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

 Liholiho, Kamehameha II, lithograph after a watercolor by John H ayter, painted in London shortly before the kingʻs death from measles, 1824

Liholiho, Kamehameha II, lithograph after a watercolor by John Hayter, painted in London shortly before the kingʻs death from measles, 1824

In the summer of 1821, King Liholiho sailed from Honolulu in a state of drunkenness to visit the windward side of the island. Once at sea, however, he ordered his captain to take the small and crowded boat across the dangerous channel to Kaua’i, arriving after a night of high seas at Waimea, the village where Captain Cook had first landed more than forty years earlier.

The Kaua’i chiefs were not surprised to see Liholiho. They were well aware of his late father’s long desire to conquer the island, the only kingdom to remain independent through generations of warfare, and there had been reports that Liholiho and his chiefs had set out on other occasions for Kaua’i, without ever making it across the channel. Ten years earlier, at the instigation of foreign merchants who wished to increase trade between the islands, the ali’i nui of Kaua’i, Kaumuali’i, and Kamehameha had at last come to an agreement in which the Kaua’i king relinquished his sovereignty, paying a yearly tribute of kapa, fruit, hogs, and calabashes in return for retaining control of the island. As a vassal state, Kaua’i no longer presented a military threat to the unified kingdom that Liholiho had inherited from his father.

Mahiole, or feather helmet belonging to King Kaumualiʻi of Kauaʻi, 1899, Bernice P. Bishop Museum
Mahiole or feather helmet belonging to Kaumualiʻi, 1899, Bernice P. Bishop Museum

As the king arrived without cannon or soldiers, but, like the missionaries, with his wives, he was welcomed by Kaumuali’i, who immediately sent lele, or messengers, to reassure the chiefs of O’ahu that the king had arrived safely. Kaumuali’i, confident that his small kingdom was in no danger, sought to honor Liholiho and his entourage by conducting them on a six-week-long progress around the island. One afternoon, Liholiho announced that he wished to repay the king’s generosity and invited Kaumuali’i on board his yacht, secretly giving orders to sail. When Kaumuali’i realized that he had been tricked, he shouted to his men on shore. His chiefs chased after the schooner in canoes, but lost sight of the darkened boat in the night, and Kaumuali’i was taken as an honored prisoner to O’ahu.

Historians question whether Ka’ahumanu was an accomplice in the abduction of Kaumuali’i, and whether she had deliberately allowed Liholiho out of her keeping. She may have been distracted by the completion of her new two-story frame house near Honolulu harbor, furnished in the Western style with two doors, chandeliers, mahogany tables, and Chinese sofas of embroidered silk. The house remained empty, however, when the queen suddenly moved to the north shore, announcing that she would remain there for several months.

View of H onolulu, watercolor over pencil by George H enry Burgess, 1867, H onolulu Academy of Art
View of Honolulu, looking toward Manoa and Nu’uanu, watercolor over pencil by George Henry Burgess, 1867, Honolulu Academy of Art

Kaʻahumanu returned unexpectedly to Honolulu with the arrival of Liholiho and his prisoner, and three days later, while accompanying Kaumuali’i on a visit to Hiram and Sibyl Bingham, she demanded that he marry her. The forty-three-year-old king, a man known to be mild in temper and happy in his marriage to the beautiful high chiefess Kapule, had no choice but to agree. Kaumuali’i and Ka’ahumanu, lying side by side on a low platform piled with thirty mats of the finest weave and covered by a blanket of black kapa to signify their union, were married that same night before a gathering of chiefs. The marriage served to unite the royal family of Kaua‘i with high-ranking Maui and Hawai‘i chiefs, and ended the possibility of conflict, as unlikely as it was, with the only island still to remain unconquered.

Hawaiian chiefess, painting by John Mix Stanley, 1849, Bernice P. Bishop Museum
Hawaiian chiefess wearing the long gown, or mu’umu’u, introduced by missionaries, painting by John Mix Stanley, 1849, Bernice P. Bishop Museum

A short time later, Ka’ahumanu also married Kaumuali’i’s son, Keali’iahonui, further torturing Kapule, who was deprived of both her husband and her son (Albertine Loomis writes that Kapule was also married to Keali’iahonui, who was in truth her step-son, and much preferred him to his father). Not surprisingly, Keali’iahonui, who was seven feet tall, was said to be the best-looking man in the Islands, in spite of missing his front teeth, which he had knocked out while mourning the death of his new wife’s late husband, Kamehameha I. James Jarves wrote that Ka’ahumanu soon held “both father and son in her chains, which were not silken.” At the time of her second marriage, Ka’ahumanu was perhaps fifty-three years old, and still beautiful, despite her arrogant demeanor, riding to church with Kaumuali’i in a wagon drawn by fifteen men, shell combs and feathers in her hair.

Hawaiian chief, lithograph in, ca. 1870
Hawaiian chief, lithograph from “Northern California, Oregon, and the Sandwich Islands,” by Charles Nordhoff, ca. 1870

Unlike most of the chiefs, Kaumuali‘i was slight of build, with skin and features said to be like those of a white man. He was known for his elegance, dressing in cashmere waistcoats, white silk stockings, and black velvet pantaloons from which hung a gold watch with seals and ornaments. He spoke English well, having learned it on Kaua’i. As a captive husband who longed for his wife Kapule, he busied himself in studying the Bible. The missionary Charles Stewart, who thought that the king in his melancholy resembled James I, found Kaumuali‘i to be “the most Christian person in the nation…I have never heard a word, nor witnessed in him a look or action, unbecoming a prince, or, what is far more important, inconsistent with the character of a professedly pious man.” Kaumuali’i once asked the Reverend Hiram Bingham for a blessing on his food, infuriating Ka’ahumanu, who threw a heavy pot at his head, which was deflected by a startled Bingham at the last moment. It comes as no surprise that Kaumuali’i is said to have wished the devil to take his new wife.

A frustrated Ka’ahumanu, not used to resistance, complained that he did not return her possibly real affection, and wrote melancholy chants bemoaning his indifference to her. Perhaps inspired by her husband’s dress, she soon abandoned her traditional pā’ū to wear heavy striped satin gowns, white muslin shawls, and Leghorn bonnets rather than her customary kapa skirt and wreaths of bright feathers and flowers. In her new finery, she surprised and amused the haole women with both her grandeur and her lack of modesty. Lucy Thurston sat with the queen at a tea given by the Binghams for some of the chiefs, and the officers of the Dolphin, which was then in port:

The time passed pleasantly until nine o’clock, when it was announced that our queen, Ka’ahumanu, was tired, and wanted to go home. She arose (I never saw her look so tall), gathered up the ample folds of her black silk dress, even to the very waist, holding a portion on each arm, and exposing a beautiful undergarment of pink satin. Thus she stood…while we gathered around her to bid her good night.

Despite the teachings of her new friends, Ka’ahumanu still preferred to spend the Sabbath swimming and surfing, rather than in church. She stopped one Sunday at the Binghams after a day of surfing, and settled comfortably on a sofa next to Lucy Thurston. She happened to be naked. “In the presence of them and their wives, she entered the sitting room. With the ease and self possession of royalty, she took a seat on the settee, and carried on conversation with freedom. Did I say she came from the bathing place? —She came as it were from Eden, in the dress of innocence.”


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