In researching and preparing these posts on Hawai‘i, I have had growing appreciation for the way Hawai‘i handled the diversity, complexity and profound nature of the changes it was going through in the early to mid-1800s.
As you can see, here, from the end of the 1790s to the middle of the 1800s the legal, social, religious and economic structures of the pre-existing society are upended and completely changed.
Here are just a few of the things going on around the first-half of that century:
1795 – Kamehameha I invades and conquers O‘ahu at the Battle of Nu‘uanu, uniting the eastern islands under single rule
1805 – Sandalwood trade begins, starting the transition from a subsistence-based society to a barter, trade and monetary system (over the next 20-years the Islands’ Sandalwood forests are decimated)
1810 – Kamehameha and Kaumuali‘i come to an agreement and the islands are unified under single rule for the first time
1819 – King Kamehameha I dies, the role of King is passed to his eldest son, Liholiho
1819 – King Kamehameha II ends the kapu system, ending 500-years of religious, political and social structure
1820 – New England missionaries arrive to spread the gospel and convert the islanders to Christianity
1820 – As the Sandalwood trade is diminishing, the islands start to serve as a central Pacific provisioning site for whaling ships (at its zenith in the 1840s, over 85% of the American whaling fleet was in the Pacific)
1824 – Liholiho (Kamehameha II) and his Queen Kamāmalu contract measles and die in London; Kauikeaouli, his younger brother and son of Kamehameha I, becomes King.
1835 – The first commercially-viable Sugar Plantation starts at Kōloa, Kaua‘i
1839 – Chief’s Children’s School (later renamed Royal School) was created by King Kamehameha III who hired Amos and Juliette Cooke to run the school and teach the next generation of Hawaiian royalty to become rulers.
1840 – The first Constitution is passed in the Hawai‘i legislature
1848 – The Great Māhele dismantles the traditional system of land tenure and instituted a system of private property ownership
1850 – The Kuleana Act of 1850 was passed, permitting land ownership by commoners who occupied and improved any portion of the lands controlled by the Ali‘i and Konohiki
Between 1800 and 1850, the language changed, the religion changed, the apparel changed, the housing changed, where and how people lived and worked changed …
Life became completely different – in a single generation.
Now put these into perspective on how some of these changes greatly affected the Hawaiian people:
• The health of many Hawaiians was weakened by exposure to new diseases, common cold, flu, measles, mumps, smallpox and venereal diseases
• As more ships came in, many of those who came to Hawaiʻi chose to stay and settle
• Many Hawaiians boarded these passing ships for either employment or to move to other areas (primarily, the North American continent)
• Hawaiʻi changed from a land of all Hawaiians to a place of mixed cultures, languages and races
• Many new plants and animals were brought to the islands, both on purpose and by accident (many turned out to be invasive to the native species)
• New products by foreign ships were traded, including firearms, beads, western dress and fabric, crystal lamps, mirrors, nails and metal goods, silk and liquor
• The economy and everyday life was changing from a subsistence way of life to a commodity-based economy that started with barter and trade, that eventually changed to a monetary system
• There was growth of business centers, where people ended up living closer to one another, typically surrounding the best seaports for western ships (small towns soon grew into large cities)
All of this set the foundation for the second half of the century, whose socio-economic status centered on the plantation industries of sugar and pineapple.
This changed the face of Hawai‘i forever, launching an entire economy, lifestyle and practice of monocropping that lasted for well over a century. With it came even greater foreign waves of workforce immigration.
If you look at the records, you’ll see that many of these changes were initiated, supported and promoted by the Aliʻi. They sought and acquired western goods; this caused many of the changes noted here.
You are absolutely right about the ali’i trying to emulate and aspire to English, European and American culture. Kalakaua
lost his health and ultimately his life chasing the haole dream. He also wasted millions on himself instead of helping his people.
Stafford Clarry says
Thank you for this brief and concise flow of change that is a very useful framework on which to hang learnings about Hawaii. How do our learnings fit the big story of Hawaii?
Often the Great Mahele is criticized as a measure instigated by the (greedy) foreign community in Hawaii to take exclusionary control of Hawaiian lands. In his book ‘Possessing the Pacific’ (Harvard University Press), UCLA legal professor Stuat Banner proposes the Great Mahele was a thoughtfully good (brilliant?) move. Seeing the impending threat of a big power taking over his small kingdom, Kamehameha III saw a huge danger.
At the time, all land belonged to the king and if a strong power overthrew his monarchy and took pssession of the kingdom, all land would “legally” belong to the conqueror. In other words, if the US Government took over Hawaii under pre-mahele circumstances, ALL land would belong to the US Government.
Both Brits and Americans respected legal private land ownership. So, that’s what Kamehameha III did, he legalized private land ownership to put Hawaiian lands into Hawaiian hands (the fact that some Hawaiians later transferred their ownership is a separate story). After the 1893 overthrow, the only contested lands are the crown lands, which only confirms the wisdom of the Great Mahele.
It would be very interesting to learn the decisionmaking process that brought Kamehameha III to make the Great Mahele happen. In your usual brief, informative style, who were his advisors on this issue and what and how did they advise. The Great Mahele was a strategically important pivotal move. What is the background story about how it happened?