Kaʻahumanu was born about the year 1768, near Hana, Maui. Her siblings include Governor John Adams Kuakini of Hawaiʻi Island, Queen Kalakua Kaheiheimalie (another wife of Kamehameha I) and Governor George Cox Keʻeaumoku II of Maui.
By birth, Kaʻahumanu ranked high among the Hawaiians. Her father was Keʻeaumoku, a distinguished warrior and counselor of Kamehameha the Great. Her mother Namahana was a former wife of the Chief of Maui, and the daughter of Kekaulike (a great Chief of that island.)
Kaʻahumanu was one of the most powerful people in the Islands at the time of the arrival of the missionaries. There were those who were higher by birth, and there were those who were higher by title, but there was probably none who held greater influence.
While her reputation is as a strong supporter of the missionaries and Christianity, in an early description of her, Hiram Bingham noted, “This woman, with all her haughtiness and selfishness”. Others felt the same.
“For a long time she stood aloof from the influence of the missionaries, was haughty, proud, and disdainful in their presence, and frequently passed them without speaking to them.” (Lucy Thurston)
“Kaahumanu too, for many months, was either heedless in regard to Christianity, or scornfully averse to our instructions, and at the same time not a little annoyed by the profligacy of Liholiho and his boon companions.”
“Some were watching to despoil us of our few goods, or to expel us from the islands, and others to nullify our influence by slander and misrepresentations.” (Bingham)
But “the gospel at length took hold of her mind, and through the influence of the Holy Ghost wrought a great and permanent and salutary change in her character.” (Lucy Thurston)
Soon after the first anniversary of their landing at Honolulu on April 19, 1821, Kaʻahumanu, Kalanimoku and Kalakua visited the mission and gave them supplies; this visit became important because during it Kaʻahumanu made her first request for prayer and showed her first interest in the teachings of the missionaries.
From that point on, Kaʻahumanu comes into more constant contact with the mission.
She was later described to have a kindly and generous disposition and usually had as pleasant relations with foreigners who respected her royal rights. She was cautious and slow in deciding – more business-like in here decision-making – but once her mind was made up, she never wavered.
On February 11, 1824, Kaʻahumanu made one of her first public speeches on religious questions, giving “plain, serious, close and faithful advice.”
At a meeting of the chiefs and school teachers, Kaʻahumanu and Kalanimōku declared their determination to “adhere to the instructions of the missionaries, to attend to learning, observe the Sabbath, Worship God, and obey his law, and have all their people instructed.”
She had requested baptism for Keopuolani and Keʻeaumoku when they were dying, but she waited until April, 1824, before requesting the same for herself.
“She was admitted to the church in, 1825, and was baptized by the name of Elizabeth. Soon after her conversion, she made a tour of the Islands; the people were astonished at the change in her, and remarked that it was ‘not Kaahumanu, but Elizabeth.’” (Lucy Thurston)
Of her baptism, Kamakau said: “Kaahumanu was the first fruit of the Kawaiahaʻo church … for she was the first to accept the word of God, and she was the one who led her chiefly relations as the first disciples of God’s church.”
“She became distinguished for her humility, kindness, and the affability of her deportment, regarded the missionaries as her own children, and treated them with the tenderness of maternal love.” (Lucy Thurston)
“Her influence and authority had long been paramount and undisputed with the natives, and was now discreetly used for the benefit of the nation.”
“She visited the whole length and breadth of the Islands, to recommend to her people, attention to schools, and to the doctrines and duties of the word of God, and exerted all her influence to suppress vice, and restrain the evils which threatened the ruin of her nation.” (Lucy Thurston)
Then, in mid-1832, Kaʻahumanu became ill and was taken to her house in Manoa, where a bed of maile and leaves of ginger was prepared. “Her strength failed daily. She was gentle as a lamb, and treated her attendants with great tenderness. She would say to her waiting women, ‘Do sit down; you are very tired; I make you weary.’”
Hiram Bingham’s account of her last hours is, in part, as follows: “On the third instant, Sabbath night, about midnight, Dr. Judd sent down to me to say he thought her dying. I hastened to Manoa and remained there until the fifth …”
“About the last words she used of a religious character were two lines of a hymn designed to express the feelings of a self-condemned penitent coining and submitting to Christ: ‘Here, here am I, O Jesus, oh – Grant me a gracious smile.’
“A little after this she called me to her and as I took her hand, she asked. ‘Is this Bingham?’ I replied. ‘It is I’—She looked upon me & added ‘I am going now’ I replied: ’Ehele pu Jesu me oe, Ehele pomaikai aku.’ ‘May Jesus go with you, go in peace.’ She said no more. Her last conflict was then soon over, – in 10 or 15 minutes she ceased to breathe.”
Her death took place at ten minutes past 3 o’clock on the morning of June 5, 1832, “after an illness of about 3 weeks in which she exhibited her unabated attachment to the Christian teachers and reliance on Christ, her Saviour.”
She was buried at Pohukaina at ʻIolani Place and later transferred to Mauna ‘Ala, the Royal Mausoleum in Nuʻuanu Valley. The image shows Kaʻahumanu. (Herb Kane)