Ka‘ahumanu (1772-1832 CE) was a powerful woman in the early history of the unified Hawaiian Islands. As a wife of the conqueror Kamehameha, Ka‘ahumanu used her position and influence to make herself co-regent after the death of her husband and during the reign of her ward, Liholiho. The dramatic way in which she ascended included garbing herself in masculine royal garments of her late husband. She also married high chiefs from the island of Kaua‘i (father and son) to ensure the unity of the Hawaiian Islands, yet kept her own position of superiority in relation to those chiefs.
The unorthodox behavior of a woman dressing and behaving as a king resonates with Gay-related folklore concerning cross-dressing and trans identities. For political reasons similar to the pharaoh Hatshepsut (who portrayed herself as masculine so that she could become Egypt’s sole ruler) and Nzinga (female Angolan ruler who dressed as a man and kept a harem of men), Ka‘ahumanu used men’s signifiers to lift herself out of the norms that denied women direct access to political power.
Ka‘ahumanu’s name means “Bird [as in feathered] Cape,” taken from the name of her father’s adversary, High Chief Kahekilinui‘ahumanu, commonly known as Kahekili II. She was born on the island of Maui, and carried important lineages of both Maui and the island of Hawai‘i. At a young age, she was placed under the care of Kamehameha I. An outgoing and vivacious woman, she was said to have been his favorite wife. Ka‘ahumanu’s power in the court of Kamehameha was sufficient for her to become co-regent when her husband died in 1819. She also undermined pre-Cook Hawaiian (wa kahiko or pre-Contact) religious infrastructure of the state, which was based upon worship of state-sanctioned deities, veneration of humans with high rank giving them divine or semi-divine status, and a pervasive system of restrictions and observations known as kapu.
Ka‘ahumanu was aided by another wife of Kamehameha named Keopuolani whose politico-religious status as a sacred person of highest lineage was the reason Kamehameha married her. Keopuolani gave birth to his heirs, Liholiho (Kamehameha II) and Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III). Ka‘ahumanu was appointed guardian of Liholiho and was a second mother to him. When Kamehameha I died, Ka‘ahumanu appeared before Liholiho, the heir apparent, in the ahu‘ula (feathered cape) of her late husband. She then announced to the young man that his father wanted her to be co-ruler: “You and I shall rule the land.”
There was some precedence for what Ka‘ahumanu had done. Co-regencies of man and woman were recorded in the wa kahiko chants of the ali‘i (ruling class). In addition, if a chief fell on the battlefield, his wife might don his feathered cloak and helmet as she continued to fight in his stead, so Ka‘ahumanu’s bold act may be seen as her symbolically carrying on the work of her husband. But her authority as a high-ranking wife of the late Kamehameha was not enough for her to accomplish all that she did on her own. She did not have the highest lineage, but she had the support of Keopuolani, a woman with a lineage that gave her the rank of a living deity. When challenged to share his authority, Liholiho faced both of his mothers, one of whom was among the most sacred people on Earth in his eyes.
Abolition of Kapu
Hawaiian custom at the death of an ali‘i (person of noble status) ruler dictated that, until a new ruler was formally installed, the kapu system was not enforced. This system included restrictions that kept men and women from eating with each other, forbade women from eating certain foods such as banana and coconut, and demanded harsh punishments on commoners who did not show proper subservience to the nobility.
Ka‘ahumanu and Keopuolani oversaw the dismantling of the kapu system, which was symbolically rendered obsolete when Liholiho broke the restriction against men eating with women. He accepted an invitation from his mothers to join them publicly for a meal. Ka‘ahumanu claimed the office of kuhina nui (“great counselor”) that was created for her as co-regent. She successfully urged Liholiho to dismantle heiau, sacred sites for the worship of deities, and destroy the ki‘i (images), thus undermine the authority of the powerful kahuna (priests) that regulated the politico-religious system. Keopuolani and Ka‘ahumanu welcomed Christian American missionaries to Hawai‘i, arriving a year after the abolition of the kapu system. With the blessing of both women, missionaries imposed new Bible-based restrictions upon the Hawaiian people, and Ka‘ahumanu and Keopuolani converted to Christianity.
Not conforming to Protestant expectations of subservient womanhood despite having invited missionaries to teach the people, Ka‘ahumanu forced High Chief Kaumuali‘i and his son Keali‘iahonui from the island of Kaua‘i to become her husbands in order to ensure that Kaua‘i not secede from the unified island nation. Ka‘ahumanu later abandoned Keali‘iahonui for Kaumuali‘i in order to more closely follow Christian guidelines concerning monogamy required for her baptism.
Ka‘ahumanu and the Hawaiian Renaissance
With the resurgence of Native Hawaiian culture in the last decades of the twentieth century, including Hawaiian language, music, dance, ritual, martial arts, crafts, and spirituality, Ka‘ahumanu is honored as a strong woman and a revered ali‘i. Her role in eliminating much of wa kahiko Hawaiian tradition is understood in terms of her (and Keopuolani’s) frustration with the many restrictions placed upon them. Although painfully disruptive (there was an armed revolt on the island of Hawai‘i because of it), ending the system protected their people from colonial powers that would use the Hawaiian kapu system as an excuse to conquer what they saw as a barbaric and un-Christian nation. Her reforms also led to the transformation of the Hawaiian people into a literate society. Within thirty years, over ninety percent of the Native Hawaiian population knew how to read and write, and several nupepa (newspapers) would spring up across the island chain.
When Ka‘ahumanu died, the position of kuhina nui would continue. Three of her relatives, Elizabeth Kina‘u (sister), Miriam Kekauluohi (half-sister and co-wife of Kamehameha), and Victoria Kamamalu (niece) took Ka‘ahumanu’s name when they ascended to the office as Ka‘ahumanu II, III, and IV, respectively.
Ka‘ahumanu Society, Ka‘ahumanu Congregational Church
The ‘Ahahui Ka‘ahumanu or Ka‘ahumanu Society was formed in 1864 by her niece, Victoria Kamamalu, who served as Kuhina Nui Ka‘ahumanu IV under her brother, Alexander Liholiho (Kamehameha IV). One of four royal societies, ‘Ahahui Ka‘ahumanu members are women of Hawaiian ancestry. Their garb consists of black dress, shoes and hat, with yellow lei hulu poepoe (fluffy feather lei with the feathers curving outward). The song, “Lei Ka‘ahumanu,” was composed for ‘Ahahui Ka‘ahumanu by Helen Desha Beamer in 1943.
The Ka‘ahumanu Congregational Church is in Wailuku, Maui. In 1832, Ka‘ahumanu visited the Congregational community’s church (at the time, a very basic structure) and requested a permanent building be named after her. This would not happen, however, until 1876 when the community had its first Native Hawaiian minister, William Pulepule Kahale. Said to be on the site of a heiau and residence for High Chief Kahekili, this was the fourth and final structure built on the spot. The church’s architecture is New England Gothic. Hymns and blessings are done in Hawaiian, a tradition that persisted even during the times when the Hawaiian language had been banned from public speech.
Kame’eleihiwa, Lilikala. Native Land and Foreign Desires, Pehea La E Pono Ai? Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1992.
Silva, Noenoe K. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. Durham, NC: Duke University, 2004.
Young, Kanalu G. Terry. Rethinking the Native Hawaiian Past. New York: Routledge, 1998.