The Dawning of Women’s Rights in Hawaii

From the very beginning, Hawaii was a land of no religion. Life was regulated by kapu (tabu), which reached into every phase of everyday activities. In particular, there were kapu — very restrictive and degrading — for women. Women could eat only certain foods. Their food could not be cooked on the same fire with men’s, nor could women eat at the same place. The penalty for violation of such kapu was death. The vengeful gods had been offended and had to be appeased.

From the time of Captain Cook’s first arrival in the islands, a whole lot of explorers visited the islands and the Hawaiians began to notice that they were breaking all kinds of kapu… and nothing seemed to be happening to them! The islander began to question how valid their customs actually were.

Kaahumanu was Kamehameha the Great’s favorite wife. She resented the kapu. Secretly, she would would eat a banana and wait for punishment from the gods, which never came. She began to pester her husband to abolish the kapu, but he died in 1819 still believing in them.

Kaahumanu subsequently served as regent with the very young Kamehameha II. She enjoyed a similar authority with him to the one she had with his predecessor, but she didn’t feel it was h3 enough for her to kill the kapu on her own. She plotted with another of Kamehameha ‘s widows, Keopuolani, who was kapu chieftess. Together, they continued to urge the 22-year-old king to abolish the kapu.

Kamehameha II made his home in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, where he planned a huge feast to which he invited the high priests from all the islands. He ordered two tables prepared in elaborate, European fashion — one for the men and one for the women.

At the feast, to everyone’s amazement, he seated himself in a vacant chair at the women’s table and began to eat their fare voraciously. The guests began to murmur, then shout loudly that the kapu were broken. Servants began to carry bananas and other forbidden food to the women’s table. The king himself proclaimed the kapu abolished and the old gods dead. Messengers were then sent throughout the kingdom to order the the destruction of the temples and the abolishment of the kapu.

Some of the priests and subjects stayed faithful to the kapu, but most welcomed the newly-proclaimed freedom.

At about the same time, a group of missionaries was departing from Boston, to arrive in the islands six months later.

Posted by: Bruce Fisher