In Praise of Ka’ahumanu


My wife and I plan to vacation in Hawaii later this year, and in preparation we decided to read a few books about Hawaiian history and culture. Among the books I recommend are Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell and Captive Paradise by James L. Haley. (Both books cover the period from European discovery of the islands through American annexation, roughly 1778 through 1898; if you’re in a pinch, Vowell’s book is shorter and funnier, but if you have time Haley’s book is deeply researched and quite compelling.)

One of the most fascinating historical figures we’ve read about–and, honestly, one of the overlooked feminist and freethought heroes of history–is Queen Ka’ahumanu (c. 1768 – 1832). She was one of the wives of Kamehameha the Conqueror, the man who, using newly available Western weaponry, was the first to unite the islands under a single crown. Ka’ahumanu was an imposing woman, by most accounts over six feet tall and north of 400 pounds, but she was also well-known for her intelligence, kindness and humor.

For centuries, Hawaiian society had been deeply stratified, with a squabbling nobility that, in partnership with the kahunas (the priestly class), ruled with near-absolute impunity over the longsuffering peasants. Hawaiian religion was both harsh and capricious, often requiring human sacrifice, and characterized by a complicated system of kapus (i.e. taboos, many of which, if broken, carried a sentence of death). Women were (oddly) forbidden from eating common foods like bananas and pork, and it was death for men and women to eat together. For a peasant’s shadow to touch the Queen was also death, but it is well-documented that Ka’ahumanu routinely pardoned the inevitable infractions. (Indeed, Ka’ahumanu, according to the rules of rank that governed Hawaiian society, was so high in the pecking order that even the Conqueror had to show obeisance in her presence.)

Things came to a head with the death of the Conqueror in 1819. His son and successor, Liholiho (also called Kamehameha II) was a drunkard and a poor ruler, and Ka’ahumanu, along with Keopuolani (another of the Conqueror’s widows, and the mother of Liholiho), conspired to bring down the kapu system or die trying.

During a royal feast, Ka’ahumanu rose and delivered a short but eloquent speech, which she concluded by saying, “We intend to be free from kapu. We intend that the husband’s food and the wife’s food shall be cooked in the same oven, and that they shall be permitted to eat from the same calabash. We intend to eat pork and bananas and coconuts. If you think differently you are at liberty to do so; but for me and my people we are resolved to be free. Let us henceforth disregard kapu.” Liholiho’s mother then urged him to join the women, but when he relented, she recruited his six-year-old brother to break the taboo.  No one moved against them, and a short time later Liholiho fell in line.

Within a matter of months, a religious system that had developed over the span of 1,000 years was ended, its idols burned, its sacred places plowed under, and replaced by…nothing. In 1819 there were only a few hundred foreigners (Americans, Brits, etc.) living on the islands, and no one had yet mounted a serious attempt to proselytize the natives. For good or bad, this would soon change. In 1820 a ship carrying the first of dozens of New England missionaries arrived, delighted to hear that the islanders had abandoned their pagan ways, making it much easier to persuade them to turn their hearts to Jesus Christ. Among the converts were Ka’ahumanu and Keopuolani. For all its wrongness, at least Christianity wasn’t demanding human sacrifices or execution for an errant shadow.

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