“(I)n the earliest times all the people were alii … it was only after the lapse of several generations that a division was made into commoners and chiefs” (Malo)
Kamakau noted, in early Hawaiʻi “The parents were masters over their own family group … No man was made chief over another.” Essentially, the extended family was the socio, biological, economic and political unit.
Because each ʻohana (family) was served by a parental haku (master, overseer) and each family was self-sufficient and capable of satisfying its own needs, there was no need for a hierarchal structure.
With such a small (but growing) population based on the family unit, society was not so complicated that it needed chiefs to govern or oversee the general population.
Kamakau states that there were no chiefs in the earliest period of settlement but that they came “several hundred years afterward … when men became numerous.”
As the population increased and wants and needs increased in variety and complexity (and it became too difficult to satisfy them with finite resources,) the need for chiefly rule became apparent.
As chiefdoms developed, the simple pecking order of titles and status likely evolved into a more complex and stratified structure.
This centralization of government allowed for completion and maintenance of large projects, such as irrigation systems, large taro loʻi, large fish ponds, heiau and trails.
On the family scale, ponds to supply the family unit were small and manageable by the family. However, as the population grew, more hands were needed for construction and maintenance.
Government could compel the participation of many people to work on these public projects.
The actual number of chiefs was few, but their retainers attached to the courts (advisors, konohiki, priests, warriors, etc) were many.
In addition to the expanded demand to provide food for the courts, commoners were also obliged to make new lines of products for the chiefs – feather cloaks, capes, helmets, images and ornaments.
Likewise, as challenges were made between chiefly realms, warfare and the resultant demand for services in combat increased.
The arrival of Pā‘ao from Tahiti in about the thirteenth century resulted in the establishment (or, at least expanded upon) a religious and political code in old Hawai`i, collectively called the kapu system.
Fornander writes that prior to the period of Pā‘ao “… the kapu (forbidden actions) were few and the ceremonials easy; that human sacrifices were not practiced, and cannibalism unknown; and that government was more of a patriarchal than of a regal nature.”
Pā‘ao’s period are attributed a greater rigidity of the kapu, the introduction of human sacrifices, “the hardening and confirming of the divisions of society, the exaltation of the nobles and the increase of their prerogatives, the separation and immunity of the priestly order, and the systematic setting down, if not actual debasement, of the commoners.” (Stokes)
Likewise, Pā‘ao reportedly initiated a lineage of kings, starting with Pili Ka‘aiea (the 1st “Aliʻi ʻAimoku” for the Big Island – the first ruler (sometimes called the “king”) of the island.)
The descendants of this king ruled the island of Hawai‘i until 1893, while Pā‘ao himself became the high priest of an order which he established and which continued until 1819.
The form of the heiau was changed by Pā‘ao and his successors, and the general population mingled less freely in the ceremonies of sacrifice and other forms of worship. The high-priesthood became more mysterious and exclusive.
This intricate system that supported Hawaiʻi’s social and political organization directed every activity of Hawaiian life, from birth through death, until its abolition by King Kamehameha II (Liholiho) in 1819.
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)
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. (Malo)
The inspiration and much of the information in this summary is from writings by George Kanahele (and others, as noted.) The image is a portion of the cover to the book written by Ross Cordy.