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Wahine o Hawai`i
1999 Kawika Sands

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans in 1778 (The first known European to visit Hawai`i being the Spanish navigator, Gaetano, who charted the islands in 1555), the Hawaiian people lived in a highly organized, self-sufficient, social system based on communal land tenure with a sophisticated language, culture, and religion. A unified monarchical government was established in 1810 under Kamehameha I, the first King of the Hawaiian Islands.

Although the king didn't allow non-Hawaiians to interfere in island politics, he was accepting of foreigners and their innovations, such as muskets and nails. During his reign Hawai`i became an important center of the fur and sandalwood trades. Pineapples were first brought to Hawai`i from Spain in 1813, and coffee was first planted in the islands in 1818, the year before Kamehameha I died (Macadamia nut trees weren't introduced until 1892).

Though a Chiefess could have more than one husband the general rule for the people was the pair rather than a trio. Plural marriage existed for both sexes, but it was usually the chiefs and wealthy who did so. It still didn't eliminate romantic problems! Women who could not bear children could adopt. This was easy in Hawai`i and a child adopted in this manner was said to be hanai, however, this was more than a simple adoption. To be hanai was to be considered as if born of the parents while ascending to rank, power and position and served to cement family and political ties.

Unfortunately, where religion/law was concerned, the old kapu system severely limited the woman's freedom. Women were considered less pleasing to the gods and were forbidden certain foods such as bananas and red meat or pig. They could not eat with their men or allowed to fish in salt water or touch the nets. Menstruating women were not allowed to sleep in the same house with their husbands, and during certain kapu days of the year were not allowed in the canoes. This helps to explain some romanticized accounts of Hawaiian maidens swimming out to meet ships. They might have done so because they wanted to, but also possibly because they were not allowed at that particular time. The penalty of these, or virtually ANY kapu, was usually death!

Queen Kaahumanu ("the bird (feather) cloak") was unique. Noted for her intelligence, fearlessness, and beauty, she was a ruler, explorer, stateswoman, rebel, social worker, reformer, lover, religious zealot and patriot. When she became Kuhina Nui (second most powerful office, a sort of Vice-King), she changed Hawaiian society and the woman's place in it. Her father, Keeaumoku, was an advisor to King Kamehameha the Great. Kaahumanu grew up in the king's court learning the power of politics. At the age of 13 she was given to the king as a bride.

The 30-year-old Kamehameha favored the tall, beautiful girl of keen intelligence and athletic ability and she became the favorite of his wives. "She is all things, and she is undefeatable. Strong in time of crisis, she can also ride the waves like a bird. And she is as lovely as a lauhala blossom," he said. Kaahumanu accompanied the king to receive foreigners. She remained childless but Kamehameha named her kahu (guardian) of his heir, Liholiho (or Kamehameha II).

Because Liholiho had never known war or strife, King Kamehameha knew of his son's inadequacy to rule. So, he told Kaahumanu to rule as an equal. Prior to his death, Kamehameha created the position of Kuhina Nui (prime minister) so the 42-year-old female could remain active in government. Since that time, Hawai`i has had two rulers, the King and the Kuhina Nui. The Kuhina Nui acted as Premier and had powers that equaled the Kings'. The Kuhina Nui had to sign all documents and could veto the acts of the King.

After the King's death, she dressed herself in his warrior's cloak and picked up his spear. Such and act was audacious, because the feather cloak and helmet was reserved for chiefs and warriors, but no one challenged her. Wearing the cloak, she waited for Liholiho, heir to the thrown and soon to be crowned King Kamehameha II. She confronted him and said "Hear me, O Divine one..." and told him it was the dead king's wish that they both rule together. Liholiho and his royal retainers then accepted her as Kuhina Nui.

Though Hawaiian women continued to do most of the things men did (including paddle and steer canoes), they were still subjugated by the strict kapu system. Kaahumanu decided to change this and abolish the ancient system beginning with the most basic of the kapu. The eating kapu that dictated men and women were not to eat together and initiate "ai noa" [free eating]. With the help of Liholiho's mother, Queen Keopuolani, they worked on Liholiho to change this. Finally, at a banquet given in honor of foreigners, Kaahumanu's chance came. While Liholiho feasted at the men's table, Kaahumanu rose and sat beside him and began to eat. She licked her fingers as she reached for more roast pig as the Hawaiians looked on in shock.

But the gods did not retaliate! Kaahumanu did not fall dead, fire did not fall from the sky, nor did the ground open to swallow them. "The kahuna have lied to us!" they cried and pandemonium took Hawaiian society. The kahuna were chased away, the heiau were destroyed, and the Hawaiian people engaged in the very acts that had been kapu for hundreds of years. Kaahumanu had unraveled the very fabric of Hawaiian religion and society with the pull of a single thread. It was into this religious void the Christian missionaries came in 1820. The missionaries felt that such timing must have surely been ordained by the hand of God.

At that time, Hawaiians wore little clothing, but the missionaries convinced the queen to adopt a loose, cool version of a Victorian gown. It was so much easier to wear than most Victorian gowns that Hawaiian women exclaimed "Holo! Ku!" meaning, "We can run in it! We can stand!" So, the gown was called the holoku.

Kaahumanu eventually came to embrace Christianity and persuaded her people to believe as well (partly to replace the religious system that was lost). It was at this time she decided she would learn to read and did so within a weeks time. Soon Hawaiians had their own written language and even a printing press making it the most literate society in the world (at that point in time).

Husband-less, Kaahumanu used "sexual diplomacy" to acquire loyalty to the Kamehameha dynasty from a relenting Kaua`i. She married the island's King Kaumualii in 1821, keeping him on O`ahu, and married his towering, handsome son, Kealiiahonui. In the years that followed in Lahaina's whaling heyday, violence and lawlessness were the tone of life in Hawai`i. It was rife with drunkenness, vandalism and venereal disease. Whalers would ravage the whales by day and the wahine by night while Hawaiian men did the most menial jobs. Kaahumanu proclaimed a code of law based heavily on morality and the Ten Commandments after being nursed back to health by Hiram Bingham's wife. She became known as Kaahumanu hou (the new) by the missionaries and toured the islands destroying carved statues of old gods.

However, this did not set well with young King Kamehameha III and Governor Boki (O`ahu) and they worked to sabotage her laws in any way they could. However, when Boki left on a trip and his wife Liliha governed in his place, Kaahumanu ousted her and replaced her with Kuakini, Kaahumanu's brother, who brought some order back to the island. As Kaahumanu grew older she turned increasingly to Christianity and became a gradual supporter of Christianity and schooling. Schools and churches started by the missionaries were now supported and maintained by the chiefs. While missionaries, some of whom through marriages to Hawaiian women, actually began to OWN Hawaiian land and run businesses along with other Haole businessmen. The very people who came to do good, did WELL.

Kaahumanu sensed that the future of her people lay in the ways of the missionaries rather than that of the traders. She was baptized "Elizabeth" before her death in Manoa Valley on June 5, 1832, but by then, four of every 10 Hawaiians were learning to read from Christian text books in their own language. It was with her rule that Hawaiians found themselves on a new path.


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Last Modified: Saturday - 19991113.12:36 EST
Copyright 1999 Kawika Sands
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