Elizabeth Kaahumanu (March 17, 1768 – June 5, 1832) was queen regent of the Kingdom of Hawaii and a wife of Kamehameha I. She was the king's favorite wife and also the most politically powerful, and continued to wield considerable power in the kingdom as the kuhina nui or prime minister during the reigns of his first two successors.
Kaahumanu was born in a cave near Hāna
on the Hawaiian Island
in between the years 1768 or 1773. Her parents were Keeaumoku Papaiahiahi, a fugitive alii
or noble from the Big Island
, and Namahana'i'Kaleleokalani, the wife of her half-brother the late king of Maui, Kamehameha Nui
. From her mother she was member of the noble house of Maui being relative of many of the kings of Maui. From her father, she was the third cousin of Kamehameha I
, both sharing the common ancestoress, Princess Kalanikauleleiwi
. Her name translates as the feathered mantle
Her siblings include Governor John Adams Kuakini of Hawaii, Queen Kalakua Kaheiheimalie, Governor George Cox Kahekili Ke'eaumoku II of Maui, Lydia Namahana Pi'ia. Her father became an advisor and friend to Kamehameha of Hawaii, eventually becoming royal governor of Maui. He arranged for Kaahumanu to marry him when she was thirteen. Kamehameha had numerous wives but Kaahumanu would become his favorite. It was she who encouraged her husband's war of unification of Hawaii.
Kaahumanu was not only the king's favorite wife but also the most powerful, as according to the indigenous Hawaiian religion she great amount of mana
in her time . This mana was considered sacred, and to preserve it undiluted, the ancient Hawaiians practiced incest within the royal family. Similarly to the ancient Egyptians
, it was not uncommon for brothers and sisters to marry within the royal family. This practice vanished after the transition to Christianity
, Kamehameha III and his sister, Nahienaena, were thwarted by the missionary faction in their efforts to produce an heir in the early 1830s. It was never practiced at all by the common people .
Upon Kamehameha's death on May 5, 1819, Kaahumanu asserted that it was the late king's wish that she share governance over the Kingdom of Hawaii with his 22-year-old son Liholiho, who took the name of Kamehameha II. The parliamentary body agreed and created the post of kuhina nui, or prime minister, for her. Her power base grew and she eventually ruled with the title of Queen Regent during the reigns of both Kamehameha II and Kauikeaouli, who assumed the throne as Kamehameha III.
Kaahumanu was ahead of her time and championed the rights of native Hawaiian women, although historians have noted that this was to her own advantage. In what became known as the 'Ai Noa (free eating), Kaahumanu conspired with Keopuolani, another of her late husband's wives who was also a Queen Regent during the reign of Kamehameha II, to eat at the same table with the young king, breaking a major kapu and changing the rules of Hawaiian society.
Kaumualii of Kauai
When her husband died, Kaahumanu feared the island of Kauai
would break away from the kingdom. Kauai and its subject island Niihau
had never been forcibly conquered by Kamehameha; after years of resistance they negotiated a bloodless surrender in the face of Kamehameha's armada. In 1810 the island's alii, Kaumualii
, became a vassal to Kamehameha, but after the king's death he began to make motions towards independence. To preserve the union Kaahumanu kidnapped Kaumualii on October 9
and married him by force, becoming his seventh wife. He eventually died and she married his son Keali'iahonui
In April 1824, Kaahumanu publicly acknowledged her embrace of Protestant
Christianity and encouraged her subjects to be baptized into the faith. That same year, she presented Hawaii with its first codified body of laws modeled after Christian ethics and values and the Ten Commandments
. Kaahumanu was baptized on December 5
at the site where Kawaiahao Church
Missionaries persuaded Kaahumanu that the Roman Catholic Church, which had established the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu, should be abolished from the island nation. On July 7, 1827, she ordered the first Catholic missionaries to leave. In 1830, Kaahumanu signed legislation that forbade Catholic teachings and threatened to deport whoever broke the law.
Establishing American relations
Kaahumanu, the king, negotiated the first treaty between the Kingdom of Hawaii and the United States
in 1826, under the administration of President John Quincy Adams
. The treaty assumed responsibility on behalf of native Hawaiians with debts to American traders and paid the bill with $150,000 worth of sandalwood; this won her the support of ali'i
who owed money to the traders. The same document was also a free trade treaty, ensuring Americans had the right to enter all ports of Hawaii to do business. Americans were also afforded the right to sue in Hawaiian courts and be protected by Hawaiian laws.
In 1827, Kaahumanu returning from a tour of the windward islands, fell ill and her health steadily declined. During her illness and in her honor, missionaries printed the first copy, bound in red leather with her name engraved in gold letters, of the New Testament in the Hawaiian language. She kept it with her until her death of intestinal illness, June 5, 1832 at Manoa Valley, Honolulu. Her funeral was held at Kawaiahao Church, which she commissioned as the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii. Services were presided by Hiram Bingham. She was laid to rest on Iolani Palace grounds but was later moved to the Royal Mausoleum.
- Daws, A. Gavan (1970). Shoal of Time. Honolulu, Hawai'i: University of Hawaii Press
- Patterson, Rosemary I. (1998). Kuhina Nui: A Novel Based on the Life of Kaahumanu, the Queen Regent of Hawaii (1819-1832). Columbus, Ohio: Pine Island Press. ISBN 1-880836-21-1.
- Silverman, Jane L. (1995). Kaahumanu: Molder of Change. Friends of the Judiciary History Center of Hawaii. ISBN 0-9619234-0-7.