A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Overview of Hawaiian History
by Diane Lee Rhodes
(with some additions by Linda Wedel Greene)


J. Great Mahele

Perhaps the most important of the reforms that the Hawaiian government undertook during the 1830s and 1840s was the Great Mahele, or division of lands. The Mahele provided a basis for modem land titles by changing the old feudal tenures to allodial (absolutely independent) modern land titles in the islands.

Following the death of Kamehameha, Kamehameha II reassigned a few properties to his intimate friends but failed to carry out the traditional redistribution of lands. Generally, he allowed current landholders to continue to occupy their land, possibly due to the combined influences of Ka'ahumanu and the landed interests of the chiefs. Gifts of land were also made by individual chiefs and by the king to foreigners, but with the tacit understanding that the gift could be revoked at any time.

Following Kamehameha II's death in London in 1824, the Hawaiian government faced increasing demands for land from island chiefs and from assertive foreign traders and merchants. Used to owning land in fee simple, foreigners had begun to object to the right of the king and his chiefs to dispense land at will and to evict foreigners as they pleased. Before 1820, most foreign residents were common sailors, men who conformed to native customs. After 1820, foreigners arriving in the Islands were often "men of higher status in life" who had little regard for native traditions and who "began to deal with their property like they would do in their homelands." [138] For this reason, earlier disputes over moral laws and sandalwood debts gradually shifted to dissension over land and property rights.

The land tenure system with its self-sufficient ahupua'a and communal subsistence economy had, for a long time, worked well for the Hawaiians. Although the chiefs controlled the land and extracted food and labor from the commoners who farmed the soil, "everyone had rights of access and use to the resources of the land and the sea. . . . The people were sustained by a tradition of sharing and common use." [139] The system reflected the islands' social stratification from the ruling chief down to the lowest commoner. Production and consumption patterns had been partially regulated through the kapu system. However, once that started to deteriorate, the subsistence economy was easily breached by foreign intervention, and the land tenure system became dysfunctional. The political division of labor among men and women, commoner and chief, was no longer sanctified, and ceremonies such as the Makahiki ceased to have much meaning within the political system. In a land ruled by one leader, the redistribution of land became irrelevant because a need no longer existed to periodically divide the chiefdom's territory. [140]

The breakdown in the land tenure system began during the early trade with foreigners. At that time, the chiefs and priests controlled trade, while the commoner had to supply ever-increasing amounts of produce. The farmers' labor increased, not only to produce more food, but to help gather firewood, water, and sandalwood for the traders. Most early nineteenth-century Euro-American visitors held a simplistic view of Hawaii's land tenure system, complaining that it was backward and oppressive, resulting in "a nation of shirks." [141] The missionaries also criticized the system and lobbied for changes, noting that its existence kept the people poor and "forbid cheerful industry." [142] William Richards noted that the elder chiefs' objections to proposed land reform centered around loss of control over their subjects. [143] Under pressure to change the system, Kamehameha III and his chiefs, assisted by their Euro-American advisors, reviewed national land tenure policy. To correct some of the problems plaguing the Hawaiian kingdom, they issued the Hawaiian Bill of Rights in 1839, followed shortly by the first constitution. That document acknowledged that

though all the land belonged to King Kamehameha I, "it was not his own private property. It belonged to the chiefs and people in common, of whom Kamehameha I was the head, and had management of the landed property.'" This was the first formal acknowledgement by the king that the common people had some form of ownership in the land, aside from an interest in the products of the soil. [144]

Within five years a land commission (The Board of Commissioners To Quiet Land Titles) had been established to begin reform of the Hawaiian land system. The stated intent of the reform was to facilitate land acquisition by the poorer classes, allowing them to derive a "proper reward for their industry," and to encourage population growth. [145] Eventually the chiefs and konohiki joined Kamehameha III in supporting the Great Mahele, beginning in the 1840s. [146] The Mahele was an agreement on the "separation and identification of the relative rights of the king, the chiefs, and the konohikis" with regard to the lands within the Hawaiian Islands. [147]

At first consideration, the Mahele would seem to have been the culmination of the sweeping cultural changes that occurred following the death of Kamehameha. However, one author notes that

long and undisturbed possession of their lands by chiefs was a preparation for the development of a sentiment favorable to permanent individual rights in land . . . and may be regarded as the seed germ of the system of land tenures which afterwards developed. [148]

Suggesting that the idea of hereditary transmission of estates originated with Kamehameha, Dole notes that from about 1795 until 1839, there appears to have been a growing tendency to allow descent of lands from parent to child. [149] Also, as land occupants became increasingly secure in their landholdings, there were more land transactions, both as gifts and sales.

The Great Mahele did not convey land, but established a land commission and provided the means whereby land claims could be presented to the commission and adjudged by them. The king, still concerned over foreign control of Hawaiian lands, then signed instruments that divided his land into two portions. One part, "the Crown Lands," he retained; the rest, "Government Lands," went to the chiefs and the people. The third act of the Great Mahele, commonly known as the Kuleana Act of 1850, enabled the Land Commission to award small parcels of land to commoners for subsistence purposes. [150]

The Great Mahele was followed by legislation that allowed the sale of lands in fee simple to resident aliens and authorized the award of kuleana to commoners. Some say that the Great Mahele stands out in Hawaiian history as an extraordinary example of altruism, for the Hawaiian aristocracy peacefully relinquished many of their hereditary rights and privileges for the good of the people. Others point out that there existed a vast gulf between the provisions of the law and actual practice; that is, the laws and their administration proved inadequate to protect commoners rights, Indeed, all too often the laws

permitted and intensified the oppressive control over commoners either by chiefs or foreigners who quickly gained ownership and control over large tracts of land. . . . Basically, history shows that the chiefs prevailed. [151]

As it became evident that the Great Mahele had not achieved its stated goals, government holdings were used to provide land for commoners. According to Kelly, this too was a failure, and only a few parcels were actually sold to Hawaiians. [152] Many of the kuleana lands that commoners received in the 1850s were later lost. The list of reasons is lengthy: natives received lands that lacked firewood or were too rocky and poor to farm, a number of kuleana were sold by unscrupulous land agents before the farmers could get a survey, the land commissioners delayed getting notices to landholders, prices were out of reach for commoners, or foreigners evicted legitimate kuleana owners without due process.

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001