Kānāwai Māmalahoe – The Law of the Splintered Paddle

In 1797, King Kamehameha I instituted Kānāwai Māmalahoe – the Law of the Splintered Paddle, generally considered a model for modern human rights law regarding the treatment of civilians and non-combatants. This law is included in the Constitution of the State of Hawai‘i. It also appears (symbolically as two crossed paddles) in the center of the badge of the Honolulu Police Department and is an unofficial symbol of the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai‘i.

As a young chief, bent on conquest of Hawai‘i island and unification of the entire island chain, Kamehameha was engaged in a military expedition in Puna. He and his warriors encountered a group of maka ‘āinana (commoners – “people that attend the land”) on a beach. Two fishermen from the group stayed behind to defend and cover the retreat of a man carrying a child. During the ensuing skirmish, Kamehameha caught his foot in a crack in lava, and become trapped. One of the lawai‘a (fisherman) hit the defenseless young chief mightily over the head with a paddle, breaking (splintering) it. The fisherman could have easily killed Kamehameha, but instead showed mercy and spared him. He taught the headstrong young chief that human life is precious and deserves respect, that people have the right to defend their land and families, that the strong must not mistreat the weak.

Kamehameha never forgot this act of compassion and forgiveness. Years later, King Kamehameha I proclaimed Kānāwai Māmalahoe – the Law of the Splintered Paddle – “let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the pathway in safety” – that everyone is entitled to protection, assistance and respect – even from a king.

Kānāwai Māmalahoe is generally considered to not be an invention of Kamehameha I but rather an application and articulation of Hawaiian cultural concepts regarding governmental legitimacy. Traditionally, Hawaiians have been intolerant of “bad government” and mistreatment of common people. As a shrewd politician, leader and skilled warrior, Kamehameha used these cultural concepts to his advantage, protecting human rights of his people for all future generations.

Law of the Splintered Paddle – English translation:

Oh people
Honor thy God
Respect alike the rights of people both great and humble
May everyone, from the old men to women and to the children
Be free to go forth and lie by the pathway
Without fear of harm
Break this law and die

**Photo credit: Kānāwai Māmalahoe Wikipedia Page