The State of Aloha
For close to 200 years, Christianity has been the religion of the Hawaiian people. But how did it happen? How could an entire people — deeply traditional and devoted to its own indigenous religion and pantheon of deities — convert so easily to this foreign faith?
Kamehameha the Great never converted. He worshiped Hawaiian gods for his entire life. The gods were good to him — particularly Kukailimoku, the god associated with warfare.
It resulted in the unification of the islands and the establishment of the Hawaiian nation. During his reign, Kamehameha made it a point to keep the national religion strong.
The religious advisers, or kahuna, were respected, revered and, in some cases, feared. Kamehameha sought their counsel. Along with the religion were sets of regulations known as kapu that regulated many aspects of Hawaiian life, particularly eating restrictions.
Kamehameha selected two men to succeed him. The actual kingdom was left to his son, Liholiho. But he entrusted the religion to Kekuaokalani, a chief of lower rank and cousin to Liholiho.
After the king died in May of 1819 in Kailua-Kona, the nation went into mourning. Queen Ka’ahumanu, Kamehameha’s wife, who is believed to have been eager to rid the restrictions for good, started to violate the eating restrictions.
She and her allies ate food that was forbidden to women: coconut, bananas and pork. On top of this, she ate with men — another violation of the kapu.
Liholiho saw what had happened. Far from Kailua at Kawaihae, he conferred with his cousin. Kekuaokalani reminded the new king that he must care for the government, while the god is his priority. They would rule the kingdom together.
Eventually, Ka’ahumanu sent for the new king. Liholiho promised his cousin that he would uphold the law. Instead of leading a rebellion against Ka’ahumanu, Liholiho was coronated as Kamehameha II alongside Ka’ahumanu as a co-ruler.
For months, the queen and others ate freely. Disgusted by this, Liholiho returned to his cousin at Kawaihae. He saw Kekuaokalani living piously, meditatively and in prayer. This inspired the king anew and together they worked to reinstate the traditional laws and please their gods.
For three months it appeared that the national religion would be upheld, but in the heat of August a messenger appeared at Kawaihae for Liholiho, summoning him back to Kailua.
This time he remained offshore on a large canoe for two days. Couriers brought the king liquor. When the waters calmed, he came ashore and saw his mother defying the kapu. This time he sat down with the women and in a drunken state ate voraciously.
He acted quickly and declared that the kapu system was abolished. He then summoned his cousin.
But Kekuaokalani refused. He moved into further isolation. More months passed. Word had spread about Kekuaokalani’s defiance. Disenfranchised kahuna and others faithful to the religion gathered with Kekuaokalani.
Liholiho sent trusted chiefs to bring Kekuaokalani to Kailua. The delegation arrived at night and met with the defender of the faith. It was resolved that in the morning he would go to Kailua to negotiate with the new king — but he would never abandon the religion.
At dawn, however, Kekuaokalani told the delegation he would travel with his men by land and would not go in their canoe. The delegation swiftly returned to Kailua.
Liholiho’s mother, Keopulani, an ally to Ka’ahumanu, interpreted this as an armed rebellion. Warriors armed with muskets and spears set out to meet Kekuaokalani on his way to Kailua. Liholiho stayed in Kailua.
The forces met on the black and barren lava fields known as Kuamo’o on Dec. 20, 1819. Kekuaokalani saw his men had less ammunition and muskets. There would be no surrender. They skirmished and fought for most of the day. Before noon, Kekuaokalani was badly wounded in the leg and bleeding so heavily he could no longer stand.
Sitting on a large lava rock, he loaded his musket and fired into the line of advancing warriors. They returned fire and Kekuaokalani was shot in the chest. He went to the ground, covered his face with his cloak, and died. His wife, who stood by him, was shown no mercy and executed. Their bodies were buried there. A sad marker remains to this day.
Two kahuna were also killed; their bodies were dragged on the road to Kailua. Those who were part of Kekuaokalani’s rebellion fled into the wilderness. Liholiho later pardoned them.
The religion and the kapu system with it were no more. By the time the missionaries came in 1820, the indigenous religion was no longer a national faith. Missionaries found heiau neglected and overgrown with weeds. Wooden and stone idols were strewn on the ground and abandoned. For the missionaries, it was ripe for the taking.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”