Part 4: The Hawaiian Class System

Part 4: The Hawaiian Class System
From Mokupuni (Island Kingdoms) to Panalāʻau (Colony)

At the time of Kamehameha I’s unification of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1810, Hawai’i had entered into world trade. Spain still controlled Mexico, most of the West Coast of what is now the United States, Latin America, the Philippines, Micronesia, and Guam. Russia controlled Alaska and had a foot in San Francisco. The United States had just added Louisiana, Florida and the MidWest and began to build its markets in China. Japan was closed to all except for the Dutch who controlled most of Indonesia.

Since the creation of the mokupuni system began a system of monopolies through the kapu system. Part of this was to control the natural resources but it also had the effect of creating a barter system as well as limiting the accumulation of wealth by both the commoners and the ali’i themselves. Previously all natural resources belonged to the ‘ohana. While this was still true to a degree, the ali’i controlled both the supply and demand.   Some have argued that this was a form of “primitive socialism”. Others have argued that this was part of a semi-feudalistic system. Personally, I think the original Hawaiian society probably was a form of “primitive socialism” where Hawaiians exercised through collective leadership (vis-a-vis the ‘ohana) both the means of production and and distribution of goods as well as the lack of fixed land tenureship (i.e. private property). With the arrival of Pa’ao and subsequent innovations, Hawaiian society began to have a caste-like hierarchy. The top class, the ali’i, began to operate like a barter trade corporation within the framework of a semi-feudal political system. While many Hawaiians were taught that the feathers and shells were valued almost as currency, well, that’s not entirely true. Feathers, shells, and lauhala were set against prices set in pigs and other crops, but primarily pigs. Pork was a luxury meat and was seen as a sign of wealth (Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom Vol 1, p83).  Pork was also an important protein in the diet of the commoners–dog meat being the second (yes, Hawaiians did eat dogs). Therefore, the control of pork was a control on the very diet of the common people and could be another explanation why commoners tended to be significantly shorter and smaller than the ali’i (i.e. lack of protein) as noted by David Malo. 

But it was also a control of religious office as kahuna were also given pork meat by the commoners for their services render. Therefore, in exchange (or kūʻai) for making things such as fine lauhala mats, shell necklaces, and feather capes, the ali’i would grant the commoners a certain amount of pork and dog meat from their pens as part of the exchange.  During the non-Makahiki months, payments for services by the kāhuna (particularly medical services) were paid in pork meat as well (Micheal Chun. It Might Do Good: The licensing of Medical Kāhuna, 2009). In Mary Kawena Puku’i’s Olelo Noeau, there is this:

E uku ana kela kanaka i kii ka laau. He aha ka uku? He puaa.  

Note the word “uku” which does not mean flea in this case. But it means a specific payment or fee. Perhaps this is a reason why some Hawaiian politicians are very good in asking for pork barrel funds. So in old Hawai’i, pork was worth its weight in gold so to speak and it is not entirely true that Hawaiians did not understand how to barter and trade. 

With Kamehameha’s conquest, the barter system slowly ended and was becoming replaced with crony capitalism. According to Kuykendall in his Volume 1 of the Hawaiian Kingdom:

In the primitive economy of the Hawaiians, commerce in the modern sense was almost non-existent, though a sort of barter was carried on among them to a limited extent.1 The Hawaiians’ intercourse with foreigners very quickly developed the idea of trade, and the law of supply and demand soon came into operation, a fact attested by complaints of high prices made by many early visitors to theislands. It is true that in the beginning the trade was intrinsically very unequal, the Hawaiians selling valuable products for trinkets and articles of slight worth; but that condition did not prevail for long. Besides the control exercised by the law of supply and demand, prices rose as a result of general enlightenment, from observation and the information imparted by foreigners who settled in theislands. After a time, when Kamehameha had completed his conquest, we find prices and the course of trade affected by artificial monopoly. Traders at the islands in 1811 reported that pork was a royal monopoly and the purpose of the monopoly, as explained to them by John Young, was theaugmentation of the royal revenue…

At the beginning and until after 1800 trade at the islands was very simple. The commodities supplied to the ships were for the most part perishable foodstuffs—pork, fowls, and vegetables—together with wood and water, some salt, a little rope, and various minor products and curiosities. For these thetraders gave a great variety of articles; in the earlier years, large quantities of firearms and ammunition passed into the hands of the Hawaiians; at one period Kamehameha received, by choice, naval stores, and in 1805 purchased a ship; over thewhole period, the traders furnished to the islanders cloth and clothing, household furniture and furnishings, tools and utensils, and miscellaneous articles of all sorts. Trade at first was entirely by barter, but it was not long before money—mostly in the form of Spanish silver dollars—came into use to a limited extent. Much of this found its way into the king’s treasury and did not circulate. (83-84)

The money did not circulate because Kamehameha I still exercised his royal monopolies and any commoner caught with money had it confiscated.  One of the many points of Billie Beamer in her The Royal Torch is that Kamehameha I not only sold Hawaiian commoners to British and American ships to work as sailors, but confiscated their assets once they returned or forced them to have it traded in pork.  It is therefore not entirely   true that wage labor came with Captain Cook or even Captain Vancouver. The Hawaiian commoner class simply did not have any wages that they could earn while living in Hawai’i during the lifetime of Kamehameha I. Hence why the commoners learned to barter themselves (i.e. prostitution) in exchange for goods which they could carry and therefore hide.  

However, the free flow of European and Chinese goods did change the dynamics of the economy and the perception of power. The ali’i no longer had an absolute monopoly on all goods in Hawai’i. The average European sailor seemed to have more goods than the ali’i and in the eyes of the commoners, this seemed to suggest that their ali’i did not have the same mana or prestige as the average sailor. This created problems and the attempts to live up to having the same prestige as Westerners actually be one of the reasons why eventually the ali’i were all in debt before the death of Kamehameha I. Also the fact that the chiefs had acquired a taste for wine, rum, and other alcoholic beverages. 

A debt acknowledgement receipt signed by O’ahu Governor Boki

Towards the end of the reign of Kamehameha I, social inequalities were already apparent. Kamehameha I began to implement fees on docking ships. All of the wealth of the ships were only going to Kamehameha and his close group of friends (hence crony capitalism). Commoners began to once again question the ali’i. The ali’i for their part began to quite frankly wonder if the acquisition of wealth was such a bad idea especially in the face of a growing demand for sandalwood and whale oil by foreigners which they could then turn around and buy new status symbols. 

‘Iliahi or Hawaiian sandalwood
The sandalwood trade would prove to be a disaster for the common people but a bonanza for Kamehameha I.

Kamehameha learned of the value of this wood, he ordered men to go out in the mountains . . . to cut sandalwood, and he paid them in cloth and bark for making native cloth, as well as with food and fish [i.e., he furnished them food and clothing while they were engaged in this work]. Men were also detailed to carry the wood to the landings. . . .The chiefs also were ordered to send out their men to cut sandalwood. Because the chiefs and commoners in large numbers went out cutting and carrying sandalwood, famine was experienced from Hawaii to Kauai. . . . The people were forced to eat herbs and fern trunks, because there was no food to be had. When Kamehameha saw that the country was in the grip of a severe famine, he ordered the chiefs and commoners not to devote all their time to cutting sandalwood, and also proclaimed all sandalwood to be the property of thegovernment. Kamehameha then turned and ordered the chiefs and the people under them to farm,and he himself set them a practical example. The king is said to have placed a kapu on the young and small trees in order to conserve this natural resource. (Kamakau, Ka Moolelo o Kamehameha I, in KNK, Aug. 24, 1867 qtd. in Kuykendall, Vol 1, p88)

Seeing that social inequalities might threaten the new unified kingdom, Kamehameha I began to place a series of kapu including one on alcohol and another that all chiefs should live at his court so he could monitor their debts. This, however, did not work as his own children including Liholiho (who technically outranked his father) flaunted their acquired wealth and drank alcohol in front of the other chiefs.

 To compound the situation, Hawaiian succession traditions did not necessarily mean that the son of a ruling king would actually rule. Hawaiians had two sets of ali’i–ruling ali’i and non-ruling ali’i. The head of a mokupuni who was the highest ranking ali’i but did not rule was called an ali’i nui. The head of a mokupuni who actually did rule was called the ali’i ‘ai moku. ‘Ai meaning to eat was tied into the idea of governing for many reasons not to mention because of pork meat. A ruler who actually both was the highest ranking chief and the actual ruler was called the mō’ī.  A coup by Maui chiefs led by Ka’ahumanu ensured that the succession would go to ‘Iolani Liholiho and not the dozens of other sons of Kamehameha by proclaiming a regency (Kuhina Nui). To ensure the legitimacy of ali’i as a whole in the face of massive questioning of their authority by the ali’i and the kāhuna, as well as to allow the ali’i to accumulate wealth in their own right and to protect the Maui chiefs against the Hawai’i island chiefs, Ka’ahumanu then moved to abolish the entire system while wearing Kamehameha’s malo through the ‘Ainoa. This led to the First Hawaiian Civil War and ended with the defeat of Kekuaokalani (who had a claim to the throne) in Kuamo’o. 

With the end of the kapu, the exploitation of the commoners worsened and the politically, semi-feudalism (meaning the commoners occupied land in exchange for services and property to be rendered to a noble) occurred while economically, crony capitalism continued. From 1819 until 1839, there were basically only two real classes of Hawaiians–the haves and have nots.  Social inequality was probably the worst it had been in centuries. With the Makahiki innovation and later additions to the kapu system, commoners at least had a break for three months a year to focus on their own livelihood. Without the kapu, the ali’i forced the common people to work the full 12 months a year.  Men worked to gather sandalwood and were given basically nothing. The ali’i were no longer obligated to trade labor for pork meat or tapa.  The women were forced into prostitution. This is one of the reasons why Ka’ahumanu was given the nickname “Ka-Pāpale-‘ai-Aina” or the hat that eats the land. Kamehameha II was also known as “Ka-we’a-we’a” which translates something akin to “the pimp” though as king, he spent very little time in Hawai’i and more time in Rio de Janeiro and London.  As mentioned before, the first treaty between Hawai’i and the United States included a provision to supply sandalwood to American traders in exchange for the payment of the debts of the ali’i. 

With the arrival of the Congregationalist missionaries six months, a new severely exploitative crony economic system continued without much criticism.  For nearly six years, the missionaries did absolutely nothing to criticize the regime of Ka’ahumanu. This was despite the fact that thousands of commoners died not only from diseases but from the sandalwood trade.  After a year in the islands, the missionaries themselves began to record privately how bad the situation was: 

“But they found the people very poor, and it was with much difficulty that they could obtain any food of the natives, and then only by paying three times its value. The reasons why provisions are so scarce on this island is, that the people, for some months past, have been engaged in cutting sandalwood, and have of course neglected the cultivation of the land. Vegetables are sold at a very dear rate.” (Kuykendall Vol 1, p90)

Kuykendall also records other accounts in his Volume 1 of the Hawaiian Kingdom:

One of the missionaries describes the situation. In speaking of Governor Kaikioewa of Kauai, he says:

He is remarkably fond of purchasing novelties, and almost whatever is offered by foreigners, with little regard either to the cost or the utility of the article. This propensity to buy, seems indeed, to be deeply rooted in most of the chiefs. . . . (Some of the foreigners who trade here, are too well acquainted with this trait in their character.) For however bitterly they may complain, of dilatory payments, and want of veracity, and integrity in the natives, they urge upon them things which they do not want; and for which, they have no means of paying, but by imposing new burdens upon thepeople. (89)

Spring or summer of 1822. Oahu. “On one occasion we saw two thousand persons, laden with faggots of sandalwood, coming down from the mountains to deposit their burthens in the royal store-houses, and then depart to their homes, wearied with their unpaid labours, yet unmurmuring at their bondage. (90)”

April, 1830. Kauai. From the journal of Mr. Gulick: “Felt distressed and grieved for the people who collect sandalwood. They are often driven by hunger to eat wild and bitter herbs, moss, &c. And though the weather is so cold on the hills that my winter clothes will scarcely keep me comfortable, I frequently see men with no clothing except the maro. Were they not remarkably hardy, many of them would certainly perish.(90)”

In the end, however, the missionaries never protested directly to the government on the treatment of the common people. As long as the ali’i allowed them to preach and later to control political offices, they did not protest to Ka’ahumanu. In fact, they extolled her on her Christian virtues. An infamous story said that commoners attended the funeral procession of Ka’ahumanu to make sure she was really dead. 

The missionaries, however, did begin the institution of free market capitalism (i.e. meaning the end of royal monopolies) but this was to widen crony capitalism so that it could include themselves. Then, as now, many churches operate stores and seminaries. Most of these stores sell church items, books, and other things for Christian living. The missionaries did not just bring books about Christianity, they brought books on European history, architecture and literature. These books  became the textbooks in which they would teach Hawaiians in their seminaries, particularly Lahainaluna.  The stores also included proper European clothing, eating utensils, clocks, and jewelry. Naturally, congregations were told to buy these items from their stores because it would support the mission and make the Hawaiians more “civilized”. Through their sermons, their seminaries and their stores they introduced Hawaiians to a wage-based economy and materialism.  Materialism for Congregationalists was not a bad thing. John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism, believed that material wealth on earth was a sign of salvation because basically Adam was cast out of the garden to labor. At the same time, the flaunting of wealth and excess wealth were sins. So the missionaries had to teach Hawaiians the benefits of materialism in relation to salvation. To do this, the mission stores became show pieces of “civilization” where the missionaries and their Christianized Hawaiian students could teach the common people what every proper home should look like and all the trappings of salvation such as clocks and books. However, this was slow as Hawaiian society was still beginning to still figure out its place in the world and there were several rebellions that broke out including the Second Hawaiian Civil War (aka Humehume’s War) in 1824 on Kaua’i.

With the death of Ka’ahumanu, one of my ancestors, Princess Kina’u became basically the ruler as Kamehameha III was basically living with Kaomi and partying with a group of young Tahitians and Hawaiians who called themselves the Hulu Manu. Princess Kina’u began to push for the development of more missions.  At the same time, Kamehameha III under the more equalitarian influence of Kaomi, began to push for a nation-wide public school system.  This became formalized with the beginning of a constitutional government of a Declaration of Rights in 1839. The Declaration marked a formal start of a wage-based economy or what others such as Noam Chomsky would call Industrial Feudalism.  The missionaries back the development of wage-based capitalism as they believed it was part of their Calvinist mission. To implement this new economic system, a public school system was established in 1840 with the missionaries being the primary body to approve, print and buy textbooks. 

In time, materialism and capitalism set in for both the chiefs and the common people–though in varied degrees. Some ali’i caught on quickly and pushed for more dramatic reforms such as the private ownership of land. Contrary to what is taught, the missionaries supported the idea of private property as it was one of the hallmarks of Western civilization. But they were not the only ones pushing for it. The Western trained chiefs such as Papa I’i and Kuhina Nui Kina’u were heavily involved. Now that commoners had rights and their property could not be easily confiscated, the ali’i were losing income and were complaining to the Kuhina Nui.  The natural evolution would be to secure land which could then be used to pay off their debts. The other question came into play that since Kamehameha III had no legitimate children, whoever was his successor would still in theory control all of the land in Hawai’i. What if the successor did not like the missionaries? He could in theory ask them to turn over their churches to another denomination of his choice.  

With death of Princess Kina’u in 1839 and the 1843 take over of Hawai’i by the British,  Kamehameha III acted upon the recommendations of his Privy Council (most of whom were appointed by the new Kuhina Nui, Kekāuluohi). Within five years, the Great Mahele was promulgated and the American denizens and former American missionaries now controlled the Cabinet and the Judiciary. Two years after that, in July 1850, the Alien Land Ownership Act was proclaimed. So from 1848 until the Kuleana Act was passed in August of 1850, Hawai’i was technically a feudal society. With the Kuleana Act of 1850, commoners could own land in their own right and this dramatically changed the relationship between the commoners and the ali’i more so than the Declaration of Rights did because this in theory gave them the rights to their means of production.  

But, this assumes that they could understand the concept of private land ownership–which in Hawaiian there was no word for. The word they used was kūʻai which actually meant to barter. But in the Hawaiian sense, how can you “buy” or “barter” for land that your family had lived on for generations? Even if you understood the concept, where would you get the money to pay for a survey of your land (by a surveyor) just to begin the application for the land grant considering for the last two generations, your forests and property were ripped from you under Ka’ahumanu regime? To make it more confusing, the law itself called itself the Kuleana Act. 

There were also serious opposition to the Great Mahele showing that Hawaiians did understand the ramifications and did distrust both the missionaries and many of the ali’i.  Sally Merry in Colonizing Hawai’i points out that Kamehameha IV and V were strongly opposed to the Great Mahele, to the Alien Land Ownership, and nearly everything Kekāuluohi was doing. Some of the commoners and lower ranking chiefs questioned the Kuhina Nui, Kekāuluohi, believing that she was moving too quickly in reforms and in doing so was acting in the interests of the Americans.  Some began to question if she was the Kuhina Nui of Hawai’i or of Boston. The Alien Land Ownership Act, which allowed non-Hawaiians to own land, was passed in July of 1850. The Kuleana Act, which allowed the commoners the right to own land, was passed in August of 1850. This right away shows you the priority of the government of that time. Petitions after petitions were sent to the King, but he not only ignored them but at times wrote back statements rebuking the intelligence and patriotism of the petitioners themselves. Furthermore, both the Kuleana and the Alien Land Ownership Acts were passed when Kamehameha IV and V–the leading ali’i opposition figures–were away in Europe. Thus the way foreigners and commoners got the right to own land were deliberately done in such a way that no input outside of those loyal to Kekāuluohi and the Americans in the Hawaiian government could or would be heard.

With the Great Mahele, ali’i and the urban commoners were able to purchase their ancestral lands.  Since the high ranking chiefs and the Americans had the inside track on land surveys due to their positions in the government, they were among the first to locate and buy valuable land. I will get more into the Great Mahele in another post. The ali’i in general became asset rich (due to their land holdings), but capital poor as they could not develop all of their properties.  The missionaries on the other hand were capital rich (some of it due to the mission stores, their high government salaries, as well as their own businesses) and focused their efforts on buying select property and developing those properties. Not to mention that they enjoyed the support of government offices, the judiciary, and the pulpit.

With the passage of a bi-lateral free trade agreement (aka Reciprocity Treaty) with the United States during the reign of King Kalākaua, American capital floated the islands and what began to be developed by the missionaries, flourished under their sons. By 1880, the United States was the main importer and exporter of Hawaiian trade and a form of wage-based plantation feudalism was in place. With American dominance in capital and a government infrastructure and institutions geared towards their interests, they began to buy out the asset rich ali’i. What they could not buy, they quiet titled and used eminent domain laws.  Despite efforts made by various cabinets under King Kalākaua, English became more widely spoken in Hawaiian households and Hawaiians were demanding that schools teach their children in English because English was the gateway towards jobs. The wage-economy mentality had set in. Hawaiian courts and the Hawaiian legislature itself began to use more and more English in its deliberations so much so that by the end of the 1880s, the King stopped issuing a “Speech from the Throne” in Hawaiian though he continued to issue public proclamations in both Hawaiian and English. In theory, Hawai’i was independent under a constitutional monarchy. In practice, Hawai’i had all of the basic elements that resembled US neo-colonies in Latin America for most of the second half of the 19th century. 

At the same time, the commoners began to gain a more united working class consciousness as a result of the election of Lunalilo, a freer press, and new economic and political theories coming out of Europe. A Mechanics Union was formed. Sugar plantation workers began to mobilize for strikes. The ali’i were still one of the most conservative reactionary forces within Hawai’i, however, many of them had been influenced by the nationalism of Kamehameha IV and V including the Princess Lili’uokalani. While as regent in 1881, she publicly stated her support for a labor strike on Maui and believed that workers had the right to re-dress. This lead her to become of the most popular ali’i of her time. Although she was an ali’i and was a product of her class, she and her sister-in-law, Queen Kapi’olani, questioned the social inequalities of their time including those imposed upon women. Marginalized Hawaiians also questioned more loudly “Who owns the nation?” and political parties as well as more new newspapers began to be formed. At one time, Hawai’i had over 70 newspapers–all of them of different political persuasions.    

Kalākaua, once upon a time a newspaper editor himself, saw these questions and demands as part of an evolutionary step in the political maturity of the Hawaiian people and did not stop it, even when the attacks were directed at him. As much as the King was also part of a crony capitalist economic system, the king was also a member of the Hawaiian cultural elite. He was still an ali’i. To try to stimulate the growth of a new middle class, Kalākaua tried to finish projects that Kamehameha V had began, projects that would industrialize Hawai’i and move Hawai’i from an agricultural based wage economy to a industrial and service based wage economy which in time could be transformed further. This is one of the reasons why he floated huge loans from the United Kingdom, France and United States. In addition, in trying to develop a middle class, the king was also trying to reshape the dynamics between the ali’i and the common people by stressing his version of Hawaiian nationalism over the old Hawaiian class system as well as to expand the traditional patronage politics that had existed with the help of Walter Murray Gibson. 

In 1887, reactionary plantation owners and mercenaries took over the Palace and forced a new constitution to limit the king, who they felt was “extravagant”. The reality is that they wanted to keep Hawai’i as a low wage backward agricultural country and stop further political developments which might push Hawai’i away from the orbit of the United States. The same reactionary force would then find allies with the US diplomatic agent, John L. Stevens, and remove the liberal Queen from power six years later before she could implement a new constitution because it was speculated that the Queen wanted to restructure the entire Hawaiian economy starting with land reform. While they did not Kalākaua, they intensively disliked his sister because of her understanding of Western economics. In addition, there was a feeling of entitlement which Kalākaua and Lili’uokalani sought to remove from their minds. It was only in the reign of Lili’uokalani that the first commoner was appointed a cabinet position. 

With the subsequent occupation of Hawai’i and the proclamation of what called itself a republic (which in fact was a plutarchy or an oligarchy dedicated to plunder), an ethno-class system (some have called it “plantation feudalism”) was built up. The P.G. (Provisional and Protectorate Governments) and the “Republic” sought to replace developing class and Hawaiian national consciousness with that of a strictly ethnic consciousness while trying to enforce Anglo-American values (minus the democratic ones of course). Thus the plantation owners began allowing for cultural groups to be organized on the plantation and would later use these organizations against unions. When the sugar plantations began in the 1860s, plantations operated as towns. But beginning in the late 19th century, plantation owners enforced the ethnic divisions by formally dividing up living quarters into ethnic camps. The system would be refined for the next one hundred years.     

In 1898, what had been a resisting neo-colony became a real colony or panalāʻau.  


2 thoughts on “Part 4: The Hawaiian Class System”

  1. Adam, I do research for the Cummings ohana, and our Patriarch Thomas Booth Cummings obtained land through \”commutation\” in 1855 I have copied the document below I was wondering if there was a way to tell if he obtained the right to purchase this land because of the Alien Land Ownership Act. He was a good friend of Lot Kupuaiwa through the Masonic Temple and breeded cattle for the Dept of the Interior while he was Minister of the Interior. TB Cummings arrived in Makawao in 1844 at 14 years old. I know that a few of the Haole's in Makawao had leased land from Hoapili-Kane as early as 1838 one was William A. McLane and the other Edwin Miner. McLane also was given land as early as 1822 in Waikapu from an old Hawaiian man named Puupahoehoe and then again in 1830. How could this have happened before the Alien Land Act? Could special deals have been made with Kamehameha III as I do know he was acquaintances with a core of Makawao Planters headed by the Reverend Jonathan S. Green. Thank you I hope you might shed a light and you are an extremely good writer I enjoy your research, Michael Newtson PukalaniIsland: MauiAhupuaa: PukalaniFeature: ahupuaʻaComments: Received by Keohokalole at the Māhele but surrendered in lieu of commutation. RPG 1203 to Nuole, 1672 to T. B. Cummings, 1694 to S. N. Stone, 1695 to R. P. Bracey, 1988 to Chas. Barstow. TMK 2309:8.Lexicology: puka-lani. PEM: heavenly gate. Perhaps originally Puʻu-ka-lani, hill [of] the heavens.Source: MB 15; IN 52,72; GR 75; TM 2309.Quadrangle: 50-05North: 190,000East: 610,000Catalog Number: 223.21.000


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