Hawaiian Feudalism

By: William H. Davenport

Originally Published in 1964

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When Captain James Cook, greatest of all Pacific explorers, accidentally discovered the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, he also discovered that centuries before Polynesians had somehow crossed thousands of miles of open sea into the north Pacific and established a society similar to those he knew in Tahiti and New Zealand. At this time Hawaiians numbered about one quarter of a million persons, possibly even more. They had not only become the most numerous of all the far-flung Polynesian peoples, they had also evolved the most class-stratified and feudalistic of all the Stone Age societies in Oceania.

A wooden statuette of a man with his arms outstretched.
A temple image from the Kona district of the island of Hawaii.

Social ran was all important in old Hawaii, and there were two bases for assigning it: by social class or estate and by political office in the feudal order. The first was hereditary and fixed; the second was impermanent and subject to the unpredictable outcomes of politics and war. Highest of the social classes was the ali’i, the nobility or aristocracy. Below and more numerous were the maka’ainana, or commoners. And at the bottom of the social scale was a small outcast or pariah group called kauwa. The aristocracy claimed the most direct line of descent from the great gods. The great gods were born of the personified cosmic forces that created and shaped the island world, and from them were born the lesser gods who were the progenitors of humans. In the Hawaiian conception of the universe, nature, gods, and men were all related. Their relationships were conceived of as a ramifying genealogy of evolution that began with nothingness and ended in the social and natural universe as Hawaiians knew it. This was the cosmological model on which Hawaiian feudalism was founded. The gods were the energizing and ultimate controllers of forces of the universe, and they granted to their most direct descendants, the aristocracy, secular control over lands and seas. The aristocracy fiefed these resources to commoners, and commoners allowed the pariah to attach themselves to their households in domestic servitude. In return, pariah served commoner directly with his labor; commoner exploited the resources and delivered tribute to the aristocracy; the aristocracy served the gods with lavish religious observances in their honor; the gods communicated their satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, through the forces of nature and by influencing the outcomes of human affairs.

Class divisions were expressed in terms of sacredness, or by what Hawaiians called mana, sacred power. The great deities were the fountainheads of mana. The noble class, because of its close genealogical proximity to the gods, was possessed of more mana than the commoner class. Pariah were antithetic to mana, and while they could interact with commoners, they were forbidden, on pain of death, to approach an aristocrat. Likewise, a commoner was prohibited from entering any of the holy places where sacred nobles and gods met in solemn religious communion. These places were the heiau, or temples, in which aristocrats honored their supernatural liege lords.

Map of the Hawaiian Islands.

A prerogative of dress and an emblem of aristocratic birth, worn by both men and women, was a curved, tongue-shaped pendant carved in whale ivory and suspended from a thick necklace of braided human hair. Pariah were required to carry identifying tattoos on their faces so their social identity could never be mistaken. Commoners carried no class marker.

Within the aristocracy there were three recognized degrees of sacredness, and each demanded a special form of obeisance. Most sacred were those nobles who carried the kapu moe, the “prostrating taboo,” sometimes also called the kapu wela, or “burning taboo” because of its intensity, and nobility of lesser sacred rank were required to bare the upper part of their bodies and commoners were enjoined to fall flat on the ground, faces pressed into the earth, in its presence. Next in rank were those nobles who possessed the kapu noho, the “sitting taboo.” In deference to bearers of this degree of sacredness, commoners had to strip to the waist and remain seated on the ground with eyes cast downward as long as these nobles were within sight. Below these aristocrats of extraordinary sacred rank were the lesser nobles who carried no special taboo of respect, but whom commoners, nevertheless, held in great reverence.

Drawing of a necklace made of strings of shell beads tied together and strung through a whale bone hook.
A whale ivory pendant, lei palaoa, symbol of aristocratic birth. A similar pendant is on exhibition at the University Museum.

Sacred rank among the nobles was transmitted intact from parent to the first-born child alone, and became diminished in subsequent children. On this basis of primogenitural reckoning the most sacred nobles were believed to be descendants from the gods through eldest offspring only. For this reason extreme care was exercised in arranging the initial marriages of eldest children, and in order to keep the highest sacred ranks confined to certain lines of aristocratic descent, marriages with close kin–even between brother and sister–were favored. This is one of the few instances in a human society where the usual abhorrence of incestuous unions was inverted to a preferential form of mating. This inversion was, to be sure, applied to a few exalted individuals only. The fact that these few privileged individuals did contract incestuous marriages, when they were forbidden to all others, only accentuated their especially sacred character.

Politically, the Hawaiian Islands were divided into a number of contending chiefdoms, called moku, literally “islands.” Each chiefdom was a self-contained feudal state and usually in complete control of one of the smaller islands, (Lanai, Molokai, and Kauai) or part of one of the larger islands (Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii). Each chiefdom was headed by a paramount chief who was an absolute ruler, or lord, and in whose person titles to all resources in his realm were vested. Large districts of land and other highly valued resources of the realm were granted in feudal tenure to the paramount chief’s most trusted senior nobles–usually his close kin–who acted as tenants-in-chief. These chiefs further divided their grants among lesse nobles who acted as mense lords, and these in turn reapportioned their fiefs among commoner tenants. Some influential commoners were able even to pass on parts of their grants in fief to other commoners. Pariahs were denied any feudatory rights whatsoever, and in order to win a livelihood they had to attach themselves as dependants to commoner households. In return for each feudatory allocation the grantee owed his grantor tribute in products and labor. This system was extremely productive, and the huge surpluses that were conveyed as tribute to the top of the feudal pyramid were used by the paramount chief to support a regular court made up of personal servants, political advisers, priests, military strategists, trusted guards, entertainers, and all sorts of hangers-on.

Wood carving; figure standing on long peg with carved plaque behind head. Portable image. Akua ka'ai.
An akua ka’ai, “sash image” (24 inches tall) representing an unknown deity. This image was found among the ruins of a temple near the present Honolulu on the island of Oahu. It is on loan to the University Museum from the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.
Museum Object Number(s): 97-120-465

Drawn reconstruction of a temple layout.
A reconstruction of a luakini temple. The plan of this temple was obtained from early descriptions of the Papaenaena Heiau which once stood at the foot of Diamond Head overlooking Waikiki Beach. Here Kamehameha offered human sacrifices to his god. Ku-ka-ili-moku on several occasions.

Maintaining political stability within a feudal chiefdom was not easy. Commoner tenants were not firmly bound to their chiefs, and the disconnected could abandon one lord for another if it was advantageous to do so. Noble tenants could also transfer their fealty, and powerful tenants-in-chief and advisers to the paramount chief, even influential priests, often formed rebellious coalitions to overthrow and replace their ruler. Moreover, it was the ideal of each paramount chief to expand his realm by conquering and incorporating rival chiefdoms. Thus, every chiefdom was in constant threat of revolt and insurrection from within and invasion from without.

Political power and office did not follow automatically from inherited sacred rank within the aristocracy, although in theory it was probably supposed to. In the historical period we know about, power politics and war were always underlying the waxing and waning influence of every chiefdom. But however astute Hawaiian nobles were in political and military matters–and they had to be in order to stay alive and in power–political successes or disasters were not considered to be decided purely by wisdom and skill. The mandate to rule as a paramount chief was, in the final analysis, assumed to be given by the gods. The paramount chief was a vassal to his god, and just as a feudal lord could at any time revoke the tenancy of a liege subject, so a god could withdraw the supernatural sanction without which a chiefdom could not be maintained. The political downfall of a paramount chief, whether caused by a coup d’etat, defeat in war, or natural disaster such as famine, was interpreted as due to the withdrawal from the paramount chief of his feudatory mandate. It was the great gods of old Hawaii who were the kingmakers.

The political position of a noble in the feudal hierarchy was indicated on formal state occasions and on the battlefield by an elegant mantle, the outer surface of which was covered in bold scarlet, yellow, and black designs made from downy feathers. For a lesser noble these were capes; for a greater noble they were full length cloaks. The more yellow in the designs of these mantles, the more important the wearer, for yellow feathers were the scarcest of all valued objects. Commoner specialists at bird snaring were constantly employed at catching birds and delivering the precious feathers to their chiefs as tribute.

Drawing of a Hawaiian nobleman wearing a feather cape and helmet and carrying a war spear.
A Hawaiian nobleman wearing a feather cape and helmet and carrying a war spear.

Cloak consisting of bundles of yellow, red, and black feathers tied in overlapping rows to a netted foundation made of plant fibers. Mainly red, with wide yellow border at bottom and yellow diamonds arrayed over the entire surface.
The University Museum’s scarlet cloak, similar th that in the etching of a Hawaiian nobleman. Only 45 of these large circular cloaks have been preserved. The University Musuem also has a shorter feather cape, of the kind worn by lesser chiefs. It is one of 92 in the world.
Museum Object Number(s): 29-58-155

Some of the tribute in labor and commodities demanded from commoners was diverted by the paramount and lesser chiefs for the support of noble priesthoods. Each of the major deities had a priesthood and its special temples. It was the duty of these hereditary priests to supervise and direct rituals honoring their gods for the purpose of maintaining prosperity in the chiefdom. The major deities with special temples and their own priesthoods were four: Ku, Lono, Kane, and Kanaloa. While each was manifested in nature in many ways and there was no clear demarcation among their respective powers, Kane and Kanaloa, usually worshipped together, are mentioned most often as being behind the mystical processes of life; Lono was the god most often associated with domestic activities, agriculture, and husbandry; Ku was the power behind war, politics, and the social order. There were also a myriad of lesser deities that were constantly propitiated for success in specialized crafts, health, sorcery, and other activities and who stood to the major gods in the same way that men stood to their feudal superiors. But this was private worship, and concerned nobleman and commoner alike. Public worship in the temples to the great deities was mainly the concern of noble priests and their political superiors.

For one half the year–that roughly corresponding to our spring and summer–on specified nights of every lunar month each of the major gods was honored by ritual and sacrifice at his temple. During some of these services commoners were forbidden to leave their houses or to make a sound lest the sacred spell of the communion should be broken. During the other half of the year, which followed upon the main collection of annual tribute from each district in the chiefdom and correspond to growing season for the important staple crops, the monthly rituals were suspended and all religious efforts were directed toward Lono whose powers were responsible for bringing forth abundant crops once again. There was a religious proscription against war and insurrection during this season, but then it would have been difficult to field an army during these months because food was short. During this season, in January, Captain Cook first arrived in Hawaii, and immediately he was accorded the deference shown only to the most sacred aristocratic chiefs. According to legend, the god Lono once sailed away from the islands, but he was expected to return sometime. Captain Cook was assumed to be not only a great noble but also the living manifestation of Lono fulfilling the expectation of his return.

Commoner and aristocrat alike had their tutelaries to whom they prayed and made modest offerings in private in a part of the hosuehold that was restricted to the men. There was, then, a religious covenant of sorts between individuals and the supernaturals that was independent of the worship by priests in state-supported temples. The focus of these domestic services was usually a small portable image, often carved atop a staff, that could be propped up on an altar for a ritual and reverently put away afterward for safekeeping. There was a special intimacy between a man and the image of his personal god. It was an amulet, and for aristocrats at least, whose personal images were appropriately elegant to their station, the images were often carried when travelling and interred with the owner after death. During wars the images of commanding military chiefs were carried into battle by special bearers. These images were called akua ka’ai, “sash images,” because their bearers carried them slung in sashes. These images were the colors for the armies. When an image was advanced, its army advanced; when it held, the soldiery dug in; when it fell back, the army retreated. Trophies for the victor always included the images of defeated commanders, the feather mantles of slain feudal lords, and the bodies of the first two battle casualties which provided sacrificial offerings for the temple dedicated to the god Ku.

Depicition of Captain James Cook being honored as an incarnation of Lono as a temple to that god in the Kona District of the island of Hawaii.
Captain James Cook being honored as an incarnation of Lono as a temple to that god in the Kona District of the island of Hawaii.

Although a paramount chief relied heavily upon his priests to obtain the supernatural support needed for a prosperous and stable realm, it was the duty of each ruler to establish at least one temple to his personal god from whom he derived his power to maintain, protect, and extend his feudality. This temple was the most sacred in the chiefdom; it was the holy of holies, the luakini where was offered human sacrifice. Here violators of sacred proscriptions (kapu), rebellious nobles, and high ranking enemies captured or killed on the battle field were offered up to the paramount chief’s god. These human offerings were the sacrificial evidence that a ruler was in absolute control of his realm. As long as he could maintain such a temple the supernatural mandate of his rule was assumed to be in force. If the government were toppled, then the paramount chief and some of his tenants-in-chief often ended up on the sacrificial altar of the new ruler’s temple as the symbol of the withdrawal of the supernatural mandate from the deposed chief and the establishment of a new regime. Whenever a chief conquered another chief in war, the victory was not considered to be consolidated until the conqueror had rededicated all of the deposed’s luakini temples, with appropriate human sacrifices, to his own god.

The building and consecration of a new temple for human sacrifice, or the refurbishing and rededication of an old one, was the supreme political effort of a paramount chief. It was an arduous and costly undertaking that touched upon the lives of everyone, from lowly pariah to most sacred nobleman. Each step in the lengthy process was marked by lavish sacrifice and rehearsed ritual that had to be executed with perfection or else its effectiveness was believed to be lost. A mispronounced word, the misstep of a participant, an infant’s cry during the mystical spells, or the bark of a dog at a crucial ritual moment, any detraction whatsoever from the ritual, meant death to the miscreant. At the completion of each stage, the skies, seas, land, and community were closely studied for omens that would indicate whether or not the god was attending to the ceremony. If favorable signs were read, the next stage could proceed, but if they weren’t or if ill omens were noted, the ritual had to be repeated again. Thus the ritual building of the temple was a dialogue between the noble participants and the gods.

A drawing of an abandoned temple.
An abandoned luakini temple in the Kona District of the island of Hawaii. The framework of the oracle tower at the back of this temple was once covered with leaves of the fan palm instead of white bark cloth. The animal skeleton on the altar is from the last sacrificial offering of a pig.

A person tied to a slab, being executed.
The execution of a taboo violator. The victim’s body was used as a sacrificial offering on a luakini temple.

The symbolism of the ritual building of a luakini temple was permeated with meaning from many aspects of Hawaiian life and thought. The temple structure, which consisted of an oblong series of open terraces surrounded by a massive stone wall as well as a few interior enclosures, had to be oriented so that its most sacred part was oriented toward the sunrise or north. Plans for the building were drawn first by a special priest who had knowledge of every temple in Hawaii and which ones had been associated with successes and failures in obtaining supernatural sanction. As the main architectural features of the temple were completed by a large labor force drawn from the entire chiefdom, priests purified themselves for the sacred task ahead. Each district of the chiefdom was then ritually purified at a shrine on its border. This was the same shrine where tribute to the paramount chief would be delivered. The name of a district within the chiefdom was ahu-pua’a, ” pig shrine,” and is related to this purification rite in which the carving of a pig’s head, an offering to the husbandry and domestic god Lono, was laid at its border shrine. Priests and office holders who were to participate in the dedication were then, likewise, purified so they would be fir to enter the sanctum of the temple. A delegation of priests was sent to the mountain forests to carve a new image of the god Ku to whom the temple would be dedicated. With the first fall of the adze on the tree a human sacrifice was dispatched and offered to the god. After the image was carved it was carried down to the entrance of the temple and laid outside. Inside the temple a tower had been erected over a pit, called the luakini, and before it was placed a row of carved images, larger than men, with a space left in their midst. Eventually the principal image representing Ku would be set in this space. Before the images was an altar where offerings would be placed. Tower, images, and altar made up the most holy portion of the temple, the place where the god and humans met.

The first ceremony in which the paramount chief acted the principal role was called “binding up the land.” Four stakes marking the corner posts of a house called mana were put in the ground before the altar and images. With the paramount chief standing by one, a priest stretched a cord from the chief around all the pegs and back to the chief, symbolizing the “binding” together of sacred power from the paramount chief and the land into this place. Omens were closely watched to see if the gods consented to this gesture.

A wooden statuette of a god and a drum.
A temple image and drum used in the dedication ceremonies. The god repreented by the image is probably Ku-ka-ili-moku. Note the similarity between this image and the one in the center of the etching of an abandoned temple on the island of Hawaii.

Each noble who held office in the feudal state paraded into the temple with a bearer carrying his personal sash image and a fighting spear, the one a symbol of his fidelity to a tutelary god, the other a mark of his allegiance in war. To this assemblage the conducting priest asked, “To whom belongs the earth?” “To Ku,” was the reply. “To whom belong the decisions of the earth?” “To Ku,” came back the answer. Following a petition to Ku to bear the “weight” of the government, all present shouted, “Life to Ku!” By this ceremony Ku was acknowledged as supreme, all the feudal nobles pledged the fidelity of their spears and their tutelary duties to Ku through the paramount chief who had just “bound the land.” If the omens were favorable, they proceeded to set up the image in its appointed place between altar and tower and flanked on either side by a company of other gods.

In this step all nobles prayed to their personal gods to assist in the next tense ritual. A human sacrifice was placed into the hole reserved for the principal image, and the great sculpture was set in on top of the offering. During a long incantation by the priests, in which all gods were asked to sustain the life of the land, everyone scrutinized the night sky for signs of heavenly recognition of their entreaties.

With the newly carved image of Ku set up amidst representations of the other gods, construction of the House of Mana was hurriedly finished, and inside was placed another image. The ceremonial part of this phase consisted of trimming the fringe of thatch over the doorway into the House of Mana. This same ceremony was performed when a family moved into a new dwelling. Thus, a household, into which all the sacred power of the paramount chief and the land had been “bound,” was symbolically established. The House of Mana and its guardian figure represented the priesthood whose duty it was to be custodial servants to the god just erected.

Now came the most crucial step in the entire sequence. Hundreds of pigs, levied from the entire chiefdom, were killed, cooked, and distributed to priests and people. The nobles abstained. For the next days while relays of priests kept up continuous prayer night and day for the god to send a concrete indication that he was attending the ceremonies, a party searched for this signal. The signal was the finding of a certain kind of seaweed, apparently rare, which was braided with cord into a rope and placed in a small house in the temple, called waiea and built expressly to contain it. If the seaweed were not immediately found, the search continued–sometimes for months, even years–until it was.

Having found the heavenly manifestation and placed it in the Waiea, a cord of coconut fibers was wound around the belly of the principal image. This was called an umbilical cord. The paramount chief and his senior priest cut the cord with the same ceremony given at the birth of a first-born child of high rank. On the following day there was a great feast in honor of the birth of the image of the god to which people brought large numbers of pigs and other gifts.

Depiction of  the images inside a House of Mana in a luakini temple on the island of Kauai.
The images inside a House of Mana in a luakini temple on the island of Kauai.

The birth ceremony was followed by a confirmation ceremony, the same as given a male child when he was taken from the exclusive care of his mother and the company of women and brought into the company of men. In life, the boy child was dressed in a bleached loin cloth, brought into the eating place of men and served pork, the meat reserved for men and gods alone. The new image was treated in the same manner and upon the altar before it were heaped offerings of pork, bananas, coconuts, red fish, and more bleached bark cloth. All these are items expressly forbidden to women. The image was thus transformed from the infant of Ku to the son of Ku who could receive sacred offerings.

Until this point the tower that was erected first and located behind the images had not been completed. The tower was called lana-nu’u-ma-mao from the names of three platforms in it–lana, surface; nu’u, heights; mamao, loftiest. To Hawaiians the space above the ground was divided into arching tiers; the lowest was the abode of humans, the middle contained the paths of birds and clouds; the heavens were the dwelling place of the gods. The tower represented these ideas, and the penultimate ceremony consisted of covering the framework with bleached bark cloth or leaves of a fan palm, after which a pries ascended the platforms inside–entered the realm of the gods–to read the final oracle.

For the final ceremony a great quantity of pigs and food was placed on the altar while priests, nobles, and all appointed persons in the government took their sash gods to the sea, purified themselves in the salt water, and brought back coral pebbles to the temple. Now the sea and the heavens were represented within the earthly precincts of the temple. The men entered the temple while outside were gathered all the noble women. The men on command were required to hold out their hands and to remain motionless for a long period during which a solemn prayer was recited. If anyone faltered from fatigue, he became a sacrifice. This ordeal completed successfully, the group of women outside the temple presented a large sheet of bleached bark cloth to the newly installed image of Ku. In these two rituals are expressed the final pledges of fidelity to the feudality represented in the temple–from the men their pledge of unflinching steadfastness in ritual support of the priests, the paramount chief, and the mandate of Ku which bound the heavens, the land, the sea, and humans into feudal polity; from the women their pledge of domestic support of the regime as symbolized by the presentation of bark cloth, the manufacture of which was a feminine task.

Captain Cook’s startling discovery ended for all time the insularity in which Hawaiian feudalism had evolved. It also touched off a chain of events which brought the feudal system to a spectacular climax and sudden transformation. An androit chief from the island of Hawaii named Kamehameha, with the aid of a few guns, cannon, and European military advice, successfully subdued all the chiefdoms from the island of Hawaii to Oahu. He was as mindful of consolidating his military victories by dedicating temples of human sacrifice to his personal deity as he was persistent in the conquest of the entire island group. The westernmost island of Kauai he was never able to invade, but eventually it voluntarily acknowledged his overlodrship and became a feudatory in the newly formed kingdom. Kamehameha’s personal deity, from whom he claimed direct descent and the mandate to conquer and rule, was appropriately called Ku-ka-ili-moku, Ku, the Devourer of Chiefdoms. Until Kamehameha’s death in 1819, Ku-ka-ili-moku was, in a sense, the god of state and supernatural symbol of a new era.

Increasing contact with Europeans and Asians which Kamehameha eagerly sought in order to enhance his power and political position was having a profound effect on many Hawaiians. The conception of the universe that was symbolically depicted on the luakini temples did not fit that which was becoming known through the strangers. Furthermore, the strangers were clearly enjoying much greater material wealth and their governmental and military organizations were on a scale that Hawaiians had never conceived of before. Neither did the strangers abide by the sacred prescriptive observances that Hawaiians had thought absolutely necessary for the maintenance of their feudal regimes. The awareness of these incongruencies and differences was most pronounced among the noble elite who had the most contact with outsiders and the world beyond Hawaiian horizons. With Kamehameha’s death in 1819 the disciplined and autocratic rule he maintained was suddenly relaxed. Leaders of Kamehameha’s own court, including some of the highest priests, seized this opportunity to hasten the transformation which Hawaii had been undergoing during the reign of their late paramount chief. The objects they turned on first were the temples, the architectural symbols of the old order. Temples were ransacked and images by the thousands were destroyed. The supernatural mandate for the newly emerged feudal kingdom of all Hawaii was repudiated, not by the gods this time, but by humans.

Conservative reaction against these heretical acts quickly arose under the leadership of a few nobles who sought to reestablish the religion and also to take control of the government. Attempts to seize a government by force, however, were nothing new in Hawaii, and the established government with its arms quickly put down the revolt. But ending the revolt of rival chiefs also extirpated the only effective elements of religious conservatism, and the Hawaiian cultural reformation progressed unchecked. In the midst of this extraordinary state of affairs, in 1820, arrived the first group of Christian missionaries, Congregationalists from New England. Unbeknownst to them, half their task, that of convincing the heather that his gods were false gods, had been accomplished. It thus proved to be not difficult for the missionaries to obtain from the chiefs and nobles of Hawaii their acknowledgement of the religious sovereignty of Christiandom.

Cite This Article

Davenport, William H.. "Hawaiian Feudalism." Expedition Magazine 6, no. 2 (January, 1964): -. Accessed May 20, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/hawaiian-feudalism/

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