The Great Mahele: A Transformative Era in Hawaiʻi’s Land Division

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Hawaiʻi, with its lush landscapes, vibrant culture, and rich history, holds a unique place in the world. When buying real estate in Hawaiʻi, it is a great idea to learn the history of the land that you are purchasing. Each land parcel holds deep history and cultural significance in Hawaiian history. One might say each parcel of land is a time capsule for events that may have occurred there. Hawaiians documented important activity, landscaped beauty, feelings, and just about anything that could be described by oral or written poetry, in the form of a mele (chant or song). You may often find a mele of an area that could describe something significant or amazing about Hawaiian culture and history.

The Great Mahele was a pivotal event that significantly shaped the destiny of the Hawaiian Islands. The Great Mahele refers to a land redistribution act that took place in Hawaiʻi in the mid-19th century and it impacted the way land was owned, used, and cultivated.

Understanding the Great Mahele

The term “Mahele” translates to “division” in Hawaiian, and the Great Mahele was a large-scale land redistribution and privatization effort initiated in 1848. The Great Mahele aimed to reorganize land ownership and usage rights. Under this act, the land was divided into three categories: Crown Lands (lands belonging to the Hawaiian monarchy), Government Lands (lands controlled by the government), and Konohiki Lands (lands controlled by chiefs or landlords). The Great Mahele also allowed commoners, known as maka’āinana, to acquire fee-simple title to land through various means, such as direct purchase or by homesteading.

Before the Great Mahele, Hawaiʻi land was owned and ruled by Aliʻi (King) and operated under a communal land tenure system that divided the islands into ahupuaʻa – pie-shaped sections extending from the mountains to the sea. Each ahupuaʻa contained the resources necessary for sustenance, from fertile agricultural lands to fishing grounds. This system facilitated a sustainable and interconnected way of life for native Hawaiians. Private land ownership was not a concept or lifestyle maka’āinana was accustomed to. They lived in an ecological community that exchanged the skills of their productive hands for rights to occupy that area of land. A system where everyone benefited in that community or ahupuaʻa.

Implementation and Impact

The Great Mahele stands as a pivotal chapter in Hawaiʻi’s history, a time when the islands underwent a profound transformation in land division. Implementing the Land Commission Award System was a precursor to the Great Mahele and a response to the growing pressure from foreign interests and changing economic conditions. The Land Commission Award granted individuals or entities formal land rights, in the form of a lease, or deeded title to specific land parcels. The rise of foreign influence and pressure compelled Kamehameha III to make further socio-economic changes regarding land ownership. To protect all Hawaiʻi lands from being occupied and owned by incoming settlers, Kamehameha III transitioned to the “western concept” of deeded lands, a system that formalized and recorded land titles creating a more organized framework that marked the boundaries of rights and land ownership among the different classes.

In 1848, The Great Mahele transitioned Hawaiʻi from a feudal system to a system of private land ownership. It marked the end of traditional communal practices and set the stage for Hawaiʻi’s evolution into a modern society. However, the transition was not without challenges. Misunderstandings, disputes, and the sheer complexity of the process resulted in significant changes to land ownership patterns. While the Great Mahele aimed to address internal issues, it also opened the door to foreign investors and settlers, as non-Hawaiians could purchase land. This new land division system ultimately led to the dispossession of Native Hawaiian land. Certainly, the option to acquire privately owned land was offered to native Hawaiians and makaʻāinana, however, the act often favored settlers and favored the elite. Many native Hawaiians lost access to their traditional lands.

The history of Hawaiʻi land ownership is complex. On one hand, it has laid groundwork for Hawaiʻi’s integration into the global economy, however on the other hand it has led to the dispossession of native Hawaiians from their lands and has had an often uneven effect on Hawaiian society, culture, and land ownership. This is just one important facet of Hawaiian history that reminds us of the struggles and impact upon the Hawaiian islands and its people. Learning a little history of The Great Mahele allows us to have a better understanding of Hawaiʻi and the ʻāina (land). Today, Hawaiʻi is still considered paradise with its natural beauty, incredible weather, surrounded by sandy beaches, and rich cultural traditions.