On March 17, 1768 Ka’ahumanu was born in a cave at the fortress hill of Ka’uiki in Hana. The fierce Moi of Maui, once her mother’s lover, became so enraged when she chose Ke’eamuoku over him that he set his warriors upon her parents. They chased them through Haleakala Crater, but lost them in thick mountain forests. While Ka’ahumanu was still a baby her parents fled Hana to Hawai’i where they lived in royal comfort. Wai-nani, the voice from old Hawai’i in my historical novel (1750-1819) is inspired by the precocious Chiefess Ka’ahumanu. Instrumental in ending the 2,000-year-old Kapu system and the burning of the gods, to some she is remembered as the” loving mother of the people” and to others she is the hated “flaw that brought down the chiefdom.”
Six feet tall, fiery, statuesque, elegant on the land and in the sea, she became Kamehameha the Great’s wife at age 13. He was so taken by her keen intelligence, and athletic abilities that even though a childless bride, she remained his favorite wife throughout his 40-year reign. The most beloved royals in Hawaiian lore could be seen skittering across the waves on massive koa wood boards together. On his deathbed in 1819 Kamehameha made her Kuhina Nui giving her equal weight to rule with his son.
She questioned the practice of separate eating places for women and men, defied rules restricting woman from eating eat certain foods like red bananas and pork. She questioned the authority of the priests who meted out dreadful punishments for minor infractions claiming to be living under the instructions of the gods. How courageous she was to don the yellow feather cape of ruling Ali’i after Kamehameha’s death and to sit down to eat with his son declaring herself his equal as she licked pork from her fingers.
She is not looked upon with great favor by some because when the missionaries arrived in 1820 she befriended them and converted to Christianity. She encouraged her people floundering in a spiritual vacuum to follow suit.
Ka’ahumanu stirred my imagination and won my admiration. Brave, athletic, strong, passionate, caring and centered in herself, I saw her as a forerunner of the modern woman. I was introduced to her in the 70’s during a time when women were breaking out of accepted molds. Ka’ahumanu seemed to me to be a powerful personage that embodied female empowerment overlooked by western historians.
In the Name of Ka’ahumanu