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Preparing to Be Colonized: Land Tenure and Legal Strategy in Nineteenth-Century Hawaii

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, throughout the Pacific Rim, European and American colonizers reorganized indigenous systems of property rights in land to make them look more like European property systems, with disastrous effects for the indigenous people involved. The very first of these schemes, however, was the Māhele of 1845–1855, which took place not in a colony but in the independent Kingdom of Hawaii. Why did the Hawaiians do this to themselves? I argue that the Māhele was a sophisticated and partially successful response to the prospect that Hawaii would soon be colonized. The object of the Māhele was to ensure that in the event of annexation, Kamehameha III and other elite Hawaiians would not be dispossessed of their landholdings. The strategy was to convert those landholdings into a legal form that would be recognized by an incoming colonial government—whether American, British, or French—as private property.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: UCLA

Publication date: June 1, 2005


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