Nāhiʻenaʻena was a Hawaiian Princess born probably circa 1815, but we do not know this for certain, nor do we know the place of her birth. Her parents were Kamehameha I, the founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii and Keōpūolani, his highest ranking wife. We do know that her mother insisted on keeping “this last child” under her own guardianship. Due to her father’s many wives, she was one of many siblings – the exact number is unknown. At the time of her birth, her father was already in his late 70s and he died in 1819 when Nāhiʻenaʻena was only around four years old. He was succeeded by Kamehameha II, who was Nāhiʻenaʻena’s full elder brother. Like his father, he married several wives, including both his and Nāhiʻenaʻena’s half-sister Kamāmalu, who was his favourite wife. A missionary described her, “She is a pretty and well-behaved child, not as an Indian, but according to our own ideas of the characteristics of childhood.”
Her childhood was clouded in mystery. She was only mentioned briefly between 1820 and 1822. We do know that she learned to read and write before 1823. After 1823, her education was entrusted to two missionaries who have written much of what we know about her. She and her mother moved from Honolulu to the coconut groves of Waikiki, where her mother continued her Christian studies and enjoyed the cool air. A Tahitian named Taua was appointed as a religious teacher in the household of the Queen to considerable opposition from the old order. She even asked for her daughter to be trained the ways of missionary wives and civilised women. In May, the Queen moved to Maui, where she had been born. By September, Keōpūolani’s health was getting worse. A large abscess had grown between her shoulders, and she often had “spasms.” Fearing that death was near, she became anxious about Nāhiʻenaʻena’s future. She summoned her second husband and told him, “See that you take good care of Nāhiʻenaʻena. See that she is instructed in reading and writing, that she may learn to love God and Jesus Christ.” She died on 16 September 1823.
Nāhiʻenaʻena remained under the guardianship of her stepfather. During this time, she was recorded as having mood swings and that she and Kauikeaouli, her full brother and the future Kamehameha III, had been living together “in a state of incest.” He was around a year younger than her. It was considered a tradition that brothers and sisters of high rank should love one another. They had grown up together and “Though the prince is heir apparent, yet the Princess is equally honoured.” She was still only around eight years old at this time.
After a sacrifice to the old gods, Nāhiʻenaʻena returned to the Christian faith and was quoted as saying, “I once thought that the word of God was a heavy thing, and burdensome to those that carried it, and a thing to make one sick.” Yet, she had learned to love the word of God.
Her brother Kamehameha II and his Queen and their half-sister Kamāmalu both died in 1824 of measles while visiting London. It wasn’t until March 1825 that the news reached Hawaii. Their bodies were finally returned home later that year, and on 4 May, Nāhiʻenaʻena and her stepfather waited on the beach for the frigate. He was succeeded by Kauikeaouli, now King Kamehameha III. During the beginning of her young brother’s reign, Kamehameha III, Nāhiʻenaʻena became increasingly pious and modest. In December 1825, her brother Kamehameha III came for an extended visit, and he did not leave until February. His departure was tearful, and he delayed the sailing of his ship by an hour. Nāhiʻenaʻena wanted to give herself to God, and she was admitted to the church in 1827. She took the baptismal names of Keōpūolani and Harieta. Meanwhile, the gossip in the city was that Nāhiʻenaʻena and her brother were sleeping together and planned to marry. The following year, she and her brother travelled together to see a volcano.
In late November 1828, she was summoned to Honolulu where her brother had developed an ugly swelling on his neck. Shortly after her arrival, he recovered completely. It was reported that he “slept with her every night.” By 1831, her love for her brother seemed to have diminished somewhat. She was disgusted by his dissolute ways. She too had taken up drinking. Another man had entered her life in 1831, a ship’s captain named Abe Russell and she “adopted” him. He may have been her lover, and she even tried to prevent his departure. He was eventually exiled though Nāhiʻenaʻena asked on her deathbed that her “son” be taken care of.
In 1834, a man was selected for her to marry. She disapproved and preferred another man named William Pitt Leleiohoku and the marriage plans seemed to be forgotten for now. Then in June the tide suddenly turned. The King had attempted suicide, and finally, one night in late July in the house of high chief Paki, Nāhiʻenaʻena married her brother. The wedding took place in the ancient way of chiefs; the King slept with his sister in the presence of their guardian and others of sufficient rank. Afterwards, they wrote a letter to their half-sister Kīnaʻu who was the Kuhina Nui (a sort of prime minister) informing her of the marriage. A crier was then sent through the streets to proclaim the event. The news was not well received, and the couple had to be protected by guards. By November, rumours spread that she was pregnant, though no child was born. Their marriage was not officially recognised, and the King drank heavily as did Nāhiʻenaʻena. Then in January 1835, she suddenly returned to her stepfather in a self-imposed exile.
Her fall from grace was especially hard on the missionaries who had taught her for all those years. She begged them not to be excommunicated, but the letter of excommunication was read out in church on 25 May. Despite this, the church was still quite willing to give her a church wedding and her wedding to William Pitt Leleiohoku was celebrated shortly after her excommunication. Nāhiʻenaʻena became angry, defiant and melancholic. Then abruptly, she became pious again, but she remained miserable. She also fell pregnant. The King had his sister brought to Honolulu where they “resumed the life they had shared briefly after their marriage.” On 17 September, the newspapers announced that the infant son of the Princess died after a life of only a few hours. Nāhiʻenaʻena was seriously ill after the birth and remained so for several months. As death came closer at the end of December, Nāhiʻenaʻena asked, “Can there be hope for one who has sinned as I have?” On 30 December, a single gun salute announced her death.1