During the period from about AD 1400 to European contact, Hawaiian society underwent a transformation from descent-based (its ancestral Polynesian system) to a state-like society.
The structure that came to characterize Hawaiian society – consisting of a high upper class supported by an underprivileged lower class – was somewhat suggestive of ancient Mediterranean and Asian civilizations, as well as of medieval Europe.
The Hawaiian concept of the universe embodied the interrelationship of the gods, man and nature. The former, although the ultimate controlling influence in this system, granted their direct descendants – the royalty – control over the land, the sea and their resources.
“The condition of the common people was that of subjection to the chiefs, compelled to do their heavy tasks, burdened and oppressed, some even to death. The life of the people was one of patient endurance, of yielding to the chiefs to purchase their favor. The plain man (kanaka) must not complain.” (Malo)
At the time of European contact in 1778, Hawaiian society comprised four levels. People were born into specific social classes; social mobility was not unknown, but it was extremely rare. The Kapu System separated Hawaiian society into four groups of people:
• Aliʻi, the ruling class of chiefs and nobles (kings, high chiefs, low chiefs) considered to be of divine origin who ruled specific territories and who held their positions on the basis of family ties and leadership abilities – the chiefs were thought to be descendants of the gods;
• Kahuna, the priests (who conducted religious ceremonies at the heiau and elsewhere) and master craftsmen (experts in medicine, religion, technology, natural resource management and similar areas) who ranked near the top of the social scale
• Makaʻainana, commoners (the largest group) those who lived on the land – primarily laborers, farmers, fishermen, and the like; they labored not only for themselves and their families, but to support the chiefs; and
• Kauwa (or Kauā), social outcasts, “untouchables” — possibly lawbreakers or war captives, who were considered “unclean” or kapu. Their position was hereditary, and they were attached to “masters” in some sort of servitude status. Marriage between higher castes and the kauwa was strictly forbidden.
“As to why in ancient times a certain class of people were ennobled and made into aliis, and another class into subjects (kanaka), why a separation was made between chiefs and commoners, has never been explained.” (Malo)
The aliʻi attained high social rank in several ways: by heredity, by appointment to political office, by marriage or by right of conquest. The first was determined at birth, the others by the outcomes of war and political processes.
“The chiefs were anxious also to preserve the pure blood of their class by arranging marriages between chiefs and chiefesses. … The mating to a sister or near relative, which was not permitted to lesser chiefs or the relatives of chiefs, was considered desirable between very high chiefs in order to produce children of divine rank who carried the sacred fire (ahi) tabu. Such a mating was for the purpose of bearing children, but the two need not become man and wife. Thus the chiefs multiplied, thrived, grew, and spread out over the land; but today we are taught that such practices are wrong.” (Kamakau)
“The makaainana were the fixed residents of the land; the chiefs were the ones who moved about from place to place. It was the makaainanas also who did all the work on the land; yet all they produced from the soil belonged to the chiefs; and the power to expel a man from the land and rob him of his possessions lay with the chief.” (Malo)
Power and prestige, and thus class divisions, were defined in terms of mana. Although the gods were the full embodiment of this sacredness, the royalty possessed it to a high degree because of their close genealogical ties to those deities.
The kahuna ratified this relationship by conducting ceremonies of appeasement and dedication on behalf of the chiefs, which also provided ideological security for the commoners who believed the gods were the power behind natural forces.
“If the people were slack in doing the chief’s work they were expelled from their lands, or even put to death. For such reasons as this and because of the oppressive exactions made upon them, the people held the chiefs in great dread and looked upon them as gods.” (Malo)
“Only a small portion of the kings and chiefs ruled with kindness; the large majority simply lorded it over the people. It was from the common people, however, that the chiefs received their food and their apparel for men and women, also their houses and many other things.” (Malo)
Commoners possessed little mana and were therefore prohibited from entering any of the sacred places where aliʻi and gods communicated, such as the heiau in which the upper class honored their gods. Outcasts, with no mana, could interact with commoners but not approach the upper class.
“The commoners were the most numerous class of people in the nation, and were known as the ma-ka-aina-na; another name by which they were called was hu (hu, to swell, multiply, increase like yeast.)” (Malo)
As Handy states: “It is evident that kapu determined and regulated the three castes. For the aliʻi (and kahuna,) the kapu of sanctity was at once a wall of protection and the source of prestige and authority. The same kapu determined for the commoners their social and economic relationship to, and their reverential attitude towards their overlords. As for the kauwa, their segregation and exclusion from the social organism was due to a kapu of defilement.”
This social structure was reinforced by the kapu, the Hawaiian religious, political and social structure that lasted for 500-years. (Lots of information here from an NPS report, as well as others, as noted.) The painting is by Herb Kane – “Council of Chiefs.”