Kauai Unconquered and Unlike the Rest

As the eldest island of the inhabited main islands of the Hawaiian Archipelago, Kauai is part of an island complex along with Niihau and the tiny island of Ka’ula. Kaua’i is estimated to be around 5 million years old. These three high islands represent the tip-top of this 5-million-year-old volcanic mountain. Geologically, Kaua’i is the most mature in the development of far-reaching, lush erosional valleys and coastal features with extensive sandy beaches. At the center of the island is the Mount Wai’ale’ale, with a rain gauge in place since 1912 and has recorded an average rainfall of 423 inches. The neighboring Waimea Canyon is remarkable with a depth of 2,500 feet, being the largest erosional valley. The Northern side of the Waimea Canyon is made of the 4,000 feet high Na Pali Coast, one of the planet’s most scenic sea cliffs. Nearly half of Kauai’s coastline is lined with sandy beaches.

Kauai is the fourth largest of the eight major islands and is nearly circular, with a maximum length of 33 miles, a width of 25 miles, a perimeter of 94 miles, and an area of 555 square miles. The central mountain rises to an altitude of 5,170 feet above sea level at Kawaikini Peak, and 5,080 feet at the Mount Wai’ale’ale, a mile to the North. The high part of the island is torn by spectacular canyons. The beautiful Waimea Canyon, 2,600 feet deep in its upper part, has often been compared with the Grand Canyon of the Colorado for type and grandeur of its scenery.

Due to its vast remote location, the island chain is biologically unique. Only a few species of land plants and animals survived the over 2,400 or more miles of open ocean. Before the human inhabitants, Hawaii was home only to plants, birds, and insects. There were no flightless land mammals or reptiles. Many birds were known to exhibit flightless habits due to the lack of ground predators. Even in the surrounding ocean the number of coral species was limited, with only 5 or 6 common species with nearly 25% of inshore fishes being endemic (only found in Hawaiian waters). You can find over 4,300 native species of plants and animals, predominantly insects existing in all eight inhabited islands. Nearly a thousand native plants, mostly endemic evolved from as few as 280 original plant colonists arriving and becoming established. There is said to have had 100 endemic bird species that evolved from as few as 15 original aviators.

The history of Kauai prior to contact by the Europeans is largely lost in the mists of unwritten tradition. The islands were recorded to be occupied by the modern Hawaiians soon after their arrival in Hawaii around 1100 A.D. from Tahiti. Both Oahu and Kauai were sighted on January 18, 1778. The next day Captain James Cook reached Kauai, and on January 20th his ships anchored on the shores of Kauai in the bay of Waimea on the West end. After gathering food and water from Kauai and Niihau, their expedition proceeded until Cooks death on the Big Island a year later. 

In the spring of 1796 Kamehameha, having established his rule over all the southern islands, set out with a large army to conquer Kauai, which was in a state of civil war. Keawe, son of the chiefess Kamakahelei, had become king of Kauai in 1779, but shortly afterward was deposed by his stepfather, Kaeo. In 1792 Kaeo left Kauai to aid his half-brother, Kahekili, in his wars with Kamehameha. On Kahekili’s death, in 1794, Kaeo became king of Maui, Molokai, and Lanai. He retained the island of Kauai, but left it in direct charge of his son, Kaumualii, the chief Inamo’o acting as regent. Toward the end of 1894 Kaeo was killed on Oahu, fighting the king of that island, Kalanikapule; Inamo’o died; and Kaumualii became king of Kauai. Keawe of Hawaii island quickly engineered a revolt, in an attempt to cease power from his younger half-brother, Kaumualii. Part way across the channel to Kauai, Kamehameha’s first fleet of several hundred canoes encountered a violent storm that swamped their canoes leading them back to Oahu.

Chief Keawe triumphed in the civil war, and by July 1796 was king of Kauai. Surprisingly, Kaumualii did not suffer the usual fate of the vanquished in such wars of old Hawaii but was allowed to live and not as a prisoner of war. Within a year or so Keawe died and Kaumualii again ascended to the throne. His charming personality made him very popular with foreign visitors during the following two decades. Kamehameha continued to plan for the conquest of Kauai, and in the spring of 1804 had assembled on Oahu another large force for that purpose. Just before he was ready to launch the attack, however, fate again intervened it the form of a violent epidemic that killed two of his principal retainers and is said to have decimated his army. Again Kauai is saved by another’s ill fortune of the invader. Kaumualii recognized, however, that the greatly superior forces of Kamehameha were certain to triumph in the end. In 1810, with Captain Nathan Winship acting as mediator, Kaumualii went to Honolulu and acknowledged the sovereignty of Kamehameha. Kauai became a tributary kingdom. Kaumualii was to remain king during his lifetime, but on his death, Kauai was to become part of the Hawaiian kingdom under the direct rule of Kamehameha or his heirs.

Kamehameha’s retainers plotted to kill Kaumualii while he was still in Honolulu, but the execution of the plot was prevented by Isaac Davis. Davis an Englishman who had escaped the destruction of the schooner Fair American in 1790 and for many years had been one of Kamehameha’s principal advisors, paid for his good deed with his life. He was poisoned by the same chiefs who had plotted the death of Kaumualii.

The Mystical Menehune

The Menehune were little people of Hawaiian tales as they were said to live in the mountain forests long before the Polynesians reached the islands of Hawaii. They were almost never seen and only came to the lowlands at night; however Native Hawaiian oral traditions have numerous descriptions of them. They were around two or three feet tall with a thickset and were rather hairy. They say that rarely would you hear their voices, however when they did talk it was with deep, gruff voices. The old legends would describe their voice to sound like a low growl of a dog and their laughs could be heard from far away. The mystical Menehune were little people that worked at night together in great numbers. In a single night it was told that they could accomplish mighty deeds such as walling fishponds and constructing temples called “heiau” by the Hawaiians. The chief of the Menehune lived in the caves of Wainiha on the island of Kauai. Tales of the Menehune extend throughout the islands of Hawaii however more distantly evident on Kauai. Menehune law required all work to cease once the first cock crowed where the task at hand should be completed in a single night. Sometimes the morning would come to quick and today there are remnants of areas where the Menehune did not finish the nights task.

One sport the menehune loved was to build hills just to roll down its slope, while their loud laughing could be heard island wide. Another favorite game they played was jumping from a cliff into the sea. The little men would bring stones from the mountains until they had a large pile of stones on the cliff. The menehune swimmer would throw a stone into the water and leap after it, trying to catch it before it sank to the bottom. They enjoyed the eating banana’s, poi (cooked taro), small fish, and shrimps. They like to eat the whole food so that no part would be left. They were known to be the protectors of the all the forest and more specifically their prized forest birds. They take care of the forests and the constant reforestation, together the forest birds and Menehune enhance the natural ecosystems of Hawaii. People, trees, the plants, they were understood to be all connected, although with the arrival of the Polynesian and later the Europeans things have changed.

The fossil records indicate there at least 71 bird species throughout the islands of Hawaii, today there are only 21 and 11 of them are endangered. There are several reasons why Hawaii is a bird extinction hot spot. One of the main reasons contributing to this is the size of the islands; because their island habitats are small population numbers aren’t high to begin with. Then habitat destruction, cats, dogs, and rats introduced by settlers, avian flu, and a mosquito-borne disease inflicted such blows that their small numbers couldn’t survive the impact. The famous Hawaiian honeycreepers were so badly affected by the mosquito-borne disease the numbers were decimated. Scientists predict bad news in the future too. The mosquitos are climbing higher up the mountains where other species of native Hawaiian birds live. It’s likely more species will fall ill and risk extinction.

Today, many of those birds are extinct and yet some still survive in small numbers. Kauai alone has lost the Kauai Akialoa (honeycreeper), Kauai O’o (honeycreeper), Large Kauai Thrush, with only 5 Kauai Akikiki and their chances of survival are slim.