About the Author
Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city’s director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.
In 1819, at a place called Kuamo‘o, just south of what is now Kailua Town situated along the Kona coastline on Hawaii island, a bloody battle ensued that completely demolished the Native Hawaiian religion known as the kapu system, which had governed the everyday lives of the Hawaiian citizenry for centuries.
The battle of Kuamo‘o, although surprisingly not as well-known as others — such as the battle of Nu‘uanu Pali – was, in my opinion, the singular most pivotal clash in Native Hawaiian history in terms of its long term consequences. Today, two centuries later, the consequences of that battle continue to rumble on as a confusing Native Hawaiian existence.
A Divided Crown
King Kamehameha I, who established the Kingdom of Hawaii, had passed. He named two heirs to the crown, his eldest son Liholiho (King Kamehameha II) and his nephew, Kekuaokalani, a high ranking warrior chief.
Liholiho was given authority over the lands and political processes. Kekuaolalani was given care of the God of War, Kukailimoku, which elevated him to one of the highest ranking positions of power next to being king. While shared rule seemed the intent of Kamehameha I, it did not play out that way.
At issue was a sweeping edict, ordered by Liholiho (King Kamehameha II), and strategically supported by two previous queens of King Kamehameha I — Kaahumanu and Keopuolani — as well as many of the ranking chiefs of the era. The royal edict was that the kapu system, the centuries-old religion, be abolished and all temples and divine images be destroyed.
Kekuaokalani, a fearless warrior and caretaker of the War God, was outraged by this royal order to abolish the kapu system. When attempts at a diplomatic resolution failed, Kekuaokalani turned to the last option he had – going to war. The opposing armies met at Kuamo‘o, today revered as a historic and sacred site.
Kekuaokalani and his warriors, outnumbered and unable to match the weaponry of Liholiho’s forces, were overwhelmed and killed in one of the bloodiest battles in Native Hawaiian history. While a few survived and attempted another insurrection, they were quickly dispatched.
So this begs the question: what were the circumstances that would lead Liholiho and his royal supporters to dramatically and suddenly abandon a centuries-old belief system that served as the behavioral foundation of an entire nation?
The Long Shadow Of Christianity
There appears to be a confluence of circumstances that led to the abandonment of the kapu system and, in the aftermath of the battle, a massive conversion to Christianity.
First, while the Battle of Kuamo‘o was fought three months before the first wave of Christian missionaries from Massachusetts arrived, Christianity was not new to the royal families. There were frequent occasions for Hawaiian alii (royalty) to mix diplomatically with the influx of Europeans, particularly sea captains and diplomats, most of whom were practicing Christians.
Second was the considerable influence exerted on Liholiho by Queen Kaahumanu, wife of King Kamehameha I, who after his passing, and under Liholiho’s reign, assumed the role of Kuhina Nui – the equivalent of prime minister.
Kaahumanu had long been deeply disturbed by some of the kapu which struck her and Keopualani as egregiously discriminatory against women. One such kapu was that women were not allowed to take meals with men, referred to as the ai kapu. In fact, there were separate eating houses for men and women under the kapu. After the death of her husband, Kamehameha I, Kaahumanu aggressively pursued the lifting of the kapu system with Liholiho.
A third circumstance was that in mixing with the Europeans, kapu were being broken with no consequences, including women eating with men. This kapu was intentionally broken by royal example when Liholiho and Kaahumanu took meals together. Other breaches of the kapu system were witnessed without consequence.
Fourth, Hawaiians’ relationships to their gods was not unlike the Greek deities. They were part human and not infallible. Also, as one historical source notes “embracing a new god was not a contradiction to Hawaiian religion which has dozens of deities, many long forgotten, and some still acknowledged.” At the family level, each had a family god referred to as aumakua. If your god wasn’t working, it was OK to disassociate and adopt a new one.
Fifth, with Christianity viewed as the bedrock upon which European society was propped, at least as it was being viewed by Hawaiians, the technological achievements being introduced to Hawaiians such as metal, clay, weaponry, binoculars, compass, jib sail, stern-post rudder, and so forth – the unspoken conclusion seemed apparent – the Christian god was more powerful than all the Hawaiian gods.
Probably the most compelling influence triggering the abandonment of the kapu system to be replaced by Christianity was that the ruling class of the Hawaiian monarchy joined Kaahumanu and Liholiho in converting to the new religion.
The vacuum left by abandonment of the kapu system needed to be filled. So Hawaiians were left little choice, even though, unlike the kapu system which was a matter of Kingdom law, Christianity was not so declared.
The timing of the arrival of the missionaries could not have been more opportunistic for them — with a religious vacuum to be filled and a head start with the conversion of Hawaiian royalty to Christianity already under way. The missionaries were aggressive, unrelenting, and fearless in their mission to convert the entire kingdom to Christianity.
This first group of missionaries, conservative congregationalists led by mission leader Reverend Hiram Bingham, had the support of Liholiho, Kaahumanu, and other high ranking chiefs, who not only allowed the building of a Church at Kawaiahao, Oahu, in 1842, but also joined the Kawaiahao church congregation.
Kawaiahao church quickly emerged to become the center of gravity for the congregationalist mission. To this day it continues to serve as an anchor institution and historic site. Kawaiahao Church began to be referred to as the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii.
Proliferation Of Churches And Christianity
Kamaukapili Church, specifically intended for commoners, was built in Honolulu’s Chinatown in 1838. It was deliberately burned down in the great Chinatown fire of 1900 to defeat a bubonic plague and rebuilt in 1911 at the current location on King Street in Kapalama.
Catholics built Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in 1843 on Fort Street in downtown Honolulu with the king’s blessing. According to historical records it is the oldest Catholic Cathedral in continued use in the United States.
Episcopalian leaders, supported by Queen Emma, built and opened Saint Andrews Cathedral in 1867.
Central Union Church, which houses the United Church of Christ congregation – the liberal Christian branch – was built and opened in 1892.
These churches formed a powerful framework of Christian options which together planted an indelible footprint of Christianity in the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Changes Came At A Cost
In the initial stages of missionary influence, the consequences of the abandonment of the old religion and transition to Christianity had a painful price tag for Hawaiians, who were being forced to abandon some of their treasured traditional practices such as the hula.
More importantly, American missionary access to the highest levels of the Hawaiian ruling class had the chilling effect of opening doors to American influence on political leadership and economic policies. Two fundamental transitions occurred.
The first was the fall of the exclusivity of royal rule replaced by a constitutional monarchy. The second was an especially profound influence on concepts of land ownership and the shift from the basic right of access to land for all Hawaiians to the concept of private property and fee title to the exclusion of the maka‘ainana (Hawaiian commoner) who lost their rights to occupy land to build homes and other uses that directly impacted their quality of life and transgenerational prosperity.
Essentially, the transition to Christianity left Hawaiians completely vulnerable to colonialism and served as a hand-off to foreign continental thinking and growth systems that dramatically alienated them from any meaningful influence over political, economic and societal outcomes that paved the road to where we are today. Hence, the painful fall of Hawaiians to decades of transgenerational trauma that, for many, continues today.
To be fair, it cannot be denied that much of what happened could not have occurred without the complicity, or at least ignorance, of some members of the alii class.
The Battle Continues
As dramatic and definitive as it was for the vast majority of Hawaiians to embrace Christianity, it was not without a painful sense of loss of the centuries of traditions and customs handed down by their ancestral families.
And although Hawaiian Christianity blossomed and prevailed into the 20th and 21st centuries, withstanding the test of time, there continued to be a longing for many of the old deities and customs that laid seemingly dormant.
Then, suddenly — and not without controversy — King Kalakaua, who reigned from 1874 to 1891 — officially restored many Hawaiian cultural traditions that had been suppressed under congregationalist missionary teachings. He advocated a renewed sense of pride in such things as Hawaiian mythology, medicine, chant, and hula.
Kalakaua’s initiative to restore Hawaiian customs and traditions, in a non-religious way not intended to compete with Christianity, set the stage for the future proliferation of traditional and customary practices and profoundly led to Hawaiian Christian ministers incorporating some of the traditions and customs into their blessing ceremonies. This amazing duality, while it proliferated and was accepted by many, also served as a return for some to the Battle of Kuamo‘o.
Why This Matters Today
I have made every effort to be accurate in citing Hawaiian history in this column. My disclaimer is that although I am neither a credentialed scholar nor historian, I do take full responsibility for the record I cite here. I believe the framework of the content, even though vulnerable to historical bias, cannot be denied with respect to where we Hawaiians are today in the struggle within our community for unification and with respect to where we’ve been and where we might be headed with our spiritual and cultural belief and political belief systems.
The Battle of Kuamo‘o brought a desperate condition of change to an entire system of life as Hawaiians had known it for centuries.
Many were confused. All the gods and religious practices that had guided their day-to-day lives were gone.
But while the abolition of the gods as a political act succeeded in changing the law, it fared less well in changing hearts and minds. Some still carry on the old religious traditions. Some blend the old with Christianity in an amazing juggling of the two.
In many ways the Battle of Kuamo‘o still rages. But the battlefield is not a physical place. It’s a place where old and new cultural and political ideologies swirl about in a battle of hearts and minds attempting to sort out a Hawaiian future as a continuum of where we’re headed based on where we’ve been.
Absent the leadership structure of the Hawaiian Kingdom and a fading of the royal influence to guide us, there is no center of gravity to which Hawaiians can turn to navigate political, cultural, and spiritual disagreements.
Hopefully, we will not end up with winners and losers as we did with the battle of Kuamo‘o. That, in the end, we should take the heart-wrenching lesson that springs from the words of Manono, Kekuaokalani’s wife, as she lay wounded and dying across her husband’s body on the Kuamo‘o battlefield and implored surrounding warriors on both sides, “Malama ko aloha” – keep your love (for each other).
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