Remembering Papa

A new biography views one of nineteenth-century Hawai‘i’s most important figures—John Papa ‘Ī‘ī—through native eyes
Story by Ronald Williams Jr.

At dusk on March 5, 1863, a “copper-colored” man, as one local newspaper described the visiting dignitary from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, entered the lobby of the Lick House in San Francisco. The Golden City’s first truly palatial hotel sported a dining room modeled after the Palace of Versailles and had recently opened to great acclaim.

At a time when the United States was embroiled in a civil war over race, the Hawaiian’s arrival and residency at one of the finest hotels in the country caused quite a stir. But this was no ordinary dark-skinned visitor. He was Hawaiian Kingdom Supreme Court Justice John Papa ‘Ī‘ī.

Ioane Kaneiakama Papa ‘Ī‘ī was born at Waipi‘o, O‘ahu, in 1800, a time when kapu (a system of religious law) reigned over Hawai‘i. Some of the strictest of these unwritten laws dictated the way one should behave around the ali‘i nui (highest-ranking chiefs), and the slightest violation could result in execution. Ali‘i nui were considered to be divine beings. Contact with them—even with their shadows—was forbidden on penalty of death. The ali‘i nui’s daylight processions were led by kahu (chiefly attendants), who warned people to stay clear. At night the kahu themselves needed to keep alert while serving their ali‘i—the shifting shadows of a flickering kukui oil lamp could prove fatal. ‘Ī‘ī, groomed as a young boy to be a kahu to the royal court, knew personally the dangers of less-than-precise adherence to the laws of kapu. At the age of seven, he was given the news that his elder brother Maoloha, a kahu to Kamehameha I, was to be strangled to death for a violation of the sacred laws. The devastated young boy and his sister Ke‘imolā‘au were sent by their mother to mark the site where the executioners had buried their sibling. Then in 1810, at age ten,‘Ī‘ī, took his executed brother’s place as kahu to the king, the third generation of his family to serve the ali‘i.

‘Ī‘ī’s early life and the view it offers into a world of divine rulers is fascinating, but what makes ‘Ī‘ī exceptional is the way he was able to deftly navigate his nation’s shift from absolute rule under a divine monarch to a progressive, nineteenth-century constitutional monarchy. In the decades after ‘Ī‘ī entered the royal circle, Hawai‘i experienced a flood of foreign visitors, and with it changes that were both enriching and devastating. During ‘Ī‘ī’s lifetime, 1800 to 1870, the Hawaiian nation lost approximately two-thirds of its Native population to introduced diseases. Practices such as hula and traditional medicine were suppressed and in some cases outlawed by Native rulers who had converted to Christianity. Ancient knowledge, accumulated over more than a millennium of living in the Islands, was displaced, some of it lost forever.

In 1863, when John Papa ‘Ī‘ī walked into San Francisco’s Lick House (above), he was making a statement. The Supreme Court Justice of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was in the city to defend a Hawaiian citizen accused of murder; he was also a man of color who had the temerity—and stature—to stay in SF’s poshest hotel in the midst of the American Civil War.

Amid all this the Kingdom of Hawai‘i accomplished remarkable feats: In 1843 it became the first country of non-European provenance to be internationally recognized as a sovereign state; it achieved near-universal literacy by the 1870s—a higher rate than the United States at the time; it enshrined universal manhood suffrage—meaning male citizens of all races could vote—in its Kumukānāwai (Constitution) of 1852, years before the Civil War tore the United States apart over slavery. ‘Ī‘ī was at the center of it all, serving in some of the most significant and seemingly incongruous roles. The man who had acted as personal attendant to one generation of divine monarchs became a key Christian advisor to the next. A renowned expert in ancient customary practices who served as caretaker to the mo‘o (lizard) deity Kihawahine later became one of the staunchest Native Hawaiian Christian advocates, never hesitating to rebuke those who wandered from the path of Iehova (Jehovah). ‘Ī‘ī helped build Hawai‘i’s constitutional monarchy, one that by 1887 had established nearly one hundred consulates and embassies around the globe. He served as a justice on the kingdom’s early Supreme Court, and he was a member of the king’s Privy Council (the executive cabinet). He was also a statesman: The reason ‘Ī‘ī was in San Francisco in 1863 was to participate in the legal defense of a Hawaiian sailor on trial for murder (his testimony helped free the accused man). Back in the Islands, ‘Ī‘ī often served in the role of government conscience, relaying the voice of the maka‘āinana (commoners) whenever their leaders began overlooking their needs.

In all of the roles he played during his more than six decades of public service, ‘Ī‘ī epitomized the complex and complicated story of Hawai‘i. Yet as towering a historical figure as he was, little was known about the man himself; there hadn’t even been a biography of his life. Only recently has his mo‘olelo (story, history, record) been explored in its entirety. Like much of Native Hawaiian history, ‘Ī‘ī’s story was, for more than a century, hiding in plain sight.

Marie Alohalani Brown’s recently published biography, Facing the Spears of Change: The Life and Legacy of John Papa ‘Ī‘ī, marks a turning point not just in the scholarship about ‘Ī‘ī, but also in the production of literature about Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians). Like the era of‘Ī‘ī’s life it covers, the book emerges during a time of substantial change. The “Hawaiian Renaissance” of the 1970s has led to a re-examination of long-accepted narratives about Hawai‘i and its past, almost all of which rely exclusively on English-language sources. But because those sources come from a part of society that never represented more than 10 percent of the population in nineteenth-century Hawai‘i, our contemporary understanding of the period is inevitably biased.

Brown, though, is among a new generation of scholars who are fluent in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) and who have access to a treasure trove of sources written in the Islands’ mother tongue. More than 125,000 pages of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Hawaiian-language newspapers have been painstakingly collected and digitized over the past few decades and are now available online, offering scholars the chance to study history as written by Hawaiians rather than history that is merely about Hawaiians.

Brown, a Kanaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiian) from Mākaha, O‘ahu, is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. It was in a graduate class on translation that she first came across ‘Ī‘ī’s work—a series of articles titled “Na Hunahuna no ka Moolelo Hawaii” (Fragments of Hawaiian History) published between 1868 and 1870 in the Hawaiian-language newspaper Ka Nupepa Kuokoa (The Independent Newspaper). Soon after beginning translation work on the series, Brown started to see ‘Ī‘ī everywhere. “In a variety of projects, I would be researching something and come to find out ‘Ī‘ī was the author or had something to do with the event I was looking at.” Then, on a research trip to the Hawai‘i State Archives in Honolulu, she looked up her new obsession and found eighty index cards relating to ‘Ī‘ī. “That’s when I really realized: Here’s a man who was on the scene at so many of the crucial events in our kingdom’s history,” says Brown, “and all we know about his life so far are tidbits.” A life-writing class was on her schedule the following semester, and her choice of subject was a no-brainer. “It was in that class that, for me, the astute political figure became a living man.”

Brown’s work reveals a person who succeeded in times of turmoil because of his “stern moral rectitude, his trustworthiness and his work ethic,” she says. He was also no stranger to suffering: A child born in 1828 to ‘Ī‘ī and his first wife, Sarai, died soon after birth. The lack of an heir seemed to be a struggle for ‘Ī‘ī as the years passed. Then, at the age of 38, ‘Ī‘ī received one of the highest honors imaginable: The chiefess Kīna‘u, sister to Kings Kamehameha IV and V, gave her newborn daughter Princess Victoria Kīhe‘ahe‘alani Kalohelani Kamāmaluhaeokalani, to ‘Ī‘ī in hānai (a form of adoption with strong political and other ties). ‘Ī‘ī had been serving as secretary for Kīna‘u, and the endowment of a royal child upon someone in his position, even someone of his stature, was unusual. Even more, Kīna‘u’s decision contravened the wishes of the birth father, Kekūanāo‘a, governor of O‘ahu at the time. “Being a hānai parent for an ali‘i conferred prestige and a potential increase in power,” says Brown, “and ‘Ī‘ī recalled that ‘ua manao nae na kini o ke kane, na lakou keia keiki, aka, i ka hana ana, aole no i haawiia ia lakou la’ (the husband’s relatives thought they would be given the child, but it was not to be).”

By researching this event in ‘Ī‘ī’s life in such detail, Brown revealed a significant aspect of his character. Earlier accounts had portrayed the adoption as though it had been Kīna‘u’s idea, that she was choosing a caretaker for her child. In truth ‘Ī‘ī had done the nearly unthinkable: He had asked the high ali‘i to give her next-born child to him. ‘Ī‘ī had requested—and been granted—the right to “father” a descendant of Kamehameha, the divine king his family had so long served.

Princess Kamāmalu died in 1866, at only 28 years old, a victim of the introduced diseases that decimated the Native Hawaiian population in the nineteenth century. The grieving ‘Ī‘ī wrote a series of newspaper installments that contained kanikau (chants of lamentation) for his daughter. “I was just heartbroken reading these. They were so moving,” Brown says. She could almost hear the wailing, she says, in the stretched-out cry that ended the chant: “Kuu Keiki!” (my beloved child!). Coming across these writings drove home for Brown the realization that ‘Ī‘ī’s story had heretofore been distorted. “I began to see how the narratives that we had about him—these outside interpretations of him as simply a kahu, a guide for these important rulers—had understated his true role. He was not simply the caretaker of Kamāmalu. He was in such a true way her father.”

Fatherhood wasn’t quite finished with‘Ī‘ī, however: In 1869, at age 69, he received the astounding news that his fourth wife, Malaea, was hāpai (pregnant). But as with his firstborn daughter, Airene [Irene] Ha‘alo‘u Kahalelaukoa would not grow up with her father. ‘Ī‘ī died in Honolulu on May 2, 1870—five months before his daughter’s first birthday.

By telling stories of Native figures like ‘Ī‘ī through the lens of their own Hawaiian-language writing and that of their contemporaries, “We are reestablishing our connection to our own intellectual history,” says Noenoe Silva, a professor of political science at UH-Mānoa who has been instrumental in focusing attention on the need to base Native Hawaiian histories on Native Hawaiian sources. Craig Howes, director of the Center for Biographical Research at UH-Mānoa, notes that biographies like Facing the Spears of Change are particularly relevant—and give cause for hope. “Biography and autobiography are especially important in this movement, because the mo‘olelo of those who lived through difficult times give us assurance that others have faced challenges similar to our own and often found ways to deal with them that do not require renouncing their culture.”

For Brown, ‘Ī‘ī’s biography is a beginning. “His story offers readers more than just a fabulous tale. It offers an example of how to draw on the best of our ancestors’ ways while also adapting to the changes that come, both chosen and not. His life is an important reminder of what it means to be ‘Ōiwi [Native] throughout.” HH