The Kuhina Nui was a unique position in the administration of Hawaiian government and had no equivalent in western governments of the day. It has been described in general terms as “Prime Minister,” “Premier” and “Regent.”
The Kuhina Nui held equal authority to the king in all matters of government, including the distribution of land, negotiating treaties and other agreements, and dispensing justice.
Kamehameha III established Hawai‘i’s first constitution, in 1840, where the office of Kuhina Nui was first codified.
The Kuhina Nui’s primary judicial responsibility over “life and death, condemnation and acquittal” became institutionalized in that constitution (1840.) The Kuhina Nui was also given the duty of presiding, with the King, over the Supreme Court.
Article 45 of the 1852 Constitution of Hawaiian Kingdom stated: “Art. 45. All important business of the kingdom which the King chooses to transact in person, he may do, but not without the approbation of the Kuhina Nui. The King and Kuhina Nui shall have a negative on each other’s public acts.”
The Constitution of 1852 further clarified some of the office’s responsibilities, including its authority in the event of the King’s death or minority of the heir to the throne. The office of Kuhina Nui functioned from 1819 to 1864, through the reigns of Kamehameha II, III, IV and V.
The following were Hawaiʻi’s Kuhina Nui.
Ka‘ahumanu, the favorite wife of Kamehameha I, created the office of Kuhina Nui. She ruled first with Kamehameha II until his departure for England in 1823 and then as regent for Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III).
Intelligent and shrewd, Ka‘ahumanu instigated the breaking of the ancient kapu system following Kamehameha I’s death in 1819. She converted to Christianity, supported the Protestant missionaries and proclaimed laws based on Christian principles.
Kaʻahumanu was such a powerful person and Kuhina Nui that subsequent female Kuhina Nui adopted her name, (Kaʻahumanu II, III & IV.)
Kīna‘u (Kaʻahumanu II) (1832-1839)
Kīna‘u became a Christian in 1830. She succeeded her aunt Ka‘ahumanu upon the latter’s death in 1832. She acted as the Regent for her brother Kauikeaouli when he became King Kamehameha III, from June 5, 1832 to March 15, 1833.
She would rule with him until her death. She was responsible for enforcing Hawaiʻi’s first penal code, proclaimed by the king in 1835.
Kekāuluohi (Kaʻahumanu III) (1839-1845)
Kekāuluohi succeeded her half-sister Kīna‘u as Kuhina Nui. Initially, she was considered something of a “place-holder” for Kīna‘u’s infant daughter Victoria Kamāmalu, who would later assume the office.
Kekāuluohi was a co-signer with Kamehameha III of Hawai‘i’s first Constitution in 1840, which provided for an elected representative body, a first step toward the common people gaining political power. The constitution also codified for the first time, the responsibilities and authority of the Kuhina Nui.
As the pressures of international diplomacy and economic development increased on the Hawaiian kingdom, it was necessary to structure the government for better administrative control. As her life came to a close, Kekāuluohi appointed Gerrit P. Judd as Minister of the Interior to administer on her behalf.
Keoni Ana (1845-1855)
Keoni Ana was appointed Kuhina Nui by Kamehameha III because Victoria Kamāmalu, the designated successor of her mother Kīna‘u, was still a minor.
Keoni Ana was a son of John Young, the English sailor who became a trusted adviser to Kamehameha I, and Young’s wife Ka‘ōanā‘eha. Keoni Ana held several government positions, including service in the House of Nobles and Privy Council, as a Supreme Court justice, and as chamberlain of Kamehameha III’s household.
Soon after Keoni Ana became Kuhina Nui in June 1845, the Legislative Assembly passed several acts that organized the executive ministries and departments of the government. This legislation provided that the Kuhina Nui serve dually as Minister of the Interior.
Victoria Kamāmalu (Kaʻahumanu IV) (1855-1863)
Only 17 years old, Victoria Kamāmalu was appointed Kuhina Nui by her brother Kamehameha IV soon after he ascended the throne in December 1854. As the daughter of Kīna‘u, the second Kuhina Nui, and as the highest ranking female chief of the day, it had long been her destiny to assume the responsibilities of the office.
As Kuhina Nui, Victoria Kamāmalu presided over the King’s Privy Council. Perhaps her most important contribution as Kuhina Nui was to proclaim her brother Lot Kamehameha V the rightful successor to Kamehameha IV when the latter died unexpectedly in 1863.
Mataio Kekūanāo‘a (1863-1864)
When Lot Kapuāiwa (Kamehameha V) succeeded his brother Kamehameha IV in 1863, he selected his father, Mataio Kekūanāo‘a to be the Kuhina Nui. Kekūanāo‘a had a long and active career in Hawaiian government affairs.
He accompanied Kamehameha II on his ill-fated journey to England in 1823, served in the House of Nobles and the Privy Council, was a governor of O‘ahu, the King’s chamberlain, and president of the Board of Public Instruction.
His marriage to Kīna‘u, a daughter of Kamehameha I, made him the father of two kings, Kamehameha IV and V. He was also the father of Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani, whose great land holdings would pass to Bernice Pauahi Bishop and become the Kamehameha Schools / Bishop Estate.
As the last Kuhina Nui, Kekūanāo‘a essentially presided over the demise of the office. Kamehameha V proclaimed a constitution on August 20, 1864 in which there was no provision for a Kuhina Nui. It was “an unnecessary check upon the Legislative in giving to this Office an absolute control over the acts of a body of which he himself is a member and in which he has a vote.”
The image shows the six Kuhina Nui who ruled in Hawaiʻi, Ka‘ahumanu (1819-1832), Kīna‘u (1832-1839), Kekāuluohi (1839-1845), Keoni Ana (1845-1855), Victoria Kamāmalu (1855-1863), Mataio Kekūanāo‘a (1863-1864).