The History of Molokai

Created from two volcanoes and named as the Friendly Isle of Hawaii, Molokai has a rich and memorable past. Long before Captain James Cook of England discovered the Hawaiian Islands and sighted Molokai for the first time, the island was once inhabited by Kamehameha the Great, at a time when he was planning to conquer the nearby island of Oahu. The 5th biggest of the major islands in Hawaii, Molokai has been able to preserve the old spirit and traditions of Hawaii, making it a true reflection of what Hawaii once was.

Molokai carries a strong tradition of Hawaiian leadership and ingenuity, from its powerful ancient priests to the dedication of King Kamehameha V. The island also stands in testament to Christian faith, best remembered by the heroic deeds of Father Damien. Molokai will always be an island of beauty and respite, and a place where time seems to stand still.

The early days of Molokai

It was during the 650 or 450 AD that Polynesian settlers became to inhabit the island of Molokai. These people came from the Marquesas, Tahiti, and other neighboring islands in the Pacific. In 700 AD, new migrations took place, increasing the population on the island.

During these periods, Molokai was able to maintain peace and anonymity, since the inhabitants of the neighboring Maui and Oahu islands did not interact with the people of Molokai. The status of the priest of Molokai, or the kahuna, may have merited some degree of recognition, but the island remained unobserved, except during occasions of royal marriages.

It was during the 18th century that the island suffered from internal conflicts, as its chieftains vied for control over the fertile fishing grounds of Molokai. When chiefs from the neighboring islands were called in to help settle the conflicts, Molokai fell under the control of Oahu. When the king of Maui was able to conquer Oahu, Molokai also came under the rule of the Maui king. It was during the reign of King Kamehameha the Great that Molokai was overpowered again, but this time as a part of the unified islands of Hawaii.

Local legends in Molokai

There are many legends and tales which explain how Molokai first came to be. According to one legend, when Tahitians settled on the island, one of them, Kupu, became the chieftain of East Molokai. However, the reign of Kupu was short-lived, as a huge waterspout coming from the mountains inundated the kingdom, devastating his home and the lives of his family members.

If not for the respected and often feared power of its priests, Molokai would have been altogether unnoticed by the neighboring islands. During the 1500s, Molokai had a famous prophet, named Lanikaula, often consulted by seekers and pilgrims all over the island for his advice.

One legendary tale which also bolstered the eminence of Molokai priests tells of the poisonous trees which suddenly grew on the ridges of Maunaloa during the 16th century. These trees were feared by everyone until one man, Kaneiakama, heeded the instruction of one of the gods to make offerings to the trees. This legend was known to add to the dominant reputation of the priests in Molokai.

The contemporary history of Molokai

The very first people outside of Hawaii to sight these islands from a distance were from Britain, led by Captain James Cook in November 1778. The first Europeans who actually set foot in Molokai were lead by Captain George Dixon, during the year 1786. During the 1800’s, Christian missionaries visited the island and in 1832 the first permanent missionary was established at the eastern part of the island or in Kalua’aha. The walls of this very first church remain standing nowadays, with the local community planning to restore it to its former glory.

When King Kamehameha V was ruler of the Hawaiian Islands during the 1800s, he established a vacation home on Kaunakakai beach. Even with the use of primitive materials, the thatched hut vacation home had a circular lanai and mat-covered floors. Thus, long before Hawaii became famous for its tourism industry, Molokai was already an early vacation destination. King Kamehameha V also had a country estate on the island, with land and cattle purchased from the Molokai locals. He also ordered the planting of coconut groves and the breeding of deer on the island.

Molokai was also famous for the Meyer Sugar Mill, which had operated for almost 30 years. The sugar mill was built by Rudolph Meyer, a gentleman from Germany who arrived on the island during the 1840s. Meyer was able to influence the modern history and economy growth of Molokai, especially when he married Kalama, a high chieftess in Hawaii and settled in Kala’e. During this time, Kala’e was able to produce wheat, potatoes, coffee, and corn which are of export quality. In partnership with King Kamehameha V, he also supervised the ranch lands and even the Kalaupapa Leper Settlement in the 1860s.

Today, Molokai is enjoying a successful tourism industry, with a growing number of tourists discovering the natural beauty of this sleepy island. The people of Molokai today rely on cattle raising, sheep ranching, and honey production as sources of income.

The legend of Father Damien

Kalaupapa in Molokai was known as a leprosy colony, during the time when leprosy or Hansen’s disease spread from China to Hawaii, affecting Hawaiian locals and residents. Kalaupapa served as the perfect isolation venue for the victims, who were also in need of expert medical care, nourishment, and lodging.

However, the location contained no shelters, amenities, or a source of clean water. According to stories, the supplies were merely thrown into the sea water, so that the currents could carry them to shore, where numerous exiles were waiting. This pitiable situation in Kalaupapa persisted for seven years, before a Christian missionary dedicated a lifelong mission of selfless service to the leprosy sufferers.

When Father Damien deVeuster arrived at Kalaupapa in 1873, he saw the poor state of the Hansen’s disease victims on the island. He was a Catholic priest who hailed from Belgium. Before long he started a mission that would last until his death in 1889. Father Damien introduced the Catholic faith, but more than that he also took care of the patients, provided them with shelters, and organized medical missions. He also provided decent burial to the dead. After 16 years, Father Damien became afflicted with Hansen’s disease and died, after dedicating most of his life in service to the leprosy victims in Kalaupapa.

Historical sites in Molokai

If you’re staying in Molokai for your Hawaiian vacation, you should check out these historical sites, located in Kaunakakai, Kalokoeli, and Kalaupapa.

House of King Kamehameha V

Situated in Molokai are the ruins of the summer house of King Kamehameha V, one of the most notable rulers of Hawaii. This erstwhile royal vacation residence referred to by the locals as Malama is situated on Kaunakakai Wharf. This wharf also serves as the main port of Molokai. Included in the ruins is a heiau, which is an old worship temple.

Kalaupapa National Historic Park

The tour featured at the Kalaupapa National Historic Park centers around the story of Father Damien, who was a Belgian missionary who gave hope and selflessly cared for Hansen disease patients from all over Hawaii. Kalaupapa was the place where the patients were exiled and isolated from the mainstream public.

The park is also a natural attraction, where you can view an amazing vista of seascapes as well as thriving flora and fauna. The sea takes on an otherworldly view as the Kalaupapa tour takes you to the world’s highest sea cliffs. The sight of the quaint valleys and mountain ranges shrouded in mist is enough to leave any traveler breathless.

Church Row in Molokai

Built as early as the 19th century, Molokai is home to the Church Row, composed of a string of seven small churches, situated in the town of Kaunakakai. During Sundays, you can hear Hawaiian worship songs from one of these ancient churches, bringing you back to the late 18th to the early 19th century days.

Molokai fishponds

In the past, Molokai’s coast contained 62 fishponds, which were first built during the early 13th century. These fishponds were created using lava and stone, and engineered meticulously so that sea water can flow in and out of the pond, while keeping the fish in. A few of these fishponds have survived until the present, with the nearest one located on the east part of the island, in Kalokoeli.

In the past, only the royal chiefs were allowed to eat the fish which were caught from these ponds. Such was the historical importance of these stone fishponds, and many of these have remained well-preserved in Molokai.

The Hawaiians have always prided themselves on their skills on aquaculture, which had involved the engineering of coral and stone fishponds. These days, you can visit the Ali fishpond at Ali Beach Park, or the Kalokoeli Fishpond. Two fishponds have already been declared as national historical landmarks. These are the Keawa Nui and the Ualapue.