Issue 5.6: December 2002/January 2003

Conquering the Conqueror


by John W. Perry
art courtesy John W. Perry Archival Images


Despite the solitary connotation of his name, which means "the lonely one," the great Hawaiian warrior-chief Kamehameha never lacked in conjugal companionship. His large household, which moved back and forth between Hawaii Island, Maui and Oahu while he forged an Island-wide kingdom, included an abundance of wives from various ranks and islands, who helped consolidate his rule through the mingling of important bloodlines. In all, he had seventeen or eighteen wives, including, in his final years, a very young wife "to keep his flesh warm." And while it is well known that Kamehameha conquered the Islands through military might and shrewd strategy, it is also true that he attained his kingdom in part through marriage, and his most prominent wives—such as the exalted Maui chiefesses Kaahumanu and Keopuolani—played their own central role in the course of Hawaiian history.

The best-known of Kamehameha’s wives is Kaahumanu (1777-1832), a powerful and courageous woman commonly referred to as "Kamehameha’s favorite wife." Born near Hana on Maui to a lineage of chiefs (her name means "the bird-feather cloak," a symbol of royalty), she was given to Kamehameha at a young age by her father, a loyal warrior-chief. As she grew older, Kamehameha, who appreciated strong personal character, admired her curiosity, passion for power, athleticism (she was an excellent surfer) and beauty. The 19th century Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau described the queen’s appearance in her youth: "A handsome woman, straight and well-formed. Her arms were like the inside of a banana stalk … Her cheeks long in shape and pink as the bud of a banana stem." As a special honor, Kamehameha gave her the power to pardon criminals and declared her lands puuhonua, or places of refuge where lawbreakers could escape punishment.

When Kamehameha died in Kailua-Kona in 1819, at the age of sixty, Kaahumanu inflicted cuts on her body—symbolic of dying with her husband—and tattooed the death date in English (8 May 1819) on her arm. Though she bore no children by Kamehameha, Kaahumanu’s lifelong quest for authority made her a formidable female chief in Hawaiian society for more than three decades. After Kamehameha’s death, she decided to live like the haole (foreigners), free of traditional restraints. She created the position of kuhina nui (premier) for herself and shared power with the young Kamehameha II. A supporter of the new religion, Hoomana Kalikiano (Christianity), introduced by American missionaries in 1820, she introduced a code of civil laws prohibiting murder, theft, fighting and Sabbath-breaking. In appreciation, the missionaries gave her the first copy of the Hawaiian translation of the New Testament (despite the fact that her pet hog often disrupted Sunday church services).


Although historically overshadowed by the charismatic Kaahumanu, Kamehameha’s kapu (sacred) wife, Keopuolani ("gathering of the clouds of heaven"), lived a privileged life befitting her vaulted status. The offspring of the marriage of a high-born half-brother and sister, this "divine" female ali‘i eclipsed in rank all other Hawaiian women during Kamehameha’s reign. She possessed the prostrating taboo, or kapu moe, which required commoners to lie face-down upon the ground in her presence. When chanters in Kailua-Kona or Honolulu mentioned her name, listeners removed their kapa (bark cloth) garments above the waist in deference. Her lineage linked Kamehameha by marriage to Maui’s prestigious royal bloodline, greatly enhancing his political power, and she bore him two male heirs, both future kings of Hawaii.

The historian Kamakau reports that after Kamehameha’s death, Keopuolani and her future second husband, Hoapili, carried Kamehameha’s remains by canoe to a secret burial site on the Kona coast. As Kamehameha intended, his bones have never been found, a burial mystery that inspired the anonymous verbal epitaph: "Only the stars of the heavens know the resting place of Kamehameha."

After Kamehameha’s demise, Keopuolani reshaped Hawaiian society by breaking the kapu that forbade women to eat certain foods or to eat with men. Later, she, too, supported the missionaries’ Christian teachings. She adopted Western clothes, learned to read and write, and took the first name Harriet after a missionary’s wife. "Tough-minded, determined, regal," writes Marjorie Sinclair in The Hawaiian Journal of History, Keopuolani "could act swiftly in the old manner when necessary and she could select what she considered good from Western culture."

While Keopuolani and Kaahumanu reigned supreme in Kamehameha’s domestic life, the gifted teenager Kekauluohi ("the vine growing with shoots"), who wed Kamehameha in 1809 in Waikiki, blossomed into a scholarly minded woman versed in oral history and genealogy. In later life, she remarried, embraced Christianity, and gave birth to a future Hawaiian king, Lunalilo, by her new husband. In tribute to her mental repository of traditional knowledge, she served as Hawaii’s kuhina nui from 1839 to 1845. Appropriately, her name now graces the downtown Honolulu building that houses the collections of the Hawaii State Archives.


Early European visitors to Hawaii, such as the voyagers George Vancouver, Louis Freycinet and Otto von Kotzebue, recorded with relish their encounters with Kamehameha’s wives, and, after May 1819, his "widows" (though most took new husbands). In 1794, Vancouver endeared himself to Kaahumanu when he resolved a lovers’ quarrel between her and Kamehameha, reuniting the estranged couple aboard his ship. In 1819, Freycinet met three widows, among them Kaahumanu, who lay on their stomachs, sharing a tobacco-filled pipe while watching him eat a watermelon. Kotzebue assured the visual immortality of the former wife Namahana, a co-ruler of Oahu, when, in 1830, he published her portrait as a frontispiece to his A New Voyage Around the World. He described her midnight-black hair as "neatly plaited atop a head as round as a ball" and often decorated with a lei po‘o (head lei) of Chinese artificial flowers. A robust woman, she wore large-sized, European-made men’s shoes.

Nowadays, in my own years as a senior-citizen bachelor, I often marvel at the lives of these fascinating women—not just the famous ones like Kaahumanu, Keopuolani, Kekauluohi and Namahana, but also the lesser-known wives, with names like Manono and Kaheiheimalie—whom I can encounter only through rare books. And, too, I can only reflect with envy on the prowess of Kamehameha—not just as a warrior and ruler, but as a virile and stately husband who shared the company of these regal ladies, truly his greatest treasures.