Thursday, December 17, 2015

Kapu: When Hawaii Was Ruled by Shark-Like Gods

Polynesian voyagers first arrived in Hawai‘i around AD 1000 (not in the sixth century, as Moore writes based on outdated scholarship), part of an extraordinary diaspora that led, at roughly the same time, to the settlement of other remote islands including New Zealand and Easter Island. For the next four centuries, a tenuous link between Hawai‘i and the ancestral homeland in central Polynesia (especially Tahiti) was maintained by occasional voyages led by priest-navigators whose names are still celebrated in Hawaiian traditions. Then, for reasons still unclear, the voyaging ceased. Hawai‘i became an isolated world unto itself, with only an increasingly distant memory of those lands beyond the horizon, collectively labeled “Kahiki” (the Hawaiian name for Tahiti).

By the early eighteenth century, a unique variant of Polynesian culture had emerged in this large and fertile archipelago. Supported by irrigation works and dryland field systems that yielded bountiful harvests of taro and sweet potato, augmented by fishponds and the husbandry of hogs and dogs for food, the indigenous population had swelled to more than half a million (the exact number at the time of Cook’s visit is still debated). The great majority were commoners—farmers and fishermen—ruled over by a relatively small group of elites, called ali‘i. The commoners worked the land as part of their tributary obligations to the ali‘i, who in turn held large territorial estates (ahupua‘a) distributed (and frequently redistributed) by each island’s paramount chief or king.

The ali‘i were obsessed with genealogy and lineage. The most exalted of the nine ranks of chiefs, the product (called nī‘aupi‘o) of incestuous unions between high-ranking brothers and sisters, were regarded as divine beings. As the nineteenth-century Hawaiian historian David Malo put it, “the people held the chiefs in great dread and looked upon them as gods.” Metaphorically, the chiefs were regarded as sharks that traveled on the land, devouring all in sight.

Central to this hyperelaborated system of hereditary chiefship and divine kingship was the deeply rooted Polynesian concept of tapu, introduced into the English language as “taboo” thanks to the accounts of Captain Cook and other eighteenth-century voyagers. Susanna Moore zeroes in on kapu, the Hawaiian variant of tapu, as a key to understanding both the cloistered nature of Hawaiian society prior to 1778 and its subsequent dramatic unraveling.

The divinely descended Hawaiian ali‘i were understood as intermediaries through which mana—the supernatural force or power enabling life, fertility, success, and efficacy of all kinds—flowed from the gods to men. As kapu, sacred beings, the ali‘i had to be kept separate from polluting influences. Secluded in their kapu compounds, the highest-ranked ali‘i often traveled at night to avoid being seen by commoners. Any commoners encountering the ali‘i had to strip off their garments and lie prostrate on the ground until the entourage passed; to attempt a glance was to risk death.

The Hawaiian system of kapu had evolved far beyond anything elsewhere in Polynesia, pervading all aspects of daily life. Pigs, certain kinds of red fish (red was the sacred color), and bananas were kapu to women; indeed, the food of men and women had to be cooked in separate earth ovens while the two genders ate in separate houses. As Moore writes, “time itself could be placed under a kapu,” with nine days out of each lunar month consecrated to particular deities. Perhaps the most fearful kapu were those associated with the king’s war rituals, which were conducted on imposing stone temple platforms where human sacrifices were offered to the war god Kū. For a commoner, merely coughing near the warrior guard during such rituals could bring instant death.

Moore regards kapu as the invisible glue that held traditional Hawaiian society together, entwining ali‘i and commoners in bonds of mutual obligation:
Kapu served to establish order, requiring men to respect the land, to honor the chiefs who were the literal representatives of the gods, and to serve the thousands of omnipresent big and little gods. In return, the gods endowed the land and sea with bountiful food, and protected people from danger (often the gods themselves).
The arrival of Captain Cook, first at Kaua‘i in 1778 and then for a longer stay at Hawai‘i in 1779, made the first inroads in what would become an increasing assault on the kapu system and on the social and political order of Hawaiian civilization. At Kealakekua Bay, Hawaiian women “came to the ships to offer themselves to the sailors in exchange for scissors, beads, iron, and mirrors.” Below decks on the Resolution and Discovery, the women ate forbidden pork and bananas with the sailors. Their husbands and brothers, eager to receive the gifts of iron adz blades and trinkets, did not punish them for breaking the kapu. (...)

The beginning of the nineteenth century found Kamehameha established in the port village of Honolulu on O‘ahu Island, which increasingly became the archipelago’s center of commercial and political power. No longer needing to engage in war, Kamehameha quietly abandoned the rituals of human sacrifice—another rent in the kapu fabric.

Kamehameha had taken seventeen-year-old Ka‘ahumanu—granddaughter of the revered Maui king Kekaulike—as his third wife in 1785. Although of high rank, she was not considered sacred like Keōpūolani, the exalted chiefess who bore Kamehameha his royal heir and successor Liholiho (Kamehameha II). Indeed, Ka‘ahumanu produced no offspring; her power instead sprang from her influence over Kamehameha, with whom she shared a similar political cunning. Ka‘ahumanu, rather than his birth mother, watched over and raised young Liholiho. “As Liholiho’s guardian,” Moore writes, “the subtle Ka‘ahumanu was easily able to shape him to her liking, strengthening her already formidable position at the center of court.”

When Kamehameha eventually died of old age in Kona in 1819, Ka‘ahumanu was poised to bend the pliant Liholiho (then twenty-one years old) to her will. After a period of mourning in the northern part of the island, Liholiho returned to Kona to find Ka‘ahumanu waiting. “Holding Kamehameha’s favorite spear, she was dressed in the dead king’s feather cloak and war helmet, lest there be any lingering hope that Liholiho might rule the kingdom alone.” Ka‘ahumanu proclaimed that “we two shall share the rule of the land,” appointing herself to the newly created title of kuhina nui, or regent.

Ka‘ahumanu—who had for some years broken the kapu against women eating pork and shark meat—next engineered a remarkable act, inducing Liholiho to sit down at a feast and eat with the female ali‘i. “Six months after the death of his father, and with the urging of his stepmother and guardian and the quiet persuasion of his mother, the king ate with the women, bringing to an end a thousand years of kapu.” This famous act—the‘ai noa, or “free eating”—marked the end of the entire kapu system. Shortly thereafter, Ka‘ahumanu commanded that the temples be dismantled and the wooden idols of the gods burned. As Moore writes, “the fixed world of the Hawaiians, governed by a hereditary ali‘i and priesthood with a distinctive system of kapu, suddenly became one of flux, if not chaos.”

by Patrick Vinton Kirch, NY Review of Books | Read more:
Image:Engraving by Thomas Cook after a drawing by John Webber, 1779