Some Thoughts on Kaʻahumanu I

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Kaʻahumanu remains to this day a controversial figure in Hawaiian history.Her parents were Chief Keʻeaumoku Pāpaʻiahiahi of Kona and Princess Nāmāhānaʻi Kaleleokalani of Maui. Nāmāhānaʻi was the sister of King Kahekili II, the man who had he lived a decade longer, would have united the entire archipelago. Kaʻahumanu birth was not widely celebrated. Her uncle in fact had given thought to seize the baby because he was so opposed to his sisterʻs conjugal union with Keʻeaumoku. Growing up, Kaʻahumanu did not grow up in the court of Maui and at barely a teen, her family fled to Kona out of fear of the coming succession war on that island. Her early years was not comfortable. But on the island of Hawaiʻi, Keʻeaumoku became one of the most important figures on the island. Eventually, he backed a young chief of moderate rank–a man we know as Kamehameha I. As part of the politics of the time, Kaʻahumanu was given to Kamehameha I by her father as a wife–though Kaʻahumanu would in time take other husbands. While Keʻeaumoku was a master tactician, Kaʻahumanu proved herself to be a master at court intrigue, trade and diplomacy.

She was also an excellent surfer, diver and lua (martial arts) expert. Her father taught her the arts of war and as Kamehameha swept through the archipelago with his cannons and canoes, the 6ʻ0 foot Kaʻahumanu stood behind him literally at the battle fields.

When the Europeans, Americans and Chinese began to arrive and trade with Hawaiians, Kaʻahumanu saw opportunities. As chiefs became more and more in debt to traders, Kaʻahumanu used their debt to leverage political influence in order to keep chiefs loyal to the new regime. She also learned how to do accounting and how to speak the languages of the traders. Some accounts say that she was able to understand some French, Spanish, and English. When the american missionaries arrived years later, they were surprised that Kaʻahumanu could understand English.

She also was reformer.

When Kamehameha I died, she was appointed as Kuhina Nui, something akin to Prime Minister or Grand Vizier. No one question the appoint on the account of her gender. There were, however, questions on the fitness of Kamehameha II–questions that Kamehameha I even asked of himself. Within 6 months of the passing of Kamehameha I, Queen Keōpuolani (mother of King Kamehameha II and III) and Kaʻahumanu managed to topple not just the kapu system but eliminated the entire kahuna class. Temples were dismantled and kiʻi idols were burned. Women had unparalleled political power and for the first time, Hawaiians had no gods to worship. The state religion was gone.

A few months later, American missionaries arrived at the request of Hawaiian seaman. Kamehameha II wanted to have the missionaries leave. But seeing where the real power lay, they asked for Kaʻahumanuʻs consent to stay and preach. Kaʻahumanu was not interested in their religion. She knew of Christianity from Captain Vancouver and from French Catholic priests. The missionaries wisely offered something else–education. They would teach the Kingdom literacy and give Hawaiians an education that would equip them to handle the pressures of the outside world. Kaʻahumanu agreed to this and the written Hawaiian language was developed. After four long years, the missionaries converted Kaʻahumanu though some said that her real religion was that of politics. Some said that with the absence of a state religion, Kaʻahumanu felt that Christianity might fill that vacuum. Soon, the first written laws were proclaimed by Kaʻahumanu and King Kamehameha III and Hawaiian language newspapers began to be printed. The first treaty signed by Hawaiʻi and the US–as independent powers–was signed under her.

After her conversion, she decided to give herself a birthday. Although the American missionaries frowned upon celebrating anything really she wanted a birthday and made March 17 her birthday. This was because just as St Patrick converted the island of Ireland, she had helped to convert Hawaiʻi and therefore felt a connection. Also despite her conversion and pressure from the American missionaries, she allowed other Christian churches to practice.

By the time of Kaʻahumanuʻs death, 60% of Native Hawaiians were literate. A decade after her death, Hawaiʻiʻs literacy was near universal, public schools was in full operation, there were still female prime ministers (who named themselves “Kaʻahumanu” upon assuming office) and Hawaiʻi had become a constitutional Monarchy.

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