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Monarchy Years

The 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, the 1840 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 elected legislature.

Subsequent Constitutions were adopted in 1852, 1864 and 1887 (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 and 1852 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 it as:

"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. See, A Brief History of Land Ownership in Hawaii by Teresa Tico, Esq., and Hawaiian Land Titles.

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

 

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