Kānāwai Māmalahoe “Law of the Splintered Paddle”

Kānāwai Māmalahoe


Kānāwai Māmalahoe, on a plaque under the Kamehameha Statues.

Kānāwai Māmalahoe, or Law of the Splintered Paddle (also translated Law of the Splintered Oar), is a precept in Hawaiian law, originating with King Kamehameha I in 1797. The law, “Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety,” is enshrined in the state constitutionArticle 9, Section 10, and has become a model for modern human rights law regarding the treatment of civilians and other non-combatants.[1] It was created when Kamehameha was fighting in Puna. While chasing two fishermen (presumably with the intention to kill them), his leg was caught in the reef, and one of the fisherman, Kaleleiki, hit him mightily on the head with a paddle in defense, which broke into pieces. Luckily, Kamehameha was able to escape. Years later, the same fisherman was brought before Kamehameha. Instead of ordering for him to be killed Kamehameha ruled that the fisherman had only been protecting his land and family, and so the Law of the Splintered Paddle was declared.[1][2]

The complete original 1797 law in Hawaiian:

Kānāwai Māmalahoe :

E nā kānaka,
E mālama ‘oukou i ke akua
A e mālama ho‘i ke kanaka nui a me kanaka iki;
E hele ka ‘elemakule, ka luahine, a me ke kama
A moe i ke ala
‘A‘ohe mea nāna e ho‘opilikia.

Hewa nō, make.

English translation:

Law of the Splintered Paddle:

Oh people,
Honor thy god;
respect alike [the rights of] people both great and humble;
May everyone, from the old men and women to the children
Be free to go forth and lay in the road (i.e. by the roadside or pathway)
Without fear of harm.

Break this law, and die.


Cultural context

It has been noted[clarification needed] that Kānāwai Māmalahoe was not an invention of Kamehameha I, but rather an articulation of concepts regarding governmental legitimacy that have been held in Hawaiʻi for many prior generations. Countless stories abound in Hawaiian folklore of the removal of chiefs[3] – generally, but not always, through popular execution – as a result of mistreatment of the common people,[4] who have traditionally been intolerant of bad government. As a shrewd politician and leader as well as a skilled warrior, Kamehameha used these concepts to turn what could have been a point of major popular criticism to his political advantage, while protecting the human rights of his people for future generations.


Modern relevance and controversy

Kānāwai Māmalahoe has been applied to Hawaiian rights, elder law, children’s rights, homeless advocacy, and bicyclist safety.[5][6] It also appears as a symbol of crossed paddles in the center of the badge of the Honolulu Police Department.[7] It is an unofficial symbol of the William S. Richardson School of Law, reflecting its ethos for legal education. As such, particularly in consideration of the human rights concerns of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement (in which the State of Hawaii is generally viewed as de facto, or lacking legitimacy[8]), Kānāwai Māmalahoe has been the subject of extended controversy.[9][10] Issues surround the use of the law of Kamehameha I in the State’s constitution and the treatment of homeless persons, especially those of native descent,[11][12] many of whom reside upon ancestral lands that have been converted to public use or private property under State law.[13]


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