The Woman Who Changed A Kingdom

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

Queen Ka'ahumanu. photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne

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 his favorite.

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 Š. 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 and schools.

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 wrote.

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 of England?

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 religion.

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

Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest.

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.