Generally thought to have originated from the Marquesas Islands, evidence of early existence in the Hawaiian Islands indicates initial contact and settlement as early as 1000 AD to 1200 AD (some suggest it was later.)
Early on, with the family unit being the socio-political structure, there was no need for a hierarchical or complex society. However, as the population increased and wants and needs increased in variety and complexity, the need for chiefly rule became apparent.
Eventually, a highly stratified society evolved consisting of the Ali‘i (ruling class,) Kahuna (priestly and expert class of craftsmen, fishers and professionals) and Makaʻāinana (commoner class.)
Over the century, the islands weren’t unified under single rule. Leadership sometimes covered portions of an island, sometimes covered a whole island or groups of islands. Island rulers, Aliʻi or Mōʻī, typically ascended to power through warfare and familial succession.
At the period of Captain Cook’s arrival (1778-1779), the Hawaiian Islands were divided into four kingdoms: (1) the island of Hawaiʻi under the rule of Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who also had possession of the Hāna district of east Maui; (2) Maui (except the Hāna district,) Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi and Kahoʻolawe, ruled by Kahekili; (3) Oʻahu, under the rule of Kahahana; and at (4) Kauaʻi and Niʻihau, Kamakahelei was ruler.
There were family connections of these four to Kamehameha; the death of Kiwalaʻo; the “Four Kona Uncles” (Keʻeaumoku, Keaweaheulu, Kameʻeiamoku and Kamanawa (the last two are twins and are depicted on the Hawaiian Coat of Arms;)) permission from Kalola to marry her granddaughter (after the defeat of Maui) and how Kamehameha secured his “unification” by “sharing the spoils” of the conquests and “braided the bloodlines;” eventually leading to the agreement with Kaumualiʻi. (Yardley)
The kapu system was the common structure, the rule of order, and religious and political code. This social and political structure gave leaders absolute rule and authority.
When Kamehameha died on May 8, 1819, the crown was passed to his son, Liholiho, who would rule as Kamehameha II. Kaʻahumanu recruited Liholiho’s mother, Keōpūolani, to join her in convincing Liholiho to break the kapu system which had been the rigid code of Hawaiians for centuries.
Liholiho accomplished this simply by eating a meal with women – ʻai noa. When the Hawaiians saw that Liholiho was not struck down by angry gods, the entire kapu system was discarded.
This changed the course of the civilization and ended the kapu system, effectively weakened belief in the power of the gods and the inevitability of divine punishment for those who opposed them.
In addition to the abolition of the old ways, Kaʻahumanu created the office of Kuhina Nui (similar to premier, prime minister or regent) and would rule as an equal with Liholiho – this started the shift from absolute rule to shared rule.
The Kuhina Nui held equal authority to the king in all matters of government, including the distribution of land, negotiating treaties and other agreements, and dispensing justice.
Kaʻahumanu ruled first with Kamehameha II until his departure for England in 1823 (where he died in 1824) and then as regent for the young king Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III).
The end of the kapu system happened before the arrival of the missionaries; Christianity and westernization soon filled the social and political void.
Christianity and the western law brought order and were the only answers to keeping order with a growing foreign population and dying race. Kamehameha III incorporated traditional customary practices within the western laws – by maintaining the “land division of his father with his uncles” – which secured the heirship of lands and succession of the throne, as best he could outside of “politics, trade and commerce.” (Yardley)
While Liholiho’s brother Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) ruled as monarch (with shared authority with the Kuhina Nui,) he, too, took bold steps in changing the structure of governance. Kamehameha III initiated and implemented Hawaiʻi’s first constitution (1840) (one of five constitutions governing the Islands – and then, later, governance as part of the United States.)
Of his own free will he granted the Constitution of 1840, as a boon to his country and people, establishing his Government upon a declared plan. (Rex v. Booth – Hanifin)
That constitution introduced the innovation of representatives chosen by the people (rather than as previously solely selected by the Aliʻi.) This gave the common people a share in the government’s actual political power for the first time.
In addition, the 1840 Constitution recognized rights of the people; its preamble read, “’God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the earth,’ in unity and blessedness. God has also bestowed certain rights alike on all men and all chiefs, and all people of all lands.”
“Absolute monarchy had come to an end in 1840. Since that time the kingdom had been governed under no less than four constitutions: the original one freely granted by Kamehameha III in 1840; one adopted by the legislature with the concurrence of the same King in 1852; one promulgated by Kamehameha V in 1864 on his own authority; and one granted in 1887 by Kalākaua as the result of a popular uprising.” (Spaulding – Kosaki)
For two centuries, the trend in Hawaiʻi has been toward expanding the numbers of people who have a say in all parts of their government: from Kamehameha I’s near-absolute monarchy to a hereditary oligarchy, to an oligarchy open to men with money, to American republic. (Hanifin)