One and a half million years ago, two large volcanoes pushed through the surface of the Pacific Ocean and created the island of Molokai. Kamakou in the east, and Maunaloa in the west. Somewhat later a third and much smaller caldera, Kauhako, popped up to form the Makanalua peninsula on the north side.
Over eons, the north side of the island eroded and fell into the sea, leaving behind the vertical sea cliffs which today make up most of Molokai’s spectacular North Shore.
It’s the fifth largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago; 260 square miles (420 sq km) in area, 38 miles (61km) long, and ten miles (16km) wide at its widest point.
Anchored in the center of the 8 major islands, Molokai is 25 miles (40km) southeast of Oahu, and a 25-minute flight from Maui. From the eastern end of the island, it’s only 8 miles (13km) across the Pailolo Channel to Maui.
The population is estimated at 8,000 residents, half of whom live in or near the principal town of Kaunakakai. Nearly 40% are of Hawaiian descent, thus the nick name, “The Most Hawaiian Island.”
According to the experts, Hawaiians first came to live on Molokai about 650 A.D. Those first settlers most likely originated from the Marquesas, with later migrations, in double hulled canoes, from Tahiti and other areas in the South Pacific.
As the Hawaiians had no written language, most of their pre-contact history has come from chants, passed down from generation to generation, which have kept a chronology of events, battles and genealogy.
In November, 1778, Captain James Cook sighted Molokai on his first visit to the Sandwich Islands, as he named these islands, but it wasn’t until 1786 when Captain George Dixon anchored off Molokai’s coast, that Europeans first visited this island.
In 1832 a Protestant mission was established at Kalua’aha on the East End by Reverend Harvey Hitchcock, to serve an estimated population of 5,000. His church has not been maintained, but the walls and part of the roof stand today at the 14.5 mile marker. A white marble headstone marks his grave on the hill east of what remains of the church.
The oldest known Hawaiian settlement on Molokai occurred in Halawa Valley, at the eastern end of the main highway that crosses the length of the island. The eastern side of the island was heavily populated in pre-contact Hawaii, a result of ample water from the mountains, fertile and level land for farming, and a rich and abundant ocean.
More than 60 fish ponds were built along the south shore of Molokai. Most have nearly disappeared, but a few have been reconstructed and are used daily by residents for aquiculture. A drive along the south
shore of the island bears testimony to the reliance on the ocean by early Hawaiians.
Molokai was renowned for the wisdom and power of its religious leaders, greatly respected and often feared by others in the archipelago. In the 1500s, the famous prophet, Lanikaula, was so revered that pilgrims came from all the Islands to seek his wisdom and advice. Molokai became a place of retreat, protected from war by its religious prestige and the marital alliances of its chiefs.
Others were reputed for sorcery. Legend tells of the Kalaipahoa, or poisonwood gods, entering trees on Maunaloa. The grove is said to have been so poisonous that birds fell dead as they flew over it.
Legend also tells us that Laka, goddess of the hula, gave birth to the dance on Molokai, at a very sacred place in Ka’ana. This is recognized on Molokai every May, at a celebration of the birth of hula, called Ka Hula Piko.
When Laka died, her remains were secretly hidden somewhere beneath the hill, Pu’u Nana. The hula was finally established, the work of Laka was complete, and the dance flourished throughout Hawaii.