Kapiolani (c. 1781–1841)

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Kapiolani (c. 1781–1841)

Hawaiian high priestess, famed for her defiance of the fire goddess Pele and her role in introducing Christianity to the islands. Born in Hilo, on the island of Hawaii, around 1781; died on May 5, 1841; daughter of Keawemauhili (half-brother of Kalaniopuu), king of the island of Hawaii, and Kekikipaa (former wife of Kamehameha I the Great); tutored by missionaries; discarded all her husbands except Naihe (chief, orator, and councilor of King Kamehameha).

Hawaiian priestess Kapiolani, the daughter of highly ranked parents, was born around 1781 and as a child was presented to her aunt Akahi , in keeping with the custom among Hawaiian chiefs of giving children to relatives as an expression of good will. Her lifetime covered the period following Captain James Cook's discovery of the islands and the subsequent arrival of the New England missionaries, who brought Christianity and basic education to Hawaiian shores. Kapiolani was one of the chiefesses who greeted the first missionaries upon their arrival aboard the brig Thaddeus in March 1820. She eagerly embraced their teachings and was quick to adopt Western dress and decorum. In keeping with Christian doctrine, she abandoned all her husbands except Naihe, chief, orator, and a councilor of King Kamehameha I. Kapiolani often made the journey from her home at Kealakekua to study with the missionaries some 12 miles away, traveling by horse or double canoe with a train of attendants. In 1896, a missionary's daughter shared her childhood memories of Kapiolani with the Woman's Board of Missions: "On public occasions or when visiting away from home she wore a tight fitting dress, not even adopting the holoku (or 'Mother Hubbard') which afterwards became the national style. Silk and satin of the gayest colors were the chosen dress of the chiefs, but she preferred grave and quiet shades."

Kapiolani also adopted the missionaries' evangelical zeal and was a leading force in spreading Christianity, although she first had to break down beliefs in the old idols. In the fall of 1824, determined to challenge the hold of the fire goddess Pele on her people, she made a 100-mile pilgrimage to the crater of Mount Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on the island. "If I perish by the anger of Pele, then fear Pele," she told her followers. "If Jehovah protects me, then fear Jehovah!" After enduring the journey on foot, much of it over cindery desert and rough lava, she actually entered the mouth of the crater, positioning herself on the edge of the firepit and proclaiming that her faith and belief in God would save her from Pele's wrath. This dramatic act inspired the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson entitled Kapiolani, which brought the priestess worldwide attention. Kapiolani made similar tours in the cause of Christianity and was also generous in her support of the missions and in building schools and churches.

Kapiolani's husband Naihe died in 1831, after which she succeeded him as magistrate over the districts of Ka'u and South Kona on the island of Hawaii. In 1841, diagnosed with breast cancer, she displayed her remarkable courage again by undergoing a mastectomy without anesthetic, which was not yet available. She survived the operation only to die of a massive infection a few weeks later. Her body was placed in the royal tomb on the palace grounds in Honolulu, but her name was absent from the list of those moved to the Royal Mausoleum when the palace tomb was abandoned. In the 1930s, during an extensive landscaping project on the palace grounds, an elaborate coffin was discovered that may have been Kapiolani's.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

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

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Kapiolani (c. 1781–1841)

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