The Reverend Hiram Bingham was shocked that Liholiho, who had become Kamehameha II with the death of his father the previous year, wore no shoes, stockings, pants, or gloves, although Thomas Hopu, the young Hawaiian missionary who had traveled with the Americans on the Thaddeus from New England, had warned the chiefs and chiefesses to dress with modesty when they called on the missionaries. As the aliʻi were accustomed to wearing Western clothes (merchants had long supplied them with shoes and suits, and bolts of cloth for gowns), most of them obligingly appeared for their daily visits in gowns of Chinese silk and striped taffeta, brocade jackets, and heavy velvet waistcoats, which were stifling to wear in the heat. Some of the ali’i, hoping to please the haoles, evoked instead their private ridicule by their odd assortment of clothes — one of many melancholy ironies that was to ensure that the Hawaiians and the missionaries remained unknown to one another.
Over the next week, the missionaries waited patiently for the king’s decision, confident of the sanctity of their mission (to their irritation, the chiefs were easily distracted, at one point by a troupe of musicians) as they made excursions on shore, sailed up and down the coast on the Thaddeus, and visited with the Hawaiians. As the moon rose one evening, Asa Thurston and Hiram Bingham climbed to the maintop of the Thaddeus, and while their wives, the captain and crew, and the ali’i of Hawai’i Island watched in silence, loudly shouted the hymn they had sung at their ordainment in New England and again at Park Street Church when they left Boston.
Head of the Church Triumphant, We joyfully adore thee: Till thou appear, The members here, Shall sing like those in glory: We lift our hearts and voices, In blest anticipation, And cry aloud, And give to God The praise of our salvation.
The royal women and their chiefs and attendants arrived at the ship each morning, seated under Chinese silk umbrellas on the platforms of large double canoes as they were fanned by a dozen men. The redoubtable Hiram Bingham was impressed by the agility and physical grace of the paddlers, if little else:
Ten athletic men in each of the coupled canoes making regular, rapid, and effective strokes, all on one side for a while then, changing at a signal in exact time, all on the other. Each raising his head erect and lifting one hand high to throw the paddle forward…dipping their blades and bowing simultaneously…making the brine boil and giving great speed to their novel seacraft. These grandees and their ambitious rowers gave us a pleasing indication of the physical capacity, at least, of the people whom we were desirous to enlighten.
The missionary wives sewed a dress for the queen mother, Keōpūolani, that so delighted her that she ordered more for her attendants and herself, waiting as the foreign women, unused to the dry heat of Kona, dazedly cut and stitched her a wardrobe. The chiefesses and queens were particularly taken with the Chamberlain’s young daughter and decided to adopt her, or hana’i, a practice common in Hawaiian families. To their surprise, the Chamberlains refused, but reluctantly agreed to let the child be taken ashore for the night, a gesture that helped to convince the queens that the missionaries meant them no harm. Lucia Holman, the prettiest of the missionary wives, wrote that one of the queens, “got me into her lap, and felt me from head to foot and said I must cow-cow and be nooe-nooe, i.e., I must eat and grow larger.” When Lucia walked with Nancy Ruggles and Maria Loomis on shore, the Hawaiians surrounded them, touching and poking them with curiosity.
They are white and have hats with a spout. Their faces are round and far in. Their necks are long. They look well.” The Hawaiians’ nickname for the women was Long Necks, in the tradition of awarding people — natives and foreigners alike —- with apt and perceptive names…The women…enjoyed their loudest transports of merriment at our expense, quizzing us without mercy, but never with ill-nature, while the singers honoured us occasionally with a place in their extemporaneous compositions.
When the missionaries learned that Ka’ahumanu had at last returned from fishing, they went on shore to discover the chiefs at a feast to welcome her home. Ka’ahumanu lay on a large mat in a yellow satin pā’ū (skirt of kapa, or barkcloth) with a purple satin kihei (capelet) over her shoulders, wearing a lei of maile leaves, and a band of yellow feathers low on her forehead. Her attendants fanned her and scratched her back, while the chiefs waited in line to greet her. It was the first time that the missionaries saw the hula — hundreds of dancing men and women, shouting and clapping, the men in anklets of rattling dog’s teeth. The women dancers were bare-breasted, wearing pā’ū and feather anklets. Daniel Chamberlain wrote that he had never in his life seen anything so Satanic.
Dancer in kapa skirt, with tattoos and bleached fringe of hair, colored lithograph after Jacques Arago
Anchoring off Kawaihae, north of Kona, the captain of the brig Thaddeus, bearing the First Company (1819) of Congregationalist missionaries from New England, sent a boat ashore with one of his officers, who returned with the astonishing news that the great Kamehameha was dead, kapu abolished, idols destroyed, and temples demolished. The new king, Liholiho (Kamehameha II), was living thirty miles down the coast at Kailua. The high chief Kalanimoku, a cousin of Queen Ka’ahumanu’s, sent presents to the Thaddeus of coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, and two hogs. Men in canoes bartered fruit for knives, a pair of scissors, and some fishhooks. Kalanimoku, whom the English had nicknamed Billy Pitt for his skillful statesmanship, soon arrived on a canopied double canoe with his wife, Likelike, and Namahana and Kaheiheimālie, two of Kamehameha’s widows. Perhaps out of respect to the foreigners, the women, who were close to three hundred pounds each, wore shifts of Indian cotton over their pā’ū.
The missionaries may have been frightened and disgusted by what they saw, but the Hawaiians were curious, and even amused. They had never seen a white woman. “Crowds gathered, and one and another exclaimed, ‘What bright-colored eyes!’ ‘What strange hats, not at all like the tall hats of the men!’ ‘What long necks! but pleasing to look at!’ ‘What pinched-in bodies!’ ‘What tight clothing above and wide below!’” They asked the haole women to loosen their hair, so that they could comb and braid it, and some of the women obliged them. When the chiefesses asked the women to join them in cards, however, the missionaries explained that in America, ladies did not play cards, causing the Hawaiians to wonder that such a kapu could be imposed on white women.
Accustomed to the smiling faces of amorous sailors, the Hawaiians were bewildered by the solemnity of the strangers, while the missionaries, irritated by the constant chatter and laughter of the Hawaiians, were suspicious of the sudden explosions of laughter, convinced that native translators were deliberately altering their words.
At the invitation of the Americans, Kalanimoku and several of the royal women came on board the Thaddeus. Lucy Thurston described the queens in her journal:
Trammeled with clothes and seated on chairs, the queens were out of their element. They divested themselves of their outer dresses. Then the one stretched herself full length upon a bench, and the others sat down upon the deck. Mattresses were then brought for them to recline in their own way. After reaching the cabin…one of the queens divested herself of her only remaining dress, simply retaining her pa-u. While we were opening wide our eyes, she looked as self-possessed and easy as though sitting in the shades of Eden.
The Thaddeus sailed south from Kawaihae to Kona with the chiefs, numerous queens, and attendants on board, some of whom slept on deck. One of Liholiho’s wives demanded that the women make her a white cambric dress like they themselves wore, insisting that they finish it before reaching Kona, as she wished to wear it to surprise her husband. It took the women two days of stitching (they did not sew on the Sabbath), but when the Thaddeus arrived in Kona, the queen wore her new dress ashore to the screams and cheers of hundreds of her subjects. The women also gave her a lace cap and scarf, which they had brought from America as gifts.
‘Ahu’ena heiau in Kona, print after a drawing by Louis Choris, before its destruction in 1819, ca. 1816
Shortly after their arrival in Kona, Lucia Holman visited what remained of ‘Ahu’ena, the heiau used for human sacrifice by Kamehameha I when he lived at Kamakahonu, and which had been destroyed by order of Ka’ahumanu:
It was sure enough in ruins, and such a scene of devastation, I never before beheld. There appeared to me to have been stone (solid lava) enough among the ruins of the temple, to build a city — 4 of the wooden gods are left for curiosity…In a large ohale (or house) near by lies buried the bones of the Great Tamahamaah (sic) — with a cross on each side, signifying Tarboo, (or no admittance). Upon this sacred ground was no common person allowed to step his foot.
Kuakini, a younger brother of Ka’ahumanu, was the first person to greet the missionaries in Kona. He was very tall and very big, and wore a traditional malo with a short cloak, known as a kihei, thrown around his huge shoulders. He invited the foreigners to his house, but they refused his invitation. Thomas Hopu, surprised by their rudeness, advised them to reconsider, and they reluctantly agreed to attend a feast given by Kuakini, who was notorious even amongst the generous Hawaiians for his extravagance. Kuakini had earlier written to the president of the United States in the hope of exchanging names with him, and although Adams did not trouble to answer him, Kuakini had begun to refer to himself as John Adams (according to Kamakau, Kuakini was also a notorious patron of thieves, keeping men solely to plunder ships and the stores of foreign merchants). There was ample and varied food at the feast, but the missionaries refused to eat. Kuakini even had wine for them, which they declined, taking only coconut water. He was an accomplished dancer and kept the finest troupe of dancers in the kingdom, but the missionaries refused his invitation to watch the dance. Hiram Bingham and Asa Thurston left the feast early, announcing that in future they only wished to meet with the king.
With Hopu serving as intermediary and with the help of Kamehameha’s counselor, the English sailor John Young, the two men at last met Liholiho. They arrived while he was eating dinner with his five wives, two of whom were his sisters, and one of whom had been married to his father. Refusing to be seated, the missionaries read aloud formal letters from the board in Boston. One can imagine — or perhaps not — the reaction of the king and his queens to the dry and somewhat naive instructions of the board. A private Missionary Album with confidential advice for the First Company, which was not read aloud, contains surprisingly benign, although ultimately ineffective instructions, particularly concerning involvement in the kingdom’s politics:
Your views are to be limited to the low, narrow scale, but you are to open your hearts wide and set your goals high. You are to aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields, and pleasant dwellings and schools and churches, and of raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization. You are to obtain an adequate language of the people; to make them acquainted with letters, to give them the Bible, with skill to read it…to introduce and get into extended operation and influence among them, the arts and institutions and usages of civilized life and society; and you are to abstain from all interference with local and political interests of the people and to inculcate the duties of justice, moderation, forbearance, truth and universal kindness. Do all in your power to make men of every class good, wise and happy.
Out of fear of Ka’ahumanu, or perhaps an instinctive foreboding, Liholiho refused to give the missionaries an answer as to whether they would be permitted to stay in the Islands. Although his father had asked Vancouver to send religious instructors, it had been in the interest of increasing the wealth of his kingdom, not his chances of salvation. Liholiho told Bingham that Ka’ahumanu was away fishing, and he could not make a decision without her. Lucy Thurston wrote in her journal that the missionaries then invited the king and his family to dinner on the Thaddeus. The king came to the ship in a double canoe of twenty paddlers and a large number of attendants:
The king was introduced to the first white women, and they to the first king, that each had ever seen. His dress on the occasion was a girdle, a green silk scarf put on under the left arm, brought up and knotted over the right shoulder, a chain of gold around his neck and over his chest, and a wreath of yellow flowers upon his head. The next day several of the brothers and sisters of the Mission went ashore, hoping that social intercourse might give weight to the scale that was then poising (sic). They visited the palace. Ten or fifteen armed soldiers stood without, and although it was ten or eleven o’clock in the forenoon, we found him on whom devolved the government of a nation, three or four of his chiefs, and five or six of his attendants, prostrate on their mats, wrapped in deep slumbers.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is an assumption among collectors of Hawaiian antiques and artifacts, that koa was the wood favored by the ali’i (chiefs and chiefesses) of Hawai’i to make surfboards, paddles, house posts, utensils, bowls, and furniture, but it is not true. In the late nineteenth century, koa was used for palace furniture and in the houses of discerning haoles, and others, but the belief that objects of koa have always been highly prized is a modern construct. In the nineteenth century, the chiefs preferred carved Chinese beds and tables, brought from the East by sea captains and merchants, and traded for sandalwood, sought by the Chinese for incense. Sandalwood posts were used in Kamehameha’s grass house at Helumoa in Waikiki (between the present-day Royal Hawaiian and Moana hotels), but by 1829, the once-vast forests of the fragrant wood were decimated. Before the missionaries from New England forbade most games and entertainments (including hula), surfing was the passion of men, women and children, commoner and ali’i. As with all things, it was a ritualized act. The right tree with which to make the board had to be found. The hewing and shaping of the wood was imbued with ceremony, in the hope that the gods would favor the board, its maker, and its owner. The first time that it was put into the water had its own ritual, and its care (drying, oiling, wrapping in kapa) was accompanied by chants and prayers. People surfed naked, lying outstretched on thin boards, five to seven feet long, and flat on both sides, although the most accomplished surfers would stand. The chiefs, who often put a kapu on the best surfing spots so as to have exclusive use of them, used glossy black boards made of wiliwili wood, which was lighter than koa, that could reach sixteen feet in length and one hundred and fifty pounds in weight. In a surfing contest, a buoy was anchored close to shore, and whoever reached it first was the winner. If more than one surfer reached the buoy, or no one reached it, a tie was conveniently declared. Excited spectators placed bets on the competitors, as they did in most games and sports.
Surfing at Lahaina, watercolor by James Gay Sawkins, 1855. National Library of Australia
It is said that upon Kamehamehaʻs marriage to the young Kaʻahumanu, he 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.
Ka’ahumanu, who was Kamehameha’s ku’u i’ini, or heartthrob, was said to be impossible to control, and willful, jealous, and spoiled, but she was beautiful (some foreigners were surprised, given her reputation, to discover her size — she was six feet tall and corpulent), and she was very intelligent. In a compliment rendered by one foreigner, she was said to possess the thought processes of a man.
Lieutenant Thomas Manby, sailing with Vancouver in 1791, was beguiled by Ka’ahumanu, and described her 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 would have been killed if caught. 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. “She then nearly undressed me to observe my skin,” and was 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 ali’i, 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 put to death 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, like any clever royal favorite, to befriend pretty newcomers to court, turning any possible threat into a companion. Most women, however, were said to be frightened of her, and did not like to enter her house. Before the coming of the missionaries, there had been no binding formal marital relationship between Hawaiians. There was no word in Hawaiian for marriage or adultery — “the woman who sat sideways” is an old expression for a woman who takes another man. He ʻuha leo ʻole (“a thigh over which no word is spoken”) was said disparagingly of a woman thought to be promiscuous, and a child whose paternal lineage was unknown, was said to have been conceived by the wayside, a keiki a ka pueo, or “child of an owl.” If a man and a woman remained together through the night, it was tantamount to a declaration of union. When a man took a new woman to his house, it was left to her to decide whether any of his other women might remain. Should a woman choose to leave a man, her children remained with their father. It was different among the aliʻi, however. If a person was abducted by a chief, his (or her) companion could go to the chief with an offering of a dog (to eat) in hope of an exchange. John Papa Iʻi again: “If an insolent courtier were to see that a country clown had a beautiful woman for a wife he would say to her, ‘You come along with me,’ and the country clown would be too spiritless to make any resistance. Or one of the women about court, meeting a handsome young countryman whom she fancied, would turn his head with flattery and try to win him to herself, saying, ‘Why does such a fine fellow as you condescend to live with such a fright of a creature as that wife of yours? You’d better come along with me’…Men and chiefs acted strangely in those days.”
When Ka’ahumanu’s father died of plague in 1804, his last words to Kamehameha were to beware of his daughter, as it was she alone who could take the kingdom from him. Treating his 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, ‘Ōlelo No’eau, refers to the unification of Maui, Moloka’i, O’ahu, Lānaʻi, Hawaiʻi, 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. Five years later, when Kaʻahumanu was in her forties, she began a love affair with Kanihonui, the nineteen-year-old son of Kamehameha’s half-sister. A favorite of Kamehameha, he had lived in the king’s house since childhood, and 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, frightened 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. The surf at Waikīkī was particularly high on the day of Kanihonui’s death, and Ka’ahumanu asked that a holiday be granted so that the court could surf at Kapua, near Diamond Head (still a popular surfing spot, now known as First Break). Ka’ahumanu could see the heiau where the body of her lover lay rotting on the altar, and the smoke as the sacrificial fires were lighted. Surrounded by her chiefs, she wailed in rage as she surfed to shore. It is said to have been the last human sacrifice conducted in the Islands.
If a person were to walk east from Pololu, he would eventually reach Waipiʻo Valley in the district of Hamakua. Visitors may visit Waipiʻo by car, inching down a treacherously winding and narrow road that seems made to discourage any outsiders from coming into the valley. Many Hawaiians still live in Waipiʻo, unlike Pololu and Honokāne. The trail from Pololu soon disappears in heavy brush, what was left of the overgrown trails made by the workers on the Kohala Ditch finally swept away for good by the earthquake of 2006. A friend who knows the valleys well sometimes walks to a small cabin built in the mountains for the men who once worked on the ditch, a climb that takes ten hours, although, he says, it is faster coming out. Recently he gave me a cutting of the rare mountain rose, lokelani, that grows deep in the valley, where, he said, it was not doing very well. Too many wild pigs, and too much guava.
The historian John Papa I’i described a trip Kaʻahumanu made by sea to Waipiʻo:
Ka’ahumanu’s circuits of the land were always by canoe, for she had learned all about canoeing and surfing from Kamehameha, her cousin, lord, and husband . . . She boarded a canoe and sailed to Waipio, while the king and chiefs traveled over land. When the canoes arrived . . . the waves were very rough, and there was no place to land. Therefore, Ka’ahumanu ordered the paddlers to go out and come in a second time. This time they were close to the back of a wave that rose up directly in front of them, and she encouraged her paddlers to head for it. The canoe came up very close to it and as the wave rose up to a peak and spread out, the craft rode in with the foam to where the prows could be caught by the men on shore. Those on shore remarked to each other how cleverly they were saved, and this became a great topic of conversation.
Sometime in the year 1780, a lack of food thanks to the provisioning of Cookʻs ships led King Kalaniōpu’u of Hawaiʻi Island to move his court from Kailua to Waipiʻo Valley, where he called a council of chiefs. Limbs shaking from a lifetime of drinking ʻawa, Kalaniopu’u formally declared his oldest son, Kiwala’o, heir to the kingdom, and named Kamehameha high chief of Kohala, giving him land that already belonged to Kamehameha by inheritance. More important, however, he bequeathed to Kamehameha the guardianship of the feathered war god, Kūka’ilimoku, whose name means The Island Snatcher, and the attendant responsibility of conducting rites and tending the god’s heiau. Kalaniōpuʻuʻs gift gave to Kamehameha a significant political and religious advantage over other high chiefs. The war god—a wickerwork head five feet tall, to which thousands of small red, yellow, and black feathers had been painstakingly attached, its gaping mouth lined with dogsʻ teeth—was carried into battle by a special priest, and the terrifying screams that poured from its mouth were said to be the cries of the god himself.
My two younger brothers live in Hilo, a town on the east coast of the Island, about an hour south of Waipiʻo, which in many ways remains the same as it was in the Fifties. There are no good hotels, no good beaches, but there is an old theatre, the Palace, which has been restored and given life by my brother R. and his wife, Q., and which has resumed its place as the center of the community, where one may see everything from a local talent show to a concert by the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra. There is also a very good green market on Saturday, with unfamiliar fruits and vegetables among the passionfruit, papaya, white pineapple, starfruit, orchids, anthurium, and mangos, grown in small gardens by local Japanese, Filipino and more recently- arrived Cambodian farmers. A hula contest called the Merrie Monarch Festival is held each spring in Hilo, in which dozens of troupes representing different hula schools, or halau, from all the Islands and the mainland compete for prizes. I am always a little depressed by it — too much make-up, too much synchronized enthusiasm, not enough wildness or even spontaneity — but I also understand that it is impossible for hula to have retained its original meaning (human sacrifice, the consumption of small dogs, and the marriage of brothers and sisters are also no longer in common practice). It is, however, extremely popular with local people as well as visitors. Great care is taken by the various halau to replicate what is thought to be original choreography, if it can be called that, as well as costumes and the singing of chants. As nothing was written down by the Hawaiians until the missionaries devised a transcription of their language, no records were kept other than oral histories. There are some nineteenth-century engravings made from drawings by the shipsʻ artists who sailed with Cook and Vancouver, as well as other travelers, that give an idea of what was worn by the dancers, but that is all. Certainly the breasts of the women dancers were not covered, and I long for the day when a smiling troupe glides onto the Hilo stage with bare breasts.
The sight of men and women dancing the hula was particularly disturbing to the Congregationalist ministers and lay workers who arrived in the Islands after 1821. In his journal, the missionary Hiram Bingham described a ceremony he witnessed at the compound of the high chief Boki, where hundreds of male and female dancers had gathered to sing and dance ten days earlier in a celebration that would continue for several months. The dancers, adorned with leaves, flowers, and dog’s teeth anklets, were insufficiently clothed for Bingham, and he condemned the dancers as incitements to lust. A statue of Laka, goddess of the hula, stood at the entrance to Boki’s yard, and the dancers bedecked her image each day, further upsetting Bingham who complained to Boki that the idolatrous image should be removed. Boki, with his customary humor, told Bingham that he was welcome to the statue when the hula ceremonies were complete. Boki agreed, however, that the dancers, if allowed to dance undisturbed each morning and night, would attend the mission school by day. Other men, less encumbered by the Divine, did not hesitate to admire the dance, and particularly the dancers. Mark Twain found Hawaiian women irresistible, even in the shapeless shifts known as Mother Hubbards made for them by the missionaries, later to become the muumuu worn by haoles and Hawaiians alike (he and Robert Louis Stevenson could not resist comparing the skin of Hawaiian women to chocolate or leather).
I saw long-haired, saddle-colored Sandwich Island maidens sitting on the ground in the shade of corner houses, gazing indolently at whatever or whoever happened along . . . I met dusky native women sweeping by, free as the wind, on fleet horses and astraddle, with gaudy riding-sashes streaming like banners behind them . . . I breathed the balmy fragrance of Jessamine, oleander and the Pride of India . . . I moved in the midst of a Summer calm as tranquil as dawn in the Garden of Eden . . . At night they feast and the girls dance the lascivious hula hula—a dance that is said to exhibit the very perfection of education motion of limb and arm, hand, head and body . . . performed by a circle of girls with no raiment on them to speak of . . .
Later that year, Twain was unable to contain himself at the sight of girls swimming naked in the ocean:
At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went down to look at them . . . when they rose to the surface they only just poked their heads out and showed no disposition to proceed any further in the same direction. I was naturally irritated by such conduct, and therefore I piled their clothes up on a bowlder (sic) in the edge of the sea and sat down on them and kept the wenches in the water until they were pretty well used up.
Every child of chiefly or priestly family had a special name given to his genitals. Meles [songs] were composed for them, but they were not necessarily descriptive of the genitals. In the older days every [hula] school chanted such meles without thought of immodesty or wrong of any sort. The genitalia of the first-born male or female were also given particular physical care in early infancy. This care was therapeutic in the sense that it was intended to guarantee health and efficient coition; and had also its aesthetic aspects, since the sexual act was accepted without shame in those days as being both creative and one of the supreme pleasures.
I have always wanted to see a hula ma’i, but they are rarely performed now. Last summer, at a book festival, the Hawaiian historian, kumu hula, and chanter, Nathan Napoka, was present at a talk that W. gave about his book of hawk photographs, for which Mr. Napoka had written an essay. Mr. Napoka brought with him from Maui a young woman who is his dance student. He himself had been been taught by the late ʻIolani Luahine, a devotee of the hawk god, and one of the last female dancers to perform in the old style.
The young woman with Mr. Napoka danced that day in honor of the hawk, and then performed a hula ma’i with all of the wit, joy, elegance, seduction, and sensuousness for which the native Hawaiian was known, and those of us who saw it were astonished and moved, mournfully aware that we might never see a hula ma’i again.
W. and I go to the lookout at Pololu often, sometimes twice a day, because W. takes photographs of the ‘io, the rare hawk that is found only on the Big Island. No one knows how the ‘io, a species related to the mainland red-tail hawk, came to be here, but it is surmised that birds were blown off their migratory course 40,000 years ago to take refuge in the Islands. W. published a book of photographs of the hawk last year, ‘Io Lani(wschillingworth.com), and when we are at Pololu now, some of the surfers and old- timers recognize him and tell him about hawks they have seen. “Behind Arakaki Market, get one nest high in a ironwood tree…”
The hawks often appear low in the sky, leaving the valley and swooping over the house of Kindy Sproat, a member of one of the last Hawaiian families to live in Honokāne Iki. Visitors in the nineteenth century described the valleys along this coast as well-populated, with forty grass houses in Pololu alone, stretching from the beach, along the river, and into the gulch, but they are abandoned now, and the invasive vegetation (seen by some as a metaphor) has covered any signs of past habitation. Kalāhikiola Church, founded in 1841 by the missionary, the Reverend Elias Bond, at Iole in nearby Kapaʻau, was built with lava rock walls, strengthened with sand from Pololu. G. W. Bates in his book Sandwich Island Notes by a Haole wrote, “The sand was brought from the valley of Pololu and the beach at Kawaihae — the former place six miles distant, the latter twenty-six. There were no roads over which a team could travel; consequently, the materials were conveyed to the site of the building in a method entirely new, and each native threw in a share of labor. Some carried sand from the place just mentioned in handkerchiefs, others in their undergarments. Others very ingeniously connected an entire suit
together and filled it with the same material, and then conveyed it to Iole.”
At Pololu, we often stand with our backs to the ocean, causing some visitors to ask why we are looking away from the view that they have come some distance to admire. The tourists sometimes stay at the lookout a minute or two and then head back to their hotels. Others take the steep trail into the valley. Others only photograph the obliging mules in the Sproats’ nearby pasture. People often ask W. (because of his serious-looking camera) to photograph them with their phones. Others simply photograph themselves. A few miles to the west is the favorite surfing spot of Kamehameha’s favorite, the high chiefess Ka’ahumanu, whose name means The Cloak of Bird Feathers. Only high chiefs wore the bright red, yellow, and black capes, made with hundreds of thousands of feathers in designs of fins, rainbows, sharks, and wings (the color yellow was associated with O’ahu; black and red with the island of Hawai’i), flung over one bare shoulder to facilitate the use of weapons. Judge A. G. M. Robertson, W’s great-great-uncle (left), wears a cloak of peacock feathers (over both shoulders) at the funeral of Prince Jonah Kuhio in 1922. Kuhio’s nickname was Prince Cupid, given to him by a French schoolmaster at what is now ʻIolani School, for his mischievous smile and “twinkling eyes.” A young Duke Kahanamoku is to the left of Robertson, wearing a feather cape.
Kamehameha took Ka’ahumanu as his third wife in 1785 when she was seventeen years old. She was six feet tall, and said to be without blemish. Samuel 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.
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.”
Upon their marriage, Kamehameha built a stone wall at Kauhola Point 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.