Pacific Postcards

Jonathan Thibodeau- The Effect of Euro-American Influence on Hawaiian Land Division and Classification Systems

As Euro-American influence has increased within the Pacific islands across the last few centuries, Western ideals and values have had great impacts on these territories, specifically Hawaii. While the Hawaiian islands can often be mistakenly viewed as a “new state” by Americans of today, their rich cultural history spans far into the past, long before the United States itself ever existed. In fact, the islands were inhabited for over a millennium before any Westerner ever stepped foot ashore (Fletcher). The first polynesian voyagers are thought to have arrived in Hawaii sometime between 300 and 600 AD, developing the Ahupua’a system of land division a few centuries later. 

Prior to colonization, the Hawaiian’s had established through the Ahupua’a system a very unique form of land division designed to benefit everyone who lived on the island. Ahupua’a is a Hawaiian term used to describe their method of land division that set boundaries within the islands so its inhabitants could peacefully cultivate both land and sea (McGregor). Hawaiian society itself was oriented towards the needs of the community and of the people rather than those of the rich and powerful. Everything was used for a reason, and next to nothing was wasted. This starkly contrasts American and European cultures, where the wealthy would often exploit those who were less fortunate as well as the land they lived on in order to seize profit, more often than not harming others in the process. 

In painter and researcher John Kelley’s 1959 statement titled “Ancient Land in Hawaii and Shoreline Usages,” a dialogue is created regarding the effects of Colonial influence on the Ahupua’a system as well as the nuts and bolts of the land division system itself. The closing remarks of the piece also invite a novel perspective looking towards the future for revival of Hawaiian culture and beliefs. In the statement, the transformation of Hawaiian land division is introduced, and Kelly provides insight on the Ahupua’a system’s inner workings. The piece helps to shed light on the harmful effects of Western influence within the Pacific islands, specifically focusing on the rights of the Hoa’aina, or tenants, who farmed and tended to the lands within the Ahupua’a. He describes how “the independent Hawaiian farmer became landless under the new property laws,” and how their rights were infringed upon largely due to the impact of Western arrival on Hawaiian shores. Kelly’s piece paints a picture illuminating the idea that Euro-American ideals negatively impacted existing Hawaiian systems, particularly through the lens of land division and classification. 

The way native Hawaiian’s viewed the environment around them starkly contrasted European ideals. While Europeans saw land as privately owned, the concept of private land did not exist in Hawaii until colonial influence. Hawaiian’s evolved a feudal system where the kings owned all the land, which was then managed by the high chiefs and tended to by the kanaka, or common farmers. Within this system, “laws and rules, called kapu, were created to prohibit desecration and abuse of resources, both ocean and land,” and everyone had a right to their fair share of all that was produced from the soil or taken from the sea ( As described in Kelly’s statement, the island was divided into districts, each containing land from the island’s interior, the plains/middle of the island, and the ocean. These districts were then broken up into smaller parcels called Ahupua’a, hence the name Ahupua’a system. The parcels ensured the residents access to both inland resources as well as those from the sea. Within the Ahupua’a were ‘Ili, long narrow strips of land that gave the farmer suitable crop territory. Another division within the parcels was called the ‘Ili Lele, which provided farmers with multiple separate parcels of land each with its own productive environment rather than a single strip. Finally, the kuleana, or basic land parcel tended to by the kanaka, was the smallest subdivision (Kelly). The Ahupua’a system worked well for almost a thousand years, that is up until the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778.

American colonialism heavily encroached upon the indigenous Hawaiian people, or Kanaka Maioli. This is partly due to the perspective Westerners held towards native populations across the pacific. The racialized and patronizing perspective is relevant to understanding all aspects of Euro-American influence across the pacific, including land management. It is commonly misconceived that Cook’s arrival in Hawaii was the first contact with outsiders that the natives had experienced, yet this is simply false. While the arrival of Westerners certainly did transform the history of Hawaii, it was “not by revealing a world previously unsuspected, but by reinitiating direct engagement with a wide and broad world that Kānaka already thought about, talked about, sang about, and told stories about” (Chang 6). The Kanaka had embarked on countless long-distance canoe voyages for hundreds of years, exploring and maintaining contact with various far-off archipelagos some two thousand miles to the south. In the words of David Chang, “The Kanaka understood the world in ways that centered their own perspective and encouraged them to look out from that perspective with confidence to seek still greater knowledge” (Chang 5). However, given that Cook’s ship believed they were to first to ever establish a connection with the natives, they proceeded with a sort of baseless ignorance and condescending nature in their relations with the Kanaka. Soon after Captain Cook and his crew arrived, missionaries flooded to the area with the intention of inhabiting the islands while spreading Christianity throughout, completely disregarding the existing belief systems already in place. With them came the Western ways of the world, one such being the trade-related concept of a market economy. The “discovery” of Hawaii led to an exponential growth of Western influence in the Pacific, and it was only a matter of time before native land and culture would begin to face lasting harmful effects. It was also at this time that the idea of private property began to emerge, influenced by Western civilization.

While the kapu system of laws protected the wellbeing and general rights of native Hawaiians for centuries, it was abolished in 1819. The discontinuation is speculated by some to be a result of an increasing number of Hawaiians giving up their old gods for the newer Christian god, as the abolition of a state religion happened in tandem with this event (McGregor). Whether this is entirely true or not, the influence of Euro-American society in general surely played a massive role in the changes made to Kanaka civilization in the decades following their arrival. Following the abolishment, a series of laws were crafted and put into place that slowly took away freedoms from the natives brick by brick. While various laws were created in the decades following the 1819 abolishment, the Great Mahele (great land division) of 1848 was the single most influential event in the history of land title in Hawaii. Over a period of several months, Hawaiian land division was completely restructured into three classifications: crown lands, government lands, and Konohiki lands (McGregor). Building off of these classifications, the Kuleana Law of 1850, which appears in Kelly’s statement, resulted in the chiefs receiving thousands of acres each while the small farmer received less than 2.5 acres on average. The once independent Kanaka farmer, accounting for about 9% of the population, received only 28,600 acres out of over 4 million total. By 1919, “only 6% of the land was owned by Hawaiians, most of whom were descendants of chiefs” (Kelly). Even today, the title of all Hawaiian lands can be traced back to one of the three divisions created in the Great Mahele, and unfortunately, the story of land being taken from the natives is one that remains all too familiar even in the present day.

While not exactly related to the division and allocation of land, the Hawaiian people continue to fight over the use of their land itself, where ancient beliefs clash with modern projects. The most prominent issue facing those attempting to preserve Hawaiian land and culture in recent years is the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which has sparked a great deal of controversy since its proposal in 2003. The plan is to build a 160ft tall telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea, a sacred mountaintop to many Hawaiians. While the telescope would make giant leaps in transforming the field of astronomy, 13 telescopes already sit atop Mauna Kea, and native populations are desperately fighting to preserve their land. One group of Hawaiians called the Mauna Kea kia’i have been camping at the base of the volcano for months on end in order to delay construction on the TMT, and are just one example of the many efforts being made by the Hawaiian people to stop the telescope from being built (Witze). As of today, construction on the TMT is still on hold, yet the flame of controversy continues to burn bright. The breaking down of the Ahupua’a system is relevant to the TMT controversy because it is yet another example in history of Westerners using their power to enforce whatever they want on native populations. 

Western influence on the Hawaiian Islands has resulted in colossal changes for both native culture as well as social structure and economic organization, and the encroachment upon indigenous populations is an issue that continues to this day. While the Great Mahele’s impacts on land division can no longer be reversed, groups of passionate individuals are using their voices in hopes of preserving Hawaiian culture and preventing outside forces from further exploitation. In Kelly’s final sentence of his statement, he introduced the idea that “If the Hawaiian value system was based on accessibility of the products of the land and sea for all people, its destruction has carried with it the culture of the people who believed in it. To reverse this- to make the sea and land available to all- would probably do more to revive Hawaiian culture than all the Aloha Weeks, Cultural Foundations and Preservation Committees will ever accomplish under the current system.” Kelly beautifully articulates a potential future for Hawaiian development centered around a resurgence of ancient values, shining a blazing light of hope on an otherwise dimly lit corner of history.











Works Cited

Chang, David A. The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies 

of Exploration. University of Minnesota Press, 2016,

Fletcher, Matthew L.M. “Aloha 'Āina: Native Hawaiian Land Restitution.” Harvard Law 

Review, 3 Apr. 2020,

Kelly, John, “Ancient land in Hawaii and shoreline usages,” UHM Library Digital Image 

Collections, accessed November 2, 2021,

“Land in Hawaii.”, 

McGregor, Davianna Pomaika. “An Introduction to the Hoa'aina and Their Rights.”

Manoa Hawaii Library, 524/25 1/JL30007.pdf?sequence=1. 

Witze, Alexandra. “How the Fight over a Hawaii Mega-Telescope Could Change 

Astronomy.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 14 Jan. 2020, 






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