“Sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian” (Part II)

After “eating the land” at Lahaina, Kamehameha moved his court to O’ahu in 1804, in the last stages of preparation before attacking the island of Kaua’i. As he assembled his army, however, there was an outbreak of plague, which killed many of his chiefs and warriors. Hundreds of bodies were washed to sea each day from the beaches of Waikīkī. The historian Samuel Kamakau wrote that those who contracted it died very quickly:

It was a very virulent pestilence…A person on the highway would die before he could reach home. One might go for food and water and die so suddenly that those at home did not know what had happened. The body turned black at death. A few died a lingering death, but never longer than twenty-four hours; if they were able to hold out for a day they had a fair chance to live. Those who lived generally lost their hair, hence the illness was called “Head Stripped Bare.”

Kamehameha himself was ill, but recovered. As Ka’ahumanu’s father, the high chief Ke’eaumoku, lay dying in Kamehamehaʻs arms, the weeping king asked him if there were anyone strong enough to take the kingdom from him. Ke’eaumoku is said to have answered that Kamehameha need fear only his wife, Ka’ahumanu. He reminded the king that her intervention in various plots against him over the years had helped to keep him in power. If she were ever to ally herself with another man, there was the chance that a new husband or lover would rise against Kamehameha, bringing along the many powerful chiefs who were her relatives and adherents.

Ka’ahumanu’s grief at the death of her father was very great. For the rest of her life, she kept his bones next to her sleeping platform on a feather mattress given to her by a sea captain, assuring that her father’s mana would be in her care as his spirit assumed the nature of an ʻaumakua or family god. This is the mourning chant that Ka’ahumanu wrote at her father’s death:

Like a peal of thunder is your tread
Reverberating to the presence of Wakea,
Here is the divine child of a multitude of sacred offspring, My father and chief,
My beloved companion,
My loved one.
I am breathless with grieving for you.
I weep for my companion in the cold,
The chill encircles me,
The cold surrounds me,
Purple with cold not rejected,
Only two places to find warmth —
The bedmate at home,
The tapa covering is the second warmth,
Found in the bosom of a companion.
It is there, it is there, it is there.

(Translation by Samuel Kamakau)

Treating Ke’eaumoku’s 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, ‘Olelo No’eau, refers to the unification of Maui, Moloka’i, O’ahu, Lāna‘i, Hawai‘i, 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.

The kapu on the queen meant that should Ka‘ahumanu be caught in adultery, her lover would be killed, and his body given in sacrifice to the gods, although she herself would be spared. If any person, including Kamehameha‘s own relatives, were to start a quarrel with any of Ka’ahumanu’s family, he, too, would be put to death. Kamehameha assigned the somewhat fraught responsibility of guarding her, given her sensuous and willful nature, to two of his men, who, it may be surmised, were not always successful in their task.

Kamehameha also gave to Ka’ahumanu the right of pu’uhonua, which allowed her to grant sanctuary to anyone who sought her protection, and the power to repeal a death sentence, making her person, while forbidden to anyone but the king, a place of refuge where men, women, children, fugitives, and criminals could find safety. The lands that Ka’ahumanu had inherited and that Kamehameha had given her were also deemed places of refuge. Samuel Kamakau, who valued Ka’ahumanu at half the worth of her husband’s kingdom, wrote that Kamehameha dealt out death, and Ka’ahumanu saved from death, but the king’s gift was potentially dangerous, as it lessened the religious significance of refuge, once found only at heiau and special sacred sites, at the same time that it increased Kaʻahumanuʻs already estimable power. The role once played by gods and priests within kapu precincts was henceforth to be shared with a woman. In addition, she was awarded her father’s place at the king’s councils, a privilege which would by tradition have gone to one of her brothers.

In 1809, when Kamehameha was no longer young, although still possessing the physique and strength of a warrior (“without the flabbiness of age,” wrote Kamakau), he at last married Kekauluohi, the daughter of Kaʻahumanuʻs sister Kaheiheimālie and Kamehamehaʻs half-brother, whom he had claimed at birth. The girl, who had a light complexion and husky voice, had spent her childhood studying genealogy chants, although Ka’ahumanu, whose responsibility it had been to guard her, allowed her to meet in secret any man who pleased Ka‘ahumanu, which tended to keep the girl from her studies. (At the death of Kamehameha twenty years later, she married his son, Liholiho, who in turn gave her to one of his favorite chiefs.)

That same year, Ka‘ahumanu’s mother, Namahana, died in Honolulu. A mourner hurried to town from Waialua on the north shore so that she could be buried with the chiefess, sharing her grave, as was the custom, but Ka’ahumanu and her brothers would not permit it. This is Ka’ahumanu’s death chant for her mother:

My mother in the house well-peopled,
House into whose shelter we entered
To rest from the heat of the way,
Love to my mother who has gone,
Leaving me wandering on the mountainside.
You are the woman consumed by the wind
Consumed by the trade wind,
Consumed, consumed, consumed with love.

(Translation by Samuel Kamakau)

Idols made of hundreds of thousands of feathers, mother-of-pearl eyes, human hair, and dog’s teeth attached to wickerwork, watercolor by Sarah Stone, from the Leverian Museum, England, ca. 1783, private collection
Idol made of tens of thousands of feathers, mother-of-pearl eyes, human hair, and dog’s teeth attached to wickerwork, watercolor by Sarah Stone, from the Leverian Museum, England, ca. 1783, private collection

Despite the kapu on her body, Ka’ahumanu began a love affair with Kanihonui, the nineteen-year-old son of Kamehameha’s half-sister. A favorite of Kamehamehaʻs, he had lived in his house since childhood. He 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, aware 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.

IMG_456867768.JPG
War gods, watercolor by Sarah Stone, ca. 1783

The surf was particularly high on the day of Kanihonui’s death, and a holiday was granted so that the court could surf at Kapua, near Diamond Head (still a popular surfing spot, now known as First Break). As Ka’ahumanu rode her board to shore, she could see the heiau where the body of her lover lay rotting on the altar, and the smoke as the sacrificial fires were lighted. Ka’ahumanu, who blamed her disloyalty to Kamehameha on foreigners’ alcohol, angrily determined to take the kingdom from her husband on behalf of Liholiho, the king’s son, whom she had raised from childhood.

Hawaiian women with feather lei around their necks and on their heads, dancing for haole men, seated right. Lithograph after watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822
Hawaiian women with feather lei around their necks and on their heads, dancing for haole men, seated right. Lithograph after watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822

John Papa ʻĪʻī wrote:

Kalanimoku [Kamehameha’s commander-in-chief and prime minister of the kingdom] was there, watching over his grieving cousin. While the young chief [Liholiho] and a group of chiefs were in their presence, Kalanimoku asked, ‘What do you think? Shall we wrest the kingdom from your father, make you king, and put him to death?’ Liholiho bowed his head in meditation…and answered, ‘I do not want my father to die.’ This reply brought forth the admiration of all the chiefs.

Although perhaps not the admiration of Ka’ahumanu. Kamakau believed that while it was wrong of the king to put Kanihonui to death, there had been talk of rebellion, and Kamehameha had been forced to kill his foster son Kanihonui in order to frighten the restive chiefs.
Human sacrifice, lithograph from a drawing by Jacques Arago, 1822
Human sacrifice, lithograph from a drawing by Jacques Arago, 1822
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2 thoughts on ““Sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian” (Part II)

  1. Toni Withinton July 1, 2015 / 8:31 am

    It is so very hard for us, raised in a democratic tradition, to comprehend the enormous privilege that Ka’ahumanu wore so lightly. What woman in our Western culture ever held the power that she so casually handled, and frequently tossed aside? Kamehameha showered her with more privilege every year, first out of love, then with respect and later from fear. Even Shakespeare didn’t come up with a plot so thick. Thanks, Susanna, for bringing these people alive for us.

    Like

  2. repete62@myfairpoint.net July 1, 2015 / 7:14 pm

    The power of Ka’ahumanu is so clear here that it presents an enthralling picture of a society, at least in part matrilineal, so different from ours I simply wish I could go and live there for a while. If she had favored me, I would have bribed the guards before joining her on what surely would have been a night to remember. Thank you for these portraits of a life so unlike ours it has elements of highly imaginative fantasy, which means it appeals to our dreamlives.

    Like

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