1400s-1800s: Water, Labor, & Racial Capitalism

Water Rights in Hawaii - Draft Paper by Jon Van Dyke and Williamson B.C. Chang

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The terraced agricultural system, called the ahupuaʻa system, was established by ʻUmi in the 1400s to harness the watershed into an auwai (irrigation) system for subsistence farming & livelihood for Kanaka Maoli society (Van Dyke and Chang).   

Hawaiians called water wai, and wealth being waiwai.  Wai was integral to Hawaiian law.  Water and land could not be owned, but there was a social structure set up to protect and manage these resources for the benefit of the whole society.  The ahupuaʻa system was the traditional Hawaiian watershed management system that managed waters from the summits of the valleys to the coastline beaches.  Clean, fresh, drinking water would be collected at the upper parts of the stream, the middle stream would be used for cleaning utensils, and the lower parts would be used for bathing purposes (Van Dyke and Chang). Konohiki (headman of an ahupuʻa land division, under the chief) acted as a facilitator of water usage, ensuring that the auwai could be expanded to allow new farmers to set up their plots, while still allowing the flow of water to irrigate the plots of others.


Racial Capitalism is based on the racist ideology that there is a group more superior than another based on skin color. This ideology supports capitalist relations, or the idea of a master that benefits from the labor of a servant.  What is important about racial capitalism in Hawaiʻi is how it explains the western and Euro-American influence on the islands.The capitalist system was introduced by Euro-American missionaries who influenced the early Hawaiian monarchs to the values of western civilization through capitalist economic production. During the reign of Kamehameha I, early economic policies were for common Hawaiians, makaʻainana, to cut down iliahi (sandalwood) trees because they were lucrative to sell to Chinese markets seeking this aromatic wood.  Whaling was another industry in the Pacific, as the fat of whales was an important fuel. Agricultural plantations, such as sugar, took root in the 1800s, first recruiting maka'ainana to the back-breaking work of cutting sugar cane and feeding them into mills for production into sugar (CLEAR). 

Many Kanaka Maoli did not take well to plantation work because they had their own traditional food-producing practices of growing kalo (taro) and developing fishponds. The capitalist idea of earning scripts for labor to redeem at the plantation general store was  foreign to the maka'ainana.  In their traditional food systems, they directly received the benefits of their labor in the auwai and fishpond, producing the food they needed to survive. The first strikes in Hawai'i were among the Kanaka Maoli, at the Koloa plantation on Kauaʻi (CLEAR).  They opposed the plantation working conditions that did not make sense for their subsistence culture and lifestyle. However, the spread of capitalism began to devalue the importance of the subsistence lifestyle and increase the value of cash wages.

Thus, the establishment of the agricultural plantation was an example of racial capitalism--a way for agricultural businessmen to derive social and economic value from the working class makaʻainana. The labor productivity of the maka'ainana would produce economic profit for the government and agricultural business elites and further uplift the social power of those at the top of this economic order as they became more influential in the Hawaiian society.


During the establishment and expansion of the agricultural plantations after the Great Mahele, water became a coveted resource. McBryde Sugar Co. vs. Robinson is among a series of cases regarding the ownership of water.  The McBryde and Robinson plantations were on the island of Kauaʻi. The McBryde plantation owner was brought to court by the Robinson plantation owner.  The McBryde plantation, located upstream, funnelled water away to irrigate another location. But the Robinson plantation, located downstream, as well as other smaller communities who depended on the stream, were negatively affected by the reduced streamflow. This case served as a precedent in which plantations, traditional taro farmers, and the state battled one another in court to determine who had the right to the flow of water and could benefit from it.

Water law in Hawaʻi was considered “unsettled” because of the different opinions of the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court Justices over time. Some justices cited Hawaiian Kingdom law, noting that the King, and eventually the State, had a responsibility of “public trust” to ensure that the water would be managed in a way for everyone to have a fair share and equal benefit. Other Justices tried to also interpret Hawaiʻi Kingdom water law precedents to affirm corporate and individual property rights to water they acquired through fee simple property ownership.  

The history of water law in Hawaiʻi reflects the way that capitalist and Hawaiian philosophy can shape judicial opinions. However, the difference is that capitalist philosophy can justify the hoarding of water according to individual property rights at the expense of non-owners, while Hawaiian philosophies underscore a philosophy of cooperation and mutual responsibility in the management of public natural resources like water.

Center for Labor Education and Research, A Brief Overview (n.d.), https://www.hawaii.edu/uhwo/clear/home/Lhistory.html (last visited August 20, 2020).