A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Overview of Hawaiian History
by Diane Lee Rhodes
(with some additions by Linda Wedel Greene)


B. Overthrow of the Kapu System

     1. Traditional Religious System Kept Intact During Kamehameha's Reign

A major event in Hawaiian history occurred in 1819, shortly after the death of King Kamehameha, with the overthrow of the ancient kapu system. Indeed, E. G. Craighill Handy has gone so far as to refer to this as the "Hawaiian Cultural Revolution." [4] During his reign, Kamehameha steadfastly adhered to the traditional social and religious customs of Hawaiian society that maintained the superiority and power of the chiefs and priests. Kamehameha, as other chiefs before him, regarded the kapu system as the central force stabilizing the political and social systems of the culture.

It has been suggested, however, that at times the king questioned the advisability of strict observance of the kapu and pondered thoughtfully the continuing performance of traditional religious practices. His continuing dialogue with a variety of European visitors and advisors and his awareness of subtle changes in the political and social environment of the islands undoubtedly prompted much soul-searching on this subject. But his upbringing in traditional ways strongly influenced his behavior, and he probably perceived more benefits than impediments to the smooth running of his government from continued adherence to the kapu system. It may also be that he was not wholly convinced that the only alternative suggested to him, Christianity, would provide his people with a better way of life. And so, as Hawaiian consul-general Manley Hopkins later stated

. . . to the end of his life, the King [Kamehameha] continued devotions to his idols. He was probably a very sceptical [sic] worshipper; but he looked upon the national religion as a great state instrument, which it was better on his part to support by his patron age. [5]

While Kamehameha ruled, no resistance to the kapu system was allowed. Any persons brave enough to dare infractions of the rules, who were discovered, were summarily executed up until the time of his death. [6] But as he lay dying, it is said, he suggested that his successor should give the question of continuing allegiance to the kapu system some thought, and that perhaps the system should be maintained only if he survived. [7]

Even prior to the king's death, however, some Hawaiians, whose transgressions had not been discovered by the chiefs or priests, had defied the kapu without experiencing dire punishment from the gods. This must have provided food for thought. In addition, during Kamehameha's reign, skepticism of the religious system had grown on the part of the commoners. This resulted from several factors: the growing oppressiveness of the restrictions and of the tax burdens and military services required of the people; increasing interaction with foreigners, whose ridicule and disregard of the restrictions did not appear to bring them either misfortune or death; and some awareness of the abolition of a similar system in the Society Islands without ill effects. [8]

     2. Kamehameha's Death Provides Opportunity for Religious Reform

It is not surprising then that Kamehameha's death in 1819 might precipitate a dramatic change in the social, political, and religious systems of the country. For although Kamehameha had continued the traditional ways of his ancestors, he had also opened the door to European influences. In fact, some Hawaiians, notably members of the ali'i, had already acquired many of the outward manners and accoutrements of European civilization during the final years of Kamehameha's reign.

Kamehameha II's unfortunate "fondness for drinking, carousing, general debauchery, and . . . unsatiable taste for Western trade goods taxed much of his ability to rule the kingdom." [9] Ka'ahumanu, meanwhile, as mentioned, had stated that because of uncertainties as to Liholiho's abilities, her husband had placed her next in authority to oversee the government and act as guardian of the realm. In view of Liholiho's rather weak personality and the fact that he was content to be a follower rather than a leader, the strong-willed Ka'ahumanu would have little trouble in making changes she desired in the kingdom. One of these involved ending the kapu system. Aiding her in this endeavor were Keopuolani, the new king's mother and the highest-ranking chiefess of the ruling family; Kalanimoku, functioning as prime minister; and Hewahewa, the last high priest of the Pa'ao lineage.

On the morning after his father's death, Liholiho left Kailua, which had been defiled by death, for Kawaihae in Kohala, as was the custom. During his absence, as was also the custom, the population committed all kinds of excesses, breaking the kapu with impunity. Although the usual mourning ceremonies on the death of a king took place, no sacrifices occurred to provide the old king with companions in the next world. During this mourning period, the dead chief's bones were secreted in a cave, the traditional action that ritually disassociated the mandate to rule from the dead king so that his heir could re-establish it on his return to the area. After the requisite ten days of seclusion had passed, Liholiho returned to assume power, at which time he was also supposed to re-establish the kapu system, something he did not do. Instead he left again for Kawaihae in the Kohala district, where he took up residence until October, probably hoping to avoid having to make some important decisions concerning land redistribution, requests by the ali'i to share in the sandalwood trade, and whether or not to break the kapu, an action he knew Ka'ahumanu and others favored.

During the new king's absence, Ka'ahumanu had begun instigating for reform. Her motives and those of the small group of influential individuals who allied with her have been speculated upon for years. Ka'ahumanu was stubborn, ambitious, and no doubt tired of the restraints upon her sex. In addition, if serious political questions were considered within heiau, where spiritual power might influence decision making, she would have been unable to co-rule effectively because she could not enter those structures. Kalanimoku, who was not a high-ranking chief, would not be adversely affected by depriving others of their kapu prerogatives. (He and his brother Boki had been secretly baptized by a Roman Catholic chaplain on board the French ship L'Uranie captained by Louis de Freycinet while Liholiho was in residence at Kawaihae. It is not clear, however, whether either man completely understood the meaning of the ceremony.) Keopuolani, though of very high rank, was easily influenced by Ka'ahumanu. The high priest Hewahewa, who appears to have had nothing to gain by the overthrow of idolatry, is thought to have participated in the rebellion simply due to a deep personal conviction of the inconsistencies of the religious system of which he was head. In addition, there possibly existed some conflict and friction over status within the government between Kekuaokalani, keeper of Ku, and Hewahewa. It was Hewahewa's strong support that ensured the success of this endeavor.

     3. Liholiho Abolishes the Kapu System

Ultimately Ka'ahumanu advised Liholiho to return to Kailua, having already alerted him to the fact that she was ready to abolish the kapu system upon his return. Having been raised during the peaceful time of his father's rule over a united kingdom, the young heir had little training in either civil or military matters. In addition, being of a gentle, affectionate, and light-hearted disposition, he was averse to conflict over the matter despite his lingering feelings of loyalty to the old system under which he had been raised. He therefore reacted with mixed feelings to Ka'ahumanu's declaration. Realizing that he would soon be forced to make a decision, and uncertain as to the correct course he should take, Liholiho's return to Kailua was slow and filled with feasting, drinking, and dancing to delay events as long as possible.

The restriction against "free eating," the ability of men and women to eat the same foods at the same table, was one of the most significant aspects of the kapu system. As stated earlier in this report, certain items denied to women were either considered aspects of the male gods or were used as sacrificial offerings to them and therefore were kapu. Because it was considered highly symbolic of all the constraints on women, the eating kapu became the focal point of Ka'ahumanu's efforts to overthrow the system. Therefore, upon Liholiho's arrival in Kailua, approximately six months after the death of his father, a feast was prepared in welcome. It was attended by several foreigners as well as such trusted counselors as John Young. In accordance with native custom, separate tables were set up for the sexes. Young and several chiefs described the ensuing scene as the young king, who had been drinking fairly steadily in an attempt to settle his nerves, ordered his attendants to carry prohibited food to the women's table, at which he deliberately sat down to eat — the public, symbolic act of ending the kapu system. Seeing that the influential dignitaries of the kingdom present appeared to approve this act, several chiefs followed the king's example. [10] According to David Kalakaua, following this act of common eating,

an indescribable scene ensued. "The tabu is broken! the tabu is broken!" passed from lip to lip, swelling louder and louder as it went, until it reached beyond the pavilion. There it was taken up in shouts by the multitude, and was soon wafted on the winds to the remotest corners of Kona. Feasts were at once provided, and men and women ate together indiscriminately. . . . At the conclusion of the royal feast a still greater surprise bewildered the people. "We have made a bold beginning," said Hewahewa to the king. . . "but the gods and heiaus cannot survive the death of the tabu." "Then let them perish with it!" exclaimed Liholiho, now nerved to desperation at what he had done. "If the gods can punish, we have done too much already to hope for grace. They can but kill, and we will test their powers by inviting the full measure of their wrath." [11]

No matter what the actual words, it was clear that Liholiho was prepared to go all the way. With the agreement of the high priest, Liholiho sent out orders to destroy the images and temples throughout the kingdom and to generally ignore all former kapu. Legend has it that, immediately resigning from his office of high priest, Hewahewa then set fire to the nearest heiau. Francisco de Paula Marin seems not to have fully appreciated the significance of this momentous time, noting in his journal on November 7, 1819, only that: "This day all the women ate pork and they burnt all the churches on the island." [12] Lifting the kapu restrictions that protected the sanctity of the chiefs and priests somewhat eroded their separateness from the common people, while destruction of the temples and images removed many of the trappings of their status. Both actions, resulting in cessation of public rituals, worship, and sacrifices, accomplished dissolution of the priesthood as an organized body. [13]

It would take one final action, however, to stabilize the new state of affairs. This involved Liholiho meeting on the field of battle his cousin Kekuaokalani, to whom Kamehameha had bequeathed, in addition to his war god Ku-ka'ili-moku, co-responsibility for the care of the gods, their temples, and the support of their worship. [14] Kekuaokalani, who was next in line for the position of high chief after Hewahewa, and who took his charges from the late king seriously, assumed the responsibility of leading those who opposed the abolition of the kapu system. These included priests, some courtiers, and the traditional territorial chiefs of the middle rank. [15]

Kekuaokalani demanded that Liholiho withdraw his edicts against the priesthood, which traditionalists believed should still be preserved; permit rebuilding of the temples; and dismiss both Kalanimoku and Ka'ahumanu. [16] Kamehameha II refused. At a battle fought at Kuamo'o on the island of Hawai'i, the king's better-armed forces, led by Kalanimoku, not only defeated the last defenders of the Hawaiian gods, of their temples and priesthoods, and of the ancient organized religion, but also effectively weakened belief in the power of the gods and the inevitability of divine punishment for those who opposed them.

     4. Some Vestiges of Old Practices Remain

The Reverend Sheldon Dibble reported, with true missionary vigor and some exaggeration, that

The war having thus resulted in the entire overthrow of the idolatrous party, both chiefs and people united with one voice and in the strongest terms to reproach the folly and impotency of their former idol gods. . . . Their rage toward idols by which they had been so long enthralled and who had now failed them in the day of battle was unbounded. They began the work of destruction. Some of their idols they cast into the sea, some they burnt, and some they treated with contempt and used for fuel. They rushed to the temples and tore them to the ground. [17]

According to Gilbert Mathison, visiting the islands about 1822, "so complete was the work of destruction, that, in the course of a few months, neither sacrifices nor religious observances of any sort were kept, or even thought of, by the inhabitants." [18] The Reverend Daniel Tyerman, who departed from the London Missionary Society to visit various stations in the South Sea islands, China, India, and other places between 1821 and 1829, noted in 1822 that

Mr. Young informs us that though idolatry is abolished, yet the multitude of gods of wood and stone, formerly worshipped, have been rather hidden than extirpated, many of its inveterate abettors still hoping for a counter-revolution in their favor; a notion fostered by the priests, who have lost their occupation, but naturally exercise their subtle influence to recover it. Not a single image has been brought to us for sale, and the only one that we have obtained was a gift from the governor. [19]

About this same time, however, Frederic Shoberl recounted that

the king and queen of Atooi [Kaua'i] . . . made a tour round the island of Owhyhee [Hawai'i], during which above a hundred idols were discovered at one place in caves situated among the mountains: these were all burned together; and many more were destroyed in other parts of the island during this tour. When idolatry was formally abolished in 1819, these images were concealed by those who were adverse to the change. [20]

By 1826 the Missionary Herald reported that

There are still, in many places on the islands, multitudes who continue in rather a secret manner to worship their old false gods, but the number is every month growing less. [21]

Frederick Debell Bennett spent time in Hawai'i in 1834 and 1835, where he noted that since the arrival of the missionaries,

religious and general education has advanced so rapidly over all the islands, that idolatrous ceremonies are totally obliterated, and the rising generation now regard a ruined morai, or a wooden deity, with the same traditionary interest that the British attach to their druidical remains. [22]

In actuality, although destruction of temple structures and their adorning large-scale images were an obvious action that could be readily observed and monitored, the rapidity with which smaller images were destroyed is much less clear. The missionaries, who were closely watching these events, realized that

Where the idols were so very numerous, and there were so many household gods, it is not to be supposed that all would be destroyed at once. Though the burning was general, some idols would be clandestinely preserved. [23]

One early writer looked back on this destructive activity with some regret. Constance Cumming lamented:

With all possible reverence for the great work so nobly accomplished by the early missionaries, it is certainly a matter much to be regretted that, in the wholesale sweeping away of idolatry, so many subjects deeply interesting to the ethnologist and the antiquarian should have been hopelessly swamped, and everything in any way bearing on the old system treated as being either so puerile as to be beneath contempt, or so evil as to be best forgotten with all speed. [24]

Numerous household gods were not abandoned. Because they were viewed as family guardians, they continued to be venerated during the disintegration of other government-related trappings of the old religion. [25] And certainly it was almost too much to expect that mere renunciation of these age-old traditions by the king and destruction of those physical structures connected with the ancient religious practices would immediately erase the training and mindset inculcated in the Hawaiians from childhood.

Stephenie Levin points out that although the formal state religion had been destroyed, certain non-institutionalized beliefs that were mystical in nature and that dealt with immediate needs in daily life continued to flourish. Most Hawaiians, in fact, maintained the belief that supernatural assistance could be obtained from gods lower in the pantheon, such as Pele, and from ancestral spirits. [26]

William Davenport agrees, making it clear that Hawai'i was not totally lacking in religion until the arrival of the New England missionaries because beliefs in sorcery, the power of ancestral deities, and other aspects of the old religion, such as curing rituals, persisted. These had probably been the more important practices of their religion for most Hawaiians anyway, Davenport surmises, because worship of the primary gods had been mainly the privilege of the ali'i and the head of government. [27]

     5. Discussion on the Overthrow of the Kapu System

The reasons for the overthrow of the kapu system by the Hawaiian people and the events leading to it have been a subject of speculation by scholars for many years and deserve some mention here. The whole question of voluntary culture change is certainly an intriguing one and has been explained through the years as a result of religious and social factors as well as political and economic motivations. The abolition of the kapu system in Hawai'i was an extraordinary action for two primary reasons. First, it was an abandonment of traditional religious practices with no specific thought of replacing them with another system. It was not a religious reformation instigated by foreign traders or missionaries as was the case with other isolated Polynesian societies being contacted by the Western world. [28] And second, the movement was undertaken by those who appeared to have the most to lose; high-ranking officials sought to abolish an ideological system that legitimized their authority, even though there did not exist a strong demand among the people to do so.

Why did this religious revolution succeed? Why was resistance to the change so ineffectual? Primarily because the ruling monarch, influential officials, and the high priest — those who had the most authority in the kingdom — led the revolution. Also the timing of the change was an asset. It occurred at the end of an era and in the midst of general unrest caused by the death of a much-beloved king. In addition, at this particular phase in the development of the nation, Hawaiian society was receptive to new ideas and changes.

The Reverend William Ellis ventures that Liholiho's reasons for supporting the abolition of the kapu system included first, possibly some desire to better the condition of women in Hawaiian society, and second, a wish to lessen the power of the priests and the amount of resources channeled for their support. [29] Certainly this was accomplished to some degree, because abolishing the organized religion effectively emasculated the hereditary priesthoods by reducing the need for their social and ritualistic functions to reinforce the existing political authority, thus effectively removing them as any kind of threat to the ruler. An unfortunate by-product of their loss of position, however, was decreased use of the skills, intellectual attainments, and special knowledge and abilities possessed by that class. [30]

Was the abolition primarily a result of dissatisfaction with the system on the part of the two most powerful women in the kingdom — Ka'ahumanu and Keopuolani — who received the opportunity to exercise their influence at a time when faith in the old socio-economic system was weak? Or as Anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber has suggested, did the principle of "Cultural Fatigue" lead to this revolution, meaning that the over-elaboration of this traditional pattern of religious and political behavior finally resulted in a burdensome system with which the people became disillusioned and which they finally abandoned? [31] This explanation downplays the influences exerted by changing social and physical environmental factors resulting from the new European influences impacting Hawaiian society, which others believe must have shaped its thinking to some degree.

Robert Redfield, for instance, stresses the importance of this culture contact and has suggested that the overthrow of the kapu system exemplified planned, conscious reform on the part of the Hawaiians as a result of the "unsettling impact" of Western customs and moral attitudes. He argues that the social strain and ideological incongruities presented by exposure to European civilization increased the probabilities of such a change in a culture that had shown in the past a proclivity to abandon gods who did not achieve for them what they wanted. [32] This explanation, however, fails to address the social and political developments that had taken place in Hawaiian society during the previous years that enabled the change to take place so easily. [33]

Several anthropologists have used sound arguments for both political and economic motivations. Malcolm Webb, for instance, questions whether personal desires, such as the preference of two women for more personal freedom, would be powerful enough to cause such a great change unless other factors were also at work undermining the traditional process. He also questioned how on this level one could explain the ready acquiescence of the king and the high priest, who stood to lose considerable status, or whether this would even adequately explain the motives of the royal women involved, who, because of their high rank, actually suffered less from the kapu system than the common women. [34] Webb believes it doubtful such a drastic change would have occurred without foreign contact showing the availability of alternative systems. However, although the Hawaiians were probably struck by the fact that foreigners could violate kapu without harm, Webb believes the Hawaiians were not overly disturbed by this because they realized these people were not part of the same genealogical-ceremonial system. [35]

Webb states that during the years preceding the overthrow of the old religion, rivalry among closely related members of ruling kin groups and the channeling of much of the country's resources to ritual rather than to the increase of foreign trade or as bonus payments for armies were the leading causes of the failure of the early Hawaiian chiefs to consolidate state power. By the time of the overthrow, however, an intense desire had grown on the part of the local chiefs for foreign goods, to such an extent that they were heavily in debt and needed to divert resources from other uses. [36]

Webb's argument is that the abolition of the kapu system was linked to the ongoing, although probably unrealized, transformation of the Hawaiian culture from a tribal to a state entity. [37] European trade goods, especially firearms, and the surplus wealth gained from their position in the center of the goods distribution network, had by this time enabled senior tribal chiefs to gain some measure of power. That power, independent of tribal tribute, enabled them to safeguard their new status by hiring and paying additional retainers. As the power of local chiefs increased in this manner, they had less need of a leadership system based on prestige, seniority, or rank-status within a kinship group. Their increased wealth and power gained from trade and military force lessened their need as well for the ritual requirements of the traditional system but increased their need for the freedom of action enabling fluidity within a changing social system. Elimination of the sacred nature of the socio-political system would also remove restrictions on the ruler in terms of the time devoted to ritual practices, his ability to move freely around his kingdom, and his ability to wage war without tedious ceremonials. [38] Webb states that for all these reasons, "the downgrading of the traditional religious institutions should in fact be a very common or even typical occurrence during state formation and consolidation." [39] The weakening of traditional religious constraints is especially likely to occur, Webb argues, whenever chieftainships, characterized by the extension of power through kinship and ritual ties, start to develop into states. [40]

Webb believes, however, that Hawai'i was unique in that foreign missionaries did not influence the overthrow of the old religion. He points out the continuing worship of some gods and the veneration of royal tombs, such as Hale-o-Keawe, and suggests that if the missionaries had not arrived on the scene, some variation of traditional religious practices would have been instituted, controlled by the monarch, that did not interfere with the increasing power and efficiency of the government. [41] In terms of timing of the abolition of the old religion, it occurred at a point when the older ideological system had become seriously inhibiting and when power adequate to replace it had arisen.

Webb characterizes Hawai'i in 1819 as illustrating the changeover from ritual to secular controls that usually accompanies the growth of state societies. The event comprised, he thinks, a "functionally necessary adjustment," similar to those that any culture would have to make at a certain stage of development in response to a specific problem in order to survive. [42]

This does not detract from the importance of individual actions in the event, because the persons initiating changes would be suffering "status conflict or deprivation" within the current system. But, they could only be successful in their rebellion if the cultural situation also demanded the change. And possibly the people most likely to initiate such a change would be those of high rank, rather than oppressed commoners, who were less bound by traditional codes of behavior and freer to innovate and move toward needed cultural changes. [43] Webb ends his discussion with the intriguing statement that it was not necessary that individuals such as Ka'ahumanu and her followers completely understand the full ramifications or the ultimate advantages of their actions before initiating innovative measures serving the survival needs of their society. Such acts, he states, "would be performed because when they were done things — for some reason — simply worked better." [44] In other words, personal motivations may not be that important a consideration in the overthrow of the kapu system, for

the novelty-prone Hawaiian rulers certainly did not realise that they were part of "the process of inevitable political consolidation within a newly formed secondary state," but they must have had enough perspicacity to see that the old religious system, in supporting a social structure which worked against the new social reality, was somehow "wrong" and had to be changed to one which was more congruent with the new order. The motives of the innovators themselves may, of course, have been either cynical or pious . . . and the end product would surely have been the same. [45]

William Davenport also cites economic and political reasons for the repudiation of the kapu system, and at the same time explains why members of the ali'i would naturally be the principal instigators of reform. It was the aristocratic class, he reasons, that had had the most contact with Europeans after Cook's discovery and thus had been subject to the strongest acculturative influences. In time they began to demand more and more imported goods, which led to the need for increasing commercial trade. As a consequence, they had to divert large amounts of labor from traditional subsistence activities to the procurement of sandalwood, the major trade item, straining the Hawaiian economy and a labor force that was already decreasing due to disease.

Therefore, in addition to simply wanting the increased power that would result from abolition of the old socio-political system, Davenport thinks the ali'i believed that the economic crisis necessitated freeing the culture from the burden of supporting the various priesthoods. Levin places little weight on this argument because, she states, it is difficult to determine how oppressive a burden the support of the priesthood was and whether the advantages gained would really have been worth repudiating an entire religious system. [46]

Davenport's argument, in other words, also looks at the overthrow from a political perspective — "as a deliberate political action of the legitimate government of the Hawaiian Islands." [47] It was, as Webb surmises, a political act resulting from a political decision in response to stress. [48] Ka'ahumanu, Webb believes, instigated the kapu violations as an "intuitive political response to preserve the regime that . . . she had helped to expand and consolidate" under Kamehameha I. [49] She could clearly see that the traditional dual succession system handicapped the government by providing optional leaders who could easily rally opposing factions. By pressuring for a break in this tradition, she raised an issue sure to create factions in the population, but at a time when the opposition was not yet fully organized. The faster an encounter could be forced, she knew, the less opposition could be raised. Therefore she pushed the issue as quickly as she could after Kamehameha's death. [50]

This argument states that the major goal of Ka'ahumanu at that time was to maintain the strength of the monarchy. Davenport points out that the priesthood had functioned as one of the most important checks against despotism; if a ruler alienated his priests, they could weaken his rule or cause his overthrow by interpreting divinations and auguries as adverse to his regime. If not supported by the priesthoods in ancient Hawai'i, a ruler often found himself in serious political trouble. To remove their status, therefore, would strengthen the power of the ruler, a huge gain worth the price of lowering the value of divine rank.

In addition, even the commoners had surely begun to realize, Davenport believes, that guns possessed as much ability to make things happen as did the gods. That fact was probably abundantly clear to Hewahewa, who had served as Kamehameha l's advisor in religious matters during his rise to power. Hewahewa might have sensed that the power of the priesthood would wane as the relationship of Hawai'i's monarchs with Europeans increased. At the same time Kalanimoku, as senior minister, war leader, and an intimate of the late king, could see that trade was vital to the maintenance of governmental power because it was the only way to gain guns and ships. Destruction of the organized priesthoods, which claimed a large segment of the labor and produce of the land, could only strengthen his regime both politically and economically. The interesting aspect of the event, Davenport points out, is that those who sought to change the system did it through the head of state, not in the form of a coup d'etat. The strategy, a successful one, was to reform from within in what amounted to a constitutional reform of traditional government. [51]

Davenport also discusses the economic side of the overthrow. He believes the political crisis resulting in the change was a result of the government's stress from trying to pay for its unrestrained purchases of foreign goods. The commoners were kept so busy providing sandalwood for trade that they did not have enough time to cultivate food for their own needs. That affected not only their well-being, but also lessened the amount of tribute and taxes they were able to contribute to support the court and the priesthoods as well as the many religious rituals and military campaigns. This steadily deteriorating situation was forcing the central government to a decision — to either renounce its commercial goals or reorganize the allocation of its resources. At the same time, the ali'i' s strict religious doctrine had been shaken by contact with Europeans. Therefore, there existed little opposition to an action that, in eliminating the priesthoods, would free the country's resources for other uses and also increase the political authority of the paramount chief and his followers. Despite the loss of some benefits heretofore prescribed by religious sanctions, the king could retain his power through armed force. As Webb suggests, Davenport believes the timing of the overthrow was all important. It took place during a period of instability, when the kapu was already being violated as part of the traditional mourning ritual for a beloved leader. Instead of reinstating the kapu, an action that would have reaffirmed its perceived value to the country, Liholiho joined the violators and thus ensured the system's destruction. [52]

All things considered, Davenport agrees with Webb's evolutionary interpretation of events. He strongly believes the abolition of the kapu was a deliberate political response to political crisis caused by the growing power of the monarch and local chieftains and by an increase in commercial trade, and was further stimulated by growing religious doubts and the problems caused by a declining population. Those internal problems were intensified by continuing social and economic contact with Europeans. The government response to lower this stress level involved governmental reform that would enable reorganization of the admininstrative infrastructure to allow more efficient allocation of the country's economic resources. [53]

John L. Fischer also believes the overthrow was successful because it was a smart political move and because it coincided with the popular sentiment at that time. He states his belief that prior to Kamehameha's unification of the islands, "sociocultural forces" were increasing the elaborateness of the state religion; after unification, there were forces at work to simplify it. [54] However, he states, it usually was more typical for dissatisfied members of the general population to demand change than for the central government to initiate reform without pressure from the people, missionaries, or foreign governments. In most developing societies, he states, chiefs and high-ranking persons usually attempted to maintain the aboriginal religion and its authority- preserving sanctions. Hawai'i was different because of the political conditions and the political functions served by kapu and the native religion. Fischer thought the old religion's major purpose prior to Kamehameha's reign was to militarily and economically support local chieftainships, a function made unnecessary by unification of the islands. Whereas in earlier times, this had created a close relationship — the local chiefs defending the people against enemies and organizing the production and distribution of resources, Fischer believes the abolition of the kapu system was a manifestation of a new alliance — uniting the central government and the commoners against the local aristocracy. [55]

An essential part of Fischer's argument is that class conflict had always existed between the local chiefs and commoners in aboriginal Hawai'i. [56] One reason was the hardship of supplying labor and food to the chiefs, time-consuming tasks that put additional stress on the commoners and that depleted their own food supply. Contact with the West increased this stress by leading to the need for additional production by the people for trade purposes; in addition, unification of the islands had already resulted in an additional level of administrative hierarchy for the commoners to support. Added to this was conflict between the central government and its retinue and lower-ranking chiefs. [57] Because of this, Fischer thinks it would only have been sound political strategy, to guarantee their continued authority, for the central government to attempt to ally itself more closely with the commoners; certainly one way to dramatically accomplish this would be by abolishing the kapu. [58]

From another viewpoint, Stephenie Levin points out that the immediate period after Kamehameha l's death was one of unrest regarding land tenure rights, which traditionally on the death of a paramount ruler reverted to his successor, who redistributed them. Ka'ahumanu was a member of the ali'i group to whom Kamehameha had deeded land outright. She must have realized that the kapu system was adverse to the interests of her kin group in retaining these lands. As a member of the central government, she would also be averse to the kapu system because it threatened the continuance of her administration by implying that the right to rule could only be confirmed through religious ritual. [59] Ka'ahumanu would have been astute enough to realize that secularizing the government and making succession hereditary would not only stabilize but increase the power and authority of the central government. [60] In summary, Levin believes that certain members of the ruling ali'i, after the death of Kamehameha, probably feeling their position to be somewhat insecure, realized that the current political system, constrained by ancient religious tenets, was highly unstable. That explains why the movement arose and did not constitute an attempt to destroy a set of religious beliefs the people had already rejected, but was a specific attempt to consolidate and strengthen the political authority of the central government. [61]

The reason for the kapu system's overthrow at this particular time was probably a result of all the conditions discussed, in varying degrees. Undoubtedly Western contact and growing desires on the part of the people for European amenities; the insecurities of the government — the first monarchy to take office through hereditary succession; the far-reaching political and social implications of maintaining the kapu system; the disruption of the balance of power among local chiefs due to trading advantages; and the disturbance of personal relationships in and among the general population from exposure to Western goods and customs, all must have played a role. And because of this unrest, strong personalities in the forefront of the government at this time were able to assume a critical role in nudging the course of history.

     6. Effects of the Overthrow of the Kapu System

What were the affects of the overthrow of the kapu system? According to Marion Kelly,

The royal declaration outlawing the taboo system did not affect all Hawaiians in a like manner. For the most part it relieved the ali'i, and particularly the women, of certain oppressive conditions. Although the revolt against the declaration was not well supported, the people did not immediately abandon their religious practices nor their beliefs. Ancient religious rituals were set aside by the ali'i only, and the new religion that Christian missionaries brought was not welcomed by Hawaiians with opened arms. [62]

In his introduction to Laura Judd's memoirs, Dale Morgan, in reflecting upon the consequences of the kapu abolition movement, opines that

Destruction of the kapu system made little difference in the power of the chiefs, and though the revolution greatly impaired the power of the priests, it did not destroy their power wholly. A more far-reaching effect was that the discontinuance of formal religious services left a certain vacuum in the nation's life, subtly damaging the social fabric, the sense of order that had shaped much of Hawaiian existence. . . [63]

Scholars have enumerated many detrimental effects of the abolition of the kapu system on the Hawaiian population precipitated by the loss of order and regulation in society and of the ceremonial motivation and efficiency of organized labor. Psychological hardships became extremely significant for a people deprived of the support and leadership heretofore offered by customary ways of doing things.

Because kapu had directed every aspect of Hawaiian culture, their removal also affected every segment of daily life. Removing the underpinnings of traditional Hawaiian social and political culture led to a chaotic psychological trauma for the majority of Hawaiians who, subjected at the same time to such detrimental influences as rum, tobacco, and venereal disease, were assailed by feelings of doubt, fear, confusion, stress, and depression about the future.

Changes in land tenure and ownership rights, in the division of labor, in the types of services performed and the kinds of goods produced, in personal relationships, and in social stratification were many. For instance, the allotment of land changed with the further consolidation of the government. Although the former kahuna of the organized priesthoods were stripped of their powers, they kept their lands, becoming landed gentry like the rest of the ali'i. The withdrawal of the caste system tended to weaken kinship ties between the maka'ainana and the ali'i and removed distinctions between the kauwa and the maka'ainana, opening the way for integration of the classes. Ultimately the disintegration of old values and the traditional kinship systems led to the loss of the feeling of unity in families, which had been one of the keystones of ancient Hawaiian society.

As traditional values fell in esteem, so did the production of native implements, arts, and crafts and the accomplishment of other native industries as the focus of acquisition settled on more and more foreign items. As political rivalry and wars of succession ceased, commoners no longer regarded the king and other ali'i as leaders and an inspiration in war. The overthrow also affected the culture's subsistence and consumption patterns, specifically food and craft production, which were no longer tied to the social-political-religious system. Because the people no longer observed seasonal cycles marked by formal religious ceremonies, planting was less planned and more informal; the lack of kapu on fishing activities probably resulted in increased overfishing. Although agricultural festivals were no longer held, farmers and fishermen still had to pay taxes, not to bring bounty through the goodwill of the gods as in earlier times, but as impersonal payment to the central government. [64]

The void left by abandonment of the age-old socio-religious system would be filled only partially by the teachings of Christianity. Members of the upper class of Hawaiian society would support the work of the New England missionaries upon their arrival and would, in turn, instruct the people to learn and obey the new teachings. Possibly because they were used to obeying edicts from above, or possibly because they were looking for a new direction in their spiritual and daily lives, many of the population took to the teachings of Christianity with little resistance. Even the missionaries, however, would have rough going in countering some of the more unwelcome attractions of the foreign trading ships and of a new visitor to Hawai'i's shores — the whalers.

     7. Death of Kamehameha II

Despite this dramatic break with past traditions, some of Liholiho's actions were similar to those of rulers before him. He gathered around him young chiefs, children of warriors, and even commoners, making them members of his household. [65] He collected taxes in the form of food and subsistence goods from the different islands of his kingdom. [66] Like his father, Liholiho moved his residence several times in response to the need for his presence in an area. At one point he lived at Kawaihae and later, upon the advice of his cabinet, moved his principal residence from Kailua to Honolulu. [67]

However, the short reign of King Kamehameha II was clouded by excesses in drinking and spending on luxury goods. One author writes that Liholiho

did not have to rule by ritual and he did not know how to rule by law, and so he ruled by whim, alternately despotic and delinquent. . . . Even a decent respect for his own position seemed to be beyond the king. [68]

The king, queen, and their attendants visited London in 1824. In their absence, Ka'ahumanu acted as regent, imposing strict new moral rules on the islands. At about the same time, a revolt was instigated on Kaua'i by the son of the old chief Ka'umu'ali'i. Although the government put an end to the revolt, these events combined to further the missionary cause, while diminishing the power of the king.

King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu died of measles in London in July 1824. A national council appointed his younger brother Kauikeaouli as king, and Ka'ahumanu continued as regent. The council also decreed that hereditary succession was now the law of the land.

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001