Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s purchase of a US$100m, 700-acre piece of land in Kauai, Hawaii, sparked controversy after he filed lawsuits against hundreds of Hawaiians who hold long-standing “quiet title” rights to parcels of land on the property.
Zuckerberg said that he and his family wanted to “plant roots and join the community ourselves,” and that he pursued this route to ensure that Hawaiian land owners were fairly compensated. But the billionaire faced a public and media outcry on behalf of local families, who could have been forced to sell interests in the land, lost their right to traverse the property and faced costly legal fees.
This response prompted an about-turn from Zuckerberg. In a recent letter to the Kauai Garden Island, the Facebook billionaire said that the quiet title actions had been a “mistake”, not least because he “did not take the time to fully understand the quiet title process and its history”.
Indeed, history also shows us that Zuckerberg is just the latest in a long line of West Coast capitalists to purchase a slice of Hawaii.
Hawaiian Land and Californian capitalists
The arrival of US missionaries to the Kingdom of Hawaii in the first half of the 19th century led to a series of major land reforms (the “Great Mahele”), which in the 1840s replaced the traditional Kanaka Maoli system of land stewardship with a Western model of private property. For the the first time, foreigners could legally own Hawaiian land.
The 1850 Kuleana Act was designed to ensure the maka'ainana (commoners) received land titles. The “quiet titles” refer to kuleana lands that have passed onto the descendants of the first Hawaiian owners in the absence of a will. The Zuckerberg suits follow other quiet title actions in Hawaii that date back to the Great Mahele. In reality, few of the native Kanaka Maoli people secured land grants. Instead, foreigners – especially Americans – purchased the vast majority of Hawaiian real estate, divorcing the Kanaka Maoli from their spiritual ties to the land.
Californians played a key role here. During the Gold Rush, newly-minted Californian capitalists looked to the Hawaiian Islands as a new frontier for American settlers, and an opportune location for real estate speculation. Confident that Hawaiian land “will become of immense value under the influence of a modicum of … California capital,” West Coast Americans led the call for US annexation of Hawaii in the 1850s.
The annexation failed, but West Coast interest in Hawaiian land did not. In the 1870s, the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii agreed a duty-free reciprocity treaty, which dramatically increased the trade between the two nations. Shortly afterward, Claus Spreckels, a San Francisco-based sugar magnate, became one of the first of many newcomers, referred to by the older white residents of the islands as “Californians”.
Spreckels developed close connections with King Kalakaua and purchased vast tracts of land on the island of Maui. By 1892, Spreckelsville had become one of the largest sugar estates in the world, having grown to over 40,000 acres. Spreckels’ Californian-owned Hawaiian Commercial Company exemplified how West Coast capital sank deep roots into Hawaiian land well before the formal US acquisition of Hawaii in 1898.
For native Hawaiians, Californian acquisition of Hawaiian real estate and development of sugar plantations further cut them off from the land. It also supported US claims that Hawaii was an American territory in all but name, commercially bound to the West Coast. “The whole speculative population of California is said to be looking this way,” a Honolulu magazine observed in 1893. That year, Americans in the islands overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and in 1898 secured annexation to the United States, over the mass protests of the Kanaka Maoli.
Zuckerberg is no Spreckels. For one thing, his Hawaiian land purchase was not speculative like Spreckels’ lucrative sugar empire. Zuckerberg bought land to build a family home – albeit one that will be situated in 700 acres.
Moreover, he plans to help preserve endangered species. He argued that his purchase has saved the land from alternative futures, including commercial development that would have led to denser housing and far greater ecological impact. Zuckerberg and his family, he says, “are committed to being good stewards of this beautiful land”.
Yet the historical context is telling here also. Stewardship speaks to the traditional Hawaiian concept of land as ‘aina: a spiritual entity that can never be owned. But the Kuleana Act and Great Mahele severed this relationship. Hawaiian land became real estate – a commodity to be bought and sold. Californian capitalists bought a lot of it – and they have continued to ever since.
Clearly, Zuckerberg has been burned by the public outcry, which saw him accused of being “the face of neo-colonialism” and “using the same legal loopholes sugar barons in Hawaii exploited centuries ago”. It is a good thing that he is delving into Hawaiian history: some of it makes for uncomfortable reading.