Kapi’olani was descended from one of the main noble families of Hawaii and held the position of Chiefess. She was married to Chief Naihe, whose ancestry could also be traced through the noble families of Hawaii.
Kapi’olani and her husband both converted to Christianity in the 1820s, having close relationships with missionaries who travelled to the islands, including William Ellis, Rev. Ava Thurston and his wife, and Rev. Ely and his wife. Kapi’olani was renowned for her enthusiasm in adopting the new religion and the zealousness with which she embraced Christian values.
Perhaps the most famous display of her Christian piety took place at Mauna Loa. The volcano was home to the goddess, Pélé, who was believed to be cruel as temples dedicated to her would be erected at points where lava had been spewed from the volcano. At these sites, it was said that human sacrifices took place.
Upon her approach, Kapi’olani was met by a priestess of the goddess who claimed to have the god inside her. This priestess warned Kapi’olani that if she continued on, she would be destroyed by the goddess.
Undeterred, the chiefess sat with the priestess and delivered a Christian prayer that was said to rid her of the presence of Pélé, and Kapi’olani went into the volcano to continue praying. Whilst the accounts of what happened at the volcano vary, it was a considered an act of heroism by the chiefess.
Her husband died in 1831 and during her time as a widow she continued to spread the Christian message until her own death in 1841.
Rev. Charles Bullock, 1887 The Royal Year: A Chronicle of Our Good Queen’s Jubilee (London: Home Words, 1889)
Rufus Anderson, Kapiolani, the heroine of Hawaii, or a triumph grace of the Sandwich Island (New York: Charles Scribner & Co, 1866)
Sally Engle Merry, “Kapi’olani at the Brink: Dilemmas of Historical Ethnography in 19th-Century Hawai’i,” American Ethnologist 30 (2003): 44-60.