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The Hawaiian Kapu System of law was seriously challenged when foreigners began to arrive in Hawaii. Captain Cook's arrival in 1778 opened the islands to the rest of the world and signaled the end of the ancient culture. Even though the white persons who came to the islands did not abide by the rules of the kapu system, they were not punished by the gods.

In 1795, the young chief, Kamehameha I conquered the islands (with the exception of Kauai) to create a unified kingdom. He attempted to rule the kingdom using the ancient system of kapu, but it became very difficult with the influx of foreigners.

Captain James Cook
Captain James Cook
The Monarchy years generally span the period of time between the unification of all the islands by Kamehameha the Great in 1810 and the overthrow of the Hawaiian government in 1893. During this relatively short period of time, the people of Hawaii would be transformed from a society based on the Kapu System into an independent constitutional monarchy, recognized by other nations around the world.
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King Kamehameha the Great

In 1819, King Kamehameha II declared an end to the kapu system. In a dramatic and highly symbolic event, Kamehameha II ate and drank with women, thereby breaking the important eating kapu. Soon after, the sacred heiau (temples) were destroyed and the images of gods were burned. As word of these events spread throughout the Islands, the kapu system rapidly unraveled. With the kapu system abolished, the missionaries found the Hawaiians living in a cultural void and receptive to the ideas embodied in Protestant Christianity.

To aid in converting a society with an oral tradition to Christianity, the missionaries developed an alphabet for the Hawaiian language, began translating the Bible, and started printing other important information in large quantities for many Hawaiians to read. In less than 20 years, the missionaries had established a school system that reflected Western society and the Protestant religion.

The concept of land ownership was foreign to ancient Hawaiians. Under their holistic view of the world that incorporated all things from the ocean to the sea, no one owned the land. Instead the land was divided into ahupuaa, land sections that usually extended from the mountain summits down through fertile valleys to the outer edge of the reef in the sea (for example a large valley). The alii (chiefs) were stewards of the land and granted the makaainana (general populace) living in the ahupuaa use of the land's bounty for their livelihood. Headmen (konohiki) facilitated day to day operations with the assistance of specialists (luna). The ahupuaa formed a self-contained economic and social unit that effectively integrated the uses of its resources from dispersed ecological zones. Everyone living throughout the ahupuaa had access to all types of products and everyone was entitled to a share of what they produced from the soil or took from the sea. The system benefited the land because the ahupuaa was managed carefully, and thought of and cared for as a whole. Today, this ancient system is viewed by many as an excellent model of resource management.

When Kamehameha the Great brought all the islands under his control, he had kept the traditional land system in existence. Now, with Cook's introduction of Hawaii to the Western World, a market economy began to emerge. Fur and sandalwood traders, merchants, whalers, and missionaries accustomed to owning land pressured the King, Kamehameha III, to change the ahupuaa system of land tenure and permit private ownership of land.

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Imiola Church - Waimea, Big Island © W Nowicki

The Great Mahele (land division) of 1848 instituted a system of private property ownership that ended the old land system. The new law divided Hawaii land among the Crown, the government, the alii (chiefs) and konohiki (headmen). Concern for the commoners' rights resulted in the Kuleana Act of 1850 which permitted land ownership by commoners who occupied and improved any portion of the lands controlled by the alii and konohiki. Additionally, Government Lands were made available for purchase by commoners and foreigners who did not have kuleana rights.

Within decades, title to thousands of acres had fallen into the hands of non-Hawaiians. Even the Crown lands, owned by the King and his successors, were often sold or leased to foreigners in payment of debts or in exchange for foreign goods and supplies. When, in 1893, the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown and Queen Liliuokalani was taken prisoner, the remaining Crown Lands were confiscated by the new government and made part of the public domain. Today, the overthrow of the queen and the confiscation of the lands are the foundation of the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement.

There is archaeological evidence to indicate that the first peoples arrived in the Hawaiian Islands around A.D. 400 or before. Estimates of the maximum ancient Hawaiian population vary from 200,000 to as high as a million by the date of the European "discovery" by Captain James Cook. The decline of traditional Hawaiian culture went together with a dramatic decline in the population of native Hawaiians. Thousands died from the many new diseases brought by Westerners; other thousands left to work aboard trading and whaling ships. Unfortunately, Hawaiians, an isolated people, were unusually vulnerable to introduced diseases: smallpox, measles, Hansen's disease, whooping cough, influenza, gonorrhea, took their toll. By 1920, pure Hawaiians numbered only 23,723 and their life expectancy was only 35 years! (Source: OHA)

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Pineapple Plantation
The decline in the population of native Hawaiians became a serious labor problem as foreign-introduced sugar and pineapple plantations began to grow and flourish. When the shortage became critical in the mid-1800's the Hawaiian government supported the recruitment and importation of laborers from abroad. This resulted in a flood of more than 250,000 foreign laborers during the three decades following Annexation (1898). The majority were from Japan, China, and Portugal and, after the turn of the century, from Korea and the Philippines. By 1900, because of this immigration and their decline in population, pure Hawaiians constituted only a small part of a larger, multi-ethnic society. Today, some think the number of pure Hawaiians could be as low as 5,000. Pure Hawaiians have become strangers in their own land. However the part Hawaiian population now measures over 230,000 reflecting the diversity of today's multi-ethnic society in Hawaii.

TODAY, there is a resurgence of the Hawaiian culture.
Hawaiians are grappling with their role in the world and are reaching back to their roots
to redefine their identity.


"There are many humorous things in the world;
among them is the white man's notion that
he is less savage than other savages."
Mark Twain

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