This was part of a sweeping set of modernizing social changes following the death of Kamehameha the Great, including the drafting of a constitution and a bill of rights. Although not directly redistributing land, it allowed chiefs and commoners to claim private title to land and called for the establishment of an arbitration committee to iron out disputes.
Hawaiian Bill of Rights 1839
The 1839 Hawaiian Bill of Rights, also known as the 1839 Constitution of Hawaii, was an attempt by Kamehameha III and his chiefs to guarantee that the Hawaiian people would not lose their tenured land, and provided the groundwork for a free enterprise system. The document, which had an attached code of laws, was drafted by Lahainaluna missionary school alumni Boaz Mahune, revised by the Council of Chiefs, and signed by Kamehameha III in June 1839.
1840 Constitution of the Kingdom Hawaii
The 1840 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii set up a structure for democracy in Hawaii, and stated that the lands of Hawaii belonged to its people and were to be managed by the king. It established the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The document established property rights of the individual, and provided for removal of any chief who did not act in accordance with the constitution.
Hoping to keep ownership of the land out of the hands of foreigners in the event of a political coup d'état, Kamehameha III and 245 chiefs met to divide the Hawaii lands among themselves. The Mahele abolished the previous semi-feudal system. Under this, rule over an ahupuaʻa was given by the king to a chief, who received taxes and tribute from the people who worked the land collectively. Private land ownership did not exist, as a commoner could be expelled from his land by the chief, or the chief removed by the king.
1/3 of the land was allocated to the crown as the Hawaiian crown lands. 1/3 was allocated to the chiefs. The remaining 1/3 was to go to the common people, but they only received less than 1% because claims for land needed to be filed under the Kuleana Act of 1850 and many did not file within the two year time frame to make a claim.
Eventually most of this land was sold or leased to foreigners. The large amount of land that went to the government resulted in Hawaiʻi having a very high proportion of state-owned land: about 32% is owned by the state, while another 4.8% is Hawaiian Homelands.
Acts of 1850
Alien Land Ownership Act-July 10, 1850
During a one-year foreign travel absence by opposition voices Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V and missionary physician Gerrit Judd, the legislature on July 10, 1850 passed the Alien Land Ownership Act, which had been written by Chief Justice William Little Lee. The justification was the promise of prosperity resulting from an influx of much needed foreign capital and labor.
Kuleana Act-August 6, 1850
One of the notable provisions of the Great Mahele was the Kuleana Act (1850).
Under this provision, commoners were allowed to petition for title to land that they cultivated and lived on (kuleana), equivalent to a homestead. However, it also abolished the right of cultivation and pasturage on the larger, common lands of the ahupuaʻa, title of which went to the chief, the crown, or the government.
Ownership of land was a previously unknown concept for the commoners, and many did not understand the need to make a claim for land on which they already worked. Communication about the Kuleana act depended upon word-of-mouth or the ability to read the written word. Making a claim also required money for a pre-claim land survey It was required that two witnesses state the claimant had worked the land. Lack of knowledge about the provisions led to relatively few kuleana being claimed, about 18,000, 3 acre plots total. As a result, common native Hawaiians were often restricted to small pieces of land, while members of higher classes and aliʻi obtained title to most of the land. Initial land split between the King, about a third, that was determined by a later Kingdom Supreme Court decision to belong to the office, a third to the Kingdom's elected government with the remainder to higher classes and alii. Native Hawaiian commoner plots, generally 3 acres, and lot sales made up a small relative percentage of the total. Due to lagging effect of western diseases, and tax sales many commoners lost this property. .
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