The Need for Philosophy in the Islands of the Blessed

According to Genesis, man emerged from the placid bliss of Eden when Eve broke God’s command and ate a fruit—traditionally an apple, though the Bible doesn’t say—from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve had been told that she would die if she tasted the fruit, but the serpent said no; the only reason God had imposed His ban was because He knew that if they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve’s eyes “shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” In his version of the story, John Milton’s serpent explained things more bluntly. God wanted to keep humanity in subjection:

Why but to awe,
Why but to keep you low and ignorant,
His worshippers; he knows that in the day
You eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Opened . . . .1

This myth remains potent today, told and retold by everyone from the philosopher Nietzsche (who saw the story as proof of “God’s hellish fear of science”)2 to producer Gary Ross, whose film Pleasantville reimagines it as a “fairytale” of triumph and learning. Eve, writes poet Jennifer Michael Hecht, “leapt and fell from grace, / that she might have a story of herself to tell / in some other place.”3

How astounding, then, that something very like this story happened in real life—not in a fictional Eden but on the island of Hawai‘i, and not in ancient days but during the first week of November 1819. However, the fruit in question was not an apple; it was a banana, and the transgressor was not a naive girl but Ka‘ahumanu, the strong-willed widow of Hawai‘i’s famous king Kamehameha I.4

Together with two other women—her fellow widow Keopuolani and the chiefess Kapi‘olani—Ka‘ahumanu conspired to overthrow her nation’s ancient religion, the brutal and oppressive system known to us as kapu.5 That set in motion one of the greatest religious revolutions in recorded history: the only known instance of a people abandoning their religion without having another to replace it. Within a single lifetime, the people of Hawai‘i were transported from the Stone Age to the Age of Steam and had thrust upon them all of the risks and rewards of civilized life. Yet, triumphant as the overthrow of kapu was, the lack of a substitute philosophy left a vacuum in which the Hawaiians found themselves vulnerable before the influences of 19th-century European and Asian culture. The tale of Hawai‘i’s cultural revolution stands as a testament both to the courage of these pioneering women and to the vital need for philosophy in human life. . . .

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1. John Milton, Paradise Lost, book IX, lines 703–8. What Milton—a devout Christian—really thought of the serpent’s argument remains a matter of debate.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in Walter Kauffman, ed. and trans., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin, 1968), 628.

3. Jennifer Michael Hecht, “History,” Best American Poetry, September 17, 2009,

4. Only two book-length biographies of Ka‘ahumanu exist: Jane L. Silverman, Kaahumanu: Molder of Change (Honolulu: Judiciary Center of Hawai‘i, 1987), and Kathleen Dickenson Mellen, The Magnificent Matriarch (New York: Hastings House, 1952). Silverman’s book is frustratingly brief. Mellen’s is beautifully written, but it is based largely on oral tradition and at times is a questionable source. An excellent and admiring discussion of Ka‘ahumanu’s life and experiences is found in Susanna Moore, Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawai‘i (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015). Ka‘ahumanu also plays a crucial role in James Michener’s classic novel Hawaii, where she appears as the character Malama. A fine brief history of Hawai‘i—untainted by the relativism and other fashionable doctrines that are common in Hawaiian historiography—is James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawai‘i (New York: St. Martin’s, 2014). As Haley notes, “the reigning ‘politically correct’ paradigm of race, gender, and exploitation” is especially intense in Hawai‘i, with the result that many histories downplay or disregard the oppressive and brutal nature of precontact Hawaiian society. See Haley, Captive Paradise, xiv–xv.

5. Not to be confused with the Hawaiian Queen Kapi‘olani, who reigned from 1874 to 1891.

6. Valerio Valeri, Kingship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society in Ancient Hawaii (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), chap. 4.

7. Quoted in Anne Salmond, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 408 (quoting Second Lieutenant James King).

8. David Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities, translated by N. B. Emerson (Honolulu: Hawaiian Gazette, 1903), 88.

9. Timothy Sandefur, “Captain Cook: Explorer of the Enlightenment,” The Objective Standard 13, no. 1 (Summer 2017).

10. Some scholars have argued that the Hawaiians did not think Cook was Lono, or that they simply believed him to be a powerful chief. But it’s more likely that Hawaiians believed Lono’s spirit could embody itself in many forms. Part of the makahiki ceremonies involved the god’s annual departure for the spirit world—in preparation for his return at next year’s celebration—and the Hawaiians would naturally imagine that to have taken place in Cook’s demise. See Marshall Sahlins, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004).

11. Hiram Bingham, A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands (Hartford: Hezekiah Huntington, 1848),54.

12. Moore, Paradise of the Pacific, 113–14. Hiram Bingham reported that after Kamehameha’s death, Ka‘ahumanu “and her party” were suspected of having murdered him. Bingham, A Residence, 72. There is no evidence of this, but the fact that she was suspected is another indication of the tensions that may have existed early on in the royal household.

13. Esther T. Mookini, “Keopuolani, Sacred Wife, Queen Mother, 1778–1823,”Hawaiian Journal of History 32 (1998): 1–24.

14. Cummins E. Speakman Jr. and Rhoda E. A. Hackler, “Vancouver in Hawai‘i,” Hawaiian Journal of History 23 (1989): 55–56.

15. “Extract from the Diary of Ebenezer Townsend, Jr.,” in Bruce Cartwright, ed., Hawaiian Historical Society Reprint 4 (Honolulu: Hawaiian Historical Society, n.d.), 26–27.

16. Peter Corney, Voyages in the Northern Pacific (Honolulu: Thos. G. Thrum, 1896), 102.

17. Sahlins, Historical Metaphors, 63.

18. Jennifer Fish Kashay, “From Kapus to Christianity: The Disestablishment of the Hawaiian Religion and Chiefly Appropriation of Calvinist Christianity,” Western Historical Quarterly 39 (Spring 2008): 22.

19. Moore, Paradise of the Pacific, 128.

20. Jeffrey Sissons, The Polynesian Iconoclasm (New York: Berghahn, 2014), 1.

21. William Ellis, Narrative of a Tour through Hawai‘i (London: H. Fisher & Son, 2nd ed., 1827), 96; Stephenie Seto Levin, “The Overthrow of the Kapu System in Hawaii,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 77, no. 4 (1968): 402–30; and Richard H. Harfst, “Cause or Condition: Explanations of the Hawaiian Cultural Revolution,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 81, no. 4 (1972): 437-71, provide a good overview of theories about the cause of the overthrow. Of course, all revolutions have multiple causes.

22. Sissons, Polynesian Iconoclasm, 64.

23. Daniel Tyerman, George Bennet, Journal of Voyages and Travels vol. 2 (Boston: Cockner & Brewster, 1832), 62.

24. Archibald Campbell, A Voyage Around the World (New York: Broderick & Ritter, 1819), 134.

25. Silverman, Molder of Change, 94.

26. Bingham, A Residence, 78.

27. William Davenport, “The ‘Hawaiian Cultural Revolution’: Some Political and Economic Considerations,” American Anthropologist 71, no. 1 (February 1969): 17.

28. Haley, Captive Paradise, 47.

29. Mookini, “Keopuolani,” 13.

30. S. M. Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii (Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools Press, rev. ed. 1992), 220. Although Kamakau’s account of this speech is the generally accepted one, the historian David Malo gives a different version: according to Malo, it was Keopuolani who announced that Ka‘ahumanu would share Liholiho’s authority. Malcolm Naea Chun, Kaka‘olelo: Traditions of Oratory and Speech-Making (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i, 2006), 31.

31. W. D. Alexander, “Overthrow of the Ancient Tabu System in the Hawaiian Islands,” Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Hawaiian Historical Society (Honolulu: Paradise of the Pacific Press, 1917), 40.

32. Ellis, Narrative of a Tour, 112.

33. Davenport, “The ‘Hawaiian Cultural Revolution,’” 17.

34. David Kalakaua, Legends and Myths of Hawaii (New York: Charles Webster and Co., 1888), 436.

35. Kalakaua, Legends and Myths, 436.

36. Artemas Bishop, Letter to the Corresponding Secretary, Missionary Herald, August 1827, 247.

37. Ellis, Narrative of a Tour, 173.

38. Davenport, “The ‘Hawaiian Cultural Revolution,’” 17.

39. Laura Fish Judd, Honolulu: Sketches of Life: Social, Political, and Religious, in the Hawaiian Islands (New York: Randolph & Co., 1880), 98.

40. Sahlins, Historical Metaphors, 64.

41. The End of the World is not hard to reach; it’s on Ali‘i Drive, just about five minutes south of the Sheraton Kona Resort.

42. Mellen, Magnificent Matriarch, 67. Mellen’s wording here is a dramatization drawn from her oral history sources. But it is certain that a conversation to this effect did take place. Bingham wrote that “for many months,” the kuhina nui was “scornfully averse” to the teaching of Christianity in the islands. Bingham, A Residence, 108.

43. Mellen, Magnificent Matriarch, 67.

44. Bingham, A Residence, 127.

45. Kashay, “Kapus to Christianity,” 30.

46. Mellen, Magnificent Matriarch, 164.

47. Moore, Paradise of the Pacific, 231.

48. Haley, Captive Paradise, 71.

49. Seth Archer, Sharks upon the Land Colonialism, Indigenous Health, and Culture in Hawai‘i, 1778–1855 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 195.

50. Archer, Sharks upon the Land Colonialism, 5.

51. Archer, Sharks upon the Land Colonialism, 168; Katherine Dinkenson Mellen, Hawaiian Heritage: A Brief Illustrated History (New York: Hastings House, 1963), 27

52. Archer, Sharks upon the Land, 167–68.

53. Archer, Sharks upon the Land, 170.

54. Rufus Anderson, The Hawaiian Islands: Their Progress and Condition under Missionary Labors (Boston: Gould & Lincoln, 3d ed., 1865), 44.

55. Yeonmi Park, In Order to Live (New York: Penguin, 2015), 216. In the 1990s, Carl Sagan noted in his classic The Demon-Haunted World(New York: Ballantine, 1995) that Russia and China were suffering from a rash of pseudoscience after the relaxing of communist controls in the 1990s. “It used to be easy. Authoritative science was what the authorities taught. The distinction between science and pseudoscience was made for you.” Authoritarianism left the people vulnerable when “strictures on free thought were loosened.” See Sagan, Demon-Haunted World, 21–22. See also Richard M. Ebeling, “Freedom and the Fear of Self-Responsibility,” Foundation for Economic Education, August 8, 2017, I borrow the term “cultural value deprivation” from Ayn Rand, “Our Cultural Value Deprivation,” in Leonard Peikoff, ed., The Voice of Reason(New York: Meridian, 1990), 100, who was describing a slightly different phenomenon.

56. Excerpts from an interview, New York Review of Books, October 26, 1978,

57. W. D. Westervelt, “The Legend Trees of Hawaii,” Paradise of the Pacific, June 1905, 10.

58. The Hawaiian kingdom’s cash crop was fragrant sandalwood, prized in Asia. The ship, dubbed by Westerners “Cleopatra’s Barge,” cost about one million pounds of sandalwood. The monarchy, which conscripted commoners to farm sandalwood, stripped large ancient Hawaiian forests to plant it—forever ruining parts of the landscape of Kauai and O‘ahu in the process, and even destroying food crops to such an extent that it caused famine. See Archer, Sharks upon The Land, 171; Paul F. Johnston, Shipwrecked in Paradise: Cleopatra’s Barge in Hawai‘i (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2014).

59. “Cultural Revolution in Hawaii” (Institute of Pacific Relations, 1931), 31.

60. “Cultural Revolution in Hawaii” (Institute of Pacific Relations, 1931), 31.

61. Aristotle, “Politics,” 1334a-b, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 1298–99.

62. “Kapiolani,” The Works of Tennyson (New York: Macmillan, 1913), 864 (spelling modernized).

63. Quoted in Orramel Hinckley Gulick, The Pilgrims of Hawai‘i (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1918), 114.

64. Letter from Mr. Andrews at Lahinaluna, December 2, 1836, Missionary Herald 32, 391.

65. The hula ban was largely disregarded until 1859, when the Hawaiian kingdom strictly outlawed the performance of hula without a government license. That was eliminated in the 1870s when King David Kalakaua and Princess Lili‘uokalani began encouraging native arts. See Noenoe K. Silva, “He Kanawai E Ho‘opau I Na Hula Kuolo Hawai‘i: The Political Economy of Banning the Hula,” Hawaiian Journal of History 34 (2000): 29–48.

66. Silverman, Molder of Change, 122.

67. Quoted in Moore, Paradise of the Pacific, 228.

68. W. S. W. Ruschenberger, A Voyage Round the World (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1838), 484.

[69]Bingham, A Residence, 227.

[70]John Eimeo Ellis, Life of William Ellis, Missionary to the South Seas and to Madagascar(London: John Murray, 1873), 101.

71. Bingham, A Residence, 226–27. Bingham reports that Kamakau challenged the priestess, but Silverman plausibly contends that it was actually Ka‘ahumanu. Silverman, Molder of Change, 141.

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