Monarchy years generally span the period of time between the
unification of 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 Hawai'i
would transition from a feudal society into an independent constitutional
monarchy, recognized by other nations around the world.
A Constitutional History of the Hawaiian Monarchy
People seem to be much the same all over the world. In Europe,
family groups banded together in tribes that eventually became
nations. Government evolved from a dictator who ruled by divine
right, to a monarch subject to Constitutional limits with
an elected legislature, to the absolute right of the people
to choose their own form of government. Most of us are vaguely
familiar with the English experience in the battles between
the Crown, the Nobility and the Commons as to political power.
The powers of the Crown were first circumscribed by the Magna
Charter, and the English Civil War was fought, in part, to
determine whether the Crown or the elected Parliament was
supreme. Parliament won. In the United States we looked at
the English experience and rejected the idea of a monarch
as contradictory to our notion that government is based upon
the the consent of the governed.
Two years after the Declaration
of Independence, and while the American colonies were
still fighting to be independent, Captain James Cook arrived
in Hawaii. At the time, Hawaii was in the process of moving
from regional monarchs, usually one per island, to a consolidated
monarchy that spanned all the islands. One language was spoken
throughout the islands, and as happened in Europe, an entire
linguistic group was moving towards becoming a single nation-state.
Kamehameha I (the Great) of the Island of Hawaii first consolidated
his power there. He then conquered Maui and Oahu. There were
bloody battles, particularly on Oahu, and his conquest was
vigorously opposed by the rulers of the other islands and
their warriors. Kamehameha then attempted to invade Kauai,
but his fleet was turned back by a storm. Following several
years, the ruler of Kauai decided to pledge his allegiance
to Kamehameha, and the unification of the Hawaiian islands
was complete. Kamehameha used some European advisors and weapons
in his fight to conquer the island chain.
Kamehameha and his predecessors were hereditary monarchs.
They ruled by divine right and the right of birth, with the
support of the religion and the priesthood (kâhuna).
All land belonged to the monarch and passed to their heir.
The nobility (ali'i) got their grants of land from the King.
The commoners (maka'âinana) had certain understood rights
to use the land, and obligations to provide support to the
ali`i and the King.
Hawaii in 1778 in many ways resembled feudal Europe. The major
difference, other than religion, was the absence of writing
and metal. Hawaii was isolated and had no continuous contact
with other civilizations. The absence of iron, tin, or copper
limited how far technology could advance.
Hawaii might also be compared to pre-European contact native
American Indian tribes. This comparison is not perfect since
the Hawaiian society was much more agricultural than the usual
Indian tribe on the mainland. The Indian tribes on the mainland
remained hunters and gatherers to a much greater extent than
did the Hawaiians. Few mainland tribes had extensive permanent
agricultural improvements such as the lo'i (taro patches)
and irrigation canals constructed by the Hawaiians. Mainland
tribes remained semi-nomadic, moving with the seasons or when
the land was exhausted. Another difference is that while Hawaii
had a centralized hereditary monarch, most Indian tribes used
a council type of government involving elders with perhaps
a hereditary or elected chief or war leader.
What took hundreds of years to evolve in Europe, happened
virtually overnight in Hawaii. American missionaries arriving
in 1820 brought with them not only their religion, but their
political and social views. Once the Hawaiian religious beliefs
were put aside, one might logically question by what right
the King ruled, or why women could not eat meals with men,
or why commoners could not own land.
The missionaries taught reading and writing, and the Hawaiians
overwhelmingly responded - many say they achieved a higher
rate of literacy than that in the United States at the time.
By 1840, a mere 62 years after the first European contact,
Kamehameha III promulgated the first Hawaiian Constitution.
Just as the Magna
Charta subjected King John of England to the rule of law,
Constitution subjected Kamehameha and his heirs to the
law. The 1840 Constitution established a House of Nobles and
an elected House of Representatives whose assent to new laws
and changes to the Constitution was required. In less than
a generation Hawaii went from a hereditary despotic government
based on divine right to a Constitutional monarchy with an
Subsequent Constitutions were adopted in 1852,
(the bayonet Constitution). Hawaiian Constitutional history
can be viewed as decreasing the powers of the Crown, and increasing
those of the people through their elected representatives.
For example the 1840
Constitutions required the King to assent to any law passed
by the legislature for it to become valid. That right to veto
bills without recourse was lost in the 1864
Constitution - all the King could do was delay passage for
a year. The 1887
Bayonet Constitution for the first time provided for electing
the House of Nobles, although with a property or wealth requirement
to be qualified to vote. Previously, the King had appointed
the Nobles. The Bayonet
Constitution also made the King's veto power over legislation
much like that of the President of the U.S., or the Governor
of Hawaii - a 2/3 vote in both Houses of the Legislature could
override it. The Bayonet Constitution also eliminated the
King's right to veto Constitutional amendments.
The precipitating event for the overthrow of the Monarchy
and Queen Lili'uokalani was her proposed new Constitution.
Among other things, Queen Lili'uokalani's Constitution would
have restored to her the power to appoint the House of Nobles,
and to veto Constitutional amendments.
Along with political or governmental changes in Hawaii, land
ownership or tenure changed from a feudal system where title
was in the King, to private property ownership. The (Great)
Mahele of 1848 divided the land between the King, the ali`i
and people, and for the first time permitted private ownership
of land. Some see this as a great reform, while others see
"the single most important piece of the puzzle in the downfall
of the Hawaiian kingdom. By converting the land ownership
from royalty to individual land ownership it allowed [rendering]
a whole nation of natives virtually homeless overnight, and
distributed large amounts of land among influential business
man and misled regents."
As a practical matter, very few of the common people got any
land out of Mahele or the subsequent Kuleana Land Grant Acts.
The King, Government and ali`i, however, got their shares, much
of which was sold or transferred to European and American planters.
Brief History of Land Ownership in Hawaii by Teresa Tico,
Esq., and Hawaiian
Government and land tenure are political issues. There are
a wide variety of opinions on the intent of Constitutional
and land reforms in Hawaii, who benefited, and who should
be held responsible.
About the Author: Brian N. Durham
is currently editor of My
Hawaii News, a publication of The 'Ohana Network.
A retired Coast Guard officer with 22 years of service, Brian
is a member of the Hawaii Bar and has worked for the Hawaii
State Legislature and the Linda Lingle Campaign Committee