Diverse tropical landscapes from the Na Pali Coast to Waimea Canyon aren’t the only things that set Kauai apart from the rest of Hawaii. Early Polynesian settlers fought hard, and with dexterity, to protect the aina (land) and keep Kauai sovereign. As a result, unlike other Hawaiian Islands, the Garden Isle was never conquered. This history of proud warriors, while still greatly shrouded in mystery, differs from any other island across the Hawaiian Archipelago.
Perhaps you’re already aware of Kauai’s rebellious history. Most records, however, only cite attempts by King Kamehameha I to conquer Kauai under his regime. The more complete story is that rulers had continually sought to take over the gorgeous Garden Isle for centuries before the famed battles of Kamehameha the Great took place.
King Kukona, known as the 7th Alii Aimoku (royalty) of Kauai, doesn’t get nearly as much credit for protecting his people as the more well-known King Kaumualii (the island’s last reigning king whom a Kauai highway is named after). Though Kaumualii was able to keep Kamehameha and his army at bay for many years, Kukona commanded a legendary battle around the 1300s that is rarely accounted for.
The story goes that leaders from Oahu, Maui and Molokai were led into battle by Hawaii Island’s chief, Kalaunuiohua, in an effort to add Kauai to his dominion. But Kukona would have no such thing—he was prepared for their arrival and after defeating the brazen warriors, took all four chiefs into hostage. The prisoners were not happy and conspired to kill Kukona, but the Maui chief, Kamaluohua, took issue with this plan. Legend has it that Kukona spared them their lives and set them free due to Kamaluohua’s benevolence. Because of this act, a treaty was made, and peace abounded on Kauai for centuries.
Later, Kamehameha, another Hawaii Island-born chief who established the Kingdom of Hawaii, broke the agreement and set out on a similar mission to conquer Kauai as well as Niihau. He tried to do so twice but failed each time. During the first trip in 1796, he sent thousands of men from Oahu to Kauai to fight, but few were able to make it to Kauai’s shores due to tumultuous ocean conditions that caused many to turn around. The few that made it to shore were allegedly killed by their opponents while they slept.
The second failed attempt occurred in the early 1800s when Kamehameha’s army was impacted by a disease called mai okuu or “squatting sickness.”
Eventually, however, Kaumualii, as well as the King of Niihau, did succumb to Kamehameha (many claim it was to protect their people from further attacks) and reached a resolution in 1810. Even though the island became part of the 50th state in 1959, a noble warrior spirit will forever be a part of Kauai’s unique legacy.
It’s no wonder so many leaders fought to claim Kauai as their own. Geographically, no island compares and, as a result, contains numerous features that would be considered valuable to reining kings. It’s here you’ll find one of the biggest rivers in the state—something native Hawaiians took advantage of in tending to their crops. Hanalei River on the North Shore continues providing water for the largest taro cultivation site in Hawaii.
Not only have mountains been carved into gorgeous formations over some five million years of wind and rain on Kauai—to compare, Hawaii Island hasn’t even reached one million years—the beaches are predominantly soft and sandy from millennia of battering from surf. Moreover, Kauai is home to Hawaii’s largest limestone cave, and therefore, the richest fossil site in the state. Makauwahi Cave, located on the sunny South Shore in Mahaulepu, continues to hold a key that unlocks the door to ancient Hawaiian life.
Kauai was also the first site in Hawaii that Europeans made contact. Captain Cook set foot on Hawaii’s soil for the first time in Waimea on the west side of the island—a monument stands at Lucy Wright Park in the center of town commemorating this event.
Another claim to Kauai fame includes opening the first of Hawaii’s sugar mill operations in 1835 on the South Shore in Old Koloa Town. Plantations like this are what brought such an eclectic mix of cultures to the islands such as Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Filipino. Koloa Planation Days is an annual celebration every summer on Kauai that continues honoring this era, and as you walk through this quaint town, you’ll still find stores owned and operated by generations of immigrant families.
Kauai is steeped in fascinating history as well as one-of-a-kind geographic splendor. No matter what part of the island you visit, you’ll undoubtedly discover something not only unlike anywhere else in Hawaii but unlike anywhere else in the world.