‘Ai Noa: An Interpretation of the Overthrow of the Kapu, 1819-1821

[Written for the Peoples of Hawai’i section 1/18]

1819-1821 ‘Ai Noa The Overthrow of the Kapu

rb 2018


Kamehameha becomes Ari’i ai Moi for Kohala-Kona in 1782 [Note this is 4 years after Cook’s arrival/death at Kealakekua at the hands of Kamehameha’s dad] on the death [which he instigated] of his cousin Keoua, who through his link with Kewala’o was technically Kamehameha’s superior at the command of their father Kalaniopu’u [as you remember from the podcasts was responsible for a lot of destruction on various islands in various conflicts].  Think ‘Game of Thrones’ politiking here.  So he comes to dominance by ignoring the mandate of his father to support his cousin(s), and instead kills him.  Within a few years he moves to consolidate control of the Big Island; by 1795 he has wiped out the opposition on all the other islands except for Kaua’i-Ni’ihau, so has unified the islands under his personal control.

Note that his original authority was through his father Kalaniopu’u but also in large part due to his position/training as the top kahuna [priest] for the Ku order in Kohala-Kona.  So Kamehameha’s knowledge of religion, ritual, manipulation of mana and related issues were central to his ability to control the islands.  He had developed a close relationship with Lieut./Captain Vancouver as I mentioned in the podcast—this gave him invaluable access to alternative ways of structuring a state based on geneology [a monarchy] versus a personal dictatorship which would only survive as long as he ran it.

By 1815 he’s starting to become more private, and shifts much of the management of the State to one of his wives, Ka’ahumanu.  She is a fascinating figure which has never been given the credit (or blame) that she deserves, and is a great example of the powerful political role that female ari’i played in the Hawaiian political system.  She is the descendant of both Maui and Big Island high chiefs, and a number of her relatives died in the various conflicts between Maui and the Big Island.  She becomes one of Kamehameha’s wives and later his consort.

1817-1819 Kamehameha starts to weaken, and formalizes both that Liholiho is the Crown Prince (and will take over his position of ruler) and that Ka’ahumanu will be the senior advisor to Liholiho [Kuhina Nui].  As I mentioned in the podcasts Kamehameha’s control of the islands was not solid, and any sign of weakness would have meant the collapse of the Kamehameha state.  Unfortunately for the family Liholiho was not the person for the job.  He is a hard character to get a fix on—he was in the shadow of his father, who was a hugely dominant character physically and in presence—his mother and ‘aunty’ [Keopuolani and Kaahumanu] were also powerful characters.  So he sort of disappears, but he seems to have made some very significant decisions (or was at least party to them).

1819 Kamehameha, the Ari’i Nui, is dead.  Many of the factions that lost power under his rule want a re-match.  Conservative factions are distressed at the scale of changes here, most of which were instigated or supported by Kamehameha.  So the sharks are circling.  Ka’ahumanu was both politically astute and also willing to gamble.

But she has a problem-if you start taking out your enemies, it will turn into a civil war and you will likely lose.  Passive—you lose.  And you don’t have the time to take them on one-on-one.

She comes up with an elegant solution.  She decides that the key are the kahuna as they are not only the central part of the bureaucracy, but they have allegiances to specific ari’i.  Of course the irony is that her husband had gotten to power through the kahuna—but that also provided a guide for some other kahuna to take the same route.  They are the basis of the State, but they also control the State through their generation and manipulation of mana.

The two women [Ka’ahumanu and Keopuolani] convince Liholiho to break two of the most rigid kapu—eating with women; and highest-rank ari’i eating with anyone else.  They make sure that the kahuna hear about the lunch before it takes place—as predicted a number of dire prophecies are generated by the kahuna.

They go ahead with the lunch, and nothing happens—no end of the world, not even indigestion.  Note the elegance—she’s gotten the kahuna to commit to a set of predictions based on both their knowledge and control of the system—all of which proved false.  Liholiho then sends out the proclamation that ‘the kahuna are false, that their kapu are false, and should be ignored.’  She has gotten the kahuna to test the validity of religion [always a bad idea] and they have effectively committed suicide.

As Ka’ahumanu had planned, the power of the kahuna collapse.  This also cuts off the power to most of the factions that want to take Liholiho from power.  But……

The ari’i had become so distanced from the majority population, the maka’ainana, that Ka’ahumanu didn’t realize how the maka’ainana would react to this scenario.  Rather than mild political issues, the islands degenerate in to a wild scene of maka’ainana hunting down kahuna, in many cases regardless of their role or function and killing them on the spot.  Many, if not most of the heiau are heavily vandalized if not completely destroyed.  From Ka’ahumanu’s standpoint she had missed a key point (or didn’t realize how central it was)—the power of Liholiho was based on the kahuna and mana.  With the collapse of that belief, the ability to the ari’i to justify their superior and control was gone—why should the maka’ainana listen to Liholiho or obey his rules if he didn’t have any mandate for authority?

Panic ensues.  Most of chiefs, including the Kamehameha’s, go into hiding, waiting for the dust to settle [the maka’ainana to calm down].  After around 9 months, the results are in—most of the religious orders are gone, the few remaining kahuna are in hiding.  This would include ALL the trained specialists—education, medical care, ritual information, stories—a large part of Hawaiian societies world was held in the minds of the kahuna, and now large parts are lost.

NOTE that this has nothing to do with the missionaries—they’re not here yet.  It’s not Cook’s fault—he’s been dead for over 30 years.  This was done by a small group of Hawaiian leaders trying to hold on and consolidate control.

Now Ka’ahumanu has a new problem-how do you legitimize the Monarchy when you’ve just removed that logic?  And all the sudden the missionaries drag in from New England and provide her with a perfect opportunity.  She immediately accepts them, puts them under protection (and control) and moves to link them to the Kamehameha’s.  Several members of the family [such as Keopuolani] become highly visible sponsors of the NEMS [New England Missionary Society], both as a religious base to the Monarchy and also as a counter-balance to the whaling and trading industries (also from New England and UK).

Often forgotten is that a few years later Ka’ahumanu tours most of the islands as a missionary to make sure everyone is converting over to the ‘legitimate’ new religion.  But while she was alive as kuhina nui she always made sure the missionaries were aware that they remained in Hawaii only on her good will.  She was driving; they were just passengers.