The Great Mahele: Land Division in Hawaii’s History

Discover Hawaii’s rich history through the Great Mahele, a pivotal event that transformed land ownership and shaped the islands’ unique culture and landscape.

The Great Mahele: Land Division in Hawaii's History
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The Great Mahele, a pivotal event in Hawaii’s history, significantly influenced land ownership and use in the islands. This article aims to educate travelers about the Great Mahele and its lasting impact on Hawaii’s land and people. By understanding this historical event, you can gain a deeper appreciation of the complex past that continues to shape the present-day Hawaiian Islands.

Pre-Mahele Land System

Before the Great Mahele, the Hawaiian land system was based on the traditional concept of land ownership called “ahupua’a.” Ahupua’a were wedge-shaped land divisions that extended from the mountains to the sea, providing resources for the community. The ali’i (chiefs) governed the land, while the maka’ainana (commoners) managed and used the resources. This system allowed for sustainable and communal use of the land, promoting a strong connection between the people and their environment.

The Great Mahele: A Shift in Land Ownership

In 1848, under the rule of King Kamehameha III, the Great Mahele was initiated to address growing pressures from foreign settlers and to modernize the Hawaiian land system. The Great Mahele divided the land into three main categories: Crown Lands, which belonged to the king; Government Lands, which were designated for public use; and Konohiki Lands, which were allocated to the ali’i and other high-ranking officials. This division marked a significant shift from communal land ownership to individual property rights.

Impact on Native Hawaiians

The Great Mahele had profound consequences for native Hawaiians. Many faced challenges in claiming their kuleana (small land parcels), as the process was complex and required resources that were often unavailable to the commoners. The loss of communal land rights disrupted the traditional Hawaiian way of life and contributed to the decline of native Hawaiian culture. The Great Mahele also led to the rise of private landownership, further alienating native Hawaiians from their ancestral lands.

Western Influence and Landownership

Westerners played a significant role in the Great Mahele, as they advised the Hawaiian monarchy on land reform and facilitated the acquisition of Hawaiian land by foreigners. American and European settlers were particularly successful in obtaining land, which had lasting implications for Hawaii’s economy, culture, and eventual annexation by the United States in 1898.

Legacy of the Great Mahele

The Great Mahele left a lasting impact on Hawaii’s land system, establishing property rights and land titles that persist today. However, the legacy of the Great Mahele is not without controversy, as landownership and use remain contentious issues in modern Hawaii. Native Hawaiians continue to face challenges in reclaiming their ancestral lands and preserving their cultural heritage.

Visiting Historic Sites

To gain a deeper understanding of the Great Mahele, travelers can visit historic sites such as the King Kamehameha III statue, Iolani Palace, and the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives. Additionally, museums, cultural centers, and guided tours offer valuable insights into the history and significance of the Great Mahele. By learning more about this pivotal event, you can deepen your connection to the Hawaiian Islands and appreciate their rich history.


Hawaii’s rich and complex history is an essential aspect of the islands’ unique charm. By learning more about the Great Mahele and its impact on landownership and use, travelers can deepen their understanding of the Hawaiian Islands and appreciate the intricate tapestry of events that have shaped their present-day landscape. Embrace the opportunity to explore the past and forge a stronger connection with the beautiful and storied lands of Hawaii.


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