The Woman Who
Changed A Kingdom
by Betty Fullard-Leo
Without Queen Kaahumanu, the favorite wife of King
Kamehameha I, it is doubtful that the man who united
the Hawaiian Islands under his royal reign would have
succeeded at all. Her power and influence, however,
stretched far beyond supporting him. She would transform
the foundations of a kingdom, while overthrowing an
ancient religion and challenging the reigning religion
of the west.
What drove this formidable woman? Was she impelled
by a passion to break down all boundaries of tradition?
By her hunger to become the center of power? Or had
her heart been broken too many times, by her father,
by her two husbands, and by the never-ceasing kapus
(taboos) on her as a woman and as the wife of alii?
Unable to enjoy the common pleasures of life, was she
forced to seek control over life? Did she no longer
believe in the ancient gods? Did she seek in Christianity
a refuge from disappointment rather than an answer to
her spiritual need?
Unanswerable questions. All we know for sure is that
Queen Kaahumanu touched the Hawaiian Kingdom as well
as Christian structures in unprecedented ways. Many
loved her, all respected her.
Born in 1777 on the island of Maui near Hana to a lineage
of chiefs, she moved to the Big Island while she was
still a baby so her father could join the army of the
young King Kamehameha. She grew up tall and beautiful.
"Her arms were like the inside of a banana stalk,"
says Samuel M. Kamakau, "her hair dark, wavy, and
fine, her skin very light." Twice she was forced
to witness how her own father killed another man. When
it came to men and their honor, her presence as a young
woman, no matter how bloody the scene, seemed utterly
unimportant, as if she didn't even exist.
When she was about ten years old, her father gave her
in marriage to the 30 year old King Kamehameha. The
following five years were probably the happiest and
least complicated ones of her life. She and the King
grew inseparable. And although he could have any woman
he wanted and married about seventeen times, she was
The Hawaiian Islands were far from harmonious at the
time, with chiefs everywhere fighting each other for
reign and control. Kamehameha's goal was to conquer
and unite them all. Kaahumanu advised him. She knew
his strongest allies who often belonged to her own blood
family. She understood exactly what was at stake.
During those years she learned to surf. She loved to
talk and flirt. The strong taboos of the Hawaiian religion
stifled her, the taboos enforced so no one would anger
the many gods upon whom life and death depended. Women
were not allowed to eat with men. Women were not allowed
to eat certain foods like bananas and coconuts. And
she, as the wife of a chief, was not allowed to sleep
with any one else but her husband to make sure that
her child would be of royal lineage. For the commoner
adultery was acceptable in ancient Hawaii. Kaahumanu
couldn't help but resent and question these taboos.
The year 1793, when she was only 16 years old, determined
her future. First of all, Captain George Vancouver arrived,
hoping to get Hawaii on England's side with lavish gifts.
The Hawaiians were thrilled with the fabrics, clothing,
liquor, iron, and unimaginable tools from the west.
In awe with the strangers, sent by the gods, they were
eager to trade. Hawaiian women plunged into the ocean
to offer their bodies to the foreign sailors, craving
the luxuries as much as potential pregnancies.
But the Queen was not allowed such things. Yet she
noticed that these foreigners broke quite a few of the
heavy taboos. They thought nothing of sharing food with
women . She noticed how her own Kamehameha, greedy
for wealth, also took liberties with the ancient religion.
The gods struck no one with lightning and death! Even
the priesthood saw that the gods were not nearly as
angry and powerful as was always assumed. The weakening
of the taboo had started.
Secondly, King Kamehameha married Keopu'olani, high
chiefess of Maui. This young girl belonged to the purest
of blood lines, holding the most sacred life force.
She was also beautiful. Kamehameha took her as his sacred
wife, the mother of the heir. In short, Kaahumanu, who
couldn't get pregnant herself, and was of lesser nobility,
received a harsh rejection, even though the king still
considered her his favorite.
During the following year long separation, Kaahumanu
found a new lover. Kamehameha conquered Oahu and killed
his rival. After reconciliation, he gave Kaahumanu the
godlike power of puuhonua. She would be the sanctuary
in the midst of danger and destruction. She alone had
the power to spare from death, to protect women and
children, to save criminals from prosecution. Kamakau
wrote about the royal couple, "He dealt out death,
she saved from death."
Four years later, in 1799, King Kamehameha threw his
favorite queen another blow when he married her younger
sister. Their emotional ties were severed for good and
Kamehameha realized that from now on he owed his once
favorite wife the gifts she now cherished most: Shared
leadership and public acknowledgment.
When Keopu'olani gave birth to the new heir, Prince
Liholiho, Kamehameha appointed Kaahumanu as the baby's
official guardian. She was one step closer to the throne.
He gave her a place in his council. "She had become,"
says Kamakau, "the pillar and corner stone of his
government." In the political arena, the island
of Kauai was to be Kamehameha's last conquest, but when
he met face to face with Kauai's gentle chief, Kaumualii,
he permitted the chief to continue rulership. A time
of peace washed through the newly united kingdom. Arts
and crafts developed. Queen Kaahumanu loved to make
kites. She loved to make other women drunk. In her loneliness,
having been replaced by two young girls, she took on
a 19 year young lover. Kamehameha killed the boy instantly.
The queens' bitterness reached its limits. Yet they
stayed together, Kamehameha and Kaahumanu, living side
by side. Kaahumanu ate with the sailors, ignoring the
taboo. She smoked a pipe. She abided her time and waited
till May 8,1819, when King Kamehameha died. With the
date tattooed on her arm she was ready to emerge as
Hawaii's most powerful person.
Tradition demanded that at the death of a king all
taboos were lifted. This deliberate chaos forced the
new ruler to prove his power in reestablishing order.
The new ruler had to stay away from the chaos so he
could arrive in royal splendor with the scepter in hand.
After King Kamehameha's death, women were eating pork
and coconuts, and everyone, chiefs and commoners alike,
slept with whoever they fancied wherever they were.
It was as if the gods no longer existed.
Queen Kaahumanu prepared for young Liholiho's appearance
as King. She had no intention to give him leadership
nor had she any desire to watch the old taboos fall
back into place. When Liholiho sailed toward the shores
of Kailua, she greeted him wearing Kamehameha's royal
red cape, and she declared to the people on shore and
to the surprised Liholiho, "We two shall rule the
land." Liholiho, young and inexperienced, had no
other choice. Kaahumanu became the first kuhina nui
(co-leader) of Hawaii.
Kaahumanu had a feast prepared for that day. She and
Keopu'olani, who had once been her rival, challenged
the new king to abolish the taboos instead of reimposing
them. Where would he choose to eat? With the women who
invited him? Or with the men, at a separate table? He
hesitated. He moved around. Finally he took his place
with the women, and ate. No gods struck. No one died.
Breathless priests were witness.
In Liholiho's decision to abandon the ancient taboo,
the new monarchy reorganized itself with a woman at
the center of power. He could have left it at this.
He could have given the priests some dignity by keeping
the other aspects of Hawaiian religion going. But Liholiho
and Kaahumanu went all the way. They challenged the
very foundation of Hawaii, the power of the priesthood
and the temples. They destroyed the sacred sites.
For about a year, the Hawaiian people had no roots
to hold onto, no beliefs to grasp, for there was nothing
that could replace the gods. In 1820 the missionaries
arrived, finding a nation eager to fill the emptiness
with new notions of good and evil, right and wrong.
Liholiho attempted to conquer Kauai, Kamehameha's unfinished
legacy. Kaahumanu married Kauai's gentle chief Kaumualii,
either trying to soften the sudden reversal of peace
on that island or genuinely in love. The chief never
loved her in return.
No wonder then, that Kaahumanu discovered in the Christian
religion with its commandments and its strong code of
ethics a great tool to soothe pain, to burn remnants
of the stifling gods, and to gain power. Kaahumanu saw
in the foreign religion a set of laws which she herself
could enforce. She saw herself coming full circle, from
being a woman with no power over the law, to being a
woman at the very center of the law.
The missionaries, although disapproving of her less
than subservient attitude, admired Kaahumanu for her
zealousness. She relished her unique place between Christian
and Hawaiian rules of behavior.
Kaahumanu became sole regent over Hawaii when the young
king Liholiho died while visiting England. The future
king, Liholiho's brother, was only 12 years old.
She pressed on, fighting especially hard against adultery
and prostitution, the two Christian sins she herself
had never been allowed. She appalled Hiram Bingham when
she took a new young lover, justifying it because she
was not married nor was this prostitution. In difficult
times, she fell back on the old religious practices,
yet she spread the word of Christianity. She built churches
When she requested to be baptized the missionaries
had to draw the line. She was "Not yet born from
above with the power of the spirit of God," Bingham
In 1823, Keopu'olani was the first Hawaiian to be baptized.
In 1824, Kaumualii died. Did Kaahumanu realize that
now she stood alone? A new softness seemed to enter
her. She fell ill and, thinking that she might die,
she told Bingham: "I will do all the good I can
before I die."
She recovered, and continued her quest. No longer forceful,
she simply started asking her people to obey the Christian
rules. She did not marry again and told Bingham: "My
love to the word of God is my new husband."
On December 4, 1825, Queen Kaahumanu was baptized and
received her new name, Elizabeth. Is it a surprise she
chose the name of the strongest, most glamorous queen
The new rules of morality gradually changed the structure
of Hawaiian society. Marriage became more popular. Kaahumanu
replaced the religious taboos of her ancestry with the
religious taboos-the commandments of the west. Once
again, Hawaiian society was ruled by the laws of a God,
albeit it now a Christian God. And while England and
the Unites States became increasingly preoccupied with
the separation of government and religion, Kaahumanu
saw no reason to do so.
By December 1827, three of the commandments, those
against murder, theft and adultery, became enforced
by law. With the laws came the need for a system of
jurisdiction. In the first jury process Kaahumanu presided
as judge. She took on a new lover, Captain Lewis.
Over the following years Kaahumanu and her council
encountered the inevitable problems that come with the
intrusion of foreigners. Who owned the Hawaiian land?
Who made the law? Rules strengthened. Catholic missionaries
arrived. The newly baptized Christian Hawaiians became
confused. The council chased the priests away in nothing
less than a storm of religious persecution, unaware
of efforts elsewhere in the world to allow freedom of
Kaahumanu continued to spread the word of Christianity,
more and more accessible, showing genuine, moving interest.
Hiram Bingham thought that perhaps her comprehension
of Christianity was "simple", but it is far
more likely that she understood its immense complexity,
its good sides, as well as its role of being an immense
tool of power.
Although wielding the weapon of Christian rule, she
fought for Hawaii's sovereignty. She warded off the
foreigners, who, covered by the name of that Christian
rule, also wanted to take over the Hawaiian kingdom.
Queen Kaahumanu must have known that.
She died on June 5, 1832, just before dawn. Hiram Bingham
gave her, moments before, the first edition of the New
Testament in Hawaiian, hot off the press.
In 1840, the role of kuhina nui was written into the
foundation of government structure.
A Reader responds:
You weave a very nice story that combines fact and some
conjecture which is okay. However, our Kuina Nui was
born on March 17, 1768 which is a fact that needs to
replace your statement that she was born in 1777.
Kanoemaileokalani Cazimero, Honolulu, HI
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