At the time of Captain Cook’s contact with the Hawaiian Islands the land was divided into several independent Kingdoms. By right of conquest, each King was owner of all the lands within his jurisdiction.
After selecting lands for himself, the King allotted the remaining to the warrior Chiefs who rendered assistance in his conquest. These warrior Chiefs, after retaining a portion for themselves, reallotted the remaining lands to their followers and supporters.
The distribution of lands was all on a revocable basis. What the superior gave, he was able to take away at his pleasure. This ancient tenure was in nature feudal, although the tenants were not serfs tied to the soil – they were allowed to move freely from the land of one Chief to that of another.
Under King Kamehameha III, the most important event in the reformation of the land system in Hawaii was the separation of the rights of the King, the Chiefs and the Konohiki (land agents.)
The King retained all of his private lands as his individual property; one third of the remaining land was to be for the Hawaiian Government; one third for the Chiefs and Konohiki; and one third to be set aside for the tenants, the actual possessors and cultivators of the soil.
More than 240 of the highest ranking Chiefs and Konohiki in the Kingdom joined Kamehameha III in this task. The first māhele, or division, of lands was signed on January 27, 1848; the last māhele was signed on March 7, 1848 (164-years ago, today.)
Each māhele was in effect a quitclaim agreement between the King and a Chief or Konohiki with reference to the lands in which they both claimed interests.
In each māhele for lands for the King, the Chief or the Konohiki signed an agreement: “I hereby agree that this division is good. The lands above written are for the King. I have no more rights therein.”
The remaining lands were set aside for the Chief or Konohiki and the King signed an agreement: “I hereby agree that this division is good. The lands above written are for (name of Chief or Konohiki); consent is given to take it before the Board of Commissioners to Quiet Land Titles.”
The Great Māhele itself did not convey title to land.
The high Chiefs and the lesser Konohiki were required to present their claims before the Land Commission to receive awards for the lands. Until an award for these lands was issued by the Land Commission, title to such lands remained with the government.
Even after receiving a Land Commission Award, the recipient did not acquire a free and clear title. He was still required to pay commutation to the government, in cash or by surrender of equally valuable lands (set at one third of the value of the unimproved land.)
Kamehameha III divided the lands he reserved for himself into two separate parts; the smaller portion he retained for his personal use (“Crown” lands); the larger portion he gave ‘to the Chiefs and people’ (“Government” lands.)
The lands identified and separated in 1848 as Crown lands, Government lands and Konohiki lands were all “subject to the rights of native tenants” on their respective kuleana.
The Land Commission was authorized to award fee simple titles to native tenants who occupied and improved the land (and proved they actually cultivated those lands for a living.)
In the Great Māhele of 1848, of the approximate 10,000 awards, around 1,000,000-acres were reserved by King Kamehameha III as “Crown” lands, 1,500,000-acres were given by the King (as “Government” lands) to the ‘government and people’, approximately 1,500,000-acres were set aside for the Chiefs (as “Konohiki” lands) and less than 30,000-acres of land were awarded to the native tenants (Kuleana lands.)
The awarding of these completed the māhele of the lands into the Crown lands, Government lands, Konohiki lands and Kuleana lands and brought to an end the ancient system of land tenure in the Hawaiian Kingdom.