By Jan TenBruggencate
The role of women in early Hawaiian society was different from that of most other native cultures.
Not greater, certainly not lesser, but very different.
During the period of the Kamehamehas, there was a series of powerful women — in some cases arguably more powerful than the kings with whom they served.
Maui-born Kaahumanu, who lived from 1768 to 1832, is a fine example. She was a high-ranking chiefess, who married Kamehameha when she was a teenager and stood at his side as his effective prime minister and counselor throughout the rest of his life.
She continued to exercise power during the subsequent reigns of his sons, Kamehamea II and Kamehameha III.
Her active role expanded beyond the borders of the young kingdom and helped expand the Hawaiian nation, when she actively co-opted Kaua‘i King Kaumuali‘i. According to some views, she kidnapped Kaumuali‘i, forced him to marry her, and for a period kept him imprisoned on O‘ahu.
Another powerful woman was Kaumuali‘i’s mother, Kamakahelei. She reigned over Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau for 24 years, until her death in 1794. She was married to the powerful Maui chief Ka‘eokūlani, who was Kaumualiʻi’s father.
But it was not only the ruling chiefs who had powerful women among their ranks.
There are numerous stories of women going to war with the husbands, and battling alongside their men with traditional weapons. And there is little doubt of the value Kamehameha placed in the women of his army.
At the king’s flank, during the battle of Nu‘uanu, there fought his contingent of female musketeers — warriors firing muskets with great effect.
They fought under the leadership of a woman, Kekupuohi. She had learned marksmanship from her husband, and her battalion of musket-wielding women warriors were reportedly far more accurate than the musketeers of the opposition army of Kalanikūpule.
In Stephen Desha’s wonderful book, “Kamehameha and his Warrior Kekuhaupio,” he wrote of this seminal battle.
“The female ali‘i on Kamehameha’s side used their muskets, firing their bullets amongst the warriors on Kalanikūpule’s side. Those on Kamehameha’s side were better skilled with the muskets, and perhaps these warriors furnished with the foreign weapons were electrified (ho‘ouwila ‘ia paha) by seeing the fearlessness of these ali‘i wahine.”
One of the subtexts of this story is that Kekupuohi’s husband Kaʻiana, who had taught her to shoot, was fighting on the opposite side — leading one of Kalanikūpule’s armies.
“Here was Kekupuohi employing the knowledge which she had learned from her husband. Kekupuohi had the leadership of this corps of chiefly women because Kamehameha had not the least doubt concerning the loyalty of this ali‘i wahine of Hawai‘i,” Desha wrote.
Kaʻiana was killed by a musket round to the leg, and the battle stilled when Kekupuohi crossed the lines to cradle her dying husband.
“It is said that the shooting on both sides was restrained, and they looked at the pitiful sight of the loving wife giving her husband a final caress,” Desha wrote.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.