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The land changes were part of a series of political changes that followed the death of Kamehameha the Great, including the drafting of a constitution and a bill of rights. Although not directly redistributing land, the change allowed chiefs and commoners to claim private title to land and called for the establishment of an arbitration committee to iron out disputes.
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.
The 1840 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii established a constitutional monarchy for Hawaii. It stated that the land belonged to its people and were to be managed by the king. It established executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The document established individual property rights and provided for removal of any chief who violated the constitution.
Hoping to keep ownership of the land in Hawaiian hands in the event of a political coup d'état, Kamehameha III and 245 chiefs met to divide the lands among each other. 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 among the chiefs. The remaining 1/3 was to go to the remaining population. However, they received less than 1%. The law required land claims to be filed within two years under the Kuleana Act of 1850 and many Hawaiians made no 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.
While opponents Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V and missionary physician Gerrit Judd were traveling, on July 10, 1850 the legislature passed the Alien Land Ownership Act. It allowed foreigners to hold title to land. The Act was written by Chief Justice William Little Lee. The justification was the promise of prosperity resulting from an influx of much-needed capital and labor.
Another notable part of the Great Mahele was the Kuleana Act of 1850.
Under this provision, commoners were allowed to petition for title to land that they cultivated and lived on (wikt:kuleana), similar to the homesteading laws used to manage land tenure in US territories in the nineteenth century. 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 ordinary Hawaiians. Many did not understand the need to make a claim for land where they already lived and/or worked. Communication depended upon word-of-mouth or the ability to read the written word. Making a claim required money to pay for a pre-claim land survey. The system required two witnesses to confirm that the claimant had worked the land. About 18,000 plots of 3 acres each were successfully claimed. The Kingdom's population at the time was some 82,000. Members of higher classes and aliʻi obtained title to most Hawaiian 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 aliʻi. Due to the ongoing effect of western diseases and property taxes, many lost their property.