The State of Aloha

I’m wearing black today.

No, it’s not for the terrible events in Manchester or the passing of Gregg Allman or Martin Pahinui. It’s to remember someone else.

She was a Maui girl born in Hana. Years ago my brother and I were wandering around Hana Bay. I wanted to show him something I remembered as a kid. We wandered around the eastern side of the bay near the lighthouse just beyond the decaying concrete pier among the big rocks and swaying ironwood trees. It was still there.

Bolted onto a large rock is an enormous, copper plaque established by the territorial government in 1928. It’s a work of art. Adorned with engraved palm trees and a large canoe on the bottom is a historic marker. It’s supposed to mark her birthplace.

Ka’ahumanu was born in a cave near Hana Bay around 1768, surrounded by women. Her father was a chief who had fled from a rival on the Big Island. Her mother’s bloodlines linked her to high chiefs on Maui. She grew up among the warring factions of chiefs. She married Kamehameha when she was only 13 years old. She wasn’t his only wife, but she was his favorite.

Their relationship was rocky, but she stood by him and urged him to continue warring with local chiefs until he united all of the islands and established the Hawaiian Kingdom. She herself had strong, noble lineage and had power of her own. But she was subordinate to her husband, the king.

After his death in 1819, however, Ka’ahumanu took center stage. The comely woman was 6 feet tall. Her hair was dark, wavy and fine. She was a sight.

Her son, the young prince Liholiho, had become the new king. It was precarious for her and her son. It was unclear if the newly united kingdom would still hold after the death of its founder. And so, Ka’ahumanu created a new office in the government: the kuhina nui. She was kind of like a prime minister. Although Liholiho was technically the king, Ka’ahumanu governed.

The dynamic of their power was played out rather dramatically over the kapu system. Liholiho was content to continue the old regulatory customs from time immemorial. Ka’ahumanu, however, had other plans.

Young Ka’ahumanu enjoyed flirting and the company of men, and many have speculated that she resented the many restrictions on how close she could mingle with the opposite sex and when she could spend time with them. Having to endure restrictive codes of conduct that regulated everything from where she could sit to what she could eat and when was irksome for her.

And so Liholiho and Ka’ahumanu had their first conflict over the abolishment of the old system at Kailua Bay on the Big Island. A group of people had gathered as the newly crowned king discussed the matter with Ka’ahumanu. She told Liholiho that if he wished to abide by the old ways, that was just fine, but “as for me and my people, we intend to be free from the kapu.”

Liholiho was unmoved. Ka’ahumanu, in the meantime, blatantly defied the old ways by eating bananas, pork and coconuts — foods that had been prohibited to her because she was a woman. On top of this, she asked Liholiho to send her younger brother to join her in eating, another violation of the old ways. The king gave in and that has been considered the ending of the old kapu system.

That same year, the missionaries came to the islands and Christianity spread. Ka’ahumanu converted and was baptized. Christening herself Elizabeth — the name of another famous ruler — Ka’ahumanu had become a zealous Christian. She managed to become crucial for the missionaries who sought to convert Hawaiians. Ka’ahumanu continued to defy the old ways, but also set an example to her country by challenging the old gods and goddesses.

She was responsible for the first written code of laws in the kingdom (based, of course, largely on the Ten Commandments). Ka’ahumanu wanted an educated public. She ordered that once schools are established, “all the people shall learn the palapala (writing).”

If that wasn’t enough, Ka’ahumanu was able to bring the defiant kingdom of Kauai to heel by marrying the king there and then keeping him from moving back to his home island and starting a rebellion. She outlived Liholiho and continued to rule after Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) was crowned at the ripe old age of 12. She guided the young king and held power similar to a prime minister.

After touring the islands, Ka’ahumanu fell ill. She died peacefully on June 5, 1832, in Manoa. She successfully carved out a strong, powerful role for herself in the kingdom; she defied people and customs that stood in her way. She’s Hawaii’s first famous feminist. And that’s why I’m wearing black to honor her today.

• Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

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