When Hawaii Was Ruled by Shark-Like Gods

The Hawaiian high chief Ka‘iana, who the nineteenth-century historian Abraham Fornander believed may have killed Captain James Cook; engraving after a drawing by John Webber, 1790

In mid-January 1778, HMS Resolution and Discovery, sailing on secret instructions from the Admiralty to search for the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific via the Arctic, unexpectedly encountered a cluster of volcanic islands in the central North Pacific. Captain James Cook, already famous for his two previous circumnavigations of the globe, commanded the expedition. As the ships neared the larger island of Kaua‘i, several outrigger canoes approached; the first shouted exchanges between the ships’ crews and the native paddlers confirmed that here was yet one more far-flung outpost of what Cook had come to call the “Polynesian Nation,” for the islanders spoke many of the same words that the English had learned in Tahiti, 2,560 miles to the south.

Cook tarried but a few days at Kaua‘i and nearby Ni‘ihau before continuing north, barely long enough for his sailors to infect the island women with venereal disease. Nine months later, wearying of the fruitless search for passage through the archipelago along the northwest coast of North America, Cook set course for the islands he had named after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. His ships arrived off the much larger islands of Maui and Hawai‘i just as the islanders were about to begin the Makahiki, an annual four-month period sacred to Lono, deity of thunder, rain, and dryland cultivation. Cook himself was taken to be the living manifestation of Lono, or at least that idea was vigorously promoted by the Lono priests.

A combination of cultural misunderstandings and fateful coincidences led to Cook’s death on the lava rocks at Kealakekua (“Path of the God”) Bay. The captain’s body was defleshed, the British recovering only his hands and part of his thighs. By some native Hawaiian accounts Cook’s bones were encased in a wickerwork casket in the shape of a human torso and head and for some years paraded annually around Hawai‘i Island during the Makahiki festival.

Cook lifted the veil that for centuries had kept this most isolated of archipelagoes in utter seclusion. Before the close of the eighteenth century the Sandwich Islands—fortuitously situated midway between the rich fur-hunting grounds of North America and the trading entrepôts of China—rapidly attracted traders and fortune-seeking entrepreneurs. The discovery of sandalwood (greatly prized by Chinese mandarins) in Hawai‘i around 1810 heightened the frenzy of capitalist exploitation, turning the islands into a “great caravansary,” as the fur trader Étienne Marchand put it. Protestant missionaries, arriving from New England in 1820, took advantage of the social and political upheaval following the death of the great unifying King Kamehameha in late 1819 to convert the “savages”; they were determined to cover tattooed native bodies with gingham dresses and frock coats and to stamp out all other manifestations of heathenism.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the native population was in perilous decline while increasing numbers of foreigners—haole—gained control of vast tracts of land that they converted to sugar cane plantations worked by imported Chinese and Japanese laborers. The hereditary chiefs struggled to retain control of their island kingdom, which now had the form of a European constitutional monarchy. In 1893, a bloodless insurrection orchestrated by a mob of pro-American haole planters and businessmen overthrew Queen Lili‘uokalani. Five years later, a mere 120 years after Captain Cook stepped ashore at Waimea, Kaua‘i, the Hawaiian Islands were annexed as a territory of the United States.

The tumultuous history of Hawai‘i—from the first encounter of an island civilization with intruding explorers to its subjugation as a colonial outpost of America—has been told many times, from Ralph Kuykendall’s magisterial The Hawaiian Kingdom (1938–1967) to Gavan Daws’s irreverent Shoal of Time (1968). Susanna Moore, who grew up in Hawai‘i and has set some of her novels there, offers a new rendering of this island saga. Neither a professional historian nor an anthropologist, Moore combines a novelist’s skill at individual characterization with an eye for ethnographic detail. Paradise of the Pacific (also the title of a magazine that promoted tourism in Hawai‘i from 1888 to 1966) brings a fresh perspective to what more than anything was a tragic clash between Native and Other.

Polynesian voyagers first arrived in Hawai‘i around AD 1000 (not in the sixth century, as Moore writes based on outdated scholarship), part of an extraordinary diaspora that led, at roughly the same time, to the settlement of other remote islands including New Zealand and Easter Island. For the next four centuries, a tenuous link between Hawai‘i and the ancestral homeland in central Polynesia (especially Tahiti) was maintained by occasional voyages led by priest-navigators whose names are still celebrated in Hawaiian traditions. Then, for reasons still unclear, the voyaging ceased. Hawai‘i became an isolated world unto itself, with only an increasingly distant memory of those lands beyond the horizon, collectively labeled “Kahiki” (the Hawaiian name for Tahiti).

By the early eighteenth century, a unique variant of Polynesian culture had emerged in this large and fertile archipelago. Supported by irrigation works and dryland field systems that yielded bountiful harvests of taro and sweet potato, augmented by fishponds and the husbandry of hogs and dogs for food, the indigenous population had swelled to more than half a million (the exact number at the time of Cook’s visit is still debated). The great majority were commoners—farmers and fishermen—ruled over by a relatively small group of elites, called ali‘i. The commoners worked the land as part of their tributary obligations to the ali‘i, who in turn held large territorial estates (ahupua‘a) distributed (and frequently redistributed) by each island’s paramount chief or king.

The ali‘i were obsessed with genealogy and lineage. The most exalted of the nine ranks of chiefs, the product (called nī‘aupi‘o) of incestuous unions between high-ranking brothers and sisters, were regarded as divine beings. As the nineteenth-century Hawaiian historian David Malo put it, “the people held the chiefs in great dread and looked upon them as gods.”1 Metaphorically, the chiefs were regarded as sharks that traveled on the land, devouring all in sight.

Central to this hyperelaborated system of hereditary chiefship and divine kingship was the deeply rooted Polynesian concept of tapu, introduced into the English language as “taboo” thanks to the accounts of Captain Cook and other eighteenth-century voyagers. Susanna Moore zeroes in on kapu, the Hawaiian variant of tapu, as a key to understanding both the cloistered nature of Hawaiian society prior to 1778 and its subsequent dramatic unraveling.

The divinely descended Hawaiian ali‘i were understood as intermediaries through which mana—the supernatural force or power enabling life, fertility, success, and efficacy of all kinds—flowed from the gods to men. As kapu, sacred beings, the ali‘i had to be kept separate from polluting influences. Secluded in their kapu compounds, the highest-ranked ali‘i often traveled at night to avoid being seen by commoners. Any commoners encountering the ali‘i had to strip off their garments and lie prostrate on the ground until the entourage passed; to attempt a glance was to risk death.

The Hawaiian system of kapu had evolved far beyond anything elsewhere in Polynesia, pervading all aspects of daily life. Pigs, certain kinds of red fish (red was the sacred color), and bananas were kapu to women; indeed, the food of men and women had to be cooked in separate earth ovens while the two genders ate in separate houses. As Moore writes, “time itself could be placed under a kapu,” with nine days out of each lunar month consecrated to particular deities. Perhaps the most fearful kapu were those associated with the king’s war rituals, which were conducted on imposing stone temple platforms where human sacrifices were offered to the war god Kū. For a commoner, merely coughing near the warrior guard during such rituals could bring instant death.

Moore regards kapu as the invisible glue that held traditional Hawaiian society together, entwining ali‘i and commoners in bonds of mutual obligation:

Kapu served to establish order, requiring men to respect the land, to honor the chiefs who were the literal representatives of the gods, and to serve the thousands of omnipresent big and little gods. In return, the gods endowed the land and sea with bountiful food, and protected people from danger (often the gods themselves).

The arrival of Captain Cook, first at Kaua‘i in 1778 and then for a longer stay at Hawai‘i in 1779, made the first inroads in what would become an increasing assault on the kapu system and on the social and political order of Hawaiian civilization. At Kealakekua Bay, Hawaiian women “came to the ships to offer themselves to the sailors in exchange for scissors, beads, iron, and mirrors.” Below decks on the Resolution and Discovery, the women ate forbidden pork and bananas with the sailors. Their husbands and brothers, eager to receive the gifts of iron adz blades and trinkets, did not punish them for breaking the kapu.

The five chaotic decades following Cook’s visits consume the greater part of Moore’s account, in which she largely concentrates on the lives of two great ali‘i—the warrior king Kamehameha and Ka‘ahumanu, the most favored (though not the most kapu) of his twenty-two wives. Other chiefs along with fur traders, sandalwood merchants, missionaries, and other haole enter and exit the story. But Moore lavishes the greatest attention upon Kamehameha and Ka‘ahumanu.

In his early twenties when Cook arrived, Kamehameha was by most accounts one of the warriors who took part in the captain’s slaying, defending his god-king Kalani‘ōpu‘u (also his father’s half-brother), whom Cook attempted to take hostage at Kealakekua. Of only intermediate rank, Kamehameha so impressed Kalani‘ōpu‘u that the aging king entrusted him with the care of the feared war god, Kūkā‘ilimoku (the “Kingdom Snatcher”). Moore does not tell us that when the king named his sacred son Kiwala‘ō as heir apparent—but simultaneously gave the care of the war god to Kamehameha—he in effect set the stage for a reenactment of a famous struggle for the Hawai‘i Island kingship that had been played out two-and-a-half centuries earlier. The story of how in the late sixteenth century ‘Umi-a-Līloa (like Kamehameha, given care of the war god) defeated his evil half-brother Hākau was a tradition known to everyone, ali‘i and commoner alike. History, they would have assumed, was about to repeat itself.

Moore at times muddles critical historical details, missing cultural nuances, for example in her retelling of the sacrifice of the rebel chief ‘Īmakakoloa at the temple of Pakini, an event that foretold the coming conflict between Kamehameha and the heir apparent Kiwala‘ō. She writes that when Kiwala‘ō hesitated “to conduct the death ritual…Kamehameha leapt forward to kill the Puna [i.e., the rebel] chief.” In fact, ‘Īmakakoloa had been killed two days earlier at the behest of Kalani‘ōpu‘u; his body had been slowly smoking over a fire of kukui nuts to prepare it for the sacrifice. It was during the ritual service, when Kiwala‘ō took hold of a cooked pig as an initial offering, that Kamehameha seized the opportunity to grasp the baked body of ‘Īmakakoloa, offering it up to the war god. As the priest chanted lengthy prayers, Kamehameha finally collapsed in exhaustion, lying with his limbs entwined with that of the corpse. Usurping the right of Kiwala‘ō to offer the rebel body to the god, Kamehameha left little doubt regarding his future intentions.

A Hawaiian warrior in a gourd helmet trimmed with ferns and pieces of cloth; engraving by Thomas Cook after a drawing by John Webber, 1779

Following the death of Kalani‘ōpu‘u in 1782, Kamehameha lost no time in finding a pretext to engage in battle with Kiwala‘ō, who was slain by Kamehameha’s loyal war chief Ke‘eaumoku. It would take until 1795, however, for Kamehameha not only to gain complete control over Hawai‘i Island, but to extend his hegemony through a campaign of invasions of the islands of Maui, Moloka‘i, and finally O‘ahu. Kamehameha’s military success was assured by his increasing comprehension of the white man’s ways, which enabled him to equip his army with muskets and cannon obtained through shrewd trading. Two captive haole, John Young and Isaac Davis, also trained Kamehameha’s warriors.

The beginning of the nineteenth century found Kamehameha established in the port village of Honolulu on O‘ahu Island, which increasingly became the archipelago’s center of commercial and political power. No longer needing to engage in war, Kamehameha quietly abandoned the rituals of human sacrifice—another rent in the kapu fabric.

Kamehameha had taken seventeen-year-old Ka‘ahumanu—granddaughter of the revered Maui king Kekaulike—as his third wife in 1785. Although of high rank, she was not considered sacred like Keōpūolani, the exalted chiefess who bore Kamehameha his royal heir and successor Liholiho (Kamehameha II). Indeed, Ka‘ahumanu produced no offspring; her power instead sprang from her influence over Kamehameha, with whom she shared a similar political cunning. Ka‘ahumanu, rather than his birth mother, watched over and raised young Liholiho. “As Liholiho’s guardian,” Moore writes, “the subtle Ka‘ahumanu was easily able to shape him to her liking, strengthening her already formidable position at the center of court.”

When Kamehameha eventually died of old age in Kona in 1819, Ka‘ahumanu was poised to bend the pliant Liholiho (then twenty-one years old) to her will. After a period of mourning in the northern part of the island, Liholiho returned to Kona to find Ka‘ahumanu waiting. “Holding Kamehameha’s favorite spear, she was dressed in the dead king’s feather cloak and war helmet, lest there be any lingering hope that Liholiho might rule the kingdom alone.” Ka‘ahumanu proclaimed that “we two shall share the rule of the land,” appointing herself to the newly created title of kuhina nui, or regent.

Ka‘ahumanu—who had for some years broken the kapu against women eating pork and shark meat—next engineered a remarkable act, inducing Liholiho to sit down at a feast and eat with the female ali‘i. “Six months after the death of his father, and with the urging of his stepmother and guardian and the quiet persuasion of his mother, the king ate with the women, bringing to an end a thousand years of kapu.” This famous act—the ‘ai noa, or “free eating”—marked the end of the entire kapu system. Shortly thereafter, Ka‘ahumanu commanded that the temples be dismantled and the wooden idols of the gods burned. As Moore writes, “the fixed world of the Hawaiians, governed by a hereditary ali‘i and priesthood with a distinctive system of kapu, suddenly became one of flux, if not chaos.”

While these events were taking place in Kona, the brig Thaddeus was en route there from Boston, carrying the First Company of Congregational missionaries, led by Hiram Bingham. Ka‘ahumanu, although she resisted conversion to Christianity for some years, quickly grasped the advantage of having the missionaries on her side. She became an ardent supporter of Bingham, in effect making him her new high priest and Christianity the state religion of her new regency. In 1826, Ka‘ahumanu, accompanied by Bingham, toured O‘ahu to dedicate churches and impose the new Christian kapu of prohibitions against murder, adultery, alcohol, and other sins. Moore describes the counterclockwise direction of Ka‘ahumanu’s tour as “a reenactment of the traditional procession” of the king during the Makahiki. In fact, however, the Makahiki procession had always been a clockwise circuit; hence Ka‘ahumanu’s choice of proceeding counterclockwise was yet another symbol of her defiance of the old system of kapu.

For Moore, the abandonment of kapu and the old gods and the adoption of Christianity were pivotal to the transformation of Hawaiian society:

With the death of the gods, it became increasingly difficult if not impossible for the ali‘i to justify claims of their own divinity. In abandoning the gods, the chiefs lost the source of their great power, their mana, and their ability to impose meaning, however questionable, on the customs of the land.

The bonds of aloha—of mutual love and respect—between the chiefs and the people were rapidly being loosened.

Ka‘ahumanu died in 1832, attended by Hiram Bingham and other missionaries. The death of a high ali‘i had always been a time of ritualized kapu-breaking. But now, according to Moore, “the sense of ill ease that had been growing in the kingdom grew stronger as people attempted to hold to the fast-disappearing ways of the past.” Indeed, the young king Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) seized the opportunity to throw off the missionary yoke and try to reassert the old order, even mating publicly before the assembled chiefs with his sister Nāhi‘ena‘ena in the ancient act of creating a nī‘aupi‘o heir. Scandalized, the missionaries arranged to have the king taken to Maui for a period of indoctrination and reeducation.

After the death of Ka‘ahumanu—upon whom so much detail is lavished in the first two thirds of her book—Moore rushes through the next six decades in Hawai‘i’s transformation in a mere ten pages. The Great Mahele, or division of lands between King Kamehameha III and his principal chiefs (leaving the commoners with only one percent of the land), the efforts of Alexander Liholiho (Kamehameha IV) and Queen Emma to realign the kingdom with Great Britain (and thus subvert the growing power of the American missionaries), the struggles for succession after the death of Kamehameha V (the last of his dynasty), and the long and quixotic reign of Kalākaua, the “Merry Monarch,” are hurriedly passed over with little of the attention to detail or nuance that Moore devotes to Kamehameha or Ka‘ahumanu, or even to the long-suffering missionary wife Lucy Thurston. It is as if—with the death of Ka‘ahumanu—she lost much of her interest in the story.

Moore tells us that in 1893 the overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last of the Hawaiian monarchs, was in reaction to her intention to promulgate a new constitution “in which the rights of native Hawaiians would be protected.” But a full appreciation of Lili‘uokalani’s actions would require a recounting of how under the preceding reign of her brother Kalākaua, the king had been forced by his haole cabinet to accept the infamous 1887 “Bayonet Constitution” abrogating the rights of most Hawaiians and stripping the Hawaiian monarchy of much of its authority. It is also unfair and inaccurate to state, as Moore does, that the annexation of Hawai‘i in 1898 by the United States occurred “with little resistance from the Hawaiians,” especially in light of recent studies showing that more than half of the adult native Hawaiian population signed petitions opposing annexation.2

Although one wishes Moore had gone more thoroughly into the later stages of Hawai‘i’s transformation from an indigenous kingdom to a colonial territory, Paradise of the Pacific is nonetheless a real contribution to Hawaiian history, not the least for her intriguing thesis that the sundering of the kapu system offers the key to understanding the tragic breakdown of traditional Hawaiian society:

After the abolishment of the gods and the complex system of ritual that accompanied them, as well as the end of warfare, there was not very much for the ali‘i to do. They had yet to take an interest in government, or in a system in which influence and power were not dependent on rank and lineage…. With the new Christian kapu imposed by the missionaries, the alii were even more adrift than they had been.

And yet Moore cautions against reading Hawaiian history solely as a saga of foreign interference and victimization of an indigenous people:

Although it has become useful for scholars and writers to blame the influence of foreigners, particularly the missionaries, for the near annihilation of the Hawaiian race, it is impossible to exempt the ali‘i from hastening its decline. Putting aside the inexorability of historical determinism, it is too easy to fault foreigners for the dissolution and eventual collapse of the Hawaiian monarchy.

This is not a view that will gain Moore popularity with many contemporary native Hawaiian historians or scholars. It is, nonetheless, a reasonable assessment.3 The cultural structures of ambition and competition among chieftains that had evolved over the centuries and were encapsulated in the uniquely Hawaiian system of kapu surely amplified the effects of capitalism when this ultimately descended upon the islands.

  1. 1

    David Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities (Bishop Museum Press, 1951), p. 61. 

  2. 2

    See Noenoe K. Silva, Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2004). 

  3. 3

    The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins expressed a similar view: “Hawaiians too were authors of their history and not merely its victims.” Sahlins, Historical Ethnography, Vol. 1 of Patrick V. Kirch and Marshall Sahlins, Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii (University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 215–216.