The Great Māhele: The Origin Of Hawaiian Land Titles


At the time of Captain Cook’s contact with the Hawaiian Islands the land was divided into several independent Kingdoms. By right of conquest, each King was owner of all the lands within his jurisdiction.

After selecting lands for himself, the King allotted the remaining to the warrior Chiefs who rendered assistance in his conquest. These warrior Chiefs, after retaining a portion for themselves, reallotted the remaining lands to their followers and supporters.

The distribution of lands was all on a revocable basis. What the superior gave, he was able to take away at his pleasure. This ancient tenure was in nature feudal, although the tenants were not serfs tied to the soil – they were allowed to move freely from the land of one Chief to that of another.

Under King Kamehameha III, the most important event in the reformation of the land system in Hawaii was the separation of the rights of the King, the Chiefs and the Konohiki (land agents.)

The King retained all of his private lands as his individual property; one third of the remaining land was to be for the Hawaiian Government; one third for the Chiefs and Konohiki; and one third to be set aside for the tenants, the actual possessors and cultivators of the soil.

More than 240 of the highest ranking Chiefs and Konohiki in the Kingdom joined Kamehameha III in this task. The first māhele, or division, of lands was signed on January 27, 1848; the last māhele was signed on March 7, 1848 (164-years ago, today.)

Each māhele was in effect a quitclaim agreement between the King and a Chief or Konohiki with reference to the lands in which they both claimed interests.

In each māhele for lands for the King, the Chief or the Konohiki signed an agreement: “I hereby agree that this division is good. The lands above written are for the King. I have no more rights therein.”

The remaining lands were set aside for the Chief or Konohiki and the King signed an agreement: “I hereby agree that this division is good. The lands above written are for (name of Chief or Konohiki); consent is given to take it before the Board of Commissioners to Quiet Land Titles.”

The Great Māhele itself did not convey title to land.