The Queen that Defeated the Gods
The Hawaiian Queen that changed the island’s entire culture and way of life did not do so by following tradition or by comporting herself in “queenly” ways. She was a beautiful girl who enjoyed surfing, flirting, drinking, and challenging the more repressive aspects of her culture in a way that many believed would result in violent retribution from their offended gods. Yet, instead of being struck down by a bolt of lightning, her actions earned her boundless power and the respect of generations of Hawaiians to come.
A Beautiful Backdrop
The Hawaiian islands today hold a place in many minds as the pinnacle of leisure and luxury. Hawaii is regarded as a beautiful and serene paradise in the middle of a vast ocean where one can escape from the dreary realities of life in a typical continental city. Yet, the seeming tranquility of the island today belies its tumultuous past. Only a thin veneer of volcanic soil hides the blood that was spilled throughout the course of its history and the immense changes that it has seen in only a few centuries.
The tribes of Hawaii always had a waring culture of disparate clans spread throughout the islands that routinely battled over territory and resources. While there had been renowned and legendary kings throughout Hawaii’s history, prior to the 1700s the islands had never been unified under one leader. However, the arrival of British explorers in 1778 changed all of that.
Prior to the late 1700s, Hawaii’s only central rulers were the gods and a strict and complex set of taboos or “kapus” meant to maintain their favor. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance or the harshness of the code of conduct expected from Hawaiian men and, particularly, Hawaiian women. Beginning in the 1500s, as clans began moving further into the islands' interior, religious fanaticism and adherence to social regulations grew stronger. Breaking a kapu was not only considered an affront to the social order, but was also seen as a threat to the spiritual foundation of the culture. As such, it often resulted in immediate execution. Even unintentional violations of the protocols would be met with capital punishment - a frightening possibility considering that the rules were so wide-ranging.
Kapu could be general rules about daily life- some kapu restricted fishing in certain areas and at certain times and others regulated the number of ‘iliahi, or sandalwood, trees that could be cut down. Other kapu, which were known as Kapuhili, dictated a person’s behavior in the presence of the king. The king was himself considered kapu, or sacred, and therefore everything surrounding him was also considered kapu from his homes, to his utensils, to his own shadow. A person was not allowed to make contact with a king’s hair or fingernail clippings, to hold one’s head higher than that of the king, or even to look directly at the king. Particular Kapu restrictions governed royal women in ways that were harsher than other women. For example, in order to ensure the purity of royal lineage, royal wives were strictly prohibited from sleeping with any man other than the king. This was separated them from other women, for whom adultery was permitted. However, Hawaiian women as a whole were restricted in many ways. For example, it was kapu from women to eat certain types of food such as red fishes and most types of bananas. One of the more significant kapu was for men and women to eat together. In fact, the regulation was so strict, the food for men and women had to be cooked in separate imu, or ovens. It was even kapu for a wife to enter the eating house of her husband while he was still in the process of consuming his food.
These sacred restrictions governed most aspects of daily life in Hawaii; yet, there were times when the rules were tossed aside. When a chief died what followed was a period of unabashed pandemonium when Hawaiians disregarded all kapu until a new king assumed power. As the world roiled around him in madness, the new chief would ascend to the throne and return order to his kingdom.
It was into this world of rules and regulations that Kaahumanu was born in 1768. As a child born into a family of nobles, Kaahumanu was never average, but she also grew to be quite beautiful and intelligent. She was married to King Kamehameha at age ten, when the king was thirty. The beginning of their life together was a happy one and in the following years the king and Kaahumanu became inseparable. King Kamehameha married seventeen times, but Kaahumanu was always his favorite.
The king’s ultimate goal was to conquer and unite all of the islands of Hawaii, which at the time were in constant turmoil with chiefs fighting one another for control. He came to rely on Kaahumanu for advice, and she obliged, often directing him to rely on his closest allies- often members of Kaahumanu’s family. Yet, despite her formidableness, the power of the kapu remained stronger. In 1793, King Kamehameha married again, this time to another beautiful woman of higher nobility than Kaahumanu. The woman’s name was Keopu’olani and she was to be the sacred wife and mother of Kamehameha’s heir. Even though the king assured Kaahumanu that she was still the favorite, she took the action as a harsh insult, putting the first chink in their mantle of marital bliss.
Decorum and Avarice
Also in 1793, Captain George Vancouver arrived to the islands in hopes of allying Hawaii with the English. While Captain Cook had opened the Hawaiian islands up to European exploration over a decade earlier, Captain Vancouver left his mark by negotiating with the Hawaiian chiefs in an effort to strengthen the governance of Hawaii under the leadership of one ruler. The arrival of the Europeans was met with great excitement in Hawaii as the visitors had arrived with lavish gifts of fabrics, clothing, liquor, iron, and tools. Yet, while her countrymen were distracted by these gifts, Kaahumanu noticed something different. As they lived among the Hawaiians and negotiated for a treaty, the foreigners broke many of the kapu, including that of sharing food with women. Even King Kamehameha in his excitement about new wealth transgressed in the presence of the Europeans. Yet, the gods never voiced their disapproval. Life went on even after the foreigners departed.
Customs and Beliefs
Vancouver had ulterior motives for his visit his gifts. He refused to sell guns and ammunition to the people of Hawaii, hoping to bring an end to the constant warring among the chiefs. Vancouver then waged a political campaign with the intention of transforming Kamehameha’s station as powerful chief into that of a king. After all, a stable and united Hawaiian kingdom would make the islands a better conquest for Great Britain.
Vancouver’s visit transformed the environment with gifts of livestock and a variety of garden seeds, known as “stone fruits.” The visit also began the process of transforming the cultural landscape of Hawaii as well. The kapus were still recognized and enforced, but even the priests had shared Kaahumanu’s observations. Then, during the year after the king’s marriage to Keopu’olani, Kaahumanu’s back broke under the weight of the expectations place upon her. She gave way to her wild side by taking a new lover. In response, King Kamehameha promptly and unceremoniously killed the other man. However, instead of punishing Kaahumanu, he granted her the “godlike” power of puuhonua. While the king continued to wage wars and enact brutal justice, only Kaahumanu was granted the ability to save those that she choose from death.
Even with this prestigious gift, the couple’s reconciliation was short lived. In 1799, King Kamehameha married Kaahumanu’s younger sister. It quickly became clear that their relationship would never be salvageable. Even so, the king attempted to make amends by granting Kaahumanu further power and prestige. When Keopu’olani gave birth to the prince and heir, Liholiho, later to be called Kamehameha II, King Kamehameha appointed Kaahumanu to be the baby’s official guardian. Later, he also gave her an official place on his advisory council. What followed was a time of nearly unprecedented peace in Hawaii.
Out With the Old
Despite the conquests that Queen Kaahumanu had made in the political arena, her relationship with the king continue to grow more embittered. She took another lover, this one only 19, but his fate was as swift and brutal as that of her first. Following this event, Kaahumanu began breaking more of the taboos. She ate with the sailors, smoked a pipe, and bided her time. Then, in 1819, Kaahumanu’s patience paid off. King Kamehameha died and in his place chaos ruled as everyone disobeyed the kapus, waiting for the new king to step up and regain order. Instead, Kaahumanu threw on Kamehameha’s red cape and emerged as Hawaii’s most powerful person.
As the prince’s guardian, Kaahumanu had developed a rather close relationship with the child. They had made kites together - a favorite pastime for Kaahumanu. When it came time for the boy to take the throne, Kaahumanu, along with her former rival, Keopu’olani, dressed the boy and took him to his coronation feast. However, when they arrived, the two women asked the boy whether he would rather dine with the men or with his mother and guardian. After a moment’s hesitation, the boy chose to eat alongside the women, thus upending one of the foremost kapus in Hawaiian society. Yet, the gods did not retaliate, nobody died, and the feast continued as astonished priests looked on. Kaahumanu had established herself as the first kuhina nui, or “co-regent,” of Hawaii.
In With the New
In one day, with one action, the new monarchy of Hawaii had demolished the very foundation of the religion that had always sustained them, protected them, and guided them. The Hawaiian people were left without beliefs, without any type of religion to grasp on to. They were trying to balance on top of a crumbling civilization.
Then the missionaries arrived.
In 1820, missionaries came from Europe and America ready to fill the void with new notions of good and evil. During this time, Kaahumanu had married Kaumualii, one of Hawaii’s last remaining chieftains. Yet, Kaumualii never returned her affection. Then, on a visit to England, the young king died, leaving Kaahumanu as Hawaii’s singular regent. At the same time she assumed the power of a king over the islands, Kaahumanu began digesting the new Christian teachings and saw in them even more potential. After being a victim of religion all her life, she saw Christianity as a religion that she could control. While the missionaries were not thrilled by her behavior, which was considered less than proper for a Christian woman, they could not deny her effectiveness. Kaahumanu spread the word about Christianity, built schools and churches, and in 1823, Keopu’olani became the first Hawaiian to be baptized.
A New God
Kaumualii died in 1825 and Kaahumanu never remarried, instead dedicating herself to spreading Christianity, but this time through persuasion rather than force. In that same year, Kaahumanu herself was baptized and received a new name - Elizabeth.
Under her leadership, Hawaii came to be ruled by the laws of the Christian faith. Kaahumanu incorporated Christian doctrine into the legal structure of Hawaii. In 1827, the commandments against murder, theft, and adultery became enforceable under Hawaiian law. Since Kaahumanu made the laws, she also presided over them, acting as judge when these commandments were violated. Yet, even as she welcomed the foreign religion, Kaahumanu protected Hawaii’s sovereignty by warding off invaders intent on taking over the Hawaiian kingdom.
On June 5, 1832 Hiram Bingham, an American Protestant missionary, read to Kaahumanu from the New Testament which had just been printed in Hawaiian. Queen Kaahumanu died only moments later.
Our cultures are filled with tales of unlikely women ascending to positions of power by using their beauty, intelligence, wit, cunning, or kindness. Every culture boasts myths of this nature and the retellings of these legends has stretched into the modern era, some even becoming staples of pop culture, stories carried out of campfire circles into the realm of cinemas and websites. However, what is unusual is for these stories to tell a complex story of complicated women with intricate motivations. Where Kaahumau’s actions fueled by a greed for power or a desire to help her people? Was she a person driven by devotion or selfishness? Was demolishing the ancient religion of Hawaii in favor of Christianity villainous or a keen political maneuver?
These are unanswerable questions that serve to demonstrate the contradictory character of Queen Kaahumanu. Her legacy is indisputable. Her impact on Hawaiian history and society is irrefutable. Her history deserves study, analysis, and debate. And her name deserves to be remembered.
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Hiram Bingham I (1855) . A Residence of Twenty-one Years in the Sandwich Islands (Third ed.). H.D. Goodwin.
“Kapu.” Hawaiian Mythology, ancienthawaiiangods.weebly.com/kapu.html.
Malo, David, Hawaiian Antiquities. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication 2, Second Edition. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1951.
Rhodes, Diane Lee, and Linda Wedel Greene. “Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites (Chapter 3).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 15 Nov. 2001, www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/kona/history3b.htm.
Vincent G. Student "Kapu: The Sacred Rules" AwesomeStories.com. Jun 12, 2015. Mar 12, 2018. http://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/Kapu-The-Sacred-Rules.