The heir to the throne of the Sandwich Islands presented a dignified but odd sight as he strode along the shore towards the nobles who would pronounce him king. Beneath the traditional feather cloak he wore the crimson jacket of an English soldier. And his 'princely hat' was a plumed bicorn, not unlike that of Admiral Horatio Nelson. Behind Liholiho, two chiefs carried Kahiili, feathered standards that indicated his royal rank. But his honour guard bore muskets rather than the traditional spears. Forty years after their ‘discovery’ by Captain James Cook, the Hawaiian islands were in the middle of a cultural revolution.
While the upheaval was inspired by outsiders, it was directed by the local woman who stepped forward to block the soon-to-be monarch and his entourage. She was an imposing sight. Hawaiians regarded big as beautiful, and at almost five hundred pounds (220kg), she was arguably the most attractive woman on the islands.
‘Behold these chiefs and the men of your father, and these your guns, and this your land,’ she said. ‘But you and I shall rule together’.
Liholiho seemed unperturbed by this bare-faced grab for his power. He might have ordered some terrible retribution on the woman, but instead he mildly assented and was duly acclaimed King Kamehameha II.
The woman was neither the new King’s wife nor his mother but his stepmother, and as such had no claim to authority except what she wielded by force of personality. Her name was Kaahumanu and her long shadow still stretches across Hawaiian history.
Her husband, Liholiho’s father and regnal namesake, Kamehameha, (translation: ‘The Loneliness of a God’) was the first king of a united Hawaii. 'The Conqueror', as he was also known, had forged his Kingdom of eight islands through the bloody subjugation of four rival chieftains.
When Kamehameha died in 1819, George III was still on the throne of the United Kingdom, though his twilight years had sapped the last vestiges of his sanity. The founding of the United States was within living memory and the battle of Waterloo had been fought just four years earlier.
Liholiho’s investiture as the second sovereign was suitably grand. But despite the pomp and ceremony, many must have felt the recent death of Kamehameha was the end of an era. His reign would be almost impossible to live up to, let alone surpass. They had yet to reckon with Kaahumanu.
A fit mate for a warrior king
She had been 16 when Kamehameha made her his eleventh wife. But she was his favourite from then until his death 34 years later. Since the Conqueror took another 19 brides, the favour he showed her was all the more exceptional.
Her huge size was often commented upon, particularly by westerners. Laura Judd, the wife of an American physician and missionary, said Kaahumanu treated them like pet children. 'She could dangle any of us in her lap, as she would a little child, which she often takes the liberty of doing'.
But the Queen’s intellect and her skill as a politician were equally impressive, as her intervention in the investiture demonstrated. Kaahumanu was, according to the historian Manley Hopkins, 'beloved for her own sake' and a woman of 'remarkable character' who made a 'fit mate for a warrior king'. Kaahumanu and Kamehameha were a team, one whose bonds were strengthened by the seismic events that shaped the new kingdom’s early history.