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Courtesy of the Mutual Publishing Co. in Honolulu, Hawaii

1995 Historical Education Preservation Award

A Local History
Text by
Gail Bartholomew
Photo research by
Bren Bailey


Six feet tall, bold fiery and beautiful, Ka'ahumanu has no equal in Hawai'i's feminist history. Her wisdom and strength guided the islands in a period of major transition for the Hawaiian people, and her actions profoundly affected the course of Hawaiian history.

Ka'ahumanu's birth was, much like her life, entangled in political intrigue and turmoil. Her mother Namahana, born of high rank in the lineage of Maui chiefs, married rival chief Ke'eaumoku from the island of Hawai'i, thus giving him the advantages of her rank and her lands in central Maui. Maui's ruler, Kahekili, considering this a threat to his power, attacked Namahana and Ke'eaumoku and their retinue at Waihe'e, chased them to Moloka'i, and, finally, to Kau'iki point at Hana. There, in a small cave, Ka'ahumanu was born in 1777. Asserting the baby's rights to Maui lineage, Ka'ahumanu's family named her after their foe, Kahekilinui'ahumanu. The continued pressures of war forced her family to relocate to the island of Hawai'i when Ka'ahumanu was still a baby.

Ka'ahumanu married Kamehameha I, Hawai'i's most celebrated ruler, when she was in her early teens and he was in his 30's, and she soon became his favorite. A handsome woman, she enhanced her appearance in the Hawaiian way by tattooing her legs, hand and tongue. The royal couple spent long hours together, talking, smoking pipes and surfing. More importantly, Kamehameha carefully listened to the counsel of this strong-willed and uncommonly intelligent woman throughout the turbulent years of his ascendancy and rule.

In 1802, Kamehameha moved his family, chiefs, and fighting forces to Lahaina for a prolonged stay in preparation for war against Kaua'i. While there, he built the first western-style house in the islands for his beloved Ka'ahumanu. The house, built out of red bricks dried in the sun of Lahaina, contained four rooms in its two stories.

Kaahumanu.JPG 17.9 K
A young Queen Ka'ahumanu, Hana-born Ka'ahumanu,
Kamehameha's favorite wife, exerted vast influence
in the governing of the kingdom for many years,
many of them spent in Lahaina.

After Kamehameha I died in 1819, Ka'ahumanu declared herself kuhina nui, or co-ruler, with the new young king, Likoliko, also known as Kamehameha II. Greatly disturbed by the restrictions of Hawaiian religion, she persuaded Liholiho to break the kapus, or taboos, an act which unintentionally cleared the way for the arrival of the Christian missionaries one year later. The missionaries taught her to read, and she eventually accepted their religious faith as hers.

In 1824 while in Lahaina, Ka'ahumanu thought she was dying. In an effort to help her people before she died, she proclaimed a code of law for the island of Maui, prohibiting murder, theft, gambling, and the profaning of the Sabbath. These laws, though generally unenforced were the first in the Hawaiian Islands.

Laws were needed, for there was little order in the kingdom. After an English sea captain bought an unwilling mission girl from Lahaina named Leoiki for a season's companionship, Lahaina chiefs, influenced by missionary William Richards, placed a kapu on further such transactions. As a result, angry and unruly sailors formed a mob and attacked Richards at his home.

Ka'ahumanu distressed over this incident and by other violence that ensued, placed the weight of her authority behind the kapu. In order to protect the town of Lahaina from cannon attack, she claimed the ten gold doubloons paid for Leoiki and used it to build a fort, peronally supervising its construction.

From the time of Kamehameha II's departure for England in 1823 until her death in 1832, Ka'ahumanu essentially ruled the kingdom, for Liholiho died abroad, and his brother Kauikeaouli, or Kamehameha III, was only 12 years old in 1825, when he was proclaimed king.

We are reminded of Ka'ahumanu's legacy on Maui by the historic Ka'ahumanu Church, built in Wailuku in 1876; Ka'ahumanu Highway, Kahului's major thoroughfare; and the ultimate honor of our time the Ka'ahumanu Shopping Center.




A Local History



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