Mahele Documentation (1848-1853) of Hawaiian Maritime History

Mahele Documentation (1848-1853) of Hawaiian Maritime History

Mahele Documentation (1848-1853) of Hawaiian Maritime History
Victoria S. Creed, Ph.D.
Waihona `Aina Corp. President, and historian for Cultural Surveys Hawai`i, Inc.

The Mahele or Land Commission documents are a set of some 30,000+ documents created between 1846 and 1853 after King Kamehameha III decided to distribute land in private ownership. These documents are an incredibly rich “slice of life” for this time period in the Hawaiian islands. The Mahele documents are often researched by those interested in land use, however, these documents include the history of the people here in Hawai`i, and their attachment to the sea and the land at that time.

Perhaps the most striking artifact of Hawaiian maritime life resides in the names of many Hawaiians noted in the land claims, some of which are, Auwaa (canoe fleet), Hoewaa (oarsman, paddler), Ho`okele (navigator), Naho`okele, Kaho`okele, Iako (outrigger), Kai (shore), Kawaakaulua (double canoe), Moana (ocean), Nawaa (canoes), Nawaakaua (war canoes), Kaholowa`a and Naholowa`a (fast canoe or canoes), Nawa`akoa ( koa canoe), Wa`a (canoe), and Wa`apa (ferry, scow).

Another maritime reference is to the early foreigner, John Young, whose nickname was “Olohana” (for all hands aboard).

To simplify a complex process, all citizens across the island chain had to state their land “claims” before a Land Commission and describe their holdings and give their provenance. To make the claims official, other land holders, important persons, konohiki, or neighbors had to testify to the nature of the holdings, boundaries and provenance. This not only included all ali`i and planters, but also all those who had come to the islands, and stayed or left wives and children.

Ship captains were often used to deliver pleas to the government on behalf of foreign residents (i.e. Commodore Reid/Read). In this land claim system, ship captains were considered of sufficient social rank to testify, particularly about resident foreigner’s claims. In so doing, they provide information about early 19th century maritime activities. There are claims for land and fisheries by many captains, seamen, sailmakers, and others, who were coopers, blacksmiths, and merchant traders, as well as the planters of the land. Attached to this article are two appendices, the first with names of captains, ships and dates, and the other with just captains as found in the Land Claims documents. While some are called captains in the testimony, others are not. Where possible to cross reference, I have used Bernice Judd’s list of ship arrival/departures, Agnes Conrad’s Personal Names directory in Don Francisco de Paula Marin. And Rhys Richard’s list of ship arrival/departures taken from Stephen Reynolds’ journal. These three works have immensely facilitated this research and I am grateful.

There are more tales to tell from the Land Commission claims, even of maritime history, than there is space here. So in this paper, I will only present the findings for the earliest arrivals documented in the claims, a few of the more curious claims, and a few of the claims which show native maritime concerns.

With the first arrival of foreign vessels, many Hawaiians left the islands as sailors, a profession to which they were superbly suited, but many seamen never returned either by choice or by fate. Hawaiian mothers and children were left without husbands and fathers, as in the following claim

This place belonged to the parents of Keala in time of Manuia's Governorship, and was then occupied by a mat house. Her father's name was Nalai and her mother's name was Kalimaikai. Her father sailed away about 1838 and never returned, and her mother being dead, this place came to Keala, and she has resided on the place from the death of her mother until this time. (No. 777).

Several claims are voided because the former claimant left for “Kahiki” [foreign lands] and never returned (i.e. 04721 in Anahola Kaua`i). In another, a poignant claim of a native Hawaiian ship captain, Naopala (00103) we find how he came by his land.

After some years passed with Komo living there, he said to me and our wahine /maua -we two/, "I am sailing to Kahiki, here is the lot, the house and our wahine /kaua-yours and mine/. She will live with you and these are your people, for the ocean is doubly a mountain /meaning he might be lost/ where I am going. I agreed with him and when he sailed I lived there with our wahine - we were the ones who lived on this lot. Then I heard of the death of my friend Komo, in sailing to Kahiki and I thought of all our words, with our wahine.

This same claim is one of the half dozen claims, which mention Hawaiian ship captains who sail around the islands. Naopala and his friend, Komo, his first mate, sailed on the brig Mitter Barko or Mikapako (Hawaiian name for Mister Babcock) around 1830.

Another departure for foreign lands that takes on legendary proportions, is that of the high chief Boki. We find repeatedly, from perhaps 50 claimants, they had their land from “the time Boki left” the Hawaiian Islands [1829] with two ships, the Kamehameha and the Becket to go to the New Hebrides to get sandalwood. Half a dozen claims are by family members, whose kin went off with Boki, but no one from the ship Kamehameha ever returned.

As in the reference to the time of high chief Boki’s 1829 voyage, other voyages are used as a time markers in the land commission documents for both Hawaiians and foreigners. Some are specific such as in one claim, 00152, Kauwila wahine claims she was William Sumner’s wife until the arrival of the first letters in 1820. Another date referred to by Kekuanaoa and others is 1825, when they came back from London after the death of Kamehameha II; the time of the return of the bodies of the King and Queen from London on the Blonde. A general time is found in dozens of Hawai`i, Molokai, and Maui claims, where claimants date their possession of land to the arrival of the “Peleleu,” the armada of Kamehameha I, within the island chain in and about 1804. Another general time reference found in many claims is to the times when the Russians were here (1804-1825).

Hawaii was a provisioning stop on the Northwest -Canton fur trade route between 1778-1810 first by the British, and then by 1800s by the New Englanders. The earliest foreign arrival described in these Land Commission claims, is for John White, in claim 00085 to Thomas Phillips (incidentally, White’s own claim, 00364, in Lahaina, does not mention his arrival). For Phillips, however, John White testifies he is English, has been 50 years in the islands and “came in 1799 in the ship Duff from China.” This English ship Duff, is the same mission ship which delivered the first London Missionary Society passengers to Tahiti in 1796. In this claim White is asked to explain a Hawaiian land boundary expression, to which he answers, as a wise interpreter would, that he can only give the expression as it is used on Maui, where he lives.

The claim by Don Francisco Paula de Marin’s children (000217) does not contain mention of a time for Marin’s arrival which was probably around 1794. and Stephen Reynolds testifies that in 1811 there are only two houses, Marin’s and Winship’s and the captains stayed there.

The second arrival described in the claims is for David Lyons, a British subject. In 1846 he notes only that he has been here for 45 years, and of those 45, he has known Sumner for 24 (in 000152, William Sumner). In his own claim (00024), Lyons explains he got his land at Waimalu, O`ahu, because he was Keopulani’s “foreigner” and she named him Kiwalao. It was taken away in 1822, he claims, when Liholiho was drunk. Others claim the land was taken away because Lyons would not pay the sandalwood tax. Lyons does not get this land. He appeals to the government and to the British Consul General Miller, but General Miller will have nothing to do with him because Lyons was here before Miller arrived and Miller is here to take care of the present British seamen (00024, F.T. 27v1).

Another early foreign settler was James Gowan, who Reynolds notes was already in Hawaii in 1811, when Reynolds came, but who had died before the M hele. This Gowan was a citizen of Boston, known to be an excellent interpreter. He first lived with Kaumuali`i (who came to power in 1794), and then when he [Ka`umuali`i] came to O`ahu (1821), Gowan served as linguist to both the Government and foreigners (000576, C. Brewer).

The most comprehensive accounting in the Land Commission claims of a captain’s voyages is that of William Sumner. We find this account of his voyages, however, not in his own claim, but in testimony for the property of Chiefess Kekauonohi, upon whose claim some say, Sumner’s house rests (On Greer’s Honolulu map see Sumner, 155 directly across Palace Walk from Kekauonohi, No. 191). Sumner reminds the Land Commissioners of his complete devotion for all those years to the King and chiefs under whom he sailed.

Sumner’s varied account includes the following information (taken from 000191):
*He first arrived in 1804
*In 1813 he commanded the small schooner for Kalaimoku (called the Kalaimoku?)
*In 1816, he commanded the Albatross between islands
*In 1817, he was Chief mate on Brig Forrester, bound for China, under the command of Alexander Adams. On this trip they proceeded first to Atooi (Kaua`i) to haul down the Russian colors - this was done and. they then sailed for China on 12 March, and returned 16 October.
*Between 1817-1821 he commanded government vessels
*In 1821, he commanded the Brig Thaddeus & sailed for Kamachatka with a load of salt, and he returned 27 October 1822. He notes that “providence protected us from ...unworthy state of this brig”
*Between 1821-1824 he commanded Government vessels between islands
*In 1824, on 2 March, he took charge of Brig Inore, a sealing voyage, and returned 14 October with 5845 fur skins, Elephant oil, great quantity of fish.
*In 1826, he took charge of brig Tamoralana on another sealing voyage, with much difficulty and privations, procured 3160 seal skins. Due to crew complaints of hunger, he put in Port Dago, California and bought corn, the only thing we could purchase. The Spaniards tried to sink the brig, but finally allowed him to depart, & he arrived Oahu 24 January 1827.
*Between 1827-1829 he commanded government vessels about the islands
* In May 24, 1829, he took charge of the Brig Neo bound to Tahiti, to recuperate lost cargo. When he arrived he found it had been sold, so he returned to Hawai`i with full cargo cocoanut oil, a quantity of wood for furniture and with money. He had to bring oil to Oahu in bamboos, having neither casks or cas[kets?] on board. He arrived 23 September 1829.
* Between 1829-1831 he commanded vessels from island to island.
On December 25, 1831, he took charge of Brig Waverly for Kaahumanu & sailed for California. He returned May 1832.
*About 1818[1820?], King Kamehameha II and his chiefs came from Maui. At the request of Boki Sumner went in the Brig Thaddeus & brought down their people (to O`ahu)

The last voyage Sumner mentions was one for Mr. Pitt. He says,
(I cannot remember now when it was) when he said to me "William, I want you to go with me to Pearl River to bring up stocks for our fence, & as the vessel I am going in is a square rigged one, I wish you to take command of her." I accordingly did so, took her into Pearl River & brought her safely out again.

To cap off this account, Sumner adds a post script to say that he omitted mention that he received $100 for the voyage in the Brig Neo, $25 a month for the voyage in the Waverly, & $100 as a present for the voyage in the Brig Thaddeus; this last a gift from his present Majesty. This is all the money he ever received for his 30 years services.

John Ii, in his testimony, says Sumner has lived there since the time of the Russians (1816-1817). The final entry for Sumner’s 00152 claim, is that Sumner’s son has brought the Land Commissioners the lease to Sumner’s land (000152 N.T. 311v3). There are more pieces to Sumner’s history, but they aren’t about maritime history per se.

A most curious story in the Land Commission claim records (here pieced together with Richards notes from Stephen Reynolds). Richards notes 15 arrivals/departures between 1827 and 1839 for Captain John L. Bancroft (Richards 2000), and he has added Reynolds’ notes which indicated a curious fact: on four of his voyages Bancroft takes otters and Indians from the NW coast. On the first such trip, Bancroft returned to Honolulu on April 1, 1835 with 367 otterskins and 25 Indians. In September of the same year with 250 sea otter skins and Indians - returning the Indians; and again arriving in March of 1836 he arrives with Indians and 300 otterskins. Just over a year later, on January 23 of 1838 he returns to Honolulu with 26 Indians and 290 otterskins. The final Reynolds entry is for the return of the ship of the “Late Bancroft”on 13 January 1839: “Capt. John Bancroft shot and killed by Indians at St. Rosa NWC. Wife shot too but alive” (Richards 2000:283). Turning to the Land Commission claims Claim 02272; dated August 1848, while testifying on behalf of the Bancroft claim, William French notes that John C. Bancroft, a minor, is now in England and that he, French

... formerly owned this property and I got it from Wm. L. Hinckley who got it through the sanction of Governor Adams, but from whom I cannot say. I sold the property to John Bankcroft [sic] by deed, dated 15 August 1838 ... Bancroft soon after the purchase (of the house lot in 1838 from French) left on a voyage to the northwest coast, and was murdered by the Indians. He left only one heir, his son, the present claimant. He told me this child was his only heir.

It is only through Reynolds notes that we learn of the existence of Mrs. Bancroft on the high seas. Mrs. Bancroft was one of those not so common women who sailed the seas with their captain husbands during the early 19th century. Since Mrs. Bancroft was with her husband at the time he was killed, it is likely that the child, too was with them. It is certainly curious that Captain Bancroft was dealing in Indians. Were these Indians shanghaied for working vessels or were they sold as slaves, and did any remain in Hawai`i? It is certain that whatever was taking place the Indians were not consenting adults. This Bancroft claim is awarded in absentia to John C. Bancroft, the son, through his attorney Henry Skinner.

One claimant, of perhaps many, who does not refer to his maritime connections in the Land Commission claims, and is not in Judd’s, or Richards’ lists, but one which does appear in Gast/Conrad’s list is John Harbottle, long-time harbor master at O`ahu. The Land Commission claims are silent as to his maritime activities.

From just the perspective of voyages the Land Commission claims document life in Hawai`i during the early period of contact. We see how some of the early foreigners settled in, others continuing their traveling lifestyles. Those who stayed or passed through bought, sold and transported goods for themselves and for the ali`i, and were given land for their buildings. We see how the foreigners sometimes acquired a bit more land by having a friendly drink of rum with a chief who could find them some more land; how the earliest voyagers often sold to the later comers, at a profit; how they expanded their holdings, or moved on, how some acted as guardians to wives and offspring of departed seaman as they moved on or between voyages. We see little pieces of the gunboat diplomacy with an occasional riot mentioned. We see the true diplomacy of some like Captain Jones, as Hawai`i became a pivotal location of world trade and globe circumnavigation

Many Hawaiians were also very much involved in the new world commerce, not only were there many sailors, but the claims document current economic investments in world trade as well as traditional Hawaiian maritime practices remaining in 1848. A quick search through the records (now possible at the web site) shows Hawaiians with maritime professions of pilot, canoe makers, fishermen, even a special canoe building priest. The Land Commission claims document 17 canoe landings; over 150 places where koa trees planned for canoes, were growing; fishing grounds, some even describe koa or undersea cairns which mark special fishing places.

At the time of the Mahele Maui was one of the hot spots of maritime trade. Just at the time of the Land Commission Claims people were coming from all over the Hawaiian Islands to raise potatoes or had potatoes raised for them to sell to whalers and to those in California at the time of the Gold Rush. Earlier and perhaps less well known, is the trade in cordage. On all islands, but particularly in East Maui, many claims included traditional parcels of land for growing olona (Touchardia latifolia), a shrub which was used, to make fishnets, cords for hoisting up the sails in their canoes, and as a base for their feather capes. This cordage became a highly prized item for rigging ships. Surgeon William Ellis on Cook’s ship commented upon it.

But their largest ropes are made of the bark of a small tree, which is very common in the woods. These were so long and well made, that many were purchased for the use of the ships as running rigging. (Ellis cited in Summers 1990:63).

Not only was it prized by seamen, also the “fiber sold at high prices to Swiss Alpine clubs, who valued it for its light weight and great strength” (Kamakau in Summers 1990:64).

Another traditional maritime-related activity was canoe-making. This involved persons on all islands and the areas where these trees grew were traditional family holdings. The owners or more properly, caretakers, of the koa or “canoe” trees, kept track of their growth, knew when to cut them, and was able to provide the ali`i, armies or their families with canoes, a common form of transportation. At the time of the Land Commission claims, these koa trees were mostly claimed by persons living in the Waialua and Koolauloa Districts on O`ahu. There is only one mention on Maui and one on Kaua`i. A Kaua`i claimant also claimed two kukui trees suitable for canoes. Two claims on the island of Hawai`i were for lands that reach to the koa tree growing zone. But, over a hundred “canoe” trees are claimed on the North and West shores of O`ahu. Was this recording of trees due to missionary influence for claiming everything, or perhaps during Kamehameha I’s occupation of Anahulu and the Waialua District, he put emphasis of locating and caring for koa trees as he planned his invasion of Kaua`i, and as he gave his warriors land on the North and West shores of O`ahu.

None of these koa trees or olona portions of claims were granted by the Land Commission, unless they were on the land where claimants also had houses, taro or potato patches or other garden areas. Small areas in the uplands tended to be unsurveyable for practical purposes. The high chiefs, konohiki and foreigners claimed the larger portions of an ahupua`a excepting only the kuleana or house and garden parcels. For the most part, no longer were ahupua`a residents allowed to access upland or inland areas.

Perhaps the most striking artifact of Hawaiian maritime life resides in the names of many Hawaiians noted in the land claims, of which I have only selected the obvious, Auwaa (canoe fleet), Hoewaa (oarsman, paddler), Iako (outrigger), Kai (shore), Kawaakaulua (double canoe), Moana (ocean), Nawaa (canoes), Nawaakaua (war canoes), Kaholowaa and Naholowaa (fast canoe or canoes), Nawaakoa ( koa canoe), Waa (canoe), and Waapa (ferry, scow). Another maritime reference is to the early foreigner, John Young, whose nickname was “Olohana” (for all hands aboard).


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Chinen, Jon J.
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Conrad, Agnes C. see Gast

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Richards, Rhys
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