Kānāwai Kolowalu

#163 in the Moʻolelo series

When I was living in Tonga, people were not really supposed to eat in public on the street. I once did, eating a half loaf of bread in the middle of the capital town of Nukuʻalofa. A young man walked up to me – a complete stranger – and said, without any self-consciousness, “give me some bread.” I gave him about a quarter of what I had, which I thought was generous to a stranger, but also somewhat expected in Tongan culture. He balked at me and said “Greedy!” This I never forgot. (I canʻt actually remember if this exchange was in English or Tongan, which I was fairly fluent in). His meaning was that I was supposed to give him half of what I had, dividing the resource evenly among the “group” – in this case, just the two of us. As my best friend at the time somewhat cynically put it “never marry a Tongan or you marry her whole family.” This sort of enforced hospitality, I submit, is an integral part of Polynesian cultures, and it is seen in the law of the Splintered Paddle (see the video below) and in the subject of today’s post, Kānāwai Kolowalu.

Kolowalu was a law proclaimed by the King of Oʻahu Kualiʻi. It was actually brought to my attention by my friend, Professor of Political Science at UH West Oʻahu, Masa Kato, who has studied this concept as a Hawaiian ethic of peacekeeping. Abraham Fornander tells us:

The Royal Kolowalu Statule.1—This was the best law during the reign of Kualii Kuniakea Kuikealaikauaokalani.2 It was strict, unvarying and always just. It was for the care and presentation of life; it was for the aged men and women to lie down in the road with safety; it was to help the husbandmen and the fishermen; to entertain (morally) strangers, and feed the hungry with food. If a man says, “I am hungry for food,” feed [him] with food, lest he hungers and claims his rights by swearing the  kolowalu law by his mouth, whereby that food becomes free, so that the owner thereof cannot withhold it; it is forfeited by law. It is better to compensate. He who swears must observe the law faithfully, lest he be accountable to the law of the king which he has sworn to observe,3 and the punishment be upou him. If it is simple robbery of others’ food, or of others’ property, then severe punishment shall be meted out to the person who violated the law. A transgressor,4 or one who is about to die, is, under the application of this law exonerated of his death or other penalty. Through the uprightness of his [Kualii’s | law [sic], and the honesty with which he administered the government.

Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Folklore. Accessed at ulukau.org.
Abraham Fornander (1812-1887)

So Mamalahoe Kānāwai, the Law of the Splintered Paddle, was not the first codification of this ethic of enforced hospitality. Though Kualiʻi’s law came first, it is unclear whether the Kolowalu law influenced Mamalahoe or whether they both reflected the underlying cultural norm.

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