(The Big Island has a long and colorful history. For more in-depth reading, please refer to the websites below.)
No one knows exactly when Hawai’i was first settled but archaeologists speculate that Polynesian voyagers first landed at South Point sometime between 600 and 900 AD. Over the next millennium, they created a culture that thrived. The Big Island’s pre-historic sites (burials, rock walls, heiau) and tools (adzes, bowls, poi pounders, fishing weights) bear testimony to their skill in carving out a sustainable way of life on this remote island outpost.
The Big Island is the place where Kamehameha the Great was born in 1758 and who, with cunning and determination, unified the disparate Hawaiian Islands under his control. Just before and during his reign, wave after wave of foreigners began to arrive, and the Big Island became the watering hole of Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and English traders (and scalawags) as well as the eventual site where the world explorer, Captain Cook, was murdered in 1778.
Protestant missionaries from New England and old England followed half a century later, circa 1820. They came to ‘do good’ and, as locals say, did very ‘good’ indeed if large bank accounts and land holdings held by their descendants are any indication. Española (Mexican-American) cowboys (nicknamed paniolo) drawn from California arrived soon after to train Hawaiians in the roping and branding of renegade wild cattle roaming the island and terrorizing islanders. (The cattle came from ones gifted decades earlier in 1792 to Kamehameha I from English Captain Vancouver.) Then the cattle ranchers themselves moved in, beginning with John Palmer Parker, who came to assist Kamehameha I in ridding the island of feral bulls. Parker and his heirs amassed so much land that today, Parker Ranch is one of the largest ranches in the U.S.
By the mid-1800’s, sugar became a thriving industry. Sugar companies transformed the entire Island, especially the Hamakua and Kohala Coasts, into thriving sugar plantation communities, importing waves of Asian immigrants - Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino - and European ones (Portuguese) to work the plantations. By the early 20th century, the Big island became a collection of small bustling towns, fed by the proceeds of sugar, with Hilo on the east, serving as the center of commerce and Kona on the west, with its heat, constant sun and sandy beaches, eventually becoming the center of tourism. In the 1960’s, the Rockefellers scooped up one of the prettiest beaches, Kauna’oa, north of Kona, and built the Mauna Kea beach Hotel, the first of what became a string 4 and 5 star resorts that now dot this coastline.
In the last 80 years, coffee, papaya and macadamia nuts farms have eclipsed the sugar industry, and there is now a push toward the development of small artisan farms growing organic, non-GMO crops. Farmer’s markets, grass fed beef and the farm-to-table food movement are popular and the Island boasts many restaurants, which are a culinary delight.
Still, the most the most livable island in the Hawaiian chain because of lower real estate prices and a smaller population base, the Big Island today is home to the largest percentage of native Hawaiians and Polynesians (34% at last census). Astronomers, marine scientists, volcanologists, archaeologists, artists of all genres, sun-worshipers and outdoor aficionados also call the Big Island home, and may can be seen on any given day surfing, paddling, horseback riding, biking, farming, fishing, hiking, playing music, picnicking beachside, and of course, beachcombing!
If you have a couple of hours, brew a cup of tea and settle down for a soothing view of the Big Island. (Actually, the Big Island is only the first 20 minutes; and the rest of the islands are described from there. Well worth the watch.)