People like to say "the missionaries stole the land" when referring to the cruel dispossession of the Hawaiian people after the Mahele.
This was the momentous series of events between 1845 and 1855 in which, with the agreement of the king and chiefs, the Hawaiian 'aina was "alienated," that is, made available for sale.
One thing I know: It wasn't the original Protestant missionaries who made off with vast quantities of land in the decades afterward. The missionaries purchased what property they came to own at the going rate of $1 an acre, and I have seen the records. True, some of the children of those who stayed behind prospered mightily, but that is another story.
If any haole stole the land of Hawaii, the front-runner in my mind is Claus Spreckels, the sugar baron and crony of Kalakaua, and it happened right here on Maui.
Kalakaua is revered today, and rightly so, for his revival of the Hawaiian culture, but he also possessed grave weaknesses. He felt he had to spend lavishly like his lofty predecessors, the Kamehamehas. But Kalakaua's mother, the Big Island chiefess Kekohokalole, sold almost all of her considerable lands to finance her own high living, leaving Kalakaua with only four 'aina.
These he soon spent, leaving nothing for his sister, Lili'uokalani, for whom money problems also led to bad decisions. Chronically in debt, the king was dependent on Spreckels, who gave him low-interest loans to cover his expenses in exchange for favors.
So here's the story. Spreckels held a 30-year lease to the 24,000-acre "Wailuku commons," crown lands that stretched across the isthmus of Maui from Waikapu to Kailua gulch outside Paia. This was the land on which Spreckels established his vast HC&S sugar empire. Rather than run the risk of it reverting to the government when the lease ran out, he schemed to own it.
This, however, was considered impossible. Stay with me now. In 1865, in response to the profligate spending of Kamehemeha IV, the Legislature had passed an act sequestering the personal lands of the monarch as "crown lands." They were henceforth "inalienable," that is, unable to be sold, to be kept in trust with the revenues used to support the monarchy.
Spreckels could not break the trust, but he came up with a characteristically ingenious and underhanded solution. In 1880, he persuaded Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani, the half-sister of Kamehameha V, to sell him her claim to a half-interest in the crown lands of Hawaii. For this he paid $10,000, and sweetened the deal with a $60,000 loan at a low interest rate. On the face of it, this was foolishness. Ruth's claim had already been deemed without merit by the courts. But Spreckels managed to obtain three legal opinions in favor of his claim: two from the former attorneys general William R. Castle and Alfred S. Hartwell - one a missionary descendant, the other married to one - and a third from Edward Preston, soon to become Kalakaua's next attorney general.
A bill was introduced in the Legislature authorizing the commissioners of the crown lands to convey the Wailuku commons to Spreckels "in satisfaction of all claims he may have. . . ."
George Washington Pilipo, "the Lion of North Kona," was aghast. Wailuku, he said, was "much loved by the people. It was the place of sepulchre of the ancient chiefs, and yet not one dollar of consideration [would be] received by the Crown." Giving crown lands outright to a private individual, he argued, would be "a step toward destroying the independence of the country."
Pilipo moved that the Legislature indefinitely postpone the bill, but Preston assured the assembly that the measure was merely to settle title and would save much aggravation down the road in the courts.
The bill passed 30-8 and Kalakaua signed it on July 21, 1882. The Hawaiian newspaper Ko Hawaii Pae Aina condemned the "base-hearted treacherous cunning" of Kalakaua's premier, Walter Murray Gibson, who "beguiled" the Legislature into giving Wailuku away. Henry Whitney at The Hawaiian Gazette reported that Gibson had borrowed $37,000 in his own name from Spreckels at 6 percent interest.
Pilipo continued to protest. In the election of 1886, armed with numerous cases of gin with which to bribe voters, Kalakaua went to north Kona, sat by the polling place and personally secured Pilipo's defeat.
The Legislature of 1882, wrote the historian William Alexander, was "one of the weakest and most corrupt that ever sat in Honolulu."
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.