Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli, son of Kamehameha I) was the third monarch of the united Hawaiian Islands. He was the first Hawaiian king to reject the divinity of his lineage and the first male monarch to accept the Christian tradition of marriage to only one woman. Nevertheless, traditional Hawaiian (wa kahiko or pre-Contact) customs regarding gender, procreation, and sex between men played an important part in his personal life.
Official accounts of Hawaiian history before the late twentieth century tend to gloss over instances of cross-dressing, gender variance, and same-sex love. But there is a strong undercurrent of folk history that runs parallel to official accounts. This folk history has played an important role in establishing cultural context for the Native Hawaiian LGBTQ community. The story of Kauikeaouli and his male lovers, Kaomi and Keoniana, is one such narrative.
Background: Ali‘i, Rank, and Social Change
The highest rank in wa kahiko culture was known as the ali‘i, an elite group that was separated from the maka‘ainana (commoners) and kauwa (outcastes). Strict rules called kapu enforced distinctions of class and gender. But maka‘ainana could move up the social ladder by impressing their ali‘i superiors in a number of ways such as sports competition, physical beauty, artistic expression through dance and song, oratory skills, and warrior prowess. A young man who was a favorite to a man superior to him could become an aikane, an intimate companion who might also be a lover (moe aikane, an intimate friend with whom one lays down). The surest means for promotion for a man and his offspring was marriage to a woman of high rank, a possibility that aspiring aikane could seek as they gained the trust and affection of their patron.
It was considered normal for an ali‘i to have more than one lover and more than one spouse. There was an obligation, however, to produce the next generation according to class-based criteria. For the ali‘i, a major priority was genealogical purity, which reached its highest form with ni‘aupi‘o (brother-sister or father-daughter) marriages. The resulting offspring would have the highest status of all, kapu moe (prostration kapu) where commoners could not look at them, and in addition had to prostrate face flat on the ground as the ali‘i with kapu moe approached.
Kamehameha I altered the political structure of the islands from multiple mo‘i (paramount chiefs) in different islands to a single mo‘i over a united Hawaiian Island nation. He implemented sweeping reforms, which included the end of human sacrifice and a prohibition against unbridled destruction of commoners’ property during wartime. Although a high-ranking man in terms of ancestry, Kamehameha did not have the highest status. He wanted to establish a dynasty with indisputably superior rank, so he secured the hand of the divine Keopuolani, a woman of kapu moe status, as one of his wives. Keopuolani bore three children to Kamehameha that survived to adulthood: Liholiho, Kauikeaouli, and Nahi‘ena‘ena.
Liholiho became Kamehameha II when his father died in 1819. At the time of his ascension to ali‘i mo‘i of the Hawaiian Islands, Liholiho was informed by his stepmother Ka‘ahumanu that his father wanted her to be co-ruler with him. According to legend, she made this announcement dressed in her late husband’s ahu‘ula (long feathered cape reserved for ali‘i men). The audacity of her wearing men’s royal clothing and announcing her right as co-ruler created a scandal, but Ka‘ahumanu’s claim was supported by Liholiho’s birth mother, Keopuolani, who was recognized as a sacred being of almost unimpeachable spiritual purity. Ka‘ahumanu and Keopuolani convinced Liholiho to impose significant changes in Hawaiian life by dismantling the kapu system of restrictions, including the kapu forbidding women to eat with men. They also promoted the agenda of American missionaries who arrived soon after the kapu were lifted, and encouraged people to learn how to read and write in the new Hawaiian script created by the missionaries.
Ka‘ahumanu started a parallel dynasty of women who held the office of kuhina nui, a position that shared executive power with the ruler. Among the wives of Liholiho were two of his half-sisters, Kamamalu and Kina‘u. Both took Christian names (Victoria and Elizabeth, respectively). Elizabeth Kina‘u became kuhina nui after Ka‘ahumanu, taking the title of Ka‘ahumanu II and further pushing Christian reforms. The crown went from Liholiho to his brother Kauikeaouli when Liholiho and his chief consort Kamamalu died of smallpox in England while on a diplomatic mission. Both Elizabeth Kina‘u and her successor, Miriam Kekauluohi (Ka‘ahumanu III) ruled alongside Kauikeaouli, but the arrangement was not one that he favored.
From Pre-Contact Hawaiian Mo‘i to Christian Hawaiian King
On her deathbed, Keopuolani made her young daughter Nahi‘ena‘ena promise to follow Christian ways. This led to tremendous difficulties for Nahi‘ena‘ena and her brother Kauikeaouli. In preparation for his possible role as ruler, he and his beloved sister were raised with the expectation that they would have children together. The largest piece of Hawaiian featherwork in existence is a yellow pa‘u, a skirt made for Nahi‘ena‘ena to honor her ma‘i (genitalia) in hopes of successful production of offspring with her brother. The pa‘u is housed in the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
Initially avoiding the responsibility to produce a sacred child, the siblings eventually relented to tradition and the strong affection they had for each other. The resulting child was sickly and died only hours after being born. Nahi‘ena‘ena herself passed away two months later. Kauikeaouli mourned his sister and their lost child, a tragedy that missionaries ascribed to the sinful nature of their union. From that point on, Kauikeaouli accelerated the shift from traditional mo‘i to European-based Hawaiian monarchy, yet continued to resist conforming to expectations in favor of his own desires. He married Kalama, a beautiful woman of much less rank, in a Christian wedding ceremony and kept her as his only wife. The beautiful yellow feathered skirt of his sister Nahi‘ena‘ena (6.5 by .75 meters, about the size of a sari) was cut in half and sewn together into a large rectangle (3.25 by 1.5 meters) that would one day support the coffins of Kamehameha III and rulers after him when their bodies were laid in state.
Kaomi and Keoniana
The Christian marriage to Kalama did not mean, however, that King Kamehameha III felt bound to Christian notions of marital fidelity any more than such notions applied to European Christian monarchs such as Henry VIII and Catherine the Great. In addition to close-kin sexual unions and liaisons with other women outside of official wives, pre-Christian Hawaiian rulers enjoyed homoerotic-romantic pleasures with no censure. Kauikeaouli fell in love with a Christian convert, a good-looking Tahitian-Hawaiian man named Kaomi, who became his aikane. Kauikeaouli was so smitten with Kaomi that he sought to make him co-ruler. The handsome Kaomi died under questionable circumstances before Kauikeaouli could elevate his status.
Kaomi was not the only man who was aikane to the King. Another lover was the son of former sailor John Young, a Scottish military advisor and aikane of Kamehameha I. John Young Senior (known to the Hawaiians as Olopana, “all hands”) married a woman of ali‘i rank, and John Young II, was one of their children. Known as Keoniana in the Hawaiian transliteration of his name, John Young II was a close companion to Kauikeaouli since childhood, and became the aikane of the future Kamehameha III.
At the death of Ka’ahumanu III, Keoniana was appointed kuhina nui by Kauikeaouli. Keoniana was renowned for being strikingly handsome and intelligent. Fluent in English and Hawaiian, he acted as a liaison between the monarchy and European/American delegates for business and international affairs. He fell out of favor with the King when he was caught having an affair with the King’s wife, Kalama. Kauikeaouli put Keoniana under a death sentence, but relented when Hawaiian friends pleaded with him to forgive his aikane.
As long as Kauikeaouli was monarch, Keoniana remained kuhina nui. Once Kauikeaouli passed away, the office of kuhina nui was once again held by a woman, Princess Victoria Kamamalu, as Ka‘ahumanu IV.
Queer Reading of the Kauikeaouli-Keoniana Relationship
The relationship between Kamehameha III and Young II is a study in how categories for sexuality in the late twentieth century are not applicable to much of Hawaiian Gay-related history. Scholars often apply terms such as “bisexual” when discussing wa kahiko ali‘i social norms. The problem is that “bisexual” is a category within a web of categories that distinguish sexualities in ways that do not reflect traditional Hawaiian sensibilities.
The Hawaiian term “aikane,” for example, is situated within a context in which same-sex romance is marked more by status than difference from other sexual identities. In terms of male ali‘i-maka‘ainana same-sex homoerotic-romantic relationships, “aikane” only applied to the person of lower rank. The King would therefore not be aikane to another man.
The celebrated nature of the aikane relationship may have been the catalyst that made the term applicable to close friends who are not lovers, but are just as beloved as if they were. As open as Hawaiians were to sex in myriad forms, much of the language was oblique in reference to sexual things, with ua (“rain”) possibly signifying “semen” and pali (“cliff”) signifying “vagina.” The use of kaona (hidden meaning) concerning sex acts and organs may have in the case of “aikane” gone the other way: from sexual closeness to general affection. Translated as ai (sexual behavior) and kane (man), the closeness implied between men who were favored by their superiors for romantic encounters may have then been used to signify affection and trust in any same-sex friendship, applying to women as well as men.
The openness of categories dealing with sex, affection, romance, and friendship in wa kahiko society is nevertheless veiled by a lack of distinctive identities based on same-sex preference. In understanding Gay-related identities in Hawaiian culture, it is important to recognize that, although the possibility exists of identities that would roughly approximate Gay male, Lesbian, and Bisexual, evidence confirming such set categories recognized by pre-Christianized Hawaiians has yet to be brought to light.
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Klieger, P. Christiaan. Moku’ula: Maui’s Sacred Island. Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1998.
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.