She was, at one time, the most powerful figure in the Hawaiian Islands, helping usher in a new era for the Hawaiian kingdom.
Many historians believe Kaahumanu was born in a cave on March 17, 1768. Her father was Keeaumoku, a Big Island Alii (royalty) who became a fugitive and fled to Maui. Her mother, Namahana, had been the wife of Kamehameha Nui, the king of Maui.
Kaahumanu spent much of her childhood in the Kau district on the Big Island of Hawaii. When she was seven, she met a young warrior by the name of Kamehameha, who was destined to become Hawaii’s greatest king and unifier of the Hawaiian islands. Ten years later, the two were married.
It’s said that Kamehameha and Kaahumanu had a tempestuous marriage. Both were fiercely possessive and strong-willed. The king was hardly faithful to Kaahumanu—he would acquire 21 additional wives—but he constantly assured her that she alone was his “favorite wife.” One story has a jealous Kaahumanu making an 18-mile journey between Kailua-Kona and Honaunau in an attempt to catch her husband in an act of infidelity. Indeed, some storytellers say she swam the entire distance!
When Kamehameha died on May 8, 1819, the crown was passed to his son, Liholiho, who would rule as Kamehameha II. Kaahumanu, however, revealed that her husband believed that Liholiho lacked the leadership abilities required to lead the kingdom. Therefore, Kaahumanu said, the king had created an important position for her: kuhina nui, or prime minister. She would rule as an equal with Liholiho.
Kaahumanu wasn’t shy in wielding her power. Within six months, she recruited Liholiho’s mother, Keopuolani, to join her in convincing Liholiho to break the sacred kapu system which had been the rigid code of Hawaiians for centuries. The young king accomplished this simply by eating a meal with women. When the Hawaiians saw that Liholiho was not struck down by angry gods, the entire kapu system was discarded.
For his part, Liholiho preferred to indulge in gaming, drinking and being entertained. He had little use for the drudgeries of government. Kaahumanu, therefore, was the true power of the monarchy.
Soon after the first Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawaii in 1820, Kaahumanu embraced Christianity. Under her rule, stringent laws were passed against murder, theft, smoking, and Sabbath-breaking.
In May 1832, Kaahumanu fell ill. Recognizing that the end was near, she requested to be taken to her mountain home in Manoa Valley on Oahu. On June 5, with the Reverend Hiram Bingham at her side, she breathed her final words: “I’m going now…where the mansions are ready.” Kaahumanu was 64.