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Fear of Land Speculation on Maui Evokes a Bitter History of Exploitation

6 minute read
Susanna Moore is a writer from Hawai'i. Her non-fiction book, Paradise of the Pacific, Approaching Hawai'i, was published in 2015.

In the aftermath of the fires on Maui and the loss of the town of Lahaina, an intense fear and resentment on the part of the people of Lahaina has been directed at speculators who would buy the land left desolate in the conflagration to build homes and hotels and commercial buildings.

Josh Green, the governor of Hawai’i, is exploring “options to do a moratorium on sales of properties that have been damaged or destroyed.” This in answer to persistent, if not angry questioning, as to the possibility that the people of Lahaina might never be able to return to their town.

Anger and despair are emotions familiar to those residents with a sense of Hawaiian history. It explains the appearance of signs reading “No Tourists” and the admonition that people refuse to speak to developers or real estate agents. When Oprah Winfrey arrived at a refugee shelter near Lahaina with a camera crew, the people inside initially barred her and didn’t allow the crew to film.

The fear of exploitation is deeply held, and a result of more than 200 years of historical trauma.

The early history of the Islands may be seen as a story of arrivals—from the first hardy seeds and insects that found their way to the islands on the husks of coconuts, and the confused birds blown from their customary migratory routes, to the early Polynesian adventurers who sailed across the Pacific in double canoes, and the Spanish galleons en route to the Philippines, and the navigators in search of a Northwest Passage, soon followed by pious missionaries, whalers from Nantucket, shipwrecked sailors, and rowdy Irish poachers escaped from Botany Bay — all wanderers washed ashore, sometimes by chance.

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Traditions in flux

With the arrival in the late 18th century of English explorers, seamen, adventurers, and merchants, and in the 19th century of Protestant missionaries, the fixed world of the native Hawaiian, governed by hereditary chiefs and priests, and bound by a prohibitive system of rules known as kapu, suddenly became one of flux, if not chaos and disorder.

Flora and fauna have become extinct at an alarming rate, and continue to do so, and the Hawaiian people, due to the introduction of diseases to which they had no immunity, and an encompassing melancholia that overtook them with the perceived loss of much of their culture, came close to disappearing as a race. In little more than 100 years, a closed and isolated culture, bound by superstition and ritual, with no comprehension or experience of individual freedom or private property, was transformed.

The subtle, ill-defined sense of depression and alienation that Hawaiians began to suffer after the arrival of foreigners, and their vulnerability to diseases from which they had no immunity went unremarked by the new inhabitants. There was little in the missionaries’ view of humankind that encompassed the idea of racial distress, in this instance frequently occasioned by themselves, and little in the experience of the majority of foreigners who settled and worked in the Islands to provoke compassion. Incapable of imaginative sympathy or understanding, they could not begin to assuage the fear and sorrow that was overtaking the Hawaiian people.

Read More: Maui Depends on Tourists. After the Fires, It Also Wants Them to Stay Away

For generations, Hawaiians had been able to find all that they needed in their own ahupua’a or plot of land. The old system established by the chiefs had given them both sustenance and a form of independence, despite their indenture to the chiefs and their tenuous possession of property, dependent as it was upon the will of their masters. (It would not be until the revolutionary land divisions of the Great Mahele in 1848 that so-called commoners were allotted land of their own.)

In 1816, Queen Ka’ahumanu, the widow of Kamehameha I and regent, along with Kamehameha’s son Liholiho, negotiated a treaty with the U.S. in which the Kingdom of Hawai’i assumed the payment of $150,000 owed by the chiefs to foreign merchants, traders, and shipbuilders. The debt was to be paid in valuable sandalwood, resulting in its depletion, but winning Ka’ahumanu the allegiance of the many chiefs who were in debt, having borrowed to buy guns, Chinese beds and silks, and yachts. The treaty also ensured American citizens the right to enter all ports of the kingdom, the right to sue in Hawaiian courts, and the protection of Hawaiian law, which some historians note as a beginning of the end of Hawaiian sovereignty.

A rapid conquest

When the cabinet minister William N. Armstrong, who accompanied King David Kalakaua on a trip around the world in 1881, warned him the future of his people was under threat, the king insisted that the Hawaiian people were happy enough — there was enough to eat, their small kuleana, or homesteads, managed to support them, and no one stole from them. “I think the best thing is to let us be.” They were not left to themselves, as both Kalakaua and Armstrong must have foreseen, and they did begin to disappear. There is no little irony in recognizing that the rapidity with which this took place—a brief 120 years from the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778 to the annexation of the kingdom in 1898—is ample testimony to the generosity of spirit, patience, endurance, and adaptability of the Hawaiians.

Although profound disruption and loss had not been the intention of the missionaries who arrived in 1820, they achieved in many instances what they had come to accomplish, that is to instruct the Hawaiian people in the social, religious, political, and legal institutions of the West. At the death of King Kalakaua in 1891, the new queen, Liliuokalani, inheriting a kingdom riven by politics and disorder, requested the making of a new constitution in which the rights of native Hawaiians would be better protected. The legislature, made up predominantly of white merchants and landowners, accused the queen of sedition and wrote to the U.S. Minister in Hawai’i for protection. The queen and her supporters surrendered. In 1894, a counterrevolution failed and Liliuokalani was arrested. Four years later, Congress voted by joint resolution to annex the Hawaiian Islands with little resistance other than a petition signed by half the adult native population, and little effort by the acquisitive Americans, many of them descendants of missionaries and seamen and traders who had for years tirelessly sought such a treaty.

It is any wonder that the survivors of the Lahaina fire are wary of the loss of their land, and resentful of anyone attempting to profit by their profound misfortune. The following is a verse by a Hawaiian chanter born in 1852, bemoaning the loss of the land: “O piano I heard at evening, where are you? Your music haunts me far into the night like the voice of land shells trilling sweetly near the break of day…I remember the upland of Ma’eli’eli where the mists creeping in and out threaded their way between the old houses of thatch. O piano I heard at evening, where are you.”

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