Honoring the Legacy of Kauai's Last King

The following is an excerpt from Lee Croft’s new biography on King Kaumuali’i to be released in late May 2017. As a Professor Emeritus and Russian Scholar, Croft offers insights and details translated from journals and letters of Anton Shaeffer based on conversations with the King while the fort was under re-construction in 1816.

Kaumuali’i, Kaua’i’s Last King

by Lee Croft

Enjoy this excerpt featuring the King in his youth, as an interested and curious learner and an accomplished athlete.


Friends of King KaumualiiLineage, Birth and Early Learning

Kaua’i’s last independent King (“Ali’i nui”), Kaumuali’i, was born in 1780 at the Birthstones of the Holoholoku Heiau above the banks of the Wailua River on Kauai’s eastern shore. His mother, Kaua’i’s distinquished ruling Chiefess, Kamakahelei, announced his name as “Ka-umu-ali’i,” meaning “the oven of the nobility,” signifying her prediction that he would become “the means of nourishment” of Kauai people. His father “known as “Kā’eo,” brother of Maui Ali’i Kahekili, was a tall and very strong man, known as a particularly formidable warrior who strode fearlessly to meet adversaries with two ferocious “man-eating” mastiff dogs.

Kā’eo and Kamakahelei were the Ali’i who ventured forth in a double-hulled canoe to make “first contact” with English Captain James Cook and his men on the ships Resolution and Discovery anchored offshore at Waimea on January 19, 1778.

It was Hawaiian custom, called “hānai,” of the high ali’i to have those of their children who were intended future rulers to be adopted by other relatives, to raise through their dependent childhood. In this way, Kamakahelei’s son with Kaneoneo, Keawe, who was born about 1777, was given in a hānai arrangement to the family of Wailua District senior Chieftain Inamo’o.

The younger son, Kaumuali’i, from husband Kā’eo, was not adopted out to others. He was instead raised in the Wailua household of his mother. She was the primary influence in his young life, since his father Kā’eo was often away on military campaigns on the other islands.

It was, then, Kamakahelei who personally taught him to chant his very long “mele inoa,” or “song of identity,” evidencing his personal genealogical connection to the Hawaiian Gods and thus his powerful mana. Memorizing and reciting such long chants with the required exactitude was very difficult and took most of the ruling ali’i years of their childhood to accomplish. But young Kaumuali’i took joy in the task of learning and mastered his chant in such a short time that his parents’ “kāhuna” (“priests”) were positively impressed and came to respect his prodigious memory and quick mind.

These priests explained to Kaumuali’i the need to respect and enforce the Hawaiian system of “kapu” and sacrifice, which pleased the Gods so that they protected the people of Kaua’i from natural disasters, from privation, and from subjugation by other peoples. As a result of this instruction, Kaumuali’i became quite religious even as a youth and spent significant time in prayer (“pule”), seeking advice from the Gods.

Learning His Island to Become a Wise and Competent Ruler

In his youth, Kaumuali’i learned to fish with hooks and spears and nets. He learned to manage fish in man-made ponds. He learned to plant and harvest taro in irrigated plots called “lo’i”. He learned how clothing and canoes, “wa’a” were made.

He grew up to be tall and strong like his father, and in his teens established himself as one of Kaua’i’s foremost aquatic athletes. He could stay under water longer, swim faster, and surf the waves more ably than anyone else. He could paddle canoes more strongly than others of his cohort for many hours without resting. He made “spirit leaps” into the water from all Kaua’i’s prominent heights to “prove his mana.” And he became proficient in the use of weapons, wooden daggers and spears, shark-toothed clubs, and, in his early adulthood, western metal swords, firearms and cannon.

Early Interest in the World and Learning a New Language

Kaumuali’i as a young man was always curious, asking frequent questions of his elders and of the foreigners, like English Captain George Vancouver he first met in 1792. He applied himself especially enthusiastically to the study of Vancouver’s “foreign language”, English. In time his skill in English became immensely valuable to him, as he used it to communicate with diverse English and American seamen, traders and, later, missionaries.

Helping him in this effort from an early age were three sailors named Rowbottom, John Williams, and James Coleman who were left behind on Kaua’i to collect sandalwood by American Captain John Kendrick of the Lady Washington in 1793. These three gave Kaumuali’i much of his first English language instruction, albeit of a very rough, often profane, quality.

Later Kaumuali’i engaged Boston seaman John Gowan as his interpreter and instructor of English. It was Gowan who pointed out to Kaumuali’i that there were different levels of English that he should speak to different people in different circumstances and this Kaumuali’i learned to do. He soon came to call himself in English by the name “George,” after Captain Vancouver and the English King George III. He also gave his son, Humehume, the English name “George.”

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Check back for details on how to purchase this exciting biography which will
feature new illustrations by local artist, Brooke Kapukuniahi Parker

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Your donation will help build a full-sized bronze statue to honor the last reigning King of Kauai, Ali’i Nui Kaumuali’i.