‘Ai Noa ("Free Eating") and the end of the Kapu system

Food serving

Traditional and modern foods being served in a calabash at Pu‘u Kohola, August 2002. Before 1820, certain foods were subject to strict kapu, and it was kapu for men and women to eat together.


“An extraordinary event marked the period of Liholiho’s rule," Kamakau writes, "in the breaking down of the ancient tabus, the doing away with the power of the kahunas to declare tabus and to offer sacrifices, and the abolition of the tabu which forbade eating with women.

"God alone knows what brought about this abolition of the old and the introduction of the new form of worship. The death of Kamehameha was the first step in the ending of the tabus….In old days the period of mourning at the death of a ruling chief who had been greatly beloved was a time of license. The women were allowed to enter the heiau, to eat bananas, coconuts, and pork, and to climb over the sacred places.

“Free eating followed the death of a ruling chief; after the period of mourning was over the new ruler placed the land under a new tabu following old lines. In this case Kamehameha II merely continued the practice of free eating.”

“The custom of the tabu upon free eating was kept up because in old days it was believed that the ruler who did not proclaim the tabu had not long to rule….The tabu eating was a fixed law for chiefs and commoners, not because they would die by eating tabu things, but in order to keep a distinction between things permissible to all people and those dedicated to the gods” (Kamakau 1990: 222).

“When Ke-opu-o-lani, the only remaining high tabu chiefess, gave up the tabu with the consent of all the chiefs, the tabu system fell. In the afternoon of the day following Kamehameha’s death, Ke-opu-o-lani ate coconuts which were tabu to women and took food with the men, saying ‘He who guarded the god is dead, and it is right that we should eat together freely.’” Liholiho did not give in right away, but returned to Kawaihae for a while, during which time Freycinet’s ships arrived and Kalanimoku was baptized (ibid. 224).

“On their return from Kawaihae to Honokohau, Liholiho remained under tabu at the heiau of the god until the tabu was freed.” At that time a messenger arrived with word from Ka‘ahumanu, his royal foster mother (kahu), indicating that “Kailua was to be released from further tabus and any new tabus would not have power. It was clear to him what was going on at Kailua,” Kamakau continues. “He accordingly sent his messengers to fetch rum from Kailua.”

“Ka‘ahumanu was the one influential in breaking the kapu system,” Billy remarks. “She made King Liholiho abolish it with an O.K. from their kahuna, and he went out to sea and was drunk for three days.”

Upon his return, Liholiho engaged in “free eating,” flaunting the traditional tabus regarding foods and eating with women. Ka‘ahumanu then said to him “Make eating free over the whole kingdom from Hawaii to Oahu and let it be extended to Kauai!” and Liholiho consented (Kamakau 1990: 224).

But Kekuaokalani, the son of Kamehameha’s younger brother, who was named as the second heir to rule alongside Liholiho, became angry with Ka‘ahumanu and the other chiefs for forcing Liholiho to end the kapu of the chiefs. Ultimately a battle ensued at Kuamo‘o between these two sides, and Kekuaokalani, his wife and many of his supporters were killed.

“When the battle was over," Kamakau notes, "Liholiho sent Hoa-pili as war leader to disperse the commoners of Kamakau who had risen up against free eating. Hoa-pili landed at Kawaihae with his forces, marched up to Waimea, met the opposing force and killed many, but some escaped into the woods at Mahiki. This ended the armed opposition against free eating" (ibid. 228).




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