Queen Ka’ahumanu was the forerunner of Modern Hawaii. Instead of letting a male ruler rule alone, she took the reins of the country into her own hands and ruled as queen regent. She forced her country to abandon two thousand years of Hawaiian culture and religion and helped turn Hawaii into a country that modelled the European laws and idealism. She did this because she thought that the Hawaiian government would be secure for centuries. Little did she know by trying to make her nation have a Christian God and to have a Puritan lifestyle, that she would be the mover of the devastation to the loss of many Hawaiian’s culture, and which indirectly led to the overthrow of the monarchy.
Queen Ka’ahumanu was the favourite wife of King Kamehameha I. According to Kamakau, she was the reason why King Kamehameha had a long control over the government. Because of her royal blood, she had many allies with the other chiefs; the chiefs looked up to Kamehameha because of their devotion to her (Kamakau p. 208). Kamehameha let Ka’ahumanu rule jointly by his side and declared that any word she said was sacred (Kamakau p. 312-313). Therefore, when King Kamehameha died, the royal government-appointed Queen Ka’ahumanu to be co-ruler. This meant that she had shared power with her step-son King Kamehameha II.
“For when she met the new king, she said: ‘Hear me, O Divine One, for I make known to you the will of your father. Behold these chiefs and the men of your father, and these your guns and your land, but you and I shall share the realm together'” (Kuykendall p. 63).
The above quote shows that she used Kamehameha’s name in order to still have the right to remain in power. It also shows her ambition to continue to rule, and that she has no intention of relinquishing her power. It was because of her lust for power and to be treated with the same equality as the new king that she decided to eliminate the kapu system, for it stood between her and power. “She (Ka’ahumanu) was never centrally in control in a world where women were non-sacred” (Silverman p. 2). No matter how superior her lineage may have been, she would always be condescended upon in her religion. For according to the Hawaiian religion, a king was to be the manifestation of the gods on earth. The gods are supposed to communicate with the king. Therefore, because she was a woman, the Hawaiian gods would ignore her. Kaahumanu decided to abolish the gods, and later when the missionaries came, Kaahumanu decided to convert to Christianity because she thought that this Christian God would speak directly to her (Silverman p. 2).
She eliminated the kapu system by hosting a banquet and inviting the new king to eat with her and his mother. (Molinaro p. 50). After the banquet, the king officially eliminated it. Ka’ahumanu and the king ordered to have the temples, sacred sites, and holy images burned. By doing this, the old Hawaiian religion vanished. The Hawaiian religion worshipped the four principal gods: Ku, Lono, Kane, and Kanaloa was no more. The old Hawaiian religion and culture were abandoned only to be replaced by a new religion, and ideology was imposed by them through the American missionaries that would ultimately change the course of Hawaii forever.
In 1820, the American missionaries arrived to preach the Christian God. Because Queen Ka’ahumanu had abolished the pagan gods, there was no religion that the people could turn to. In turn, this had made the country unstable. For without religion, it conflicted with the Hawaiians’ way of life and culture. Ka’ahumanu was looking for a new religion that would appeal to her so that the Hawaiian government could be stabilised. The American missionaries had appealed to her because it was a new resolve, the abandonment of the kapu system. By following and worshipping the Christian God, then she could abandon the old gods and focus on the new. Also, as she believed, this Christian God could speak to her because she was a woman. It was through Ka’ahumanu that the missionaries were able to establish their influence in Hawaii. Bingham, one of the first missionaries to arrive, wrote, “We soon learned to appreciate her (Ka’ahumanu) importance in the nation” (Allen p. 2). Indeed, if it had not been for Queen Ka’ahumau and the abolishment of the kapu system, then the missionaries would most likely not have had much influence on the Hawaiian government as it did in 1820. For if it was not for Queen Ka’ahumanu’s desire for power and control, then the kapu system would not have been abolished, and the old religion would still have a great influence on the government, and the missionaries would not have been successful.
It was in that year that Ka’ahumanu and King Liholiho had made Christianity the official religion in Hawaii. Kaahumanu had also made Honolulu its permanent capital for the Hawaiian government. Because of the missionaries influence, Queen Ka’ahumanu decided to convince the king to have their people, both the ali’i and the maka’ainana educated, which also included herself and the king. The missionaries had set up schools for the people of Hawaii. At first, the missionaries tried to teach the schools in English, but because the Hawaiians did not understand English, they decided to teach them in Hawaiian. The schools taught Hawaiian spelling, reciting a refusal to abandon pagan gods, a proclamation of the Christian God, bible readings, theological questions about the Christian God, as well as the Ten Commandments, as well as multiplication, division, addition, and fractions (Kamakau p. 270-271). The missionaries, however, had one problem; it was the problem of finding competent teachers. (Kyundell p. 111).
In 1822, they appealed to the new king, Kamehameha III, who was Lilholiho’s brother and was only nine years old, and the Queen Ka’ahumaanu, queen regent, to have a national system of schools to be supported by the government, so they could help provide the need for competent teachers (Kyundell p. 112). They agreed. Education spread rapidly, and schools competed against each other to be successful (Kamakau p. 270-271). For instance, schools that had an excellent education became admired in Hawaii, but poor schools were derogated by the Hawaiian government. Soon the Hawaiian people became literate in the written word, and printing presses had started up. Indeed the first words ever to be printed in Hawaiian was “He aloha ke Akua,” (God is Love) (Mellen p. 99).
By educating the people of Hawaii, the influx of Christian beliefs, and the culture of the mainland had changed the Hawaiian culture. The Hawaiians had relied on communicating their stories and history orally, and now that people had abandoned the spoken word in favour of the written word, the Hawaiians had lost an essence of their culture.. This would make them dependent on the written word because by focusing on the written word, the Hawaiians had forgotten memorisation, and no longer could they ever be trained to recite their genealogy by memorisation, but would not be dependent on writing them down. Also, by being forced to abandon their old religion in favour of a new God and a new way of life, the Hawaiians were forced to forget their old religion before the abolishment of the kapu system. The long tradition and religion of the Hawaiian culture were vanishing quickly, and the new way of life. Therefore, Queen Ka’ahumanu had helped abolish many Hawaiian’s culture and their identity in a way that they could never recover it.
Queen Ka’ahumanu was baptised in 1822 in the Christian religion. Her name was Elizabeth. She went around the islands, preaching the word of God. She soon established laws that were based on the Ten Commandments:
“1. You shall not commit murder. Anyone who commits this crime must be executed.
2. You shall not commit adultery. The people who commit adultery will be banished to Kahoolawe.
3. You shall not practice prostitution. The person who commits this crime will be imprisoned and beaten across that person’s back with a rope. If that person fails to keep this law a second time, they will be banished.
4. Natives and foreigners are forbidden to manufacture, sell, or drink liquor, including drinking awa and the cultivation of awa.
5. The Practice of ancient worship is prohibited.
6. Hula is forbidden along with chants, pleasure, foul speech, and bathing by women in public places” (Kamakau p. 288).
Her take – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth law codes showed that her laws were based on the Old Testament rather than the New Testament. This shows that she wanted to have a strict moral government, and anyone that crossed these paths were to be punished with extreme cruelties. She had also made the old Hawaiian culture forbidden to the Hawaiian religion. For it showed an obscene pagan lifestyle that was sinful and unrighteous. However, these laws proved to be in effect and helped changed the Hawaiian government.
On 14 December 1825, Queen Ka’ahumanu, the king, and Boki, the Prime Minister of Hawaii had created formal legislation by the Hawaiian chiefs. They also introduced the trial by jury, and the mode of execution was fixed by hanging (Kuykendall p. 127). These were based on Kaahumanu’s laws. Before then, capital punishment was inflicted by the kings or the chiefs without a trial. By establishing a fair trial, this showed that the accuser had a right to defend himself.
Thus, Queen Ka’ahumanu changed the Hawaiian people’s way of culture and life forever. She helped abolished the kapu system, and helped establish the white foreigner American residence in Hawaii. She had abolished the old religions and enforced a new religion and culture. She had made everyone in her country educated, forcing them to abandon the oral word for the sake of the written word, and she had helped set up laws based on the Ten Commandments and forbade anyone to practise the old way of life, and she set up a system of a fair trial.
Therefore, Queen Ka’ahumanu made a giant step in Hawaiian history. She had changed an old way of life and created a new one. Queen Ka’ahumanu was the mover that helped lead Hawaii to a step to her tragedy and the loss of the nation, where the Hawaiian people no longer had a voice. 1
Allen, Gwenfread E. Kaahumanu and Her Relations with American Missionaries. Hawaiian Collection, Hamilton Library, UH: 1924. Typescript.
Kamakau, Samuel Manaiakalani. Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii: Revised Edition. The Kamehameha School Press. Honolulu 1992.
Kuykendall, Ralph S. The Hawaiian Kingdom: Volume 1 1778-1854 Foundation and Transformation. University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu: 1965.
Mellen, Kathleen Dickenson. The Magnificent Matriarch, Kaahumanu, Queen of Hawaii. Hastings House: New York: 1952.
Molinaro, Ursule. A Full Moon of Women. “Trading Taboos: Kaahumanu. Queen and First Co-Ruler of Hawaii.” Dutton: New York: 1990.
Silverman, Jane L. Kaahumanu: Moulder of Change. Friends of the Judiciary History Center of Hawaii: Honolulu 1987.
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