A bloody battle fought two centuries ago by two royal Hawaiian cousins — each employing Western firepower along with ancient tribal clubs and spears— literally transformed the culture of that island paradise.
And not for the better.
It’s depressing to keep running across such historical accounts of how much damage European explorers, adventurers and soldiers wrought on the far-less-advanced native peoples they encountered — and how coercive Christianity was often a major cudgel.
We Americans have our own such “original sin,” as it were, in how colonial English settlers in the New World mistreated the indigenous peoples they met when they landed. And how we still mistreat and shortchange them.
The multi-day Hawaiian battle I mentioned above occurred in December 1819 between Liholiho (Kamehamea II), a progressive, Western-leaning leader dogged in his determination to overturn the islands’ ancient kapu system that governed every customary aspect of Hawaiian life, and Kekuaokalani, a reactionary so intractable that he believed even anyone who stepped into the chief’s sacred shadow must be put to death.
What made the battle both more inevitable and bloodier than traditional Hawaiian combat was a toxic confluence of alien Western influences. Europeans, with their Enlightenment skepticism and yet a fervent belief in the superiority of Christianity, loudly disrespected what they arrogantly viewed as the more superstition-bound Hawaiian culture and religion. They also contributed iron knives, spears and hatchets to the tragic incident, as well as — more importantly — muskets, pistols and cannon.
In a sense, it reminds me of the infamous American Old West battle variously known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” Battle of the Little Bighorn and, in Indian parlance, “Battle of the Greasy Grass” (the Sioux name for the Little Bighorn River).
In that fight, Custer and his more than 200 troops were massacred by an overwhelming force of Sioux, Cheyenne and other Plains Indian warriors in lovely rolling countryside in what is now Montana. However, although the combined Indian force won the battle that day, they ultimately lost the war to preserve their homeland, freedom and nomadic way of life. They ended up effectively imprisoned on reservations, far from white American life and prohibited from hunting buffalo, while their children were forced to attend brutal Christian boarding schools, cut their hair and speak only English.
A similar sad denouement followed the Hawaiian fight early in the 19th century. American author Paul Theroux described this fundamental shift for the islanders in an article in the December 2019 edition of Smithsonian magazine, titled “Royal Family Feud.”
Kekuaokalani and his wife, Manono, were slain in the battle, and the chief’s many-colored, many-feathered cloak of many native Hawaiian birds, including the jet-black O’o, was seized by the victors.
“The cloak was taken, and the bodies of Kekuaokalani and Manono and their fallen piled with stones. The old gods were overthrown, there was no veneration,” Theroux wrote. “But — behold!—three months after this battle, in March 1820, the first missionaries arrived from New England, with Holy Bibles and a new god to worship.”
In 1947, the lovely cloak was donated to the Smithsonian Institution by Princess Kawananakoa. Christianity eventually came to dominate the islands, as it did in most other places it was planted in the world. The traditional Hawaiian ways gave way to modern cultural norms, although a determined subgroup of native Hawaiians continues to fight to preserve the islands’ ancient culture and language.
Theroux points out that one of the saddest results of Western encroachment in the islands is symbolized by the casually surrendered cloak.
Scores of brightly colored Hawaiian birds, including the O’o and others whose feathers adorn the royal cape, are now extinct. Theroux calls this disappearance of its embodied species “the most melancholy feature of this beautiful thing.”
The special cultural convergences that once made Hawaiians fully Hawaiian is another “beautiful thing” that was lost — not due to the natural evolution of the culture but corruptions imposed on it from beyond the horizon.
Even their ancient gods disappeared as a new God was placed before them.
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