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The fascinating life of Queen Ka‘ahumanu

By Staff | Mar 3, 2016

A slim queen now reigns over her shopping center.

LAHAINA – She was considered sprightly and beautiful. She loved to paddle in canoes, swim and surf, and fly kites. She loved board games, especially checkers, and once beat 20 men on a ship. She once lived steps from the ocean in Lahaina and preferred white dresses like those worn by foreigners.

This month, nearly 250 years ago, she became ill and passed away on what we know as St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. In Hawaiian, her name meant “Bird of Feathers.” She took the Christian name Elizabeth, but we know her as Ka’ahumanu.

You may know just two things about her. In the 1950s, developers put her name on Maui’s biggest shopping mall. You might also know that she was the first wife of King Kamehamea the Great, unifier of these islands.

More significant than all of this, however, this fascinating lady easily could be regarded as the first Hawaiian feminist (defined for those who did not grow up in the 1960s as the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities).

It was Ka’ahumanu who freed women from the indignity of a kapu that forbid them to eat with men and to live in the same dwelling as a man.

Two of the kingdom’s three greatest monarchs (including Queen Liliuokalani) were women.

Kaahumanu’s greatest impact was on religion and education. She embraced the new Christianity and insisted that all of her subjects learn to read the Bible – an action that helped make Hawaiians the most literate people in the world in the 19th century. Showing her prowess, Ka’ahumanu learned to read in three days.

The story of Ka’ahumanu, husband King Kamehameha, early royalty and culture in the early 1800s is chronicled in a wonderful new book, “Paradise of the Pacific,” by Susanna Moore.

From this and other sources, we learn how Ka’ahumanu lived and reigned as a regent for King Kamehameha II and for the missionaries, becoming their greatest advocate.

Ka’ahumanu was Maui’s own. Born in a cave in Hana, she almost drowned as an infant when, swaddled in tapa cloth, she fell out of a canoe. Her parents predicted that she would one day become queen.

Her first claim to fame began when she became the favorite wife of King Kamehameha, who would eventually have 20 more wives. (Author Moore noted that a woman became a man’s wife if she slept with him just once overnight.)

Ka’ahumanu’s life with Kamehameha was a mixed blessing. Flirtatious Ka’ahumanu was not above taking lovers, and the king assigned a small boy to keep an eye on her so she wouldn’t stray. She did, and the king had her lover strangled to death.

Lucky for Kamehameha, the king had a friend who became a kind of a marriage counselor: renowned English navigator Capt. George Vancouver. When king and queen separated, Vancouver brought them back together. The reconciliation didn’t last. After 11 years together, Kamehameha later abandoned Ka’ahumanu for his other wives.

The queen was so distraught that she contemplated suicide by drowning. The story goes that a small boy appeared who also was on the verge of drowning. Ka’ahumanu saved him, and in the process saved herself, setting the stage for more great achievements (to be continued).

Columnist’s Notebook: This is the fourth column about the royals. The king appeared in this space and Queen Liliuokalani twice.