were enthralled with Kauaʻi and its inhabitants, considering them to be robust and handsome in physical appearance, and friendly and generous in trade dealings. Meanwhile the Hawaiians, living in a closed society for hundreds of years, found the strange white men to be astounding. Most historians believe that they regarded Cook as the earthly manifestation of the great god Lono.
After two weeks, Cook continued to the Pacific Northwest for another crack at finding the elusive Northwest Passage across North America. Searching in vain for eight months, he returned south to winter in the Hawaiian Islands.
In November 1778, Cook sighted Maui for the first time, but did not land, choosing instead to head further south to explore the nearby island of Hawaiʻi with its towering volcanic mountains. After landing in picturesque Kealakekua Bay in January 1779, Cook’s luck ran out. An escalating series of conflicts ensued. When one of his ship’s boats was stolen, Cook attempted to kidnap the local chief as ransom and was driven back to the beach. A battle ensued, killing Cook, four of his men and 17 Hawaiians.
The Hawaiian Kingdom
Among the Hawaiian warriors that felled Captain Cook was a robust young man named Paiea. Between 1790 and 1810, this charismatic leader, who became known as Kamehameha the Great, managed to conquer the islands of Hawaiʻi, Maui, Molokaʻi and Oʻahu.
To make his domain complete, Kamehameha tried to conquer Kauaʻi, too, but was thwarted by the formidable chief Kaumualiʻi. Kamehameha did, however, negotiate a diplomatic agreement with the chief, which put the island under Kamehameha’s new kingdom, but gave Kaumualiʻi the right to rule the island somewhat independently.
Kamehameha is credited with unifying all of the islands, establishing a peaceful and solidified kingdom. He was widely acknowledged as being a benevolent and just ruler, much loved by his people until his death in 1819.
Enter the Missionaries
When Kamehameha died, his 23-year-old son Liholiho (Kamehameha II) became moʻi (king) and his wife, Queen Kaʻahumanu, became kuhina nui (regent) and co-ruler. Both of them were greatly influenced by Westerners and eager to renounce the kapu system. In a shocking blow to tradition, the two broke a strict taboo against men and women eating together and later ordered many heiau (temples) and kiʻi (idols) destroyed. Hawaiian society fell into chaos. Thus when the first missionaries to Hawaiʻi arrived in April 1820, it was a fortuitous moment for them. The Hawaiian people were in great social and political upheaval and many, particularly the aliʻi (chiefs), found the Protestant faith an appealing replacement.
The Hawaiians had no written language, so the missionaries established a Hawaiian alphabet using Roman letters and taught them how to read and write. This fostered a high literacy rate and publication of 100 Hawaiian-language newspapers. Eventually, however, missionaries sought to separate the Hawaiians from their ‘hedonistic’ cultural roots. They prohibited hula dancing because of its ‘lewd and suggestive movements,’ denounced the traditional Hawaiian chants and songs that honored ‘heathen’ gods, taught women to sew Western-style clothing, abolished polygamy and even banned the language they had taught them to write.
Many missionaries became influential advisors to the monarch and received large tracts of land in return, prompting them to leave the church altogether and turn their land into sugar plantations.
Foreigners quickly saw that Hawaii was ideal for growing sugarcane and established small plantations using Hawaiian labor. But by then the native population had severely declined, thanks to introduced diseases. To fill the shortage, workers were imported from overseas starting in the 1860s, first from China, and soon after from Japan and the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores.
The influx of imported foreign labor and the rise of the sugar industry had a major impact on the islands’ social structure. Caucasian plantation owners and sugar agents rose to become the elite upper economic and political class, while the Hawaiians and foreign laborers became the lower class, without much of a middle class in between. Labor relations became contentious, eventually resulting in the formation of unions and strike action.
The plantation era provides the best artifacts of Kauaʻi's short history. You can see old mills, plantation-era houses and other artifacts in places like Koloa, Waimea and the Kauaʻi Museum in Lihuʻe, while the McBryde and Allerton Gardens preserve some of the pomp and circumstance of the era.
Overthrow of the Monarchy
In 1887 the members of the Hawaiian League, a secret antimonarchy organization run by sugar interests, wrote a new constitution and by threat of violence forced King David Kalakaua to sign it. This constitution, which became known as the ‘Bayonet Constitution,’ limited voting rights and stripped the monarch’s powers, effectively making King Kalakaua a figurehead.
When Kalakaua, Hawaiʻi’s last king, died in 1891, his sister and heir, Princess Liliʻuokalani, ascended the throne. She tried to restore the monarchy, but on January 17, 1893, the leaders of the Hawaiian League, supported by both John L Stevens (the US Department of State Minister to Hawaii) and a 150-man contingent of US marines and sailors, forcibly arrested Queen Liliʻuokalani and took over ʻIolani Palace in Honolulu − a tense but bloodless coup d’état. The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was now the Republic of Hawaiʻi.
Annexation, War & Statehood
American interests pushed hard for annexation, while Hawaiians fought to prevent this final acquisition. In 1897 more than 21,000 people (almost half the population of Hawaii) signed an anti-annexation petition and sent it to Washington. In 1898 President William McKinley nevertheless approved the annexation, perhaps influenced by the concurrent Spanish-American War, which highlighted Pearl Harbor’s strategic military location.
Statehood was a tough sell to the US Congress, but a series of significant historical events paved the way. In 1936 Pan American Airways launched the first commercial flights from the US mainland to Hawaii, thus launching the trans-Pacific air age and the beginning of mass tourism. A wireless telegraph (and later telephone) service between Hawaii and the mainland alleviated doubts about long-distance communication. Most importantly, WWII proved both the strategic military role of Pearl Harbor and the loyalty and heroism of Japanese immigrants.
During WWII the Japanese were initially banned from joining the armed forces, due to great suspicion about their loyalty. In 1943 the US government yielded to political pressure and formed an all-Japanese combat unit, the 100th Infantry Battalion. While only 3000 men were needed for this unit, more than 10,000 men volunteered.
By the war’s end, another all-Japanese unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed of 3800 men from Hawaii and the mainland, had received more commendations and medals than any other unit. The 100th Infantry also received special recognition for rescuing the so-called ‘Lost Battalion,’ stranded behind enemy lines in France.
While still a controversial candidate, the islands were finally admitted as the 50th US state in 1959.
The Hawaiian Renaissance
After WWII, Hawaii became America’s tropical fantasyland. The tiki craze, surfer movies, aloha shirts and Waikiki were all Westernized, commercial images, but they made Hawaii iconic to the masses. Simultaneously, Hawaiians were increasingly marginalized by Western social, political and economic influences. The Hawaiian language had nearly died out, land was impossible for most Hawaiians to buy, and many of the traditional ways of life that had supported an independent people for over 1000 years were disintegrating. Without these, Hawaiians lost much of their own identity and even felt a sense of shame.
The 1970s introduced a cultural awakening, due largely to two events: in 1974 a small group called the Polynesian Voyaging Society (http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/) committed themselves to building and sailing a replica of an ancient Hawaiian voyaging canoe, to prove that the first Polynesian settlers were capable of navigating the Pacific without the use of Western technology such as sextants and compasses. When the Hokuleʻa made its maiden 4800-mile round-trip voyage to Tahiti in 1976, it instantly became a symbol of rebirth for Hawaiians, prompting a cultural revival unparalleled in Hawaiian history.
The same year, a small grassroots group, the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana (PKO), began protesting against the treatment of Kahoʻolawe, an island the US military had used as a training and bombing site since WWII. The PKO’s political actions, including the island’s illegal occupation, spurred new interest in reclaiming not only Kahoʻolawe (which the navy relinquished in 2003) and other military-held lands, but also Hawaiian cultural practices, from hula to lomilomi massage.
Public schools started teaching Hawaiian language and culture classes, while Hawaiian immersion charter schools proliferated. Hawaiian music topped the charts, turning island-born musicians into now-legendary superstars. Small but vocal contingents began pushing for Hawaiian sovereignty, from complete secession from the USA to a nation-within-a-nation model.