Herman Melville wrote his book Typee based on his experiences in the Taipivai valley in the eastern part of Nuku Hiva. Robert Louis Stevenson's first landfall on his voyage on the Casco was at Hatihe'u, on the north side of Nuku Hiva, in 1888.
The coastline of western Nuku Hiva is characterized by a steep, but fairly regular coastline, indented occasionally by small bays leading to deep valleys, which lead into the interior. There are no villages on this side.
The coastline of the eastern part of the island has few places to land by sea and takes the brunt of the ocean swells.
The north, on the other hand, is indented by deep bays, the largest of which are Anahō and Hatihe'u. 'A'akapa bay is not as large but has a village of the same name.
The south has fewer bays, among which those of Taioha'e, Taipivai, Ho'oumi, Hakaui (the last three are parts of the larger Baie du Contrôleur) and the bays of Hakau'i and Hakatea both accessed by the same narrow entrance.
The central part of the island is a high plateau called To'ovi'i, covered primarily by a tall-grass prairie, on which experiments in cattle raising are taking place for the first time — 15 years ago all the cattle were feral and hunted with rifles.
On the western edge of To'ovi'i rises Tekao, the island's highest peak, which reaches an elevation of 1224 m (4,016 ft). The western and northern edges of To'ovi'i are a mountain ridge, which catches much of the rain that waters the island.
Pine forest plantations covering large areas all around the crater of To'ovi'i give an overall impression of the lower Alps and parts of Germany, Wales and Switzerland. In one place, Vaipō Waterfall, the collected water falls off a highland and falls 350 m (1,148 ft).
The slopes of the north western side of the island are much drier than the rest of the island, and are often described as a desert named Te Henua a Taha or "Terre Déserte" in French.
Nuku Hiva is administratively part of the commune (municipality) of Nuku-Hiva, itself in the administrative subdivision of the Marquesas Islands.
The administrative centre of the commune of Nuku-Hiva and also of the administrative subdivision of the Marquesas Islands is the settlement of Taioha'e, located on the south side of Nuku Hiva, at the head of the bay of that same name.
The population in 2007 was 2,660. This is substantially less than that encountered at the end of the 16th century when the Spaniards first sighted the island. Contacts with Europeans may have brought new world infections such as venereal disease and influenza causing high mortality. Historical sources are sparse and it is unclear when various diseases commonly seen in the New World, Europe and Asia first appeared in Nuku Hiva.
The population is primarily Polynesian with a small proportion of Europeans, mostly from Metropolitan France. At the 2002 census, 92.6% of Nuku Hiva's residents were born in French Polynesia while 148 people, making up 5.6% of Nuku Hiva's residents, were people born in Metropolitan France.
The primary diet of people tends to be breadfruit, taro, manioc, coconut and many kinds of fruit, which grow in abundance. Goats, fish and, more rarely, pigs, are the main sources of meat but there is a growing amount of local beef available. Imported food is also freely available, including apples, grapes, celery, and even sliced bread from New Zealand. Two local bakeries produce baguettes, another cheap staple. Considerable rice is also eaten. There are a great many wild pigs on the island as well as those reared on the agricultural college. The wild pigs are a cross between the Polynesian pig brought by the first settlers and the wild boar brought by the Europeans.
There is one jail on the island, which was generally used for 'short stay' internments such as the last 3 months of sentences and was also often altogether empty. Lately, however, prisoners can opt to do their full sentence here if they have no family on Tahiti so the Nuku Hiva jail now has inmates all the time.
Nuku Hiva is served by a single-runway airport in the northwest corner of the island, approximately 50 kilometres (31 mi) by road, northwest of Taioha'e.
Nuku Hiva was, in ancient times, the site of two provinces, Te I'i covering somewhat more than the western two thirds of the island, and Tai Pī, covering the eastern third.
Latest studies indicate that the first people to arrive here came from west Polynesia around 2000 years ago, only later colonizing Tahiti, Hawai'i, The Cook Islands and New Zealand. The legend has it that 'Ono, the god of creation, promised his wife to build a house in one day, so he gathered together land and created these islands, which are all named after parts of the house, Nuku Hiva being the roof. Everything he had left over he threw to one side and created a dump which is called 'Ua Huka. From these supposed origins the population rose to an untenable size; first European estimates vary from 50,000 to 100,000.
Food became of prime importance. Breadfruit was the staple, but taro, plantain and manioc also played a big part. As for meat, fish was the main source, but even so was limited because of the quantity needed to feed so many mouths. Pigs, chickens and dogs were also cultivated, and hunted when they took to the wild.
It is still debated why many Polynesian tribes or nations practiced cannibalism. Indeed, a large number of Pacific Islands residents did so in pre-historic times. One theory is that cannibalism was more for food than ritual, although ritual played a big part. An offering to the gods was called Ika, which means fish, and a sacrifice was caught and, just like a fish, was hung by a fishhook in the sacred place.
Those to be eaten were tied and hung up in trees until needed, then had their brains bashed out on execution blocks with a club. Women and children seem to have been cannibalized just for food, whereas warriors killed in battle were offerings to the gods and were eaten by their conquerors to absorb their power; their skulls were kept by their slayers for the same reason.
On July 21, 1595 Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira stopped at Fatu Iva and called the islands Los Marquesas after the wife of the Viceroy of Peru. James Cook likewise visited the south in 1774, and the Solide expedition in 1791. There is little evidence that these visits led to the introduction of diseases, perhaps because slow passages inhibited the diseases aboard the ships. It seems that it was the commercial shipping, taking on sandalwood, and the whaling ships that brought the epidemics that killed nine out of ten Polynesians.
The Marquesas was a whaling station, even though there were no whales nearby. This happened because the females were so friendly, they would swim out to meet the ships. There is no known case of rape against any Marquesan female, though the opposite was never reported. The great decline in population was after the doctors left because whaling declined. There was nobody to treat the infected natives.
During the wars between the Te I'i and the Tai Pī, on October 25, 1813, the American Captain David Porter arrived in the frigate USS Essex, the flagship of his fleet of ten other armed ships. A shore party was landed and they claimed the island for the United States and constructed a small village, named Madisonville. A fortification, named Fort Madison, and a dock were also built, the latter to refit the Essex. Almost immediately Porter became involved in the tribal conflict.
The first expedition into the jungle was led by Lieutenant John Downes. He and forty others, with the assistance of several hundred Te I'is, captured a fort held by 3,000 to 4,000 Happah warriors. The victory forced the Happah to terms and they allied themselves with both the Americans and the Te I'i. Porter himself led a second expedition in which he made an amphibious assault against the Tai Pī held coastline. Five thousand Te I'is and Happahs accompanied the fleet in at least 200 war-canoes.
Though the landing was unopposed, Porter's force of thirty men and a cannon led the march inland where they found another, more formidable, enemy fort. The thousands of natives, armed with rocks and spears but positioned in a formidable mountain fortress, were able to fend off their attackers. The victory was short-lived however and Captain Porter followed up his landing with an expedition overland, bypassing the fort, to threaten the Tai Pī's village center in Typee Valley as the Americans named it.
When the column arrived at their destination it was November 30 of 1813. The first shots fired occurred after the Tai Pī's attempted to ambush the column, the attack was beaten off Porter issued a message warning that if the Tai Pī did not cease their resistance at once, he would destroy the villages. After a little while of waiting, the hostiles seemed to ignore the demands so the expedition advanced. An engagement ensued as the villages were burned.
In the end, the Americans and their Te I'i and Happah allies had won at severe cost to the enemy, who sued for peace soon after. The next few months were peaceful until May 1814. The War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom was in its third year and most of the American fleet was captured British privateers. At least six British prisoners were at Nuku Hiva during the American operations against the natives, not including a number who volunteered to fight for Captain Porter.
In December 1813, Porter left Nuka Hiva to continue raiding British whalers. He left behind only nineteen navy sailors and six prisoners under two midshipmen and United States Marine Corps Lieutenant John M. Gamble. On May 7, 1814, a group of the British sailors mutinied, released the six prisoners, and attacked the fort. Gamble was wounded in the foot and taken captive with his remaining men on the converted whaler Seringapatam though the Americans were set adrift later that day.
Another version, told in the book "The Washington Islands" and given by the head archeologist of French Polynesia, is that Porter and his fleet of three ships (including two captured British ships) came to Taioha'e and made a prison there. Porter sent some of his cannons overland, and took three days to get to Taipivai. He also then had his ships go into Taipivai harbor.
Porter called it a great victory even though the villagers simply left; the chief thought Porter was insane. Porter went back to Taioha'e where he had a prison set up for the British sailors. Porter's men became lax because they were more interested in the village women, enabling the British sailors to break out and make the Americans prisoners. Soon the British in turn became lax, and the Americans broke out of the prison and made the British prisoners.
The chief had had enough of this "civilized" behavior and told Porter to "Get out". Porter left. When Porter got back to the US, he went in front of congress and proudly told congress that he claimed the Washington Islands as American. Congress was aghast that American sailors would habitate with the islanders so that congress negated Porters claim. Congress didn't want the "shame" that American sailors would act like that. Some years later Porter became chief of Mexico's navy.
An Englishman, named Wilson, on the island was used as an interpreter by the American navy, and on May 9 he convinced the Te I'i that Porter would not return from his raid, which the natives were not happy about. Wilson eventually persuaded the Te I'is to cancel the alliance and attack. Six American sailors were on the beach at Madisonville at the time, four of the men were killed and one other man escaped wounded with a second survivor. Gamble was alone on the Sir Andrew Hammond, one of the captured British ships. While still recovering from his wound to the foot, two Te I'i war-canoes attacked the ship. The ship's cannon were already loaded, so Lieutenant Gamble stumbled from one gun to another, firing them as fast as he could. Ultimately Gamble beat off the enemy attack single-handedly, but, after the deaths of four of his men in town, there was no choice but to abandon the colony with the remaining seven, all of whom were either wounded or ill. After that the base was never again occupied by American forces. Captain Porter, who intended to sail back to Nuka Hiva, was captured at the Battle of Valparaíso on March 28, his claim on Nuku Hiva was never ratified by the United States Congress and in 1842 France took possession of the whole group, establishing a settlement which was abandoned in 1859.
A ship from Peru captured people from 'Ua Pou and took them back as slaves, but as the Catholic Church had converted the islands to Christianity by then, there was a protest and those captives who were still alive were sent back. However, this was a mixed blessing because they brought typhoid fever. A population in excess of 100,000 in 1820 fell to 6,000 in 1872, to 3,000 in 1911 and to a low point of 2,200 in 1927. It seemed that there was no way the Marquesans would survive, but two French doctors toured the islands giving vaccinations and medical care and halted the heavy death toll. Leprosy, however, was still a problem only 20 years ago and elephantiasis is only now almost gone.
Due to its isolation from Tahiti and the will of most of the population, it has been spared the fate of its capital and remains a mysterious undeveloped archipelago.
In 2002, France successfully requested that a 20-year moratorium be applied to French Polynesia to stop it from being incorporated into the European Union. One of the driving factors was to stop non-French investment in property for the time being.
The then-mayor of Nuku Hiva, Lucien Kimitete, who promoted separation of the Marquesas Islands from French Polynesia within the French Republic, was killed in an airplane accident in May 2002, along with MP Boris Leontieff, Mayor of Arue in Tahiti. Many locals still believe this crash was not properly investigated. There is a considerable amount of latent resentment and hostility about this. Since the death of Lucien Kimitete, Marquesan political leaders have repeatedly declared themselves in favor of separating from French Polynesia and remaining within the French Republic in case French Polynesian political leaders in Tahiti would proclaim the independence of French Polynesia.
In 2001, Nuku Hiva was used as the filming location for the fourth season of the American reality competition series Survivor, airing in the United States in 2002.
British explorer and presenter Ben Fogle filmed an episode of Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild in 2015 with a nomadic couple who reside on a boat, which was moored off Nuku Hiva at the time of his week-long visit. They sailed from the south west to the north east.
In his science fiction novel Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1863, Jules Verne describes Nuku Hiva as one of the main stock exchanges of the world of 1960:
Quotations of countless stocks on the international market were automatically inscribed on dials utilized by the Exchanges of Paris, London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Turin, Berlin, Vienna, Saint Petersburg, Constantinople, New York, Valparaíso, Calcutta, Sydney, Peking, and Nuku Hiva