There is an assumption among collectors of Hawaiian antiques and artifacts, that koa was the wood favored by the ali’i (chiefs and chiefesses) of Hawai’i to make surfboards, paddles, house posts, utensils, bowls, and furniture, but it is not true. In the late nineteenth century, koa was used for palace furniture and in the houses of discerning haoles, and others, but the belief that objects of koa have always been highly prized is a modern construct. In the nineteenth century, the chiefs preferred carved Chinese beds and tables, brought from the East by sea captains and merchants, and traded for sandalwood, sought by the Chinese for incense. Sandalwood posts were used in Kamehameha’s grass house at Helumoa in Waikiki (between the present-day Royal Hawaiian and Moana hotels), but by 1829, the once-vast forests of the fragrant wood were decimated. Before the missionaries from New England forbade most games and entertainments (including hula), surfing was the passion of men, women and children, commoner and ali’i. As with all things, it was a ritualized act. The right tree with which to make the board had to be found. The hewing and shaping of the wood was imbued with ceremony, in the hope that the gods would favor the board, its maker, and its owner. The first time that it was put into the water had its own ritual, and its care (drying, oiling, wrapping in kapa) was accompanied by chants and prayers. People surfed naked, lying outstretched on thin boards, five to seven feet long, and flat on both sides, although the most accomplished surfers would stand. The chiefs, who often put a kapu on the best surfing spots so as to have exclusive use of them, used glossy black boards made of wiliwili wood, which was lighter than koa, that could reach sixteen feet in length and one hundred and fifty pounds in weight. In a surfing contest, a buoy was anchored close to shore, and whoever reached it first was the winner. If more than one surfer reached the buoy, or no one reached it, a tie was conveniently declared. Excited spectators placed bets on the competitors, as they did in most games and sports.
Surfing at Lahaina, watercolor by James Gay Sawkins, 1855. National Library of Australia
It is said that upon Kamehamehaʻs marriage to the young Kaʻahumanu, he built a stone wall at Kauhola Point in Kohala to make a small protected cove where he could teach her to swim, although it seems unlikely that she would not have known this essential skill by adolescence. He did teach her to surf, and throughout her life, she was a keen and skillful surfer. John Papa I’i described one of her favorite surfing spots in Kohala:
Kekahau was a kama’aina [old-timer] of the place, and it was he who led Ka’ahumanu to the surf of Maliu…As the story goes, Ka’ahumanu and Kekakau swam or went by canoe to the spot where the surf rose. Before they left, Kekakau talked with the king about the nature of the surf and showed Ka’ahumanu the places to land, which would be signaled by the waving of a white tapa. If the tapa was moved to the right or to the left, she was to go to the side indicated before the sea rose up high and overwhelmed her. If the tapa was spread out, or perhaps wadded into a ball, the signal meant to go in on the middle of the wave.
Ka’ahumanu, who was Kamehameha’s ku’u i’ini, or heartthrob, was said to be impossible to control, and willful, jealous, and spoiled, but she was beautiful (some foreigners were surprised, given her reputation, to discover her size — she was six feet tall and corpulent), and she was very intelligent. In a compliment rendered by one foreigner, she was said to possess the thought processes of a man.
Lieutenant Thomas Manby, sailing with Vancouver in 1791, was beguiled by Ka’ahumanu, and described her as she sat stringing beads under a tree in a small courtyard in Kamehameha’s compound in Kealakekua while attendants fanned her with feathered staffs. A fresh mat was spread for him, and Ka’ahumanu sat next to him. She offered him fruit, asking one of her servants to bring some coconuts for herself and her guests. Manby would have known that men were forbidden to eat with women, but Ka’ahumanu must also have known that the Hawaiian women visiting the sailors on board the foreign ships frequently ate with the sailors, a violation of kapu for which they would have been killed if caught. She amused herself by “tying and untying his hair,” as she braided it with feathers and flowers. She was fascinated by the whiteness of his complexion. “She then nearly undressed me to observe my skin,” and was delighted to find that he bore a Tahitian tattoo on his leg. She sent for an old man who examined it intently and interpreted the design to much teasing and laughter. Manby’s attention to the queen must have seemed a bit too forward even for the ali’i, who were impressively informal about their sexual arrangements (unlike commoners who tended to be monogamous), as Ka’ahumanu was “called to order by a little deformed wretch” who would be put to death should his charge be found in the arms of a man not her husband. She liked to turn out the pockets of her Western friends to choose what she wanted for her own, and when she discovered that Manby’s pockets had already been picked by one of her attendants, the guilty one was punished and dismissed from her household. She was said to take great pleasure in the company of men, preferring them to women, and did not hesitate to show her contempt for a rival, although she took care, like any clever royal favorite, to befriend pretty newcomers to court, turning any possible threat into a companion. Most women, however, were said to be frightened of her, and did not like to enter her house. Before the coming of the missionaries, there had been no binding formal marital relationship between Hawaiians. There was no word in Hawaiian for marriage or adultery — “the woman who sat sideways” is an old expression for a woman who takes another man. He ʻuha leo ʻole (“a thigh over which no word is spoken”) was said disparagingly of a woman thought to be promiscuous, and a child whose paternal lineage was unknown, was said to have been conceived by the wayside, a keiki a ka pueo, or “child of an owl.” If a man and a woman remained together through the night, it was tantamount to a declaration of union. When a man took a new woman to his house, it was left to her to decide whether any of his other women might remain. Should a woman choose to leave a man, her children remained with their father. It was different among the aliʻi, however. If a person was abducted by a chief, his (or her) companion could go to the chief with an offering of a dog (to eat) in hope of an exchange. John Papa Iʻi again: “If an insolent courtier were to see that a country clown had a beautiful woman for a wife he would say to her, ‘You come along with me,’ and the country clown would be too spiritless to make any resistance. Or one of the women about court, meeting a handsome young countryman whom she fancied, would turn his head with flattery and try to win him to herself, saying, ‘Why does such a fine fellow as you condescend to live with such a fright of a creature as that wife of yours? You’d better come along with me’…Men and chiefs acted strangely in those days.”
When Ka’ahumanu’s father died of plague in 1804, his last words to Kamehameha were to beware of his daughter, as it was she alone who could take the kingdom from him. Treating his warning with the seriousness it deserved, Kamehameha declared Ka’ahumanu kapu to all persons other than himself. The following proverb from Mary Kawena Pukui’s book of Hawaiian sayings, ‘Ōlelo No’eau, refers to the unification of Maui, Moloka’i, O’ahu, Lānaʻi, Hawaiʻi, and Kaho’olawe in 1795: Eonu moku a Kamehameha ua, noa ia ‘oukou, akā o ka hiku o ka moku ua kapu, ia na’u. Six of Kamehameha’s islands are free to you, but the seventh [Ka’ahumanu] is kapu, and is for me alone. Five years later, when Kaʻahumanu was in her forties, she began a love affair with Kanihonui, the nineteen-year-old son of Kamehameha’s half-sister. A favorite of Kamehameha, he had lived in the king’s house since childhood, and was said to be the most beautiful man in the kingdom — a description used for all of Ka’ahumanu’s lovers. The queen met him in secret whenever Kamehameha conducted rites in the heiau, but a guard of the sleeping house, frightened that he would be killed if he did not report it, told the king, and Kanihonui was promptly strangled to death in Papa’ena’ena heiau on the slope of Diamond Head in Waikīkī. The surf at Waikīkī was particularly high on the day of Kanihonui’s death, and Ka’ahumanu asked that a holiday be granted so that the court could surf at Kapua, near Diamond Head (still a popular surfing spot, now known as First Break). Ka’ahumanu could see the heiau where the body of her lover lay rotting on the altar, and the smoke as the sacrificial fires were lighted. Surrounded by her chiefs, she wailed in rage as she surfed to shore. It is said to have been the last human sacrifice conducted in the Islands.