History of Kauai

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In ancient times

The island of Kauai formed from gradual volcanic overflow approximately 5.1 million years ago. The oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, Kauai has a heritage that is steeped in myth and legend.

Although most mainlanders group all the Hawaiian islands together, many of Kauais people (and many students of Hawaiian history) consider Kauai to have a separate history from its sister islands. Some even insist that it is in fact, 'a separate kingdom.' This theory is based on evidence showing that Kauai was once the home of the seafaring Menehune tribe of Central Polynesia. At present, the word 'Menehune' describes a mythical creature similar to an elf or a sprite, but in ancient times they were a brave and formidable tribe, small of stature but long in reach. The names and attributes of Menehune deities were assimilated into later Hawaiian cultural, and thousands of years later, many modern businesses bear those names.

Much of what is known about Kauai is based around its natural history, and can be better understood through a visit to the Koke'e Natural History Museum. The Koke'e exhibits illustrate the islands progression from prehistoric times.

From 400 A.D.

The first recorded history of Kauais people began with the Marquesans of Polynesia. They inhabited the island from the time of their arrival (400 A.D.) until they were conquered by another tribe, the Tahitians, 600 years later. The Polynesian bloodlines still run strong on the island: many of Kauais oldest families are of Polynesian descent. In addition, much of the flora and fauna that flourish on the island was transported from Polynesia during this era of migration.

The ancient Hawaiians had a polytheistic society centered around the concept of 'mana', which stated that gods could appear in a variety of forms besides divine. Deities could take on human or animalistic shape, thereby passing through society undetected. Many places of worship known as 'heiau' were erected during the ancient times; some are still standing today. Not a great deal of solid fact is verifiable, in regards to ancient religious practices. Most legends and legacies, including that of the Menehunes, are kept alive through Hawaiian chant and song, often performed in conjunction with hula dance.

The first Western contact

While the theory is under scrutiny, some historians uphold a belief that Captain Cook (hailed as the white founder of the Hawaiian chain) was not the first person to discover the Hawaiian Islands. Some evidence disproves his claim, showing that one of Spains navigators discovered the islands by accident--as with so many of historys great discoveries. This Spaniard (by the name of Gaetan) was searching for the vast riches of Mexico. Finding no such jewels or spices in the Hawaiian Islands, he departed shortly after his arrival in 1542, never to return.

Whatever the truth might be, Kauai remained a world unto itself until the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778. He sailed two ships into Waimea Bay, beginning the explosive era that would forever alter the blissfully self-sufficient state of the island. Initial interactions between Englishmen and native Kauaians were peaceable. Most negotiations involved the bartering of goods (mainly English sundries for edibles), but a few curious Englishmen made overtures into Hawaiian society. They left having gained much knowledge but earned little of material value.

Just more than 30 years later (in 1819), Kauai was brought into a union with the Hawaiian Kingdom, agreeing to accept the rule of King Kamehameha I. This arrangement strengthened the chain as a whole, but did little to prevent the eventual surrender of Kauai (and all other Hawaiian Islands) to American forces in 1893. At that point, Kauai had already harbored European missionary settlements for more than 100 years. It was also the home of numerous sugar plantations; these were quickly becoming the islands best leverage for trade.

Some fifty-odd years after Hawaii was forcibly assimilated into the U.S. territories, it was granted statehood.

Spotlight on the sugar industry

Perhaps the single-most influential time in Kauais recent history was the boom-time of the sugar industry. Up until that era, the sleepy little island had known nothing of trade. The first sugar plantation was founded in Koloa in the year 1835. Plantations like it would eventually attract scores of people from all corners of the world, including East Asia, the Philippines and Europe. Immigrant labor was cheap, with workers being housed in structures known as Camp Houses. A few of these old Camp Houses are still standing today, although they have been completely renovated. The Camp House Grill is a family-style Kalaheo restaurant situated inside one of these renovated buildings. There are also several former plantation homes now open for public viewing. Among them are the Grove Farm Homestead Museum and Kilohana Plantation. Both are intended to teach visitors about the growth of the sugar industry and its influence on the island as a whole.

The Kauai-Hollywood connection

With its lush, tropical landscape, breathtaking views and relative seclusion, Kauai makes the perfect location for a Hollywood film shoot--particularly if the story is set in the jungle. Kauais Hollywood history goes back as far as the 1930s, but its debut into public memory is perhaps due to the 1976 production of King Kong. In just the past 10 years, the world has seen Kauais scenery in movies like Hook (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), George of the Jungle (1997), Six Days, Seven Nights (1998) and Mighty Joe Young (1998). Hawaii Movie Tours show visitors all the top locations in a fun-packed van tour.

Kauai today

The Garden Isles natural beauty draws visitors from all over the world--and the accompanying natural disasters only slow down the tourism flow for a few weeks at most. A visitor to current Kauai might not realize that both 1982 and 1992 brought mass destruction, in the form of Hurricanes Iwa and Iniki. Both of these hurricanes devastated the island, but in the near-decade since, Kauai has been rebuilt to far outshine its former self.

The Hawaiian Islands continue to develop all the time, in order to accommodate the ever-increasing number of visitors. The Garden Isle is no exception, and the first decade of the new millennium will doubtless prove to be yet another time of phenomenal and constant change.