Alcoholism and itʻs Devastation on Native Hawaiians

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Alcoholism was one of the most destructive forces among Hawaiians including the ali’i. Western alcohol was particularly destructive because Polynesians (as well as most Pacific Islander and Native American peoples) did not have the certain genetic variations which produce the alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes that breaks down alcohol. In other words, Hawaiians had no tolerance for alcohol which made it that much more destructive and that much more addicting. 

Hawaiian rulers as early as Kamehameha I tried a variety of measures to curb alcohol but were mainly unsuccessful. Some of the monarchs–three in particular–themselves were known to be alcoholics and at times that affected their decision making. A lot of non-Hawaiians knew this because of their experience with Native Americans. During the time of Kamehameha I, chiefs were sometimes paid by merchants in gin and wine for food, supplies and women despite the fact that Kamehameha I made it illegal at some point for a chief to accept alcohol as a form of payment. Kamehameha I actually ended up giving up on making alcohol illegal and focused on means to controlling it’s flow. That was how bad the problem was even during those times. (The attached painting with the chief holding wine is from the time of Kamehameha I)

Now in comes the missionaries and the sweeping reforms of Kamehameha III. The missionaries discouraged alcohol because it was a waste of time and money. But many of the missionaries taught Hawaiians that Hawaiian culture was “uncivilized”. Hawaiian Christian converts, including Queen Ka’ahumanu, picked up and preached against hula, lua, etc. Hawaiians were told to relate to the Bible and to be time conscious. They were fined for not attending church. If you wanted a higher education, you needed to attend a Christian college or seminary. The ways of the past needed to be discredited and abandoned. 

When Kamehameha III came of age, not only was the culture dramatically changed but the entire political system. So in a span of 40 years, you went from traditional Hawaiian chiefdoms with chiefs wear feather regalia into a fully functioning Western-style democracy under a constitutional monarchy complete with politicians in top hats and suits. Within that same span, you also went from communal land ownership to private property rights and from an entirely Hawaiian political body into a multiracial polity. In many ways, Kamehameha III had no choice because of the way Western countries had been eating up Pacific countries. By self-Westernization, Hawaiians in power probably thought that was the only way to avoid full colonialism like what was going on in Tahiti and Aotearoa.

With the changes in government, also came the formalization of Hawai’i as a capitalist nation. Hawaiians needed to work, to trade and to build up capital. Chiefs felt the need to keep up with the Joneses so to speak. Hawaiians were told to wear dresses and wear Western attire. Nearly every important Christian mission had mission stores were Hawaiians could buy Bibles, clothes and household goods that “civilized” people should have. So right away you can see the relationship and profitability between Westernization and Christianization. As a reminder, this was the 19th century where there was no welfare or social security. In the UK during the same time period of Kamehameha III, 1 million Irish died in 5 years during the Irish Potato famine because the thinking was that poverty was a person’s own fault and was the natural order of balancing out things. So Kamehameha III’s new Western advisers and new Western trained Hawaiian Christian advisers had some of similar notions when it came to poverty and even treating diseases. These notions also filtered into the Chief’s Children School, where many of the noble children studied. 

On top of all of this, you had death. Massive death. Conservative numbers say that the Hawaiian population in 1778 was over 200,000. By 1887, 45,000 was left. King Kamehameha V and King Kalakaua used to get daily updates on diseases and death counts from the Board of Health telling them how many Hawaiians were dying. For King Kalakaua, there was a general and real fear of that the Hawaiian population would become extinct within a hundred years. Every Hawaiian in the 19th century lost family members to smallpox, measles Hansen’s disease and other epidemics. King Kalakaua himself lost two siblings to introduced diseases. 

So you had death stalking the Hawaiian nation and at the same time you had the cultural bomb represented by missionaries and capitalism, there would people who had no bond with the Hawaiian culture. There were would be people who suddenly became economically marginalized in the new order. There was of course resistance to all of these changes ranging from petitions to cult groups. But for the average Kanaka Maoli, the pressures to deal with all of these rapid changes must have been soul breaking. Alcohol became an addictive escape from the pain, sorrow, cultural confusion, and poverty for many Hawaiians. As mentioned previously, Hawaiians also had no genetic tolerance for alcohol and there were even sayings that by non-Hawaiians that the easiest way to swindle land from a native was to get him drunk. That’s actually how many Hawaiian families lost some of their lands. People who do not have a clear understanding of the 19th century and of how addiction works may not understand any of this If you are addicted to something, you’re going to do what it takes to get your fix. In the 19th century, there also was no support groups and no Alcoholics Anonymous–you went to jail or went to church and prayed a lot to recover. So stealing artifacts or selling family ancestral to get money to buy more drinks shouldn’t be surprising. It should be a learning lesson on the tragedy that still affects our Hawaiian community today in one way or another.

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.

Recognizing Hawaiian Women in Hawaiian History

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In reflecting on the way that many local women are dismissed in Hawaiian history and culture discussions by outsiders and even at times by our own men in the Hawaiian community, maybe this is be a wake up call in understanding and revisiting the way women are thought of in history in general but in Hawaiian history specifically. 

Many people know the attached painting. Itʻs the “Battle at Nuʻuanu Pali” by Herb Kane. Kane was a native Hawaiian artist and historian of extraordinary ability. Most people see this painting and look at the men hanging off the cliff. But in this Kane painting, there are women. There are women warriors fighting on both sides. Thatʻs historically accurate because we know that Kaʻahumanu for example fought in that battle. We know that Hawaiian women could be warriors. They could be soldiers. Under Kamehameha I, women were included in his regiments as well as war councils. They were female “generals”. But that was not unusual nor uncommon. Chiefly women for centuries fought along their fathers, brothers, husbands (yes husbands), and their kings. These pūʻalihine or women warriors were given the same rigorous combat courses and sweat just as hard as the men besides them. They not only gave the lāhui (nation) the ultimate gift of children but the ultimate sacrifice of their own.

The women have been in this painting since Kane painted it but many havenʻt really noticed that they are there. Thatʻs the same way we view too much of our history. Due to our internalized colonialism, many again just see the men. Thatʻs the way in general history by Europeans and Americans has been written. The focus has been on the men, their heroism, and their actions that shaped the course of their history. But Hawaiian history is different. Hawaiian culture was different. we need to look at things differently and can not allow a haole or colonial view of our history and our culture to define not only our Hawaiian women but to dismiss them, their contributions and their viewpoints from the history of our lāhui. O ka lāhui i ke kamaliʻi nui o nā wahine. The nation is the greatest child of women.

Kinikona: A Black / Indo-Caribbean at Kamehamehaʻs Court

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One of the interesting characters from the court of Kamehameha I was a Black / Indo-Caribbean by the name of Kinikona . He identified both as Black and as a lascar according to the historian Samuel Kamakau. We know very little about Kinikonaʻs origins. His name is the Hawaiian transliteration of the Quinine or Cichona tree. Cichona was used in the treatment of malaria and we know that malaria was one of the possible sicknesses that wiped out Kamehameha Iʻs army before his invasion of Kauaʻi. Cichona is also native to South America. The man, Kinikona, arrived in Hawaiʻi between 1811 to 1813. What we know about his background is that he identified himself as being Black and as a lascar (which at the time meant he was an East Indian expert sailor) and he spoke French. We also know believe that he came from the Caribbean because of the French accounts of him which suggest he was from Haiti, Saint Martin, Guadeloupe or some other French colony in the region. Due to his mixed heritage, he was not born a slave but was still considered colored or Black, Hawaiians identified him as a haole ʻeleʻele or haole pouli meaning Black.

What made Kinikona of interest is that he was the first account of a haole (a general term used to describe all foreigners at the time period regardless of skin color) who converted to the Hawaiian religion. He made tributes to Pele and rather than being incorporated into the special system of nobility that Kamehameha I created for other haole for services to the Throne, he asked was sort of incorporated with the kahuna and he was one of the few foreigners ever to have studied the old religion in depth. Kamehameha I used his maritime skills on occasion but his more important duty was as translator for the King and Kaʻahumanu when he had to deal with the French. When the old religion was being overthrown in 1819, allegedly according to tradition, he took up arms with Kekuaokalani and Manono, the two main defenders of the old Hawaiian religion. Whether he died at Kuamoʻo or survived but died of wounds later, it is not clear from sources. What is clear is that he embraced the Hawaiian religion and died for.