Wednesday 13 June 2018

The Life and Letters of Queen Emma of Hawaii

In the autumn of 1865, Powderham Castle in Devon received an unusual and distinguished guest. Queen Emma of Hawaii was touring England attempting to garner financial donations and support for Hawaii’s first Anglican Cathedral when she stopped for a few days at the home of the Earl of Devon. There she met his daughter, the twenty-seven year old Lady Agnes Elizabeth Courtenay. The two women became fast friends, and for the rest of Emma’s visit the two maintained a regular correspondence. These letters were clearly treasured by Agnes, as she took them with her when she married Charles Wood Viscount Halifax in 1869, and thus they eventually found their way into our collection.

Emma Kalanikaumakaamano Nae’a Rooke was born in 1836, two years before Agnes Courtenay, in Honolulu. Her parents were both High Chiefs directly descended from royalty, and her ancestors included Hawaii's first king, Kamehameha the Great. She was adopted and raised by her aunt and uncle, Grace and Thomas Rooke. Grace was also a High Cheifess, but her father had been a British-born military advisor to the crown, while Thomas was a British doctor who had moved to Hawaii in adulthood. As such, Emma was raised in both Hawaiian and English traditions and spoke both languages fluently.

Emma was sent to the Royal School, previously called the Chiefs’ Children’s School, in Honolulu to finish her education. Interestingly, as Hawaii had an elected monarchy, it was not always certain who the next monarchy would be so this school aimed to give each of the possible candidates received an equal education. While studying at the Royal School, Emma fell in love with Alexander Liholiho. He became King Kamehameha IV in 1855, and married Emma in June of the following year. They had one son together, Prince Albert Edward, who sadly died at the age of four in 1862 of a ‘brain fever’.

Inspired by Emma’s adoptive father, Emma and Alexander dedicated much of their reign to providing their subjects with accessible and affordable healthcare. After deciding they wished to establish a hospital in Honolulu, the king and queen travelled door-to-door throughout the islands asking for donations. As a result, the Queen’s Medical Centre was opened in 1860. The couple were also devout Christians, and in 1860 they appealed to the Church of England for permission to establish the Church of Hawaii. Permission was granted, and Emma and Alexander were baptised by Anglican vicars in 1862. The king and queen then decided to fund-raise to build a cathedral dedicated to St Andrew, as well as a connected school for girls. This was a particular passion of Emma’s, as she had noticed that, outside of the Royal School, girls were rarely educated to the same standards as boys and she wished to rectify this. However, a spanner was thrown in the works when Alexander died suddenly in 1863. Emma spent the next couple of years in mourning, but eventually decided to persevere with the project by travelling to England in 1865 to garner support and financial aid for the cathedral and school.

It’s unclear when precisely Emma stayed at Powderham Castle, but the letters she wrote to Agnes are dated between November 1865 and January 1866. Emma clearly received a warm welcome at Powderham. She wrote early on: “I appreciate deeply the affection and love extended towards me by yourself and your family, and feel that God has indeed given me true, earnest friends in Lord Devon and yourself.” Agnes later wrote to invite Emma to stay with her family over the Christmas period. Emma could not stay with them, but thanked her greatly for the invite, writing: “if you have ever experienced the warmth of true friendship extended to you a stranger in a foreign land? You will then have felt my appreciation of such affection as has been shewen [sic] to me”.

Much of the correspondence between Emma and Agnes was written while Emma was the personal guest of Queen Victoria, and as such Victoria is mentioned frequently in the letters and even had Agnes’s letters read out to her. Victoria had been godmother to Emma’s son, yet the two women had never met before Emma’s visit. Victoria recorded her first meeting with Emma in her diary, where she wrote: “nothing could be nicer or more dignified than her manner.” Agnes had recommended a maid to Emma, who passed the suggestion on to Victoria. One of the letters to Agnes deals entirely with this matter. Emma tells Agnes exactly what Victoria is looking for in a maid, ending with: “She is anxious to have a clever person that can do anything & every thing [sic] without much saying.” Not asking much then!

However, what comes through most in these letters is Emma’s dislike of the English weather. In a letter of November 11th 1865, she writes: “we have not yet seen the Fog. But it [the weather] looks black, cloudy, and smoky, and very cold…I am convinced that the sooner we go out of England the better.” Just two weeks later, Emma wrote again. She had picked up her husband’s habit of travelling by night so as to have more daylight hours to work. She notes that this is perfectly possible in Hawaii, but in England it often leads to one getting rather wet and cold. She had developed a nasty cough as a result. This was why she was unable to spend Christmas with the Courtenay family; her doctor had ordered her to retire to warmer climes to recover. Instead she spent Christmas in the south of France. Emma seems to have enjoyed the south of France. She wrote that it was much more similar to the countryside of her homeland, and that she had “not been troubled by that noisy cough which I had in England.” Much of her letter focuses on the people she met while in France. She was especially excited to meet a descendant of “one of my favourite Poets,” Sir Walter Scott, whom she found to be perfectly charming.

After her return to Hawaii, Emma continued to live a remarkable life. After the king died in 1874, she ran in the election to become the next ruling monarch. Despite her hatred of the English weather, she remained staunchly pro-British during the run up to the election, while her opponent was pro-American. She lost the election in the Legislative Assembly, but such was the level of public support for Emma that a riot ensued now known as the Honolulu Court House Riot. After this event, Emma retired from public life, although a seat was always left empty for her at state occasions in case she changed her mind.

Interestingly, this collection does contain one further letter from Emma. In 1880, a Mr and Mrs Mills were on a journey that took them through Hawaii. They were friends with the Earl of Devon, and, remembering his daughter’s friendship with Emma, he sent them with a letter of introduction. Emma sent a letter back with a missionary returning to England in which she recalls happy times in England, and relates her joy at hearing news of her old friend. She writes that she heard Agnes and Charles “have a family of your own” and requests “do send me photos of yourselves and children.” She relates little of her own news, but does write that the man carrying the letter for her “has been fortunate enough to witness an eruption of our volcano” and recommends that Agnes ask him about the experience!

In spite of her illness, Emma’s fundraising trip to England was a success. She raised £16,000. Building work started on the Cathedral of St Andrew in 1867 and St Andrew’s Priory School was opened on Ascension Day of the same year. Both are still in operation today, and the cathedral is the home of the Bishop of Hawaii. Emma died in 1885 at the age of forty-nine, while Agnes Wood died in 1919 at the ripe old age of eighty-one.

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