The Great Mahele

posted in: History | 1

In the late 1840s, the land system in Hawaii was changed from a system of peonage. This redistribution, remapping, resale was called the Great Mahele. Previously, most of the land on the Islands was held by local royalty, by greater kings who ruled several or all the islands, and finally by the government. Each section of land–or ahupuaa–started at the mountains and fanned out wider and wider until it met the sea. According to a surveyor, everything needful for life could be found in these sections–from the mountains came “wood, kapa for cloth, olona for fishing line, ti-leaf for wrapping paper, ie for ratan lashing, birds for food” (quoted in Shoal of Time by Gavan Daws, 1968) to the fertile land down the slopes where taro was grown, and finally to the waves where fish swam.

But by the 1840s, the Islands were over-run by foreigners–from the United States came missionaries, whalers, merchants, speculators; from China came laborers; from Europe more of the same. A central government, helpfully constituted in the 1820s by missionaries from the United States, was far more sweeping in its powers. Plus a handful of foreigners wanted to buy or at least take out long-term leases on land to form large plantations.

This redistribution offered native commoners the chance to purchase land for fee simple. What’s so interesting is that many did not take advantage of this. Instead, as I read in Gavan Daws’ book, they left their ancient locations and their bonds to particular local rulers, and set off to see what they could see. Consequently, they ended up disenfranchised and more impoverished than they’d been before, partly because the land they had worked for generations was frequently sold in huge swatches to outsiders. Think Dole pineapples, for instance.

Other immense changes occurred in the Hawaiian Islands around the same time. When gold was discovered in California, and hordes of U.S. citizens flocked to the West Coast, the likelihood that Hawaii would become drawn into the U.S. orbit increased. A smallpox epidemic spread from a foreign ship anchored in Honolulu harbor and despite efforts by foreign doctors to vaccinate everyone–native people and haoles (or foreigners)–many natives either faked a vaccination or simply ran away. Thousands died.

Clash of cultures, uprootedness, privation–all this sounds again and again. Sometimes the losses are immediate and obvious–such as deaths from unfamiliar or untreatable diseases. Think AIDS. Think yellow fever in the early days of the continental U.S. If 29,000 French troops sent by Napoleon to hold onto New Orleans hadn’t died of Yellow Fever, it’s unlikely that France would have sold the Louisiana purchase to Jefferson. It took a century before the connection between the fever and the bites of a mosquito was recognized and swamps drained, and screens put on windows.

Sometimes I think of us humans as having hugely developed brains, wonderful thumbs, but very little common sense. We often act like cattle, easily spooked, and we run toward what will kill us. Or we act like cats and crawl under the bed at the least unfamiliar sound. Or we give ourselves over to outsiders who think they know what’s best, or we don’t trust what outsiders are offering to help us. Maybe we need to pause and reflect. Look around. Stand back and examine carefully, think deeply, and ask what is really in our best interest. It’s this kind of reflective analysis I like to encourage in myself, my friends, my family, my government.

  1. Anonymous

    This piece fits right in with my new interest in Hawaiian history and culture. I must pick up Shoals of Time and read it during our trip. I’m reading a couple novels by a Hawaiian author Kiana Davenport. Her style is a little flowery but not bad and at least gives the flavor of the islands.
    Barb P

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