Troubled Times: Making the Laws

Ke Ao Uli: A Changing World 1825 – 1841

International trade brought an influx of foreigners to Hawai‘i. Their growing presence, concentrated in the ports of Honolulu and Lahaina, was accompanied by a rise in gambling, drinking and other activities that tore at Hawai‘i’s social fabric. The council of chiefs, headed by the king and kuhina nui, relied on the advice of the missionaries to enact laws curtailing the worst behaviors. This led to a series of violent foreign conflicts.
From Kapu to Kānāwai

  • Overturning the kapu had not ended Hawai‘i’s traditional social structures and beliefs. Instead, in its wake, the ali‘i wielded even greater power, including the power to make laws.
  • In traditional Hawaiian society, the kapu ensured compliance by meting out punishment that included exile and death. Now, ali‘i found themselves confronted by foreign seamen, traders and others who considered themselves above the “native” laws.
“The ali‘i themselves recognized the need to adopt kānāwai, or written and published law in the islands as the best way to control and discipline foreigners behaving badly on Hawaiian soil.”
— Noelani Arista, The Kingdom and the Republic, p. 137

Printed Notices and Foreigner Reaction

  • On March 8, 1822, the government printed its first notices against disturbing the peace. Criers were also dispatched to spread the news in the traditional manner. Levi Chamberlain, business agent for the Mission, noted that “for two or three nights past a crier has been sent out to proclaim in the ears of the people an edict from the Chiefs – … That the people are not to play at ulumaita, pahee, puhenehene, cards, &etc. but turn to the palapala.”1
  • During 1825 – 1827, American and British seamen rioted in Lahaina and Honolulu against new laws that banned alcohol and other vices. The rioters blamed the missionaries. In Lahaina, the crew of a British whaler opened fire “with a nine-pound gun, aiming five shots at Mr. [William] Richard’s house, which, however, did little damage.”2 In Honolulu, following threats by the captain of an American ship, his crew rioted at Kalanimoku’s house and attacked Bingham in his own yard.

New Laws

  • In 1826, Ka‘ahumanu, accompanied by the Binghams, circled O‘ahu to prepare her people for upcoming changes. She spoke to a vast gathering at Waimea, recounting God’s right to bestow laws upon “creatures he had created, and of his right to punish those who did not heed his laws. … She ended by explaining that as God made laws, in the same way rulers had a right to make laws for their people, laws that would maintain ‘order and peace.’ She told them she intended to make such laws.”3
  • In December 1827, the council of chiefs met in Honolulu to debate a new slate of laws. Governor Boki of O‘ahu insisted that they needed England’s approval. Governor Kuakini of Hawai‘i Island disagreed. “If England gives us laws she will send men to see that they are executed. Our harbors will be filled with ships of war and our vessels cannot go out or come in without their permission,” he argued. “We shall forever be their servants we shall no more be able to do as we please.”4Ka‘ahumanu and a majority of the chiefs agreed. They passed prohibitions against murder, theft and adultery.
“On December 14, [1827] … the king, Kaahumanu, and Boki exhorted the people, both native and foreign, to obey the three laws which had been adopted … This was the beginning of formal legislation by the Hawaiian chiefs.”
— Ralph Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, p. 126



1 Chamberlain, Levi, Journal entry from June 28, 1825.

2 Alexander, W.D., A Brief History of the Hawaiian People, University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, 2001, reprint of 1899 edition, pp. 198 – 199.

3 Silverman, Jane L., Ka‘ahumanu: Molder of Change, Friends of the Judiciary History Center of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1987, p. 110.

4 Levi Chamberlain to Whitney and Ruggles, Dec. 17 – 27, 1827; reproduced in Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, p. 125.

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