“Pink as the Bud of a Banana Stem”

In Honolulu in the winter of 1827, Queen Ka’ahumanu, the widow of Kamehameha I, paid for the paper to print three thousand copies of the Sermon on the Mount in Hawaiian on the small press brought by Congregationalist missionaries from New England seven years earlier. The queen, the favorite of Kamehamehaʻs twenty-two wives, was a new convert to Christianity, having been instructed by the Reverend Hiram Bingham, the leader of the First Company of missionaries (the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston was ultimately to send twelve different companies to the Islands, each of about ten missionaries and lay workers, from 1820 to 1848).

There is a portrait of Queen Ka’ahumanu, the powerful favorite wife of Kamehameha I, 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 history or 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.



Kaʻahumanu in middle age, ink and watercolor by Louis Choris, 1816


By most accounts, the high chiefess Ka’ahumanu, known to John Papa Iʻi 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 Keʻeaumoku 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 Kalaniopuu, 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 Kalaniopu’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 Kaʻahumanu 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. 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 Kiwala’ō), 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.


North Kohala, on the island of Hawaiʻi

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. The missionary Hiram Bingham, not given to praising women for their beauty, wrote in 1823, when Kaʻahumanu 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.

It is said that upon their marriage, Kamehameha 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.

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.

One of her amusements was to make drunk two Aleutian women who had been brought by sailors from the northwest coast of America and then abandoned. The women were favorites of the queen, perhaps because she could be easy in their presence. She liked alcohol, and was able to drink when Kamehameha, frequently restricted by religious ritual, could not (later he eschewed alcohol altogether). The queen did not like the crude alcohol distilled from the root of the plant, but kept a special supply of brandy that she received in secret from Don Francisco Marin in exchange for gifts (I’i wrote with disapproval that Ka’ahumanu was overly fond of drink, and sometimes given to excess). Marin, a deserter from a Spanish ship, had bought large pieces of land from Kamehameha as early as 1794 while serving as his translator, and quickly established vineyards, orchards, and stock-breeding. Marin, who kept a boarding house for sea captains, introduced to the Islands the damask rose, cotton, figs, doves, and English hares, among other things. With his three Hawaiian wives, he had twenty-three children. Although Marin did not begrudge the queen his brandy, Charles Stewart disapproved of his stubborn unwillingness to share the produce or even the seeds from his orchards with Hawaiians:

He [Marin) had introduced the grape, orange, lemon, pineapple, fig, and tamarind trees, but to a very limited extent; and seemingly from a motive entirely selfish: for he has perseveringly denied the seeds, and every means of propagation to others, and been known even secretly to destroy a growth that had been secured from them without his knowledge.

In 1792, Kamehameha moved to Kona to begin building a fleet of a thousand war canoes, living with Ka’ahumanu and his other wives and attendants in a large compound surrounded by stone walls, and separated by a gate from the lava platform and kapu precincts of nearby Hikiau heiau. Ka’ahumanu was not allowed inside the largest house, which was kapu to the king. Her own house was next in size, although she and Kamehameha slept in a smaller house built for that purpose. She was closely tended, lest she indulge what was said to be an amorous nature. If she so much as stepped outside the yard, she was followed by a malformed boy, the traditional bodyguard of high-ranking women, whose only task was to keep her in constant sight.

Kaʻahumanu with the boy who guarded her, colored engraving after Louis Choris


One thought on ““Pink as the Bud of a Banana Stem”

  1. Flora Biddle May 7, 2016 / 4:16 pm

    What wonderful stories dearest Susanna! Very special. More soon, am just moving to NP, will write from there– love to you


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