Kauai, Hawaii the oldest island in the Hawaiian chain is approximately 6 million years old and was formed by the tectonic Pacific plate passing over a ‘hotspot’ in the earths lithosphere. Kauai is the top of an enormous volcano that collapsed millions of years ago. This tectonic union created over 137 islands in the chain. The chain of islands is 1836 miles in length and runs from the Island of Hawaii in the east to Kure atoll in the Northwest. A total of 130 volcanoes were created of which four are active and located at the eastern end of the chain at the island of Hawaii.
Kauai, has a long and epic history since the arrival of the first settlers between 200-600 AD from the Marquesas Islands and eventually from other south Pacific islands. With its majestic Mt. Wailaleale, Kawaikini at 5,148 ft., the name means “rippling waters”, it receives over 450 inches of rain per year providing settlers with the basic ingredient to grow crops and survive on one of the most isolated island on the planet. Kauai is more than 2500 miles from the nearest continent
This abundant rainfall is responsible for carving deep valleys in the center of the island creating epic waterfalls that have awed visitors for years. Millions of years of rainfall eroded and formed Waimea Canyon, creating one of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world. From scenic viewpoints along the road to the Kalalau overview you can see strata of varying colors in the sides of its cliffs.
The first European to discover Kauai was Captain James Cook in 1778, naming the islands, “The Sandwich Islands” after the Earl of Sandwich. Thus introducing the Islands to the European Continent. With this introduction a series of calamities were unleashed on the Hawaiian people. Diseases like influenza and measles decimated the native population because they lacked resistance to these blights.
Kauai, is the only island that did not suffer the violent occupation forces of King Kamehameha 1 in the early nineteenth century. Kamehameha 1 twice mobilized his naval armada to conquer Kauai and was thwarted due to a large storm that devastated his flotilla. The second catastrophe to befell his army was the cholera epidemic of 1803 which sickened even Kamehameha, but he recovered and his determination to unite all the Islands under his rule paid off peacefully. When Kaumuali’i, the ruler of Kauai and Niihau, heard from European advisers that Kamehameha 1 was amassing the largest army ever seen in Hawaii of over 10,000 men, employing schooners, Europeans, and cannons. He handed over control of the last two islands to King Kamehameha in 1810 to avoid bloodshed, thus ceding the islands and becoming a subject of Kamehameha, and uniting the Kingdom of Hawaii.
About this time, the first missionaries arrived from New England, again opening the floodgates for unprecedented change to the native peoples. They brought their religious beliefs and intolerance, destroying many cultural sites and a highly developed polytheistic belief system. This system was based upon a harmonious relationship between the gods na akua, the people na kanaka, and the earth ka honua.
Outsiders brought change to the economic system of Hawaii. The tradition of bartering and exchanging goods that the Hawaiians were familiar with was soon abandoned. Its natural resources were wanted and exploited. The whaling industry required supplies after months on the open ocean and the islands and Europeans were in an ideal location to gain from their needs. Merchants capitalized on the Chinese demand for Sandalwood Santalum spp., the fragrant wood used in jewelry boxes. Sandalwood grew well at higher elevations, the old growth trees were quickly stripped by King Kamehameha 1 who participated in the exploitation by selling the equivalent of two boatloads of the wood to acquire his first naval ship the Columbia in the 1820′s.
In 1835 the first sugar plantation was formed in Koloa. The need for additional labor to satisfy the ever expanding acres of the crop brought the first Chinese immigrants. They were quickly followed by peoples from as diverse culturally as Japan, Korea, Portugal to Puerto Rico. Sugar expanded for 125 years in the islands energized by the growing demand in the United States and favorable price supports that assisted Hawaiian growers. Sugar was the single industry responsible for the ethnic cultural diversity that Hawaii is famous for worldwide. In 2008, the last sugarcane plantation, Gay and Robinson on the west side of Kauai, closed its doors ending 173 years of cultivation on the island.
In the early 1920′s tourism began in the island aided by Hollywood film makers who showcased the natural beauty of the island. This tradition continues till this day with such historic films as: South Pacific, Donovan’s Reef, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Jurassic Park, and many more. A film just released, Soul Surfer chronicles the trials and courage of local legend Bethany Hamilton. A young girl who at the age of thirteen lost her arm in a shark attack while surfing on the north shore.
Today Kauai is still the beautiful natural wonder that greeted the first settlers, it is here for you to discover, and to create your own history. From the magic of the Alakai and Kokee State Park to the pristine waters of Hanalei Bay it’s all here waiting for you.
Let us know of your special place on Kauai, we invite your comments.
All photos for this post are by Ken Posney.