When I first began to think about writing a non-fiction book in which the brilliant, charismatic Kaʻahumanu, the powerful favorite wife of Kamehameha I, would be an important character, I was startled by the reaction of two of my young women friends. They each made a face, sufficient indication that they did not share my affection for the great queen, which puzzled me. No, they did not admire her at all. They are a generation younger than I am, and I wondered if they had been influenced by the revisionist teaching of Hawaiian history that began in the Seventies and is still prevalent and popular. Was it because she became a friend of the missionaries, and eventually a convert to Christianity? Because she was headstrong and selfish? adulterous? They did not explain their disdain, and I did not press them. I am, however, hoping that my book will change their minds. In some ways, I wrote the book for them (take note, Miss Mamie and Miss Mele).
There is a portrait of Ka’ahumanu at age forty-eight made by Louis Choris in 1816, and another by Jacques Arago in 1819. There are a number of descriptions of her by travelers, as well as by missionaries, but the queen herself did not learn to write until a few years before her death in 1832, and there is no evidence that she troubled to confide her thoughts to a journal or diary. There are many legends and anecdotes about her in histories, chants, and songs, and while they are not always reliable sources (there are at least five different dates given for her birth), they reveal the fears and fantasies of a culture, as well as record temporal events.
By most accounts, the high chiefess Ka’ahumanu, known to John Papa ʻI‘i as Mokualoha or Island of Love, was born March 17, 1768, in a small cave on the side of a hill in Hana, on the island of Maui, to Namahana, the recent widow of her half-brother, Kamehamehanui, who had been king of Maui, and her second husband, the high chief Ke‘eaumoku of Kona. There is a legend that the infant Ka’ahumanu, wrapped in kapa, was left to sleep on the platform of a double canoe, but rolled unnoticed into the sea, disappearing under the waves, only to be saved at the last moment.
Namahana’s marriage to Ke’eaumoku caused much envy, particularly as she was formally the inheritance of her late husbandʻs successor, King Kalaniōpuʻu, who had planned to take her as wife once her period of mourning ended. Ke’eaumoku was described by King Kalakaua in his book, The Legends and Myths of Hawaii:
This must have been known to Keeaumoku, who was thoroughly acquainted with the royal customs of his time: yet he paid such court to the sorrowing dowager, and so sweetly mingled his protestations of love with her sighs of grief, that she became his wife without consulting with the moi…Taking up his residence at Waihee, Keeaumoku enlarged and beautified his grounds and buildings, and established a petty court of princely etiquette and appointments. He was fond of display, and soon attracted to Waihee many of the more accomplished young chiefs of the island…He had carefully trained bands of musicians and dancers, and his entertainments were frequent and bountiful.
Enemies of the couple, not least of them the enraged Kalaniōpu’u, conspired to drive them from Maui, however, and some time between 1777 and 1779, during one of the many wars between Hawai’i and Maui, Ke’eaumoku and Namahana fled to Kona with their household and attendants.
The child Ka‘ahumanu was said to have been much loved by her father, and by her grandmother, who told the girl that she was destined to be a queen, and that her relatives would one day bow in her presence. The Kohala high chief Kamehameha first admired her at a Makahiki festival (as a child, she would have seen him on the battlefield when her father cut the throat of Kamehamehaʻs cousin, Kiwalā’o), and in 1785, the thirty- two-year-old chief, already in possession of two wives, had the seventeen-year- old Ka’ahumanu, whose name means The Cloak of Bird Feathers, brought to him in North Kohala, where he married her. Two rival chiefs had sought her as wife, but she was Kamehameha’s prize, enabling him to align himself with some of the most sacred and thus most powerful ali’i of Maui. While Kamehamehaʻs twenty-two wives, some of them sisters of Kaʻahumanu, served to solidify, and entangle his relations with his high chiefs, many of whom were the fathers and brothers and sometimes husbands of the women, Ka’ahumanu remained the favorite; his kuʻu ʻi’ini, or heartʻs desire. She in turn described Kamehameha as pāpale ‘ai ‘āina, ku’u aloha, or “the head-covering over the land, my beloved.” Kamakau wrote that, “Kamehameha cherished her as if she were a goddess or an ivory-tooth necklace to adorn his neck. She was as carefully protected as if she were living in the sacred place of a heiau. He feared lest, if she escaped from her nest, all the fledglings also would leave it with her, hence she was carefully guarded…”
The missionary Hiram Bingham, not given to praising women for their beauty, wrote in 1823, when Ka‘ahumanu was fifty-five years old, that she was “sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian, and engaging when young…Kamehameha was exceedingly jealous of her.” She was six feet tall, and without blemish. Kamakau wrote that her arms were like the inside of a banana stalk:
…her fingers tapering, her palms pliable like kukunene grass, graceful in repose, her cheeks long in shape and pink as the bud of a banana stem; her eyes like those of a dove or the moho bird; her nose narrow and straight, in admirable proportion to her cheeks; her arched eyebrows shaped to the breadth of her forehead; her hair dark, wavy, and fine; her skin very light. Of Kamehameha’s two possessions, his wife and his kingdom, she was the more beautiful.
She was said to be passionate about games, and very good at them. She liked to fly kites, some of them twenty feet in length and seven feet wide, and so difficult to control that once aloft, they had to be tied to the trunk of a tree. Captain John Kendrick of the Lady Washington gave her a checkerboard in 1791, and twenty years later, when she played against officers on board the Beaver, an American trading vessel owned by John Jacob Astor then in port, not one of the officers could win a game against her.
Lieutenant Thomas Manby, sailing with Vancouver, later described Ka’ahumanu, 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 could be put to death. 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, and “nearly undressed” him to observe his skin, 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 aliʻi, 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 strangled 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 to befriend pretty newcomers to court, turning any possible threat into a favorite companion. Women were said to be frightened of her, and did not like to enter her house.