Old Hawaii

In the centuries before the arrival of Captain Cook, old Hawaii was a highly stratified system with strictly maintained castes.

Like medieval Europe and the other Polynesian nations, each caste had its assigned tasks and responsibilities. Not until 1810 was there a single king over all Hawaii with the reign of Kamehameha. Before then, there were a number of small kingdoms that divided the islands and were often at war with each other.

In each of these small kingdoms, the king, headed Hawaii’s social pyramid, assisted by a chief minister and a high priest. Next in ranking were the ali’i or chiefs, who varied in power depending on ancestral lineage and ability. Persons especially trained in the memorization of genealogies were important members of a chief’s retinue because a chief’s ranking in society was determined by the legitimacy of his genealogy. Chiefs ruled over portions of the land at the whim of the king, who could remove and replace them according to a system of rewards and punishments.

Below the chiefs in temporal power, but often far above them in spiritual power, were the kahuna, or priest craftsmen. They were specialists in professions such as canoe-building, medicine, the casting and lifting spells, and in other fields.

The majority of Hawaii’s people were commoners (makaainana), subjects of the chief upon whose land they lived. They did most of the hard work: building fishpond walls and housing, fishing, farming, and making tapa cloth. The commoners paid taxes both to the king and to their chief and provided some warriors for the chief’s army. These taxes took the form of food, clothing and other products.

Below the commoners were a numerically small group of people known as kauwa or outcasts. Little is known of their origins or of their true role in Hawaiian society, although they were believed to be slaves of the lowest order.

The Kapu System is what cemented the ancient social structure. The word, known in English as “taboo” meant sacred or prohibited. Violators were swiftly punished by being strangled or clubbed to death. A commoner had to be careful lest his shadow fall across the person of a high chief, and he had to be quick to kneel or lie down in the presence of such sacred persons. Birth, death, faulty behavior, the building of a canoe, and many other activities were regulated by the kapu system, which permeated all aspects of ancient Hawaiian life.

The Hawaiian temples (heiau) contained images which symbolized the gods. The four major gods were known as Ku, Kanaloa, Lono and Kane, who represented the universal forces. Commoners performed their own simple ceremonies to family or personal gods (aumakua) while the complicated religious life of the ali’i required the services of a kahuna in large temple complexes. In some temples, human sacrifices took place.


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