More about Nahi'ena'ena (Sister of Kamehameha III)


Princess “Harriet” Keopuolani Nahi’ena’ena of Hawaii had a Luke and Leia meets Wuthering Heights situation going on with her brother, King Kamehameha III.  

They were desperately in love from childhood, and while marriage between siblings was a time-honored custom among Hawaiian Ali’i (High Chiefs), such relationships were an abomination to the increasingly powerful American missionaries.

Nahi’ena’ena’s mother’s dying wish was that she convert to Christianity, and while the princess embraced many Christian beliefs, she rebelled against puritanical teachings that conflicted with her Polynesian heritage.  She was, however, a big fan of the Christian habit of drinking rum (that’s my kind of conversion!).  Furthermore, her forbidden love for her brother Kamehameha III remained strong, and they met in secret under the missionaries’ noses.

Nahi’ena’ena eventually bowed to social pressure and married William Pitt Kalanimoku, but Kamehameha III declared her firstborn child his son and heir, believing he was the real father.  The baby died in infancy, and the princess’ health quickly deteriorated.  Doctors were unable to find a cause of illness, and she died at age twenty, some say of a broken heart.

Robert Dampier painted this portrait of her at age ten when the HMS Blonde came to Hawaii with the bodies of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu, who had died of measles on a state visit to England.  Nahi’ena’ena first appeared for her sitting in a European mourning dress of black silk, but Dampier insisted she change into the gorgeous yellow and red featherwork of Indigenous Hawaiian royalty.

To our eyes, Nahi’ena’ena is a strikingly beautiful girl, but the British were no great respecters of Polynesian beauty.  Members of the Blonde expedition described the princess as “intelligent, but scarcely pretty,” and the Hawaiian noblewomen as “disgustingly fat,” joking that Dampier couldn’t fit the dowager Queen Ka’ahumanu onto a single canvas. They even equated royal Hawaiian women to languishing pigs, and compared Hawaiians to “monkeys” because of their curiosity about Dampier’s paintings.  These may seem like quotes from Donald Trump’s twitter account, but they’re actually from historical journals.