Skip to main content

Queen Kaahumanu and the End of Kapu

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
King Kamehameha's favorite wife

King Kamehameha's favorite wife

Kaʻahumanu was born in a small cave on Maui in 1772.1 Blood of both Maui and big island of Hawaiʻi High Chiefs flowed through her veins and would assure her one of the highest positions among the aliʻi or royals. When she was nine or ten, her father gave her to thirty year old Chief Kamehameha to seal a lifelong alliance and friendship. Kaʻahumanu lived in Kamehameha's household and at 13, when she was thought to be mature enough, they were wed.1 As Kamehameha's power grew so did his love for Kaʻahumanu, and she became his favorite wife. "Of Kamehameha's two possessions, his wife and his kingdom, she was the more beautiful." his people often said.2

Wahines and Kapu

All of the aliʻi or ruling chiefs, were over six feet tall and had mana, or divine power. Although Kaʻahumanu had both the height and the mana, her sex would keep her from greatness, at least in her younger days. Women or wahines were not considered sacred like the aliʻi men or kane were. The Hawaiian women did not eat with their men. The men considered eating food to be communion with the gods and hence women were excluded. Many things were forbidden or kapu for wahines: banana, pork, coconut. In addition, the priests or kahuna could announce a kapu and all women would be secluded to their homes for several days.. Common knowledge was if a kapu was broken the Gods would become angry and wreak havoc upon the person breaking it.1

Kamehameha's ships meet Vancouver's ships in Kealakekua Bay.

Kamehameha's ships meet Vancouver's ships in Kealakekua Bay.

Queen Kaʻahumanu, Commander George Vancouver and Lieutenant Thomas Manby

Kaʻahumanu is mentioned in the journals of both George Vancouver, commander of the British exploring ship,"Discovery" and his lieutenant, Thomas Manby which toured the islands in 1793. Quite taken with Kaʻahumanu, Vancouver describes her as an unexpectedly delightful and romantic young woman in a journal he shared with the English public. "One of the finest women I have yet seen on any of the islands." were Vancouver's words.1 Young Thomas Manby took delight in writing of his dalliances among the island women and he desribes Kaʻahumanu as "plump and jolly, very lively and good humored."3

When Vancouver stopped at the village of Kawaihae he met Kaʻahumanu's father, Keʻeaumoku and learned he was the father of Kamehameha's favorite wife. Vancouver invited Keʻeaumoku and his four wives to dine aboard his ship, although he did not expect any women to board the "Discovery" as a kapu prohibiting them from going into the ocean was in force. Namahana was Kaahumanu's mother and she fiercely wanted to go aboard. She argued that the kapu only prevented her from going out in a Hawaiian canoe and could not apply to haole or foreign boats who were not under a kapu's restrictions. According to Vancouver "this ingenous mode of reasoning" persuaded her husband and she was brought aboard the Discovery using the ship's boat.2 Perhaps it was through watching her mother that Kaʻahumanu learned to create new freedoms for herself using the haole's or foreigner's presence.

Keʻeaumoku and Nahama accompanied Vancouver to Kealakekua Bay where Kamehameha and Kaʻahumanu were waiting in a large canoe to greet them. Aboard the ship, Vancouver gave Kamehameha a gaudy red cloak, knowing red was a sacred color. When Kamehemeha donned the tinsel trimmed cape, his people who surrounded the boat in their canoes, gave loud exclamations of approval. When Vancouver indicated he had more gifts to give, the chief called his relatives up from the boat and distributed then generously among his men but not so much to his women. This did not suit gallant, gentleman Vancouver, so he went to each of the women and to Kamehameha's great amusement, increased her portion. One can only guess Kaʻahumanuʻs thoughts as she witnessed this genteel treatment of women. The gift giving came to a sudden end when the preist's messenger arrived to proclaim a kapu at sunset. All the native girls jumped overboard and swam ashore. "They left us with many invectives against the barbarous custom that would now confine them to their habitations for two nights and one day" wrote lieutenant Manby in his journal.3

In his journal Thomas Manby tells of an afternoon visit to Kamehameha's courtyard, where he came upon Kaʻahumanu stringing beads with twenty attendants fanning and serving her. She gestured for him to join her. Mats were put down next to her and she had fresh fruits brought for them to eat and so Manby unwittingly became her instrument in bringing the haole custom of men eating with women into the enclosure of the chief. Kaʻahumanu knew that the Hawaiian girls visiting the ships were eating meals with the men. In her first close encounter with a person of white skin, Kaʻahumanu amused herself "by tying and untying Manby's hair. She decorated the plaits with feathers and flowers. Manby writes "she then nearly undressed me to observe my skin." Manby's leg had been tattooed in Tahiti. Pleased to discover this unusual yet similar symbol, Kaʻahumanu sent for an old man to examine it. His interpretation caused everyone to laugh. Manby writes that as his flirtation with her became too intimate "she was called to order by a little deformed wretch." This "little humped back race" attended all royal wahines. They were guardians and would be put to death should the woman stray from her husband.3

Queen Kaʻahumanu

Queen Kaʻahumanu

Kamehameha's Death

Throughout his life Kamehemeha took the counsel of his favorite queen in matters of political importance. Vancouver writes of the great affection they showed each other aboard his ship. She was his playmate in the ocean as well, learning to surf at an early age and becoming as accomplished as her renowned mother, Nahama. "She is all things; She is undefeatable. Strong is times of crisis, she can also ride the waves like a bird. and she is as lovely as a lauhala blossom. " said Kamehameha of Kaʻahumanu.1 Kamehameha dies on May 8,1819, but prior to his death he creates the office of kuhina nui or prime minister, with an authority equal to that of the king, and to this powerful position he appoints his beloved queen, Kaʻahumanu.


Lilholiho's Coronation

Kamehameha's heir was Lilholiho and the council of chiefs chose Kaʻahumanu, Liholiho's kahu or guardian to convey Kamehameha's last demands at his coronation. How surprised everyone was when the queen showed up wearing Kamehameha's yellow feathered cloak, which was so sacred it was stitched and woven only by men for men to wear. In her right hand she held Kamehameha's sacred spear. In her book The Magnificent Matriarch Kaʻahumanu, Queen of Hawaii, Kathleen Dickenson Mellon describes Kaʻahumanu's calm and confident manner as she stood among the highest alii. "Hear me. O Kalani! for I make known the will of your revered father," chanted Kaʻahumanu. Gesturing towards the standing priests and bowed commoners, Queen Kaʻahumanu continued "Look upon these, O king- the aliʻi , the makaʻāinana - they are all yours. Yours also the fertile land of all these islands. Yours the surrounding waters of the sea. But you and I, O Kalani are to share the realm together."1

After the Queen's shocking appearance, but not so unexpected statements the priests stepped forward to perform the installation ceremonies. Three priests stepped forward one at a time, to chant meles of Kamehameha, his ancestors and their greatness. After the high priest said a prayer to the Gods Kāne, Ku and Lono, Liholiho was escorted to the temple of Kamakahonu where in a sacred religious ritual, his loins were girded in red signifying sovereign power and he was named Kamehameha II.2

After the ceremony, it was time for the royal party to feast. Two lavishly spread tables had been set in a large, shoreline coconut grove. The custom was for the men to eat at one table headed by Liholiho and the women to eat at the other headed by Kaʻahumanu. The servants watched curiously to see what Queen Dowager Kaʻahumanu would do. They knew how atrocious the custom was for her. When she took her proper place at the women's table, they were not the only ones breathing easier.2

Her Majesty Maneuvers

Her Majesty Kaʻahumanu was barely biding time. The morning after the ceremonies she began her first step. She invited Liholiho to her home. On his arrival she informed him that the kapu on men and women eating together was lifted and furthermore, from now on women could eat all previously forbidden foods. She backed her statement up by eating a banana. Liholiho said nothing and left quickly.2

Kaʻahumanu knew she would need the support of others for the kapu system to change. She whispered into the ear of Lihliho's mother Keopulani. At Kaʻahumanuʻs suggestion Keopulani invited Liholiho to her home where she had an elaborate meal waiting. She invited him to dine with her. He refused. She called her younger son, and Liholiho's brother, Kauikeouli sat down and ate with her in front of the new king. Fearing involvement, once again Liholiho fled, this time all the way to Kauai.

Queen Kaʻahumanu also had High Chief Hewahewa, head priest of the temples on her side. She had sought his support long before Liholiho's coronation. His support was paramount, because as news of the two Queen's recent rebellions spread through the people, a wave of chaos and tension was rising. Was Kaʻahumanu savvy enough to surf the swell of discord she had created?

Why the Gods did not punish the two highest aliʻi wahines in the land, became an obvious question to the Hawaiian people. Lower ranking male chiefs were particularly unhappy with the recent turn around, and pushed Liholiho to put an even stronger kapu into effect, which he did. Kaahumanu sent a message from Kailua informing him that she had released Kailua from kapu and it would not be restored there. Liholiho finally surrendered to the two woman who had brought him up. The young King publicly announced the end of kapu by sitting down at the women's table and eating with them during a Kailua feast.

Naturally, some of the Chiefs were unhappy with the loss of their sacred status. They uprose to uphold the Old God's laws. Queen Kaahumnu sent her brother, Kalanimoku to Honolulu were he was able to attain 900 muskets. Then Kalanimoku and Kaahumanu herself, according to one source led her people to defeat them in battle.2

With Kaahumanu's Kailua kapu breakers the victors and the Gods continued silence, the people began to question their faith and just six months after Kamehameha's death the kapu was abolished.

Scroll to Continue


1. The Magnificent Matriarch - Kaʻahumanu, Queen of Hawaii by Kathleen Dickenson Mellen. Hastings House, Publishers Inc. New York 1952

2. Kaʻahumanu - Molder of Change by Jane L. Silverman. Friends of the Hawaii Judiciary History Center. 1987

3. Thomas Manby's ship journal


YogaKat (author) from Oahu Hawaii on April 22, 2012:

Thanks Koonohiokala for your insight and perspective. It is true that all my resources were from western sources which makes your comments so very valuable. I truly enjoyed reading your fascinating remarks. Mahalo for sharing your personal history.

koonohiokala on April 22, 2012:

Mahalo e 'yoga kat'! I appreciate the opportunity to shine my feeble light of understanding.

koonohiokala on April 22, 2012:

During the time in Hawaii's History when women lost all their previously held land rights and voting rights to the western culture and policy of men, my grandmother rose with other grandmother's to ensure that our women's rights and voices would be heard. My grandmother was a young girl then, about the same age as I am now. It is to women such as those that all western women should be grateful for. As for us Hawaiians, we would expect nothing less from our women.

koonohiokala on April 22, 2012:

I would choose not to eat bananas and coconuts over not voting/having no say in my own future such as the western women had to endure for thousands of years. I'd also rather eat with my sisters than have to eat with my brothers, so to speak, since I believe I would have more in common with my sisters, (for example, we all have vaginas and female interests which should be discussed and what better way to discuss them than over a good meal?). Also, if Hawaiian women were so persecuted as the Western Historians would have us believe, then why, pray tell, would Kamehameha see fit to listen to Ka'ahumanu and abolish the 'aikapu? Especially since Kamehameha himself did not prescribe to the same religious beliefs as Ka'ahumanu? So please, do not believe everything you read for much was written with ethnocentric bias.

koonohiokala on April 22, 2012:

Women were most certainly considered sacred, although westerners would have us all believe otherwise since they themselves are guilty of persecuting their women for thousands of years. It could just as easily be said that it was the MEN who were forbidden to eat with the women. Hawaiians were, are, and always will be, a fair and reasonable people where justice and peace are concerned.

YogaKat (author) from Oahu Hawaii on February 06, 2012:

Thank you Stessily, for visiting my hub and your kind words. You have given me an idea for a poll I could as well!

stessily on February 06, 2012:

YogaKat, I wouldn't miss bananas or pork, but not being able to eat coconuts would bother me!

Namahana's clever determination to visit the "Discovery" certainly is inspiring. She and her daughter clearly had the ability to see things in new ways; that is a precious ability to have.

Thank you for telling Kaahumanu's story is such an interesting, entertaining way. You bring her to life.

YogaKat (author) from Oahu Hawaii on January 15, 2012:

Thanks for visiting my hub hush4444. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about this amazing feisty lady.

hush4444 from Hawaii on January 15, 2012:

It really is amazing how much Kaahumanu accomplished in such a strict environment. Imagine not being able to eat a banana in Hawaii! Very well-researched and interesting hub.

Related Articles