Laying on the warm, white sanded beach of Kekaha in Kauai, you will notice many breath-taking things — the fierce blue of the Pacific, the tangy smells of the local barbeques, even the gentle sounds of the waves swelling. If you linger until sunset, however, you just might notice something that most people aren’t even aware exists.
On a clear night, as the sun falls into the sea, a small mountainous island becomes silhouetted along the horizon. Locals have come to accept this neighboring island as just a part of the landscape, but the truth of the island on the horizon is much bigger than it seems.
Fragrant leis, tanned surfers, and vibrant luaus might be some of the first thoughts that come to mind when we imagine Hawaii. However, the islands have a rich history that goes way beyond a spring break agenda.
Unfortunately, much of the native Hawaiian culture has been lost over the years due to colonization. One island, though, has been nearly perfectly preserved throughout all this time. And hardly anyone even knows it exists.
Just 17 miles off the coast of Kauai lies Niihau, the smallest of the Hawaiian islands. For over 150 years Niihau has banned anyone from the outside world from visiting, giving it the nickname, “the forbidden island.”
As a result of its extreme exclusivity, Niihau has attracted the attention of many travelers and celebrities who wish to be among the few to see this mysterious island. The story behind Niihau, however, might be just as interesting as the place itself…
Elizabeth McHutcheson was born to merchants in Scotland in 1800. She was a girl who would spend her life working the land, a woman who would bear six children herself, and eventually, a lady who would be remembered as the Cheifess of Hawaii.
Elizabeth, better known as Eliza, married Francis Sinclair in Glasgow in 1824. Francis was a ship’s captain, and not too long after their sixth child came along, the whole Sinclair clan set sail for a new life in New Zealand.
In 1841 the Scottish party of 8 arrived in the land of the Maori. Though they moved around several times, they primarily settled in Pigeon Bay where they established a successful farm. Everything seemed to be falling into place for the Sinclairs… until 1846.
As Francis was a life-long seafarer, he took to sailing the family’s supplies for trade himself. Just five years after arriving in New Zealand, Francis and his eldest son boarded their self-made ship, the Jessie Millar.
Tragically, the ship, all of the family’s goods, and every soul on board went down in an abrupt gale. At 46 years old, Eliza was now a widow. And as all of the lost cargo was Eliza’s only income, the dark only seemed to get darker.
With five children still to raise in a land that was hardly familiar to her, Eliza knew she needed to make moves. Now was the time for her tough Scottish roots to shine. Even though Eliza had never wavered, no one was prepared for what she did next.
Not only did Eliza continue to grow the land in Pigeon Bay into a thriving farm, but she also married off all her children and purchased a ship. This new ship she named, Bessie. And just like her, she was determined not to let anything bring Bessie down.
Eliza’s children started having families of their own, and soon the Sinclair clan had grown so much that they needed more land to support everyone. It was then decided that Eliza would sell the farm and sail the family to the Pacific North West.
In 1863, the whole Sinclair family boarded the Bessie and set sail for British Colombia, where they hoped to acquire a big plot of land to start a farm. But when they finally arrived on Vancouver Island later that year, things were not as they expected.
The land was wild and undeveloped, far from anything that would make a decent farm. Eliza quickly tried to come up with an alternative. She was considering California when an acquaintance tipped her off to another place she had never considered.
The Sandwich Islands, known today as the Hawaiian Islands, were a safer route by sea that time of year. With little else to go by, Eliza made the executive decision to take the family south to Hawaii.
At 63-years-old, Eliza landed in Hawaii with 13 more Sinclairs in tow. With a fully provisioned ship, the formidable matriarch approached King Kamehameha V, the ruler of the islands, and proposed to buy Niihau.
Though it is still unclear exactly why Kamehameha V agreed to the offer, Niihau was sold to Elizabeth Sinclair in 1864 for $10,000 in gold. The sale, however, did come with one caveat from the king that shaped the entire fate of the small island.
Kamehameha V said to the Sinclairs, “Niihau is yours. But the day may come when the Hawaiians are not as strong in Hawaii as they are now. When that day comes, please do what you can to help them.”
As the Sinclairs settled into their new life on Niihau, they honored the king’s words like scripture. Elizabeth was regarded as a chiefess by the native Niihauans, and the family worked to provide houses for everyone on the island free of charge.
The only requirement the Sinclairs imposed was that the Niihauans attend church every Sunday, which wasn’t that much of a stretch given the prior introduction of Christianity from the missionaries decades earlier.
A few decades later in 1893, the Hawaiian Monarchy came to end with the annexation by the American government. As the Hawaiian islands were being pulled into statehood, the culture and traditions became suppressed — except for on Niihau, that is.
Because of its status as private property, the Sinclairs were able to create a greater degree of separation between themselves and the encroaching United States. This really came into effect in the 1930s when Niihau made a dramatic proclamation.
The island would now be completely closed off to any and all visitors, indefinitely. This decision was really to protect the native Niihauans from diseases such as polio and measles, which were running rampant at the time. It ended up doing much more.
See, by cutting off access to the outside world, Niihau has preserved its Native Hawaiian culture known as “kahiki.” Today Niihau is the only place in the world where Hawaiian is the dominant language.
That isn’t to say Niihauans are ignorant of life on the mainland; in fact, many speak several languages and split their time between the forbidden island and Kauai, where there are more job opportunities.
Today, the island is still without running water or electricity, but they manage to sustain themselves with collected rainwater and solar panels. Actually, in Niihau, every single home has its own solar paneling system!
Weekly deliveries come by barge from Kauai with groceries and other goods. Alcohol and tobacco, however, are never included as the Sinclairs officially banned them from the island along with guns.
Oddly enough, despite the gun ban, the island does serve one outside purpose. Because of its strategic position, the U.S. military set up a base for defense operations, in which they actually employ several Niihaunans.
And being in the military still may very well be your only ticket to Niihau. It was even rumored that Mick Jagger got turned down when he requested to helicopter in for a visit to the mystifying island.
Thanks to the limited changes, Niihau remains relatively the same from when Elizabeth purchased the island back in the 19th century. While everyone may dream of visiting a rare tropical paradise, some are left alone for a reason… a very good reason.
Located just off the coast of India’s Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, North Sentinel Island is a small, square landmass that’s served as a major point of interest in the area for over two centuries. With its coral reefs and lush forests, it’s easy to see why so many have been drawn to its shores.
Yet despite overwhelming interest in the island, all but those with the highest level of clearance from the Indian government are forbidden from even entering the waters around it. The danger of running aground on coral reefs is surely real, but the biggest threat actually lurks just beyond the tree line…
North Sentinel Island is home to the Sentinelese, a group of natives that have called the island home since pre-Neolithic days. The tribe is considered to be one of the last uncontacted peoples in the world, and the reason for this has given the island a truly notorious reputation.
In an effort to preserve their primitive lifestyle, the Sentinelese are known to mercilessly attack any visitors to the island on sight. They’ve even been known to fire arrows and launch spears at fishing boats that drift too close to their shores.
Surprisingly, however, after nearly a hundred years of failed efforts, an anthropological team made peaceful contact with the Sentinelese in 1991. The researchers were able to gain unprecedented access to the small island, though their time spent on North Sentinel left them with more questions than answers.
Despite their proximity to other island tribes, the Sentinelese possessed a distinct marking system unlike those of any other group, and their language – described as a series of high-pitched sounds and gestures – was unintelligible. Even a translator from a tribe of Onge natives, whom the Sentinelese had been know to engage with, couldn’t understand them.
Peaceful exchanges between the anthropologists and the Sentinelese continued until 1994, whereupon the project was abandoned in favor of leaving the tribe completely uncontacted. This decree was generally respected by the vessels that trolled the waters around the island… until two fishermen decided to test their luck in 2006.
While illegally harvesting crab just off North Sentinel, the weight anchoring the vessel manned by Indian fishermen Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari failed, casting them adrift toward the island. Paying no mind to the warnings of fellow seamen, the two washed ashore and were brutally killed by the natives.
Following the incident the Indian government cracked down on illegal visits to the island, maintaining a constant naval presence in the surrounding waters and prosecuting any who attempted to enter the area. But even with additional efforts made to sway potential trespassers, those determined to contact the forbidden tribe weren’t dissuaded.
In October of 2018, an American named John Allen Chau arrived in the area in the hope of visiting the island and living amongst its inhabitants. Chau, a devout Christian, sought to adopt the language of the Sentinelese and convert them to Christianity.
Chau was met with heavy resistance to his plan, but the 26 year old felt it was his spiritual mission to bring religion to North Sentinel. And so, in mid November, Chau hired a group of fisherman to take him to the island.
His initial visit to North Sentinel was a positive one, as upon arriving he was met with amusement and curiosity as opposed to the anticipated hostility. However, after offering them fish and other gifts, one of the natives fired an arrow at his Bible and Chau fled the island.
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Following this brush with death, the fishermen advised Chau to abandon his efforts, but the young man, unfazed by the arrow, was determined to see his mission through. That’s why on November 17, Chau instructed the men to bring him to the island and to leave him there for good.
The fishermen obliged, but after a few hours they returned to North Sentinel to make sure that their American friend hadn’t been harmed. To their horror, the men watched as the Sentinelese dragged the lifeless body of John Allen Chau along the beach.
Hurrying back to Port Blair – the capital of the Andaman Islands – the fishermen relayed the news of Chau’s death to one of his friends, who then contacted Chau’s family to break the news. The fishermen also brought with them Chau’s diary, wherein he had left instructions in the event of his passing.
“I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people,” Chau wrote in the final entry before his death. “Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed … Don’t retrieve my body.”
Chau’s family honored his wishes, calling off the attempts made to recover his body from the island. Though it’s believed his death was caused by arrow fire, the truth behind what actually killed John Allen Chau will likely never be known.
The Indian government has taken a hands-off approach with Chau’s death, believing that both the missionary’s body and the Sentinelese people should be left alone. And while officials won’t press charges for the killing, those involved in getting him to the island in the first place have been arrested.
Though Chau’s death is no doubt tragic, many refuse to blame the Sentinelese for simply defending themselves from what they perceived to be a threat. Given the region’s history of foreign imperialism, some believe that the natives’ violent nature is rooted in a desire to survive, not some primal need to kill.
With yet another death on their hands, the Indian government faces enormous pressure to place stricter regulations on the North Sentinel area and to properly protect the native inhabitants. Whether they meet these demands remains to be seen, but this event should send a strong message to any wannabe adventurers looking to set sail for the forbidden island: leave the Sentinelese alone.