In a petition to U.S. President Grover Cleveland dated December 27, 1893, by the officers of the Hawaiian Patriotic League, a political organization whose membership comprised of over 8,000 voters that represented the commoner class, they opened with:
Last January, a political crime was committed, not only against the legitimate Sovereign of the Hawaiian Kingdom, but also against the whole Hawaiian nation, a nation who, for the past sixty years, had enjoyed free and happy constitutional self-government. This was done by a coup de main of U.S. Minister Stevens, in collusion with a cabal of conspirators, mainly faithless sons of missionaries and local politicians angered by continuous political defeat, who, as a revenge for being a hopeless minority in the country, resolved to “rule or ruin” through foreign help.
The officers of the League were comprised of very well-respected individuals that included attorneys and those who held government offices. These officers who signed the petition are:
J.A. Cummins, Honorary President
Joseph Nawahi, President
Jno. E. Bush, Vice-President
John Lot Kaulukou, Vice-President
J.K. Kaunumano, Vice-President
J.W. Bipikane, Vice-President
Jas. K. Kaulia, Secretary
Enoch Johnson, Treasurer
Jno. Uahiai Kaneakua, Executive Councilor
D.W. Pua, Executive Councilor
J.K. Merseburg, Executive Councilor
W.H. Rickard, Executive Councilor
John Ross, Executive Councilor
John K. Prendergast, Executive Councilor
Abraham K. Palekaluhi, Executive Councilor
J. Kahahawai, Executive Councilor
A. Marques, Executive Councilor
W.T. Seward, Executive Councilor
What makes their opening statement revealing is that it runs counter to the historical narrative that people in Hawai‘i know today. First, the HPL referred to the insurgents as “faithless sons of missionaries,” and not missionaries themselves. Second, they referred to “free and happy constitutional self-government.” Another historical fact can also be gleaned from a statement made by King Kamehameha III in his letter to the American Consul, P.A. Brinsmade, dated October 28, 1839, that questioned whether the American missionaries were involved in decision making by the Hawaiian government. Kamehameha III wrote:
I have received your letter asking questions respecting the American missionaries, supposed by some to regulate the acts of my government under me; I, together with the chiefs under me, now clearly declare to you, that we do not see any thing in which your questions are applicable to the American missionaries. From the time the missionaries first arrived, they have asked liberty to dwell in these islands. Communicating instructions in letters, and delivering the word of God has been their business.
They were hesitatingly permitted to remain by the chiefs of that time, because they were said to be about to take away the country. We exercised forbearance, however, and protected all the missionaries, and as they frequently arrived in this country, we permitted them to remain in this kingdom because they asked it, and when we saw the excellence of their labors, then some of the chiefs and people turned to them in order to be instructed in letters, for those things were in our opinion really true.
These historical facts run counter to the common recital today that the United States and American missionaries controlled the Hawaiian Kingdom, from the King down, to the detriment of the commoner class of people. The “evil” missionaries became the common trope that they, not the Hawaiians, controlled the kingdom.
Examples of this targeting of the kingdom is Professor Sally Merry in her 2000 book Colonizing Hawai‘i: The Cultural Power of Law, where she states, “the relationship between Euro-Americans and Native Hawaiians was a classical colonial relationship [that sought] to transform the society of the indigenous people and subsequently wrested political control from them.” In his 2002 book, Dismembering Lāhui, Professor Jon Osorio concluded the Hawaiian Kingdom “never empowered the Natives to materially improve their lives, to protect or extend their cultural values, nor even, in the end, to protect that government from being discarded,” because the system itself was foreign and not Hawaiian.
Dr. Robert Stauffer, in his 2004 book, Kahana: How the Land Was Lost, writes, “the government that was overthrown in 1893 had, for much of its fifty-year history, been little more than a de facto unincorporated territory of the United States…[and] the kingdomʻs government was often American-dominated if not American-run.” And Professor Noenoe Silva, in her book, Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism, concluded that the overthrow “was the culmination of seventy years of U.S. missionary presence.” These conclusions have no basis in relevant historical facts nor in relevant laws.
A particular trope constantly recited is that the 1848 Great Māhele or Great Land Division was controlled by the missionaries that dispossessed the commoner of their lands. There are no historical records from the nineteenth century that says the Māhele was a disaster. It was a fiction invented in Lilikalā Dorton’s 1986 doctoral dissertation titled, Land and the Promise of Capitalism: A Dilemma for the Hawaiian Chiefs of the 1848 Māhele. She later changed her last name to Kame‘eleihiwa and her dissertation was published as a book in 1992 titled Native Land and Foreign Desires: Pehea Lā E Pono Ai? In her book she wrote:
The culmination of changes in traditional Land tenure in Hawai‘i in 1848 is commonly known as the “Great Mahele.” I refer to it simply as the “1848 Mahele” because it proved to be such a terrible disaster for the Hawaiian people, and the word “great” has a connotation of superior. It was a tragic historical event, a turning point that had catastrophic negative consequences for Hawaiians.
This subjective conclusion that the Māhele was a “tragic historical event” was Kame‘eleihiwa’s own making. Historians did not call this historical event as tragic. Kame‘eleihiwa draws attention to Marion Kelly who, in her M.A. thesis in anthropology, “placed a new emphasis on the effect of the Māhele on the maka‘ainana Hawaiian (commoner).” Kelly introduced the framing of Hawaiian land tenure to be a conflict between the missionaries and chiefs, as the bourgeoise, and the Hawaiian commoner as the proletariat. Kame‘eleihiwa sought to confirm this bias. Osorio also hints at the hypothesis that guided Kame‘eleihiwa’s research. In his book, he writes:
As significant an event as the Mahele has proven to be, historians have seen it as a way of making specific indictments either of Ali‘i or of colonialism. No one disagrees that the privatization of lands proved to be disastrous for Maka‘ainana [commoners], yet the focus of every study, from John Chinen’s 1958 work to Kame‘eleihiwa in 1992, has been to try and establish the principal responsibility for its “failure.”
The underlying basis for the “failure” of the 1848 Māhele is explained by Kame‘eleihiwa where she alleges that the commoner class only received “a total of 28,658 acres of Land [in fee-simple], which is less than 1 percent of the total acreage of Hawai‘i.” This alleged travesty of the commoners would then be attributed to the western legal systems that commoners could not understand or comprehend because of their traditional political and social relationships. According to Kame‘eleihiwa, the “vast majority of Native Hawaiians simply did not understand the capitalist uses of private ownership of ‘Āina (land): they did not know how to use ‘Āina to increase their wealth.”
Osorio accepted this as a historical fact by stating that the “single most critical dismemberment of Hawaiian society was the Māhele or division of lands and the consequent transformation of ‘āina into private property between 1845 and 1850.” Osorio restates Kame‘eleihiwa’s numbers and adds the “failure” of governance to the “failure” of land distribution, which he concluded happened in 1851. According to Osorio, the “haole (white foreigner) were insinuating themselves to fill the spaces created by that dismemberment. They began with oaths of allegiance, they progressed to recognizing themselves as legal titleholders to the land, and they capped it off by taking over the House of Representatives in 1851, after awarding suffrage to haole whether they were citizens or not.” There is no evidence, however, that aliens served in the House of Representatives.
The negotiations of the Māhele began in December of 1847 and certain rules of the division were adopted by resolution in Privy Council on December 18, 1847, which would not only guide the division process, but also contractually bind the King and the Konohikis to adhere to the rules of the division and the right of commoners to acquire a fee-simple title to the lands they occupied under the Konohikis or the Government. The Great Māhele in 1848 did not begin private ownership of lands in Hawai‘i, rather, it was the beginning of private ownership for the Konohikis and commoners who were previously under the ancient system of land tenure.
Three years prior to the Māhele was the establishment, by statute, of the Board of Commissioners to Quiet Land Titles, also called the Land Commission. It’s purpose was to investigate claims to fee-simple, life estates or leases that were issued by the King or chiefs prior to 1845. Where found valid a Land Commission Award would be issued. The chiefs and commoners who held their possession under the ancient system called ali‘i‘ana that bore a remarkable resemblance to the feudal system of medieval Europe, were not required to file a claim because the chiefs and commoners under the ancient system did not have fee-simple, life estates, or leases yet. The Māhele would, however, start that process. The Land Commission was authorized by statute to only accept claims to these titles between February 14, 1846 to February 14, 1848.
The directive for the Chiefs to file their claim with the Land Commission is explicitly stated in the 1848 Māhele book. The Māhele book is also the evidence of the adherence to the division rules by the King and Chiefs where the division with the Tenants in fee-simple would occur when “said Tenants shall desire a division.” Before the Konohikis received lands they had to consent to the division and were directed by Kamehameha III, “e hiki ke lawe aku imua o ka Poe Hoona Kuleana (translation: take it before the Land Commission).”
In addition to the directive given to the Konohiki, the commoners called Native Tenants were also encouraged to file their claims with the Land Commission before the February 14th deadline. On January 4, 1848, Reverend Hitchcock, who was very concerned about the deadline for natives to file their claims, asked Chief Justice William Lee, who was also serving as the President of the Land Commission, if the deadline could be extended. Lee responded on January 14th:
I agree with you that the subject of prolonging the time for sending in land claims is worthy of serious consideration, and I will take the first opportunity to bring it before the King in Privy Council. The tenants however, will not lose their rights should they fail to send in their claims, for I will see that no Konohiki has a title to lands except upon the condition of respecting the rights of tenants. Still, it is necessary that the tenants should send in their claims, in order that their rights may be separated from those of the Konohiki, and they know what rights they really have.
These claims that managed to get filed were for the purpose of granting fee-simple titles to the Native Tenants. The Land Commission at the time, however, was not authorized to grant titles, but only authorized to investigate claims to titles. The Land Commission would soon receive authorization to act on behalf of the King and Chiefs to grant fee-simple titles according to the rules of the Māhele. This is what prompted Privy Council Resolution dated December 21, 1849, whereby the King and Chiefs would allow “fee-simple titles, free of commutation, be and hereby granted to all native tenants” with certain conditions. The following year on August 6, 1850, the Legislature amended the role of the Land Commission whereby “the board of commissioners to quiet land titles be, and is hereby empowered to award fee-simple titles in accordance with the foregoing [Privy Council] resolutions.” This statute has come to be known as the Kuleana (Fee-simple) Act.
For those Native Tenants that needed additional lands, the statute provided “a certain portion of government lands in each island shall be set apart, and placed in the hands of special agents, to be disposed in lots of from one to fifty acres, in fee-simple, to such natives as may not be otherwise furnished with sufficient land, at a minimum price of fifty cents per acre.” The following year on June 16, 1851, the Legislature passed An Act to Provide for the Appointment of Agents to Sell Government Lands to the People to facilitate this process already set-in motion by the 1850 Kuleana Act. These lands “from one to fifty acres” were for those Natives that were unable to file their claims with the Land Commission by February 14, 1848.
According to the inflation calculator, $.50 in 1850 would be $16.59 in 2020.
The vested rights of the Government class was vested in (1) government, and the vested rights of the Konohiki class was vested in (253) Konohikis, which included Kamehameha III, and were identified in the Māhele book. The vested rights, however, of the Native Tenant class is infinite in number because it is not vested in the name of certain people in the class unlike the Konohiki class but includes future generations of Native Tenants. As stated by the Hawaiian Supreme Court, in Kekiekie v. Dennis, 1 Haw. 69, 70 (1851):
…the people’s [rights in the] lands were secured to them by the Constitution and laws of the Kingdom, and no power can convey them away, not even that of royalty itself. The King cannot convey a greater title than he has, and if he grants lands without reserving the claims of tenants, the grantee must seek his remedy against the grantor.
For those Konohiki in the Māhele that also failed to file their claims with the Land Commission, the Legislature enacted in 1854 An Act for the Relief of Certain Konohikis that extended the time to file with the Land Commission. And when the Land Commission was dissolved in 1855, those Konohiki that did not file were then authorized to file their claims with the Minister of the Interior under An Act for the Relief of Certain Konohikis, whose Names Appear in the Division of Lands from Kamehameha III (1860).
In the 1882 report by the Surveyor General, he noted that Kamehameha III “showed his deep sympathy with the wants of his people, and set an illustrious example of liberality and public spirit …[and the] whole transaction was a severe test of their patriotism, and reflects great credit on that Hawaiian aristocracy which thus peacefully gave up a portion of its hereditary rights and privileges for the good of the nation.” These statutes also show the liberality with which the Hawaiian government was extended to both the chiefly class and the commoner class.
The Surveyor General also reported that between “the years 1850 and 1860, nearly all the desirable Government land was sold, generally to natives.” Donovan Preza, in his 2010 M.A. thesis on the Great Māhele tallied the number of acreage acquired by the Native within this ten year period to be a remarkable 111,448.36 acres. This number of acreage is in addition to the 28,658 acres that Natives acquired from the Land Commission that Kame‘eleihiwa and Osorio hang theirs hats on as their sole evidence of oppression. By 1893, Natives acquired from the government a total of 167,290.45 acres. This is not evidence of dispossession and oppression of the commoners by the aristocracy and missionaries.
Preza’s thesis not only rebukes Kame‘eleihiwa’s conclusions, which is reflected in its title, The Emperical Writes Back: Re-Examining Hawaiian Dispossession Resulting from the Māhele of 1848, but also undermines Osorio’s reliance on Kame‘eleihiwa’s so-called travesty of the Māhele upon the Natives. What is ironic, to say the least, is that the very Legislature that Osorio accuses of dismemberment was in fact responsible for facilitating the acquisition of lands for those Natives that were not able to file their claim with the Land Commission. What Osorio fails to mention in his book is that it was practice for the House of Representatives to publish a report of their work in the government newspaper, The Polynesian, after the legislative session has ended.
In their address “To the Makaainana of the Hawaiian Islands,” dated June 28, 1851, all twenty-four Representatives begin with, “We, the undersigned, Representatives of the People, feeling it our duty to render an account of the manner in which we have discharged the trust reposed in us, hereby submit to you a summary of the laws, passed during the last session of the Legislature, which we consider of most interest to the People at large.” In particular, they stated:
We have passed an Act for the appointment of agents, in every district where there are Government lands for sale, whose duty it shall be to sell lands to the Makaainanas residing in such districts, in lots of from one to fifty acres, at a minimum price of fifty cents per acre.
Hereafter, there can be but little doubt that each man, not already provided with sufficient land, will become possessed of a small farm. Save your money then, and improve the opportunity, now afforded, of purchasing a homestead for yourselves and families. Those of you who have no kuleanas (fee-simple), or who have neglected to send in your claims, to the Land Commissioners, must not fail to avail yourselves of this privilege.
Kame‘eleihiwaʻs book has been used to teach Hawaiian history in the Middle Schools, High Schools and at the Universities across the globe. This historical invention has become so pervasive and entrenched in the minds of people that if someone were to ask a student of Hawaiian history a question about the Great Māhele, a typical response would be “Whatʻs so Great about it?”
From an academic standpoint, if scholars carefully read Kame‘eleihiwa’s book, they would have seen a glaring red flag that would raise serious concern as to the veracity of her conclusions. Her book is her doctoral dissertation out of the History Department at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. In her book, Kame‘eleihiwa writes, “To those members of the History department who refused to sign off on my ʻbrilliant’ dissertation, let the Lāhui decide who is more skilled in their profession. Soon young Hawaiians—my students—will rise to assume your positions as you fade into the obscurity of footnote trivia.” Her dissertation can be retrieved from the University of Hawai‘i’s Hamilton Library and it shows that two of the committee members, who were tenured in the History Department—Professors Pauline King and Edward Beechert, did not sign off on the dissertation. What was more concerning was that Professor King was the chair of her committee. She, by the way, was part aboriginal Hawaiian. According to the rules at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, a Ph.D. degree cannot be granted if the Chair of the doctoral committee did not sign off.
Despite Osorio’s failure to directly address in writing his misinterpretations of the Great Māhele and the 1851 House of Representatives in his book Dismembering Lāhui, he did, to his credit, speak to this issue in an online webinar celebrating Lā Kūʻokoʻa (Hawaiian Independence) on November 28, 2020. He admitted that the Māhele was “done to protect the hoaʻāina, the makaʻāinana, the people of the land who are not chiefs; to protect their existence on the land, and this is one of the most amazing things about the Māhele, and it was something that I didn’t really understand when I wrote my book. It was something that, really…Professor Keanu Sai makes clear to all of us.”
For a detailed analysis addressing this topic and other subjects of revisionists history at the university, see Dr. Keanu Saiʻs latest publication “Setting the Record Straight on Hawaiian Indigeneity,” published by the Hawaiian Journal of Law and Politics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.