What if the Great Māhele Wasn't a Foreign Imposition?

Oct 25, 2017

Painting of Captain James Cook's arrival at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. Cook's arrival in 1778 is considered the first contact native Hawaiians had with foreigners.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

The concept of private property was introduced to Hawaiʻi with the Great Māhele of 1848. That action is often blamed for a lack of land ownership among native Hawaiians…a situation that lasts to this day. Some also say it plays a role in explaining why Native Hawaiians are statistically at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to quality of life. HPRʻs Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi reports on research that sheds new light on this complex history of land in Hawaiʻi.

Hawaiian studies instructor and geography scholar Donovan Preza starts off every class and presentation with one question: 

Donovan Preza lectures students in his Introduction to the Hawaiian Kingdom course at Kapi'olani Community College.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“Who in this room has a story of loss of land?” asks Preza, “Everybody’s hand goes up. And if you think about that – if Hawaiians didn’t get land – how do we all have a story of loss of land?”

Preza’s research re-examines native Hawaiian land dispossession resulting from the Great Māhele of 1848. The Māhele began the transition to private property here in Hawaiʻi. The most notable part of the Māhele was the Kuleana Act of 1850, which allowed commoners to claim title to land they cultivated or lived on. Under the act, native Hawaiians claimed only 28,658 acres. Thatʻs less than one percent of the land in Hawaiʻi.

Under the Kuleana Act of 1850, native Hawaiians were able to claim title to land they cultivated or lived on. This essentially gave native Hawaiians the first take at claiming land before it was opened up for purchase by foreigners.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

“And that’s factually accurate. That’s correct, but that’s only part of the story. Hawaiians got land via other mechanisms,” says Preza.

Those other mechanisms included the purchase of government lands, which native Hawaiians quickly took advantage of.

“There’s a section that says those natives who do not have land can purchase land from the government in lots from 1 to 50 acres at a minimum price of $0.50 an acre,” says Preza, “So you have Hawaiians buying land.”

Preza's research thesis is titled "The Emperical Writes Back: Re-Examining Hawaiian Dispossession Resulting From the Mahele of 1848."
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Preza’s research found more than 167,000 acres were scooped up by native Hawaiians across the island chain. Yet, the dominant story remains. The Māhele was a foreign imposition - a land grab forcing the concept of private property on a passive native Hawaiian people.

“Hawaiians didn’t get land as a result and that’s evidence of the foreign imposition because if, the argument goes, if Hawaiians were in control we would have gave ourselves land. Right? Why would we not give ourselves land if we were in control?” says Preza.

Preza argues native Hawaiians did get land but more importantly, he says the Hawaiian Kingdom Era had a strong monarchy intent on preserving land for native Hawaiians.

Kamehameha III (center) was the longest reigning monarch in the history of the kingdom, ruling nearly 30 years. The Great Mahele happened under his reign. He is pictured here with his wife, Queen Kalama (left); Kamehameha IV (left rear), Kamehameha V (right rear) and their sister, Victoria Kamamalu (right), ca. 1853.
Credit Hugo Stangenwald / Bernice P. Bishop Museum

“The Kingdom Era gets a bad rap. It gets that’s when this king was drunk and this foreigner imposed himself. It’s not ours,” says Preza, “There’s a part of our history that is ours. And most of the things we’re fighting for regarding land and land law are preserved.”

That’s in large part because of the Great Māhele and not in spite of it. Preza admits native Hawaiian land dispossession did take place but not during the Hawaiian Kingdom, which is contrary to this common storyline.

“The Hawaiian Kingdom that was never ours. That was foreign imposed. Missionaries took us over and it was all downhill since they came,” says Preza, “It was downhill since they overthrew and started to change land law.”

Preza hopes his research helps native Hawaiians see the Māhele as a Hawaiian innovation that allows them to take ownership of that history.

UPCOMING: Preza is sharing his research in a presentation titled "Taking Ownership of Ownership: Western Property Law's Assimilation into Hawaiian Property Law in the Great Māhele Era" on Friday, October 27, 2017 at 6:30 p.m. at the Kanaʻina Building on ʻIolani Palace Grounds. The event is free. Seating is limited. Free parking on Palace grounds. This is one in a series of scholarly presentations on Hawaiian history presented by the Hui Aloha ʻĀina o Honolulu. For more information email palologyrl@yandex.com

The Empirical Writes Back by HPR News on Scribd