With the Hawaiian Kapu, if you didn’t follow the rules, you could die.
With Christianity, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Pā‘ao (CA 1300,) from Kahiki (Tahiti,) is reported to have introduced (or significantly expanded) a religious and political code in old Hawai‘i, collectively called the kapu system. This forbid many things and demanded many more, with many infractions being punishable by death.
The kapu system helped the ali‘i and kahuna keep their power over the people. The people believed that breaking the kapu would bring the anger of the gods on themselves and their community. They made every effort to follow the kapu set down by the ali‘i and kahuna.
Anything connected with the gods and their worship was considered sacred, such as idols, heiau and priests. Because chiefs were believed to be descendants of the gods, many kapu related to chiefs and their personal possessions.
The Hawaiian kapu can be grouped into three categories. The first evolved from the basic precepts of the Hawaiian religion and affected all individuals, but were considered by foreign observers to be especially oppressive and burdensome to women.
One of the most fundamental of this type of prohibition forbade men and women from eating together and also prohibited women from eating most of the foods offered as ritual sacrifices to the gods (for example, it was kapu for women to eat pork or bananas.)
“One thing which the priest urged upon the king was to kill off the ungodly people, those who broke tabu and ate with the women, or who cohabited with a woman while she was confined to her infirmary, and the women who intruded themselves into the heiau.”
“Another thing he urged was that the woman who beat tapa on a tabu day, or who went canoeing on a tabu day should be put to death; also that the man who secretly left the service at the temple to go home and lie with his wife should be put to death; that the men and women who did these things, whether from the backwoods – kua‘āina – or near the court should be put to death.”
“That any man, woman, or child, who should revile the high priest, or a keeper of the idols, calling him a filth-eater, or saying that he acted unseemly with women (i ka ai mea kapu) should be put to death, but he might ransom his life by a fine of a fathom-long pig.”
“Again, that if the king by mistake ate of food or meat that was ceremonially common or unclean – noa – the king should be forgiven, but the man whose food or meat it was should be put to death, if the king was made ill. In such a case a human sacrifice was offered to appease the deity, that the king might recover from his illness.”
“Again that certain kinds of fish should be declared tabu to the women as food, also pork, bananas and cocoanuts; that if any large fish – a whale – or a log strapped with iron, should be cast ashore, it was to be offered to the gods, (i. e., it was to be given to the priests for the use of the king).” (Malo)
A second category of kapu were those relating to the inherited rank of the nobility and were binding on all those equal to or below them in status.
This system, a “sanctioned avoidance” behavior conforming to specific rules and prohibitions, prescribed the type of daily interactions among and between the classes, between the people and their gods, and between the people and nature.
By compelling avoidance between persons of extreme rank difference, it reinforced class divisions by protecting mana (spiritual power) from contamination while at the same time preventing the mana from harming others.
These kapu posed enormous difficulties for the high Ali‘i because it restricted their behavior and activities to some degree. Because these kapu prohibited the highest-ranking chiefs from easily walking around during the day, some of them traveled in disguise to protect the people and themselves from the difficulties presented by this custom.
The third category were edicts issued randomly that were binding on all subjects and included such acts as the placing of kapu on certain preferred surfing, fishing or bathing spots for a chief’s exclusive use.
In addition, the chiefs proclaimed certain kapu seasons as conservation measures to regulate land use and safeguard resources.
These had the same force as other kapu, but pertained to the gathering or catching of scarce foodstuffs, such as particular fruits and species of fish; to water usage; and to farming practices. These kapu were designed to protect resources from overuse.
While the social order defined very strict societal rules, exoneration was possible if one could reach a puʻuhonua (place of refuge) and be cleansed, as well as cleared by a kahuna (priest).
The puʻuhonua was especially important in times of war as a refuge for women and children, as well as warriors from the defeated side.
Puʻuhonua were locations which, through the power of the gods and the generosity of the chiefs, afforded unconditional absolution to those who broke taboos, disobeyed rulers, or committed other crimes. (Schoenfelder)
Ethno-historical literature, and available physical, cultural, and locational data, note at least 57-sites across the Islands. Puʻuhonua tended to occur in areas of high population and/or in areas frequented by chiefs. (Schoenfelder)
These range from enclosed compounds such as Hōnaunau, to platforms (Halulu on Lānaʻi), to fortified mountain-tops (Kawela on Molokaʻi), to unmodified natural features (Kūkaniloko on Oʻahu) and to entire inhabited land sections, as at Lāhainā on Maui. (Schoenfelder)
This intricate system that supported Hawai‘i’s social and political structure directed every activity of Hawaiian life, from birth through death, until its overthrow by King Kamehameha II (Liholiho).
Shortly after the death of Kamehameha I in 1819, King Kamehameha II (Liholiho) declared an end to the kapu system. In a dramatic and highly symbolic event, Kamehameha II ate and drank with women, thereby breaking the important eating kapu.
This changed the course of the social, political and religious structure and ended the kapu system, effectively weakened belief in the power of the gods and the inevitability of divine punishment for those who opposed them.
Some have suggested it was the missionaries that ended the kapu that disrupted the social/political system in the Islands; that is not true – the missionaries had not even arrived in the Islands, yet. On October 23, 1819, the Pioneer Company of missionaries from the northeast US, set sail on the Thaddeus for the Islands.
The Mission Prudential Committee in giving instructions to the pioneers of 1819 said: “Your mission is a mission of mercy, and your work is to be wholly a labor of love. …”
“Your views are not to be limited to a low, narrow scale, but you are to open your hearts wide, and set your marks high. You are to aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields, and pleasant dwellings and schools and churches, and of Christian civilization.” (The Friend)
Among their teaching included, “Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” (John 6:35)
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 6:16)
Keōpūolani is said to have been the first convert of the missionaries in the Islands, receiving baptism from Rev. William Ellis in Lāhainā on September 16, 1823. Keōpūolani was spoken of “with admiration on account of her amiable temper and mild behavior”. (William Richards) She was ill and died shortly after her baptism.
Within five years of the initial arrival of the missionaries, a dozen chiefs had sought Christian baptism and church membership, including the king’s regent Kaʻahumanu. The Hawaiian people followed their native leaders, accepting the missionaries as their new priestly class. (Schulz)
On December 24, 1825, Kaʻahumanu, six other Chiefs and one makaʻāinana (commoner) were baptized and received Holy Communion at Kawaiahaʻo Church. This was the beginning of expanded admission into the Church.
Kamakau noted of her baptism, “Kaʻahumanu 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.”
“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)