In pre-western contact Hawaii, all aina, kai lawaia, and natural resources extending from the mountaintops to the depths of the ocean were held in “trust” by the high chiefs—moi, alii ai moku, or alii ai ahupuaa. The right to use plots of land, fisheries, and natural resources was given to the hoaaina at the prerogative of the alii and their representatives or land agents, often referred to as konohiki or haku aina. Following a strict code of conduct, which was based on ceremonial and ritual observances, the people of the land were generally able to collect all of the natural resources— terrestrial and aquatic—for their own sustenance and to pay tribute to the class of chiefs and priests who oversaw them and ensured the prosperity of the natural environment through their divine mana.1
As western concepts of property rights began to infiltrate the Hawaiian system shortly after the arrival of foreigners in the islands, Kamehameha I, who had secured rule over all of the islands in the early 1800s, granted perpetual interest in select lands and fisheries to some foreign residents, but he and the chiefs under him generally remained in control of all resources. After Kamehameha I died in 1819 and the Protestant missionaries arrived in 1820, the concepts of property rights, including rights to fisheries, evolved and were codified under Kamehameha II and his younger brother, Kauikeaouli, who ruled as Kamehameha III.
Missionary William Richards wrote this early observation on the nature of Hawaiian resource management—rights to resources from both land and sea—in 1825:
The right, by which a man may claim fish caught by others in the sea, may, indeed, be questioned by those enlightened in the principles of jurisprudence; but the chiefs of the Sandwich Island, make no questions on the subject. They lay equal claim to the sea and land, as their property. The sea is divided into different portions; and those who own a tract of land on the sea shore, own also the sea that fronts it. The common rule observed by the chiefs is, to give about one half of the fish to the fishermen, and take the other half to themselves.2
The inexorable move to Western style fee-simple property rights in the Hawaiian Kingdom resulted in the Mahele Aina of 1848, which divided ownership among the king, his chiefs, the government, and commoners. The Mahele Aina records and associated Helu or LCA Numbers that identified the original holders of title to lands throughout the Hawaiian Islands remain in use today. The story of the Mahele Aina reveals much about residency, land use, and land tenure, but also leaves much unanswered.
It is important to remember that by the time of the Mahele Aina, the population of the Hawaiian Islands, including the ahupuaa of Honouliuli, had been in decline for several decades. Many once populated areas along the Honouliuli shoreline were abandoned, and the decrease of population continued through the years of the Mahele. In several instances, applicants died between the time a claim was registered in 1847 and when testimonies were offered in 1848 to support the claim.
1It is of interest to note the fact that the Hawaiian system of land ownership, virtually identical to feudalism in medieval Europe in the ninth to fifteenth centuries, could evolve in total isolation, and is the subject of much speculation among scholars. However, there are some who disagree with the characterization of the Hawaiian land ownership system as feudalism [cf. 30].
2Letter of William Richards dated August 9, 1825, Missionary Herald, June 1826, p. 174–175.