The Mysterious History of Hawaii's "Forbidden Island"


| LAST UPDATE 03/27/2023

By Stanley Wickens

In the Pacific Ocean lies one Hawaiian island very few people have ever set foot on. The reason behind its mysteriousness takes us back almost 150 years to its fascinating origins. Here's a closer look…

Off the Beaten Path

When we hear the word "Hawaii," we usually think of pineapples, palm trees, and Polynesian dancing. But there's more to these islands than meets the eye - especially one of the state's lesser-known regions…

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Christopher P. Becker / Wikimedia Commons

One giant secret of the Pacific reveals itself as the sun sets on the horizon, where the outline of a distant island becomes just visible against the pink and orange hues of the sky. The fact of the matter is, this island holds a truth known only among a few…

Among the Shores

Its mountainous silhouette can be seen from the shores of the neighboring island of Kauai. Our mystery island, which appears as a mere dot among the intense blue of the Pacific ocean, is very different from others in the state of Hawaii - or even in the world.

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YouTube via midway512

In fact, it's a reminder of a promise left many generations ago that completely changed the course of its development over the years. While most of the native Hawaiian culture has been lost through decades of colonization, this island is still perfectly preserved after all these years...

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"The Forbidden Island"

The smallest of all Hawaiian islands, Niihau lies just 17 miles off the coast of Kauai. Not only is the native culture of the land still very much alive, but hardly anyone in the world knows of its existence. That's because, unlike the Hawaiian islands of Maui or Oahu, this one is completely closed to visitors.

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James L. Amos via Getty Images

The mysterious chunk of land has even earned itself the nickname "the forbidden island," thanks to its ban of all visitors from around the world. For about 150 years, no one from the outside has ever been able to set foot on Niihau, making it a total mystery to us all. But why?

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Exploring the Unknown

It's true that humans are naturally drawn to the unknown. The more secrets something holds, the stronger we typically find our desire to figure it out. But Niihau's extreme exclusivity is far from the most fascinating thing about the island. See, the region has a story to tell…

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Andrew Merry via Getty Images

The year was 1864 when Niihau was purchased by Elizabeth Sinclair, a Scottish homemaker and farmer who owned a plantation in New Zealand. The small island was sold to her for $10,000 by King Kamehameha V of Hawaii, who ruled the lands during that time.

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The King's Prophecy

However, the monarch wouldn't allow the sale to go through without conditions. King Kamehameha V had one requirement to be fulfilled by the Scotswoman who wished to have the island in her possession. And it would shape the future of the Niihau for decades to come...

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nostri-imago via Flickr

In fact, it was a small piece of advice that the King had for the purchaser. Per a 2002 article by The New York Times, he said, "Niihau is yours. But the day may come when Hawaiians are not as strong in Hawaii as they are now. When that day comes, please do what you can to help them."

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Keeping Tradition Alive

Words of guidance only a true king and leader could have spoken - and the Sinclairs didn't take this advice lightly, either. Once the island of Niihau was in their possession, they made it a top priority to preserve the native culture of the land, known as "kahiki."

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ilbusca via Getty Images

And - over a century and a half later - the family's efforts to protect the island's culture had certainly paid off. Since the language of Hawaiian is still commonly spoken on Niihau today, the island remains one of the world's few locations where it's widely used.

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Sunday Services

Although they aimed as much as possible to preserve the island's native culture and not bring too many changes to it, they did impose a few new laws on the islanders. For example, the Sinclairs, who were Calvinists, announced it would be mandatory for islanders to attend church on Sundays.

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Historical / Contributor via Getty Images

It didn't take much to convince these natives to abide by their new law, since past missionaries had already converted Niihauans to Christians several decades prior to the Sinclairs' era. So the locals of the island obeyed - and going to church on Sundays became their new norm.

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A New Surrounding

As the years progressed, the family made more changes to the island. A short period of time later, the Sinclairs' grandson, named Aubrey Robinson, built a sugar plantation on Kauai, just a few miles from Niihau. This, in turn, led to a few changes on his grandparents' island...

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Denise Ankrum via Getty Images

He took on the mission of planting 10,000 new trees on the small island every year. As a result of his efforts, the island saw an increase in rainfall in the following decades. And in turn, it became more inhabitable and sustainable for those living on it.

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Pandemic on the Rise

So, the island's inhabitants have been living peacefully, happily, and according to their own culture and traditions for centuries, thanks to King Kamehameha's request. But the question that remains is, why has it been completely shut off from the rest of the world since the 1930s?

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Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images

The simple answer to the question may have sounded strange or a bit extreme just a few years ago. But now, it might just make perfect sense in a world hit by a global virus. See, a polio epidemic hit the world in the 1930s, during which the Robinsons banned outside visitors from entering the island.

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"It Was Forbidden"

According to Bruce Robinson, they had made the careful decision to protect the island's inhabitants. He told Good Morning America, "My uncle wanted to protect the residents here from the epidemic. It was forbidden to come out here unless you had a doctor's certificate, and there was a two-week quarantine."

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YouTube via ABC News

Robinson added that "it worked. We never got polio out here." And so, the locals on the island were saved from becoming exposed to the disabling and life-threatening virus. However, even later, when the virus was under control, the island remained off-limits to the outside world...

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Contacting the Mainland

Since Niihau was inaccessible to the public, it became more and more mysterious to those who wished to explore its shores. People were intrigued to find out what life was like on the island - and the Robinsons were surprised at the people's fascination with Niihau.

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Kevin Thrash via Getty Images

However, the ban did not apply to the native residents of the island, who grew quite familiar with the world beyond their coasts. "[Locals] go back and forth all the time. In fact, every person on Niihau has been to the mainland," Robinson explained. "They know all about it. "

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Meet the Locals

He further explained that, contrary to what others might expect, the people of Niihau aren't stuck in the world of the past. "It's a well-traveled population – totally bilingual, some working on three languages," he explained. "While it is an ancient type of culture, they're a very modern type of people."

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Bob Sacha via Getty Images

Back on the island, however, these natives lead rather simple lives. Their lifestyle as a community resembles that of their ancestors, who farmed and fished as primary methods for obtaining food. Not only that, but some of Niihau's residents rely on these activities for sources of income.

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A Day in the Life

Others on the island spend their day working on the Robinsons' ranch to earn their wages. And although it seems like there could be plenty of work to go around for these natives, a handful of them do rely on the Robinsons for welfare payments in order to survive.

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Dwi Darastuti Darastuti / EyeEm via Getty Images

The Robinsons kept their ancestors' promise to King Kamehameha V to take care of the island's residents and treat them well. They made sure to give all their workers wages and provided the island's inhabitants with free homes, which they still live in today.

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Back to the Basics

It's not just houses and incomes that the Robinsons give Niihauans - they also provide free education and free meat for the children living on the island. Despite all of these luxuries, however, the islanders still live with pretty basic infrastructure.

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Stefan Cristian Cioata via Getty Images

For example, the Robinsons haven't supplied the island's residents with running water from faucets. So, how do they get access to safe drinking water? Most of their water comes from rainfall, which they collect in order to use for their everyday needs.

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Cut Off From Civilization

Another fact about the island that might surprise many is that it has no electricity. Instead, locals use solar energy to power their appliances and electronic devices. And while it sounds like a primitive lifestyle, Bruce Robinson - Aubrey's grandson - insists it has several advantages.

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cdwheatley via Getty Images

"Every house has solar power," he explained on Good Morning America in 2010. "Every house has its own water system. At the time when we had hurricanes, where the rest of the islands took months to recover, Niihau took three days, and we were back on our feet; the schools were running and everything."

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No Cars or Corner Stores

Not only is there no electricity on Niihau, but motor vehicles are also nowhere to be found. Instead, the primary mode of transportation for the island's residents is horses. Since Niihau covers a very small area, using horses to get from one place to another isn't too bothersome.

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Sami Sarkis via Getty Images

But since there are no stores on the island, the locals are sent a weekly barge of goods brought over from Kauai. These groceries are often purchased by relatives and shipped over to Niihau free of charge. They're provided with everything they may want - except for alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, which the Robinsons have banned.

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Employed & Empowered

But that's not to say the locals get everything they need from the small island of Niihau. In fact, many of its residents make frequent trips to Kauai, where they have access to more schools and better medical care. This is why so many of them call both islands home.

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Glowimages via Getty Images

So far, it sounds like these islanders spend most of their day working, studying, and pretty much doing what they need to survive. However, many would be surprised to know that Niihauans have plenty of free time, which they spend pretty much just like the rest of us...

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Soundtrack of Their Lives

Needless to say, these residents enjoy the tropical shores of their beach, which they have plenty of. But when they're not out basking in the sun or catching the waves, they take to their tablets just like the rest of the world. They use these devices to watch pre-downloaded movies or TV shows.

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YouTube via Crewser5379

Just like other Hawaiian islands, a popular part of these natives' culture is music. So, in their free time, many of the locals of Niihau play either the guitar or the ukulele and dance to their traditional music. It's a big part of the culture the Robinsons have worked hard to preserve.

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Keeping Tabs on Things

So, although the Robinsons have made a few changes to the island here and there, its native culture has remained quite preserved throughout the several decades since its purchase. For more than 150 years, the owning family has made maintaining the island for the locals a top priority.

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7Michael via Getty Images

"We've tried to maintain the request of the king when it was turned over," Bruce Robinson explained in his interview with Good Morning America. "We maintain the island for the people and continue to work it as he had." They have continued to honor their ancestors' promise to the former king.

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“For the Rest of Time”

He also alluded that his family basically bought the king's duties along with the island. "When the king sold the island to the family, he said to the family, 'These are now your subjects,'" Robinson added. "'You are to take care of them the best you can for the rest of time.' And our family has continued that."

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YouTube via midway512

"[Niihau is] an island that's maintained the original Hawaiian lifestyle, the kahiki lifestyle, which is traditional – back to the 1800s and earlier. And it's still alive today, and it's working," Robinson gushed. However, the owner of Niihau also acknowledged the challenges that came with the responsibility...

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Feeling the Pressure

He added that the island was "under extreme pressure from the outside world" and that his family was "trying to save it from that." One particular member of the Robinson family once revealed that she had never managed to figure out where this external pressure was coming from.

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YouTube via midway512

"It's just a little cattle ranch we operate in our own way," Helen Matthew Robinson, head of the family until she passed away in 2002, told The New York Times in 1970. "There's nothing sensational about [Niihau]. I don't see why everyone is so interested in it."

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From the Outside Looking In

However, it's safe to say that even today, over a century after the island was closed to the rest of the world, people outside of it are more fascinated by it than ever. After all, only a handful of human beings have ever seen what life on the inside is actually like...

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Matthew Micah Wright via Getty Images

No one alive today, besides the Robinsons, the 170 residents of Niihau, U.S. navy personnel, and a few government officials, have ever really had the chance to witness and experience life on the island. And even the most eager of tourists have a very small chance of ever setting foot on it.

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A Dying Wish

But the desire to visit the island remains as strong as ever. We've had a lot of requests – including [from] people who are about to die – and they have to come over and see the last place on earth they haven't seen," Robinson shared with Good Morning America.

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YouTube via midway512

And if, after everything we've mentioned about the "forbidden island," there are a few who are still hoping to come near Niihau's coasts, we're about to reveal just how impossible it is. The Robinsons have denied even Mick Jagger access to the island - after he asked to take his helicopter there.

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Neighbors Speak Out

But for those who feel like they're missing out on something: first, perhaps we all are. However, it's a bit comforting to know that even people on the neighboring islands, like Kauai, have never walked on Niihau. They only know it as a silhouette that forms on the distant horizon as the sun sets.

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YouTube via AJ+

Still, the small island of Niihau remains of great significance to the native people of other Hawaiian islands. For example, Mike Faye, a resident of Kauai, is one Hawaiian who has shared the importance of Niihau to him in an interview with Good Morning America.

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"A Silent Sentinel"

"Growing up as a kid, in the mornings, the sun would reflect off the mountains [in Niihau], and it was almost like you could reach out and touch the place," Faye revealed. "Niihau was always like a silent sentinel out there across the ocean, giving us some comfort from storms and the wide-open ocean out beyond."

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YouTube via AJ+

For people like Faye, the island represents a constant point the islanders can always turn to. Every time they watched the sun set over the farthest point into the ocean, they found its outline there. "Niihau gives us that point on the horizon out there. It's close. It's always there. It guards us from that side of the world."

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Local Wildlife

So, thanks to the restricted access to the island, combined with the decades of efforts by the Robinsons to help preserve Niihau, its native culture is now thriving. Not only that, but the family has shared several reports on the island's preserved wildlife as well...

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Maria_Ermolova via Getty Images

The plant species that filled the land several decades ago remain very much alive on the island today. But the family is now focusing on protecting the Hawaiian monk seal - or "llio-holo-i-ka-uaua" in the native language - which is considered an endangered animal on the island.

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“Dog That Runs in Rough Water”

The animal's Hawaiian name translates to "dog that runs in rough water." But it appears that some waters may be a little too rough for this mammal, which Good Morning America reports is believed to be the most endangered species of seal in the world. 

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YouTube via midway512

In 2010, only 150 individuals of the species lived on the islands of Hawaii, of which 87 were inhabitants of Niihau. It seems this specific island is the most comfortable place for the species to live. These seals appear to feel safe on the shores of Niihau since they can frequently be spotted basking in the sun there.

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A Tragic Fate

However, it's worth mentioning that the relationship between these seals and the islanders hasn't always been a smooth one. "The natives knew that the seals took so much food that they felt it endangered their existence, so they killed all the seals," Robinson confessed to Good Morning America.

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YouTube via midway512

But despite the islanders' efforts to get rid of the species, the Robinsons weren't about to let the animals become extinct just like that. "So, what we're doing now is working with the federal government, helping with the seal count and seeing what we can do to save them," Robinson shared.

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Lucky Visitors

And it wasn't too long ago that the Robinsons finally decided to allow a limited number of tourists onto the island. The family began to permit tourists to board helicopters and head over to the Forbidden Island to explore its fascinating features and culture.

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Lisa Maree Williams / Stringer via Getty Images

On Niihau, visitors are allowed to roam the beaches and snorkel in the ocean. "The limited tourism that we're doing now is good in that it helps to defray that cost," Robinson explained. "But the real benefit to us is that it's low impact. We like the low-impact tourism."

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"The Only Place Left"

Robinson also teased what one could expect upon their arrival. "When you come out to Niihau, what you are immediately going to notice is the peace and quiet [and] the fact that you're going out to a beach that doesn't have any people on it – doesn't have a lot of foot tracks on it. It's an open, empty beach."

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YouTube via midway512

Robinson believes the island truly is unique - and for good reason. "[There's] a feeling of inner peace and renewal that we don't understand in the outside world. The Western culture has lost it, and the rest of the islands have lost it. The only place it's left is on Niihau."

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