Queen Kaahumanu was a powerful figure in Hawaiian history, and her reign had a lasting impact on the monarchy and its power over the islands. Before Western contact with Ka Pae ʻĀina or Hawaii (the Hawaiian Islands), Hawaiian society was heavily regulated by law, with many Kānāwai dictating the relationship between the cultivators or gatherers and the natural environment. Circa 1400 The ʻAi Kapu (traditional religion) was brought to Hawaii, which contained kānāwai (laws) on daily behavior, as well as interactions between different classes (chief, priest and commoner). Transgressions were sometimes punishable by death.
When James Cook arrived on the islands, Hawaii was divided between a dozen chiefs who had risen to the level of supreme chief. Cook's crew members brought many deadly diseases to the islands that decimated the Hawaiian population, including tuberculosis, syphilis and gonorrhea. In 1819, King Kamehameha fell ill and on his deathbed, he followed the example of the British monarchy and named his eldest son as heir. He appointed his favorite wife prime minister.
After the death of King Kamehameha, Kamehameha II left traditional religion and Queen Ka'ahumanu drafted new laws based on the Ten Commandments. She paid attention to the missionaries' demands that the traditional Hawaiian lifestyle be suppressed, banning all traditional ways of transmitting history, including hula. Britain finally reinstated Kamehameha III as ruler of Hawaii. As a process, rather than a single event, the mahele began the division of the land between the king and the chiefs.
The lands held by the king were divided into his personal lands and government lands, all subject to the rights of the land's native tenants. King Kamehameha III filled his cabinet with foreign ministers. Not everyone was satisfied with the growing influence of missionaries and it was a new era of prosperity for missionary families. Sugar and pineapple plantations began and with wealth came the desire for greater political control.
In 1874, the last Hawaiian king related by blood to the Kamehameha (Lunalilo) family died without leaving an heir. Two members of the royal family claimed the title and a king who supported economic transformation was elected. He had his sights set on Pearl Harbor. Americans established missions and built huge plantations, railroads, docks, and hotels in Hawaii.
On January 16, 1893, an American battleship arrived and supported a revolt by plantation owners that overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy by force. Queen Liliʻuokalani gave in to save her people's lives but was denied reestablishment of her monarchy when McKinley wanted Pearl Harbor. On August 12, 1898, the Hawaiian flag was lowered and disrespectfully crushed. President McKinley signed an Organic Act that turned Hawaii into a territory in 1900.
Sanford Dole was named first governor and all voters were required to be citizens, 21 years of age or older, reside in the territory for at least one year before they can vote and speak and read English or Hawaiian. When Queen Kaahumanu died in 1832, Hawaii was a Christian nation. Foreigners from Europe and the United States began to settle on the islands at a rapid pace. At a time of rapid territorial expansion, they saw Hawaii as a fashionable product for their imperial powers with lucrative opportunities for trade in sandalwood to whaling.
It was easy for foreign powers to influence the monarchy due to its weakened state from population loss. In 1839, Queen Kaahumanu signed an Edict of Tolerance that allowed for a Hawaiian Catholic church to be established and ended persecution of Catholics that had begun at the behest of Protestant missionaries. It was during Kaahumanu's convalescence that Sybil Bingham convinced her to learn how to read. Queen Kaahumanu's reign had a lasting impact on Hawaiian society and its power over its islands.
Her reforms abolished old 'ai kapu religious laws that prohibited men and women from eating together and prohibited women from eating certain foods. She also allowed for foreign powers to influence her nation's economy through trade opportunities while also allowing for religious freedom through her Edict of Tolerance.