Robert Dampier, Nahienaena (1825),
Honolulu Academy of Arts
She is a young girl, approximately ten years old. She is the daughter of King Kamehameha I; she is a princess. She wears a floral lei on her head, and an ʻahuʻula, or feathered cape, hung over her small shoulders. In her left hand she holds a kahili, a royal feather standard.
She looks confidently at the portraitist, Robert Dampier of England. Perhaps she even looks a bit impatient: "Are you done painting yet? I'm tired of standing like this!" No doubt painted indoors, Dampier later added details in the background: a small Hawaiian village on the coast comprised solely of traditional thatch dwellings, but a European ship is anchored offshore as well.
The ship might be the HMS Blonde, the ship that escorted the bodies of the recently deceased Hawaiian king and queen from London, England, where they had died, to Hawaiʻi, where they would be interred. That same ship also brought along Dampier, the portraitist.
The biography of Nāhiʻenaʻena has long been told as a tragedy. Tutored from a very young age by American Protestant Christian missionaries in Hawaiʻi, she was apparently a model Christian during her childhood years: she looked with disgust upon Hawaiian traditional customs and was carefully taught to find superior virtue in Western culture and Christian faith.
In 1824, the year before Robert Dampier's arrival in the islands, she was informed that servants of the aliʻi (the aliʻi were the Hawaiian ruling class, of which Nāhiʻenaʻena and all royalty were a part) were constructing a massive feathered garment, a feathered pāʻū (skirt), for her to wear on the occasion of the Hawaiian King Liholiho's eventual return from London, England. But little Nāhiʻenaʻena, just nine years old, apocryphally remarked that she "felt exceedingly afraid of the feather pāʻū that is making for me [sic]." It would be, she feared, a most un-Christian garment.
Finally the day came on May 7, 1825 when Nāhiʻenaʻena was expected to wear the finished, gigantic feathered pāʻū. A formal reception was held for Lord Byron of England and other foreign ambassadors who came on the HMS Blonde (which had brought home Liholiho's and Kamamalu's bodies). The Hawaiian aliʻi supposedly asked Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena to wear her new pāʻū, as well as a floral lei headdress, lei necklaces, and nothing else. In short, her torso would be fully exposed, as was traditional for Hawaiian aliʻi women when wearing pāʻū. Apparently, Nāhiʻenaʻena was so embarrassed of exposing her chest that she hid from the reception at first, sought help from the missionaries, and when she eventually returned to the reception, she was now dressed in "black" (a dress?) and also wearing the feathered pāʻū. Did she wear a black dress or blouse and wear the pāʻū only ceremoniously?
In pre-contact Hawaiʻi, the wearing of feathered garments signaled perhaps the highest level of social and political status that any individual (generally a male) could attain. Nāhiʻenaʻena's father, King Kamehameha I, for example, possessed a unique all-yellow ʻahuʻula that comprised the feathers of perhaps as many as 60,000 individual birds. The power (or mana) of such a cape was immense. Mana transfered to the wearer via the birds' feathers. These birds - ʻōʻō and mamo birds providing yellow feathers; ʻapapane and ʻiʻiwi birds providing red feathers - because they lived high in the mountains and shared space with particular gods, and because their feathers were simply so rare (each ʻōʻō or mamo bird, for example, only provided 6-8 yellow feathers), they were considered to embody great quantities of mana. Transfered via their feathers, the wearer of an ʻahuʻula thus embodied thousands of birds' mana. Is this not why Hawaiian rulers so often wore feathered capes (ʻahuʻula) and helmets (mahiole) into battle? Because these garments provided them with "power"?
Feathered cloaks (ʻahuʻula) on display,
Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi
I have always considered these feathered garments as being very masculine. Hawaiian women, even royalty, were almost never (at least as far I have seen) depicted, either visually or textually, as wearing feather garments. That said, there are many accounts of aliʻi women wearing feathers in their hair, or wearing feather lei. But the traditional Hawaiian skirt, the pāʻū, was frequently made of kapa (tapa) cloth. A very nice pāʻū had a unique dyed design and was perfumed. But a feathered pāʻū was apparently a great departure from traditional gender norms of feather wearing.
Furthermore, very few Hawaiian royalty even wanted to wear feathered garments by the mid-1820s. Men like Liholiho and Boki (Governor of Oʻahu) prided themselves on wearing European-style trousers, shirts, and hats; at least we know that they bought bountiful quantities of these European (and sometimes Chinese) made clothes on credit at Honolulu's haole (foreigner)-run stores. Aliʻi women, too, preferred to wear European dresses, especially white dresses. Finally, the influence of the Christian missions in 1820s-Hawaiʻi persuaded many women to cover up their chests, including Nāhiʻenaʻena.
I return to wondering what Nāhiʻenaʻena's emotional expression is in Dampier's portrait. Is it anger? Impatience? Assertiveness? How does she feel about being "dressed up" as she is, and why did she "dress up"?
Apparently, Dampier had asked many aliʻi in Honolulu to sit for portraits, and he invariably asked them to wear feathered garments. But the aliʻi pleaded with Dampier that they would rather be shown in silks and satins! These aliʻi were proud to own European and Chinese consumables. Their foreign objects were rich with associations (of foreigners and their mana); these objects embodied, frankly, more mana than even a million ʻōʻō or ʻiʻiwi feathers ever could. But Dampier could not see beyond his own fixed conception of what he thought/hoped Hawaiians would look like.
Nāhiʻenaʻena apparently arrived for her portrait wearing a black silk dress, but Dampier refused to paint her until she agree to cover up this expression of her modernity and Christian femininity with something more "Hawaiian." Dampier made her wear a traditional feather ʻahuʻula, by all accounts a male garment, on top of her dress. Dampier may have been trying to visually demonstrate Nāhiʻenaʻena's royalty - that she was a princess - by forcing the feathers on her. Or, simply, he knew that British viewers wanted to see a Hawaiʻi lost in time and did not want to see (or take responsibility) for how quickly Western economic and religious imperialism was changing Hawaiian habits of dress and consumption.
Nāhiʻenaʻena was conflicted in her clothes. And there was more going on behind the scenes. She was, by all accounts, in love with her brother, the new king, Kauikeaouli. American merchants and missionaries alike spread rumors about her cohabitation (and assumed sexual relations) with her brother throughout the late 1820s. Painted as a traditional aliʻi princess - although masculinized by her feather cloak - Dampier and other Europeans/Euro-Americans should have accepted her love for her brother if they really wanted to see/imagine a Nāhiʻenaʻena that was stuck in time. Brother-sister love and marriage were historically quite common for Hawaiian royalty. Beneath Dampier's feathered facade was a girl wanting to wear a black dress, wanting to be faithfully Christian, wanting to be modern, and wanting to be Hawaiian.
The remarkable thing is how much haole (foreigners) always talked about what Nāhiʻenaʻena was wearing: when she wore tapa garments or lei, she was criticized as un-Christian; when she wore European manufactures, she was hailed as the saving grace of Hawaiian society. What she wore was highly scrutinized because of her gender. Dampier was hardly alone in seeking to construct identities for Nāhiʻenaʻena, to use her varyingly as a symbol of grace or sin as the times demanded.
In her final years (yet still a teenager) Nāhiʻenaʻena grew increasingly depressed and desperate for acceptance. She married her brother, King Kauikeaouli, in 1834, but the marriage was not recognized by the church and she faced various insults from the American missionaries because of it. The next year, 1835, she was excommunicated from the church for her "sins." She married anew, unhappily, to former Prime Minister Kalanimoku's son, Leleiohoku. She bore him a son who died just hours after childbirth. Her health became impaired, and she too succumbed to death three months later, December 30, 1836, at the age of twenty one.
For more on Nāhiʻenaʻena's story, see:
David W. Forbes, Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawaii and its People, 1778-1941 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992).
Marjorie Sinclair, "Nahienaena, Hawaiian Princess," Hawaiian Journal of History 3 (1969), 3-30.