The Chief Gets No Rest

Nāhiʻenaʻena as a child, oil painting by Robert Dampier, ca. 1825

One of the figures in my new book, Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaiʻi, which will be published next Tuesday by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is Nāhiʻenaʻena (1815-1836), the daughter of Kamehameha I and his wife, Keōpūolani, whose forebears rendered her the highest-ranking woman in the Islands. Little has been written of Nāhiʻenaʻena, yet she is an obvious metaphor for the impossible position in which many Hawaiians suddenly found themselves in 1820, with the arrival of Congregationalist missionaries from New England. As I was writing the book, I regretted that I had not made Nāhiʻenaʻena my subject. I would like to write a book about her now.

Her mother, Keōpūolani, was so sacred that her husband, King Kamehameha, had to remove his clothes in her presence. Nāhiʻenaʻenaʻs older brother, Liholiho, succeeded King Kamehameha at his death in 1819, and her second brother, Kauikeaouli, who had been raised with her in their motherʻs compound, an unusual exception to the customary practice of giving away high-ranking children to relatives or friends, became Kamehameha III in 1824 after Liholihoʻs shocking death in London from measles.

There had been rumors for some time among the missionaries and the foreign traders and ship masters in Honolulu that the relationship between Kauikeaouli and Nāhiʻenaʻena was incestuous. The chiefs knew, of course, that the missionaries were aghast at the possibility, and that marriage between the two was not only a most grievous sin, but a deliberate refutation of their teachings. By 1825, the Hawaiians had already begun to grow weary and resentful of the Missionʻs many rules, among them the prohibition of singing, gambling, dancing hula, and surfing. The young princess, caught between the rituals and beliefs of her Polynesian heritage and the strict orthodoxy of her pious Christian teachers, wrote in a letter to a missionary wife, “One day my thoughts are fixed on God; another day I am ensnared; and thus it is continually.” A Tahitian convert named Toteta was sent by the missionaries to live with her, in the hope that he would encourage her conversion, and he kept a diary on their behalf in which he noted the girlʻs ambivalence and confusion: “The chief gets no rest.” Her growing interest in the Christian god worried her court and her noble advisers urged her to hold to the life of her ancestors. They were alarmed when she suddenly announced that those men and women who did not read hymns and study the Bible would no longer be allowed to enter her house. The Lahaina missionary William Richards was surprised one midnight by the arrival of the agitated princess who asked for the loan of a lamp, in order to chase some wicked people from a nearby church. When Richards later wondered who had been in the church at midnight, and how the princess had come to know, he was told that it had become her habit to visit the church alone at night to pray.

Nāhi’ena’ena, fatally caught between the new religion and the old pagan gods (the translation of her name is “Fires that Rage”) was the only female ali’i known to have possessed a feather pā’u, or skirt, but she refused to wear it, as it left her breasts bare, which was thought by the missionaries to be licentious and thus shameful. The feather garment, once a symbol of the gods, and considered so valuable that it had been the finest object a Hawaiian king could offer in tribute to white foreigners, had become a distasteful reminder of the past. The Rev. Charles Stewart described a feast held to honor Kauikeaouli and his sister:

Missionaries preaching to Hawaiians, lithograph from a drawing by Rev. William Ellis, 1820

This article [the feather pāʻu], nine yards long and one yard wide, was made at great expense of time and labour…and designed to be worn by the princess as a pau…with the wreaths for the head and neck necessary to form the complete ancient costume of a princess…but as it was necessary…that she should be naked to the waist, nothing could induce her to consent. To escape importunity, she fled to the Mission House early in the morning. She wept so as scarcely to be pacified by us, and returned to the chiefs only in time to take her seat, and have it thrown carelessly about her over her European dress, with one end cast across the arm of the sofa.

Liholiho, Kamehameha II, older brother of Kauikeaouli and Nāhiʻenaʻena, who died in London of measles in 1824, lithograph after watercolor by John Hayter, Hawaiʻi State Archives

Kauikeaouli’s determination to marry his sister did not lessen with time, and her hesitance to marry him was a torment to him. In late July 1836, however, Nāhi’ena’ena and Kauikeaouli had sexual intercourse in the presence of the high chiefs, as was traditional, to signify their union (there were many who believed that they had been sleeping together since they were seven and eight years old respectively). A stunned William Richards sent her a message when he received the news, reminding her of the wishes of her late mother, and of her request that her daughter be a good Christian. Although his letter, delivered to the princess while she sat drinking and dancing with her attendants, caused her much distress, she wrote to Richards that she wished never to see him again. She admitted that she had behaved in a shameless manner and had destroyed her soul, but she refused to repent. Richards threatened to excommunicate her, and she later met with him in Lahaina, where she swore to return to Christian ways. His threat of excommunication, which had alarmed her, was dropped, and she felt hopeful in her remorse. The wary missionaries decided that she should formally marry as quickly as possible a fourteen-year-old Kona chief, and she agreed, despite her recent ceremony of union with the king. She was married to the boy in a Christian rite performed by Richards, and in a surprising betrayal, was immediately excommunicated.

Queen Kamamalu, wife and half-sister of Liholiho, who died along with her husband in London of measles, colored lithograph from a watercolor by John Hayter, London, 1824

The following year, Nāhi’ena’ena gave birth to the king’s child, but the infant lived only a few hours. She herself fell gravely ill (it was thought by the haole doctors who treated her that she had imprudently taken a cold bath shortly after giving birth), and died three months later. Mrs. Judd, the wife of Dr. Gerritt Judd, was with her when she died and wrote that the young princess showed a deep agony over her past behavior. “Can there be hope for one who has sinned as I have?” (As there are no other written accounts of her death, it is not possible to know if Mrs. Judd is telling the truth.)

After her death, Kauikeaouli built a large stone house on the Lahaina waterfront, the top floor of which he made into a mausoleum in honor of his mother, and his sister and their child. Nāhi’ena’ena’s coffin, covered in a cloth of heavy red velvet, rested on a large bed in the center of the room, surrounded by her hereditary kāhili, or feather staffs. Along one wall, behind glass, were her clothes — silk and cambric gowns, satin slippers, a black lace shawl, and a white taffeta cape, although not her feather pā’u. For years, the bereft king took friends and visitors to see her coffin, and the little display of her belongings.


2 thoughts on “The Chief Gets No Rest

  1. geraldine DeBenedetti September 1, 2015 / 8:39 am

    aloha susanna. I am a cousin of the Daughters of Hawaii, and in charge of the DOH book Club that meets 6 x a year. would you be willing to talk to us on a visit to Honolulu? I know you live on the Big Island, so perhaps we can arrange this> Our members would want you to bring copies of your book which they could purchase. either contact me at or 808/734-1189. mahalo-Gerry DeBenedetti


  2. Flora Biddle September 1, 2015 / 5:11 pm

    O this story makes me weep, for her, and for all who’ve been tormented and tortured for their desires, identities, deep beliefs– How terrible, their ignorance and innocence; their feelings of guilt. Even those miserable souls who’ve condemned them are pitiful.

    I hope you write her story next Susanna–


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