A tangled ali’i web

With his acceptance into Alapa‘i’s household, Kamehameha plunged into a tangled ancestral web woven of generations of “marital” unions and less formal partnerships of both political convenience and amorous opportunity. Genealogy was of paramount importance among the ali‘i, and it was Nae’ole’s responsibility to tutor the boy about his forebears.
“The first thing you must understand, Kameha,” Nae’ole instructed one day, “is that your great-grandfather was Keawe, who was mō’ī of all Hawai‘i, and one of our greatest rulers.”

Once There Was Fire, A Novel of Old Hawaii, Copyright 2016, Stephen R. Shender

One of the first things I had to understand before I could begin writing my epic Hawaiian historical novel was who the hell was related to whom. Given the obsession of the ali’i — the Hawaiian nobility — with consanguinity, this was no easy task. The ali’i believed that the closeness of parents’ bloodlines determined the strength their children’s mana, or spiritual power. The more closely two people were related, the greater power their offspring would have. Social ranking among the Hawaiian nobility depended on the presumed strength of their mana, which was derived from their bloodlines’ purity. Thus among the ali’i, it was acceptable — preferable in fact — for brothers to pair with sisters, for half-siblings to partner with each other, first cousins with first cousins, and so on. The ali’i’s widespread practice of polygamy, combined with their laissez faire attitude toward affairs of the heart — or just pure lust — gave their descendants ample opportunity for such pairings.

To see what I’m going on about, click on this: Once There was Fire genealogy chart. A genealogical chart will open in a new window. (Sorry, you’ll have to toggle back and forth as you read next part.)

Now, look at the top line (first generation) of the chart. (I spent a ridiculous amount of time working out all this stuff, by the way.) You’ll see that Keawe, Kamehameha’s great-great grandfather, and king of the Big Island of Hawai’i, took three wives (he probably took more, actually), and had children by all of them. Moreover, at least one of his wives had children by another ali’i. Trace the various lineages to down to the second generation on the next line and you’ll find Keawe’s sons pairing up with their half-sisters (or vice-versa; Hawaiian women had equal say in such matters in those days). You’ll also find half-brothers sharing partners, producing more complexity, and confusion for later genealogists, by the third generation. And this complexity continues to cascade and further complexify — okay, that’s not a real word, but it packs a nice punch — in succeeding generations. Believe me, it’s easy to get lost in this thicket. I did more than once.

By now, you’re justified in wondering: What was the point of this exercise? For me as a storyteller, the point was the black lines I drew linking so many of these Big Island ali’i in successive generations to Keawe. And this seemed important to me as a writer, at least, because of the poignancy it lent to the often-violent conflicts between my characters, who were all related. I also thought at first that an understanding of all these family connections would make the story more interesting for readers. So I spilled a lot of virtual ink explaining them in the book. I had originally intended to include the chart in the novel, as a visual aid to readers, but there was no way to make it fit properly in a 6×9 trade paperback, so I scrapped that idea. Later, I hired an editor who persuaded me that I should scrap most of the narrative’s genealogical details as well because they were just gumming up the story. So I cut out nearly all the mentions of most of the main characters’ progenitors.

Readers who find that the old Hawaiians’ multi-polysyllabic names make their heads spin owe my editor a debt of gratitude for that.


2 thoughts on “A tangled ali’i web”

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