Although it is difficult to quantify the value of a community’s residents, no list of Moloka`i’s assets should start with any other resource. Moloka`i is famed as the “Friendly Isle,” a promotional name that was bestowed by the tourist industry. Although the name was conceived as a marketing device, the phrase aptly describes the people who live on this island. That friendliness is reflected in a spirit of helpfulness that manifests itself whenever someone has a flat tire (usually the next car passing will stop to help), when someone in the family dies (food arrives from concerned neighbors, and local construction companies donate backhoe services to dig the grave), or when a Little League team needs funds to travel to the state championship (parents and supporters stay up all night grilling teriyaki chicken for fund-raising sales). Moloka'i is a tight-knit community whose residents are willing to work hard on behalf of the things they cherish.
When Capt. James Cook first discovered Hawai’i in 1778, he estimated Moloka`i’s population at 20,000 to 36,000 people. Over the next six decades, introduced diseases decimated the population until in 1836, the population was estimated at only 8,700. Many of those who survived moved to emerging commercial centers on Maui and O’ahu. Throughout the 19th century, the traditional subsistence economy of taro, sweet potatoes, and fish continued to be the mainstay of the Moloka’i families who stayed behind.
The island was largely bypassed by the mainstream of political and economic change that swept the major islands, where the market economy evolved from trade in sandalwood and whale oil to large-scale sugar plantations. On Moloka’i, production of introduced agricultural crops such as white potatoes, cotton, corn, grapes, coffee, sisal, sugar, barley, oats, wheat, cotton, beans and alfalfa was short-lived due to damage from insects, high wind, or the lack of irrigation water. Few foreigners moved to the island.
By the census of 1896, on the eve of the Annexation of Hawai`i to the United States, there were only 2,132 Hawaiians and 175 non-Hawaiians living on Moloka`i. This census included the tragic victims of Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy, who had been banished to the isolated Kalawao peninsula on Moloka`i’s north shore.
The population of Moloka`i continued to decline through the early 1920's, and it was mainly concentrated on the eastern part of the island. Beginning in 1922, the Hawaiian Home Lands program and the pineapple industry attracted new residents to the central and western parts of Moloka’i. Hawaiian Home Lands, a land trust for Hawaiians of at least 50% Hawaiian blood, established new settlements at Kalama`ula, Ho`olehua, Pala`au, and Kapa`akea for native Hawaiian Homesteaders. The Dole pineapple plantation developed at Maunaloa and the Del Monte pineapple plantation developed at Kualapu’u. By 1930, the population had increased to 4,427 people, many of whom were Japanese and Filipino immigrants hired by the plantations. Agricultural production continued to be the mainstay of the island’s economy: plantation agriculture for central and west Moloka’i and subsistence agriculture and fishing for east Moloka’i. By the 1990 census there were 6,717 people living on the island.
In the late 1970's, the large pineapple companies that had become the mainstay of Moloka`i's economy announced that they would be moving their plantations to places where labor and other agricultural costs were more competitive (usually to foreign countries). As the plantations closed, many Filipino and Japanese families left Moloka`i for better job opportunities. In the same decade, landowners began developing large new subdivisions on the island at Kawela and Kaluakoi. As Japanese and Filipino families left Moloka`i, the new subdivisions attracted retirees and second-home owners, often from the U.S. mainland. By the 2000 census, the island's population was estimated at 62% Native Hawaiian and 31% Caucasian.
As the island's population changes, its close-knit friendly style is beginning to fray. Everyone now acknowledges that it will be a challenge to perpetuate the values that have guided this rural community for generations.