Kaahumanu (1777–1832)

views updated

Kaahumanu (1777–1832)

Chief wife of Kamehameha I and, as co-regent of Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III, the driving force behind the abolition of the kapu system in the Hawaiian Islands and the architect of the first code of secular law. Name variations: Ka'ahumanu. Pronunciation: Kah-ah-HEW-mon-ew. Born in 1777 (some sources cite 1768) in the village of Hana on the island of Maui, Hawaii; died on June 5, 1832, at her Manoa home, Oahu, Hawaii; daughter of Keeaumoku (a chief of the island of Hawaii) and Namahana (daughter of a chief of Maui); at age five, given to Kamehameha I the Great (1758–1819), king of Hawaii (r. 1810–1819), to live in his household until old enough to become his wife, around 1782; no children.

Took her father's place in the chiefs' council (1794); received from Kamehameha the power to be a puuhonua or sanctuary (1795); named kahu (sacred guardian) of the heir of Kamehameha I (1804); served as kuhina nui (reigned as regent, co-ruler, 1819–1832); influenced Kamehameha II to abandon the kapu system (1819); adopted Christianity (1824); established a code of law for the Hawaiians based on Christian teachings (1827).

When Kaahumanu died on the evening of June 5, 1832, she left behind a Hawaii that was vastly different from the relatively isolated islands she had known as a girl. Intertribal warfare had given way to diplomatic shuffling with consuls and trade delegations from Europe and North America. The old gods had been replaced with the god of the Christian missionaries, Hawaiians were being taught to read and write, and women were no longer barred from the religious and secular councils of power. The moving force behind most of the changes was a woman the missionaries referred to as "her who had been the reformer of her nation," the queen regent of the Hawaiian Islands, Kaahumanu.

Born to Keeaumoku, a chief of the island of Hawaii, and Namahana , a daughter of a chief of Maui, Kaahumanu came into the world armed with a powerful network of family ties that were being pulled apart by interisland warfare. The Hawaiian Islands were made up of many small islands and seven principal islands, each with its own ruling family of chiefs: Maui, Hawaii, Oahu, Lanai, Molokai, Kauai, and Niihau. Kahekili, the ruling chief of Maui, looked upon the marriage of Namahana and Keeaumoku, a rival chief, as an act of treason. He forced the couple to flee to the island of Hawaii and join political forces with Kamehameha I, a high-ranking chief from Hawaii who had distinguished himself in battle and was determined to unite the islands under his sole leadership. In a definitive act of unification with Kamehameha, Namahana and Keeaumoku sent their five-year-old daughter, Kaahumanu, to live in the 30-year-old Kamehameha's home until she was old enough to become one of his wives.

Doted upon and sequestered, Kaahumanu was said to have become a skilled surfer to escape the tedium of the seclusion imposed on her as she grew up. As Kamehameha's wife, she was protected and sheltered from everyday life. Because she was his favorite wife, her actions were carefully monitored, but she was also allowed more freedom to do as she wished.

While Kaahumanu was still a girl, Kamehameha conquered the island of Maui. Keopuolani , a woman of the purest bloodlines and holding the most powerful mana (supernatural force) in all the islands, became Kamehameha's sacred wife and, according to custom, the future mother of the heirs to his kingdom. Kamehameha had at least 16 wives, but Kaahumanu remained his special wife. According to Europeans who came to the islands for fresh water, whales, and recreation, she visibly shared his power and was his primary confidante. Perhaps because they had no children, and Kaahumanu was, therefore, committed to no one in the succession of power, Kamehameha was comfortable sharing his power and knowledge with her.

As a woman chief in her own right, Kaahumanu's life traditionally lay in being part of her husband's household and enhancing their shared role and status, but this did not mean that she remained in his shadow. Like most Polynesians, Hawaiian women were subject to a system of kapus (religious restraints) that regulated much of their lives. They could not ride in boats, catch fish, or speak to the gods except through male intermediaries. They could not eat many local foods, including pork, bananas, and certain fish, and they were barred from eating with men or from cooking their food in the same oven as the men. However, while women were banned from attending the councils of religious and political power and were subject to many other constraints stemming from the kapu system, they still had a great deal of personal autonomy and relative sexual egalitarianism. Hawaiian women often acted in opposition to the interests of their men if it suited them. They controlled their own property and engaged in commerce on their own ground. It has been postulated that the independence of Polynesian women was at the heart of the creation of the kapu system, since it was the only way Polynesian men could exert any control. The kapu system began to crack as foreign sailors reached the islands.

When George Vancouver, commander of a British exploring expedition, first stopped at Kaahumanu's village, her mother Namahana insisted on going out to the boat to see Vancouver in violation of a kapu that prevented her, as it did all women, from going on the ocean. Namahana reasoned, however, that the kapu which prevented her from going out in a Hawaiian canoe could not apply to foreign boats belonging to foreigners who did not come under her people's restrictions. Vancouver says this "ingenious mode of reasoning" persuaded her husband to let her go. Namahana was conveyed to the Discovery in one of its own boats, and her way of using the presence and practices of foreign visitors to shape new freedoms for herself was adopted with great success by her daughter, Kaahumanu. When a ship's officer came to call on Kaahumanu, she offered him fruit and had coconuts brought. This was a clear violation of the kapu against women eating with or preparing food for men. Kaahumanu reasoned, however, that the village women who visited the ships ate there with the men and suffered no ill effects, so she was only bringing the foreign ships' custom to the land.

Size was important to the Polynesians; great height and weight conveyed prosperity and health and commanded respect. Kaahumanu was about 15 years old, stood over 6' tall, and weighed close to 300 pounds when Vancouver first met her in 1793. She was the only woman Vancouver ever mentioned as being present at formal ceremonies between Kamehameha and British representatives. He described her as "one of the finest women he had yet seen on any of the islands." Another young officer wrote in his journal that she was "plump, jolly, very lively and good humored." Jacques Arago, an artist aboard a French ship, was less kind, describing her as very fat but with elegant tattoos on her legs, left palm, and tongue. Samuel Kamakau, a Hawaiian historian, noted that Kaahumanu had a lively enjoyment of men and loved to flirt.

Vancouver's journal indicates that there was true affection between Kaahumanu and her husband; however, when he returned to the islands the following year, he found Kaahumanu estranged from Kamehameha. Rumors that she had been intimate with Kaiana—a young, good looking and, according to his detractors, sly chief of Kauai—had reached Kamehameha's ears, and she had fled to her family for protection. Adultery was not a serious offense, however; Kaiana was one of Kamehameha's political rivals, and Kamehameha relied on the high rank of his Maui wives, specifically Kaahumanu and Keopuolani to support his ascendancy over the other chiefs. If Kaahumanu's father and several of the other chiefs threw their support to Kaiana,

it could lead to Kamehameha's downfall. Vancouver, realizing that such a turn of events could jeopardize the investment he had already made in his relationship with Kamehameha, offered to help afford a reconciliation between Kamehameha and Kaahumanu. Kamehameha accepted on the condition that their meeting look like an accident. Vancouver did this by inviting them on board the Discovery at the same time. According to Vancouver, both parties were happy to see each other and were relieved to end the estrangement. Before they went ashore, however, Kaahumanu asked what she termed an important favor of Vancouver: that he secure Kamehameha's promise that he would not beat her when she got back to the house. Vancouver complied and obtained Kamehameha's assurance.

She prefers to go before, rather than follow others, and consequently, whenever she acts, she acts in such a manner to distinguish herself from others.

—William Richards, missionary

Kamehameha, a pragmatist, used the kapu system to regulate trade with foreigners, a purpose unconnected to religion, and to consolidate his power over the other chiefs. After he won control of the island of Oahu in battle around the summer of 1795, he abolished the old puuhonua (sanctuary) of Oahu and designated sanctuaries of his own. In so doing, Kamehameha cut the people's ties with their traditional Oahu gods. Conversely, he gave Kaahumanu the god-like power to be a puuhonua, in effect granting her the power to protect life and designate places of refuge. Following the conflict, many of the chiefs of Oahu who had been taken prisoner came to Kaahumanu to beg for their lives. Cleverly, she gave their lives back to them, incurring their lifelong indebtedness and loyalty. She also designated areas where women and children fleeing wars and other internal strife could find sanctuary. Kamehameha's actions lessened the religious significance of the concept of sanctuary and made it part of government and, as the kapu system was used more and more for secular purposes, it was weakened and the power of the priests diminished.

In 1804, Kaahumanu was named the kahu (sacred guardian) of the baby boy Liholiho (the future Kamehameha II). Liholiho was the first of Kamehameha and Keopuolani's children and the heir to his kingdom. Kaahumanu had no innate mana or sacred power, her authority was purely secular, enhanced by what personality, intelligence, beauty, and strength of will she possessed. She used the position of kahu, and the great power it conferred, to create her own path to the center of control.

In May of 1819, nine years after he succeeded in uniting the seven major Hawaiian Islands under his leadership, Kamehameha died. Kaahumanu was named kuhina nui (regent) and was chosen to convey the last commands of Kamehameha to Liholiho. This great honor meant that it was Kaahumanu who installed Liholiho as alii nui (ruling chief). In her first public bid for power, Kaahumanu stood alone before the Hawaiian people with Kamehameha's cloak of office on her shoulders, his helmet on her head, and his spear in her hand. The message was clear: as long as Kaahumanu and her family stood with him, Liholiho had the strength to hold his kingdom. Without her consent, none of his orders or actions would be decisive. Kaahumanu now effectively held the reigns of government, usurping the power of the throne not by killing the prior alii nui, but by engulfing and overwhelming the heir and gathering his power into her own hands.

Barely six months later, Kaahumanu moved to abandon the restrictive kapu system for good. She told Liholiho, in front of the Hawaiian people, that if he wanted to continue to observe the laws that had come down from Kamehameha he could do so, but "As for me and my people, we intend to be free from the kapu." Food for men and women would be cooked in the same oven, and they would eat out of the same bowl. She meant to eat pork, bananas, coconuts and to live as the haole (foreigners) did. In a speech which exhibited a strong flair for diplomacy, she told the Hawaiians, "If you think differently, you are at liberty to do so; but as for me and my people we are resolved to be free." At that moment, Kaahumanu abolished the old laws for herself and her followers. In giving the Hawaiian people a choice, she broke both the mind set and the power of the autocracy. She also removed power from the hands of the kahunas (priests) and began a social revolution.

Liholiho, afraid that if he crossed the kapu he would shorten his reign and his life, continued to observe it. Liholiho's mother Keopuolani, recognizing the political danger of a divided stand on the issue, stood with Kaahumanu against her own son. When Keopuolani asked Liholiho to send his five-year-old son to eat with her, he complied and by doing so gave tacit, if not actual, approval to his family's support of Kaahumanu.

As Liholiho's vacillation continued, political instability grew out of the chiefs' disagreement over whether or not to abolish the Hawaiian gods and the kapu. When it threatened to pull apart Kamehameha's unified nation, Kaahumanu took matters into her own hands. She commanded that a feast be set for all the chiefs at Kailua, Hawaii. Then, she sent a figurative message to Liholiho, "The ti leaf kapu is to be declared to your God upon arrival at Kailua." In essence, she was saying that, upon his arrival at the feast, the gods were to take back the kapu and leave men free.

Liholiho was drunk when he arrived and had to be escorted to the banquet. Still in observance of the kapu, the men were sitting separately from the women. Accounts say that Liholiho, expecting to be struck dead by the gods, timidly circled the gathering and then sat down with the women and began to eat. When he finished, he realized that he was still alive and, with Kaahumanu, issued an order that the local heiau (place of worship) be destroyed along with the gods. The kapu system was still not quite dead. A cousin of Liholiho gathered support from those who still clung to the old gods and the kapus. But a naval force, assembled under the command of Kaahumanu, attacked and subdued him and his followers. Her victory convinced the common people that it was safe to give up the old ways.

Six months later, a new brand of foreigner arrived from America: the first Christian missionaries. Prior to this time, the only outsiders the Hawaiians had contact with were sailors and explorers. The islands were favorite rest stops with whalers and Yankee traders who exchanged Chinese tea, silk, and other luxury items for Hawaiian sandalwood. The Hawaiian port cities of Honolulu and Lahaina were riotous places filled with shops, saloons, and women who were unencumbered by the moral rectitude of Europe and North America.

Kaahumanu had little time for the missionaries and had to be persuaded to grant permission for them to stay in the islands for a year on a trial basis. The missionary, Hiram Bingham, upon hearing of Kaahumanu's work in suppressing the old gods, recognized that she would be a great asset to the growth of Christianity and took it upon himself to win her over. He had little success. Kaahumanu turned down his offer to teach her to read and write and persisted in treating the missionaries with what they described as great haughtiness.

Kaahumanu continued to show little interest, if not contempt, for the missionaries until she fell ill in 1821 and was nursed back to health by missionary wives. One of these, Mercey Whitney , astutely wrote home in one of her letters, "Kaahumanu has more influence in political affairs than any other person in this nation." It was during Kaahumanu's convalescence that Sybil Bingham , visiting Kaahumanu daily, finally convinced her to learn the alphabet.

Through Bingham's efforts, Kaahumanu became a Christian, if only for pragmatic reasons, and allied herself with the missionaries' interests. She began to lay down rules for her people based on the moral teachings of the Bible and took on herself the role of kahuna. Over time, she issued edicts that controlled aspects of people's lives that had never concerned the chiefs before. By so doing, Kaahumanu created a role for herself that would not have been permitted within either the American or Hawaiian culture, but because Hawaii now existed somewhere between the two, it worked.

Finally recovered from her illness, Kaahumanu had a New England style, two-story frame house built for her at the harbor in Honolulu and shortly thereafter married Kaumualii (chief of Kauai). The marriage cemented the blood lines of Kauai to those of Maui and Hawaii and secured the allegiance of the last semi-independent islands for Kamehameha's kingdom. It also guaranteed Kaahumanu's place at the center of Hawaiian power. There were rumors that Kaahumanu and Kaumualii planned to depose Liholiho and take over rule of the islands, but they were never substantiated. The marriage appears to have been purely for political purposes for, according to a Yankee trader, Kaumualii is said to have confessed that "he was miserable, and wished the devil had Kaahumanu."

In 1824, when news came that Liholiho and his wife Kamamalu died of measles while on a trip to London, England, the chiefs chose Liholiho's 12-year-old son, Kauikeaouli, to succeed him as Kamehameha III. Kaahumanu, continuing as regent, began the work that would later prompt one missionary to describe her as "the reformer of her nation." She began with education. In a speech given on December 20, 1825, she told her people, "I want you to learn what is right in order that you may acquire righteousness and that our hearts may be of one mind." By 1831, the number of Hawaiians attending

Bingham, Sybil Moseley (1792–1848)

American missionary who helped found the first Christian mission established in the Hawaiian islands by New England Congregationalists. Born in Westfield, Massachusetts, on September 14, 1792; died in Easthampton, Massachusetts, on February 27, 1848; eldest of four daughters of Pliny and Sophia (Pomeroy) Moseley; married Hiram Bingham (a missionary), on October 11, 1819; children: Sophia Bingham (1820–1887, who married William Augustus Moseley); Levi Parsons (1822–1823); Jeremiah Evarts (1824–1825); Lucy Whiting Bingham (1826–1890, who married Charles Olmstead Reynolds); Elizabeth Kaahumanu Bingham (1829–1899); Hiram II (1831–1908); Lydia Bingham (1834–1915).

Sybil Moseley was a teacher when she met and married the young minister Hiram Bingham. Almost immediately, they set sail from Boston for Hawaii, where Hiram was posted to lead a mission. With five other missionary families, the Binghams endured the five-month journey, landing in the Port of Honolulu on April 19, 1820.

The Binghams settled into a one-room thatched cottage, which, in addition to their residence, served as a Sunday meeting house and, during the week, a schoolhouse. In 1821, with materials sent from Boston, a permanent home for the missionaries was built. It also housed several separate families, fellow missionaries, and visiting guests. For their entire stay in Hawaii, the Binghams lived in the "common stock system," with all supplies, including gifts from relatives and friends, divided between the missionary families according to need. The only piece of furniture Bingham ever owned was a rocking chair Hiram made for her from Koa wood.

Although the missionaries' goal was to save souls, during her 21-years of service Sybil Bingham used her talent as a teacher to establish the first school on the islands. Her work began in 1820 with a class of 12 to 14 students in her home, thus establishing the first school for native Hawaiian girls. Within two months, the class grew to 40, including both children and adults. Bingham planned, supervised, and participated with her students in the construction of an adobe brick schoolhouse which was completed in 1835. Soon, 52,000 students flocked to the many schools springing up on the islands.

In addition to her teaching duties and caring for her own five children, Bingham often made the treacherous journey to missionary posts on neighboring islands to assist with childbirth or other medical emergencies. She wrote numerous letters to fellow missionaries and friends in New England. One, written in 1839, describes a single day: "Last Wednesday I rode to Waikiki; had a meeting with a house full of mothers and children. After this visited eleven families, called at the doors of two or three more, rode back to Punahou, attended to matters there then got myself and family to the Mission House."

Understanding the importance of teaching the Hawaiians in their own language, Bingham worked with the other missionaries to turn the islanders' vocal sounds into written words through the formation of an alphabet. In 1822, the earliest English-Hawaiian speller was prepared, which was also the first ever printed in Hawaiian. The book was instrumental in winning support from the highest chiefs for the missionaries and their teaching. Bingham established a weekly prayer meeting, known as the Poalima, for the 1,500 women of Kawaiahao Church. For over 15 years, she led them in prayer and discussions of the scripture, and her efforts helped win over the powerful alii (members of the chiefly class), who, after embracing Christianity, protected and aided the missionaries. A strong and lasting bond of mutual respect developed between the Hawaiian alii women and the missionaries, thanks to Bingham's work.

In 1840, when her health began to fail, the Bingham family returned to Massachusetts. It soon became apparent that Sybil would not be able to continue missionary service, and the Binghams were released from their duties. In 1847, Sybil Bingham died of tuberculosis, while sitting in the rocking chair her husband had made for her. She was buried in Massachusetts but later reburied beside her husband and his second wife, Naomi Emma (Morse) Bingham , in the New Haven, Connecticut, city burial ground. The two youngest Bingham children followed in their parents' footsteps. Hiram II served as a missionary to the Gilbert Islands in Micronesia from 1857 to 1863. Lydia Bingham , a teacher like her mother, returned to Honolulu in 1867 to establish the Kawaiahao Female Seminary, where she served as principal for six years.


Peterson, Barbara Bennett. Notable Women of Hawaii. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1984.


Bingham family papers located at Yale University Sterling Memorial Library, New Haven, Connecticut.

school had jumped from some 2,000 in 1824 to over 52,000.

Concerned about the effect of foreign intervention on her nation, she determined that the council decide upon a national code of laws. The council agreed on six laws based on what they had been taught by the missionaries. The British consul, anticipating a problem with these new constraints, put pressure on Kaahumanu to send the laws to England for approval before they were put into effect. Kaahumanu vehemently disagreed and stood her ground. Recognizing that the consul had his own agenda, she said that he was undependable, and "calls good evil and turns and whirls about every way." Kuakini, her brother, supported her, saying that if they sent the laws to England for approval, "We shall forever be their servants, we shall no more do as we please." Kaahumanu agreed. The first three laws were put into effect on December 14, 1827. The first law was against murder—especially the killing of newborn babies—and decreed punishment by hanging. Other laws forbade theft, adultery, drunkenness and brawling, punishable by confinement in irons. She also required the people to observe the sabbath and reiterated her command that, as soon as schoolhouses could be built, they must go to school to learn.

Kaahumanu's strength of purpose was noted by the foreigners with some curiosity and misgivings, as they were unused to dealing with women in such total control of power. The missionary Asa Thurston defined the situation while describing Kaahumanu's executive officer and commander of the military forces, "unquestionably the great man, the greatest … in the nation at the time. But then there was a woman above him; & she could have called him to order at any time."

Not all of Kaahumanu's reforms were looked upon with approval. A law against prostitution was strenuously objected to by the foreigners and temporarily put aside. Still, she forbade the women from swimming out to the ships, prompting Ferdinand Vrangel, a Russian naval officer, to comment angrily, "One senile old woman, of distinguished and eminent origin, the days of her frivolous youth long forgotten, now oversees with tireless vigilance the preservation of the purity of the young women of the island."

In 1829, she strengthened the chief's rule in relation to foreigners by preventing the British consul from taking the law into his own hands over a property dispute. Laws against distilling liquor, prostitution, and gambling were now enforced, despite the objections of certain Europeans. In a subsequent murder case, Kaahumanu set up a 12-man jury and sat, herself, as judge. "She has exhibited a singular union of moderation and decision in the case," said Hiram Bingham, "vigilant lest the guilty should escape and cautious lest the power of punishing should be abused."

In 1832, at age 55, Kaahumanu was taken ill once more and retreated to her home in the Manoa valley overlooking Honolulu. She died on June 5 and was greatly mourned as the protector of her people.


Grimshaw, Patricia. Paths of Duty. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

Kamakau, Samuel. Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii. Rev. ed. Honolulu, HI: Kamehameha Schools Press, 1992.

Silverman, Jane L. Kaahumanu, Molder of Change. Honolulu, HI: Friends of the Judiciary History Center of Hawaii, 1987.

Vancouver, George. A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World. 3 vols. London: G.G. and J. Robinson and J. Edwards, 1798.

suggested reading:

Joesting, Edward. Hawaii: An Uncommon History. NY: W.W. Norton, 1972.

Linnekin, Jocelyn. Sacred Queens and Women of Consequence. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Lyman, Sarah Joiner. Sarah Joiner Lyman of Hawaii: Her Own Story. Compiled by Margaret Greer Martin. Hilo, HI: University Press, 1970.

Menton, Linda K., and Eileen Tamura. A History of Hawaii. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press. 1987.

Paula A. Steib , freelance writer, Kaneohe, Hawaii