Alexander Liholiho 'Iolani, "the royal hawk", was the grandson of King Kamehameha the Great. His mother, Kina'u, the Queen Regent, was a tall capable woman whose leadership qualities were powerful, as her father before her. Alexander's high chief father was Governor of the Island of O’ahu.
From the day of his birth, February 9, 1834, the boy had a promising future. As a child, he was considered brilliant and perceptive, with an inquiring mind, one of the finest scholars at the Chiefs' Children's' School. His talent for writing was evident from this excerpt from a journal kept on a trip to Europe when he was just 14 years old.
"The last four days of our passage I was exceedingly sick from a very bad cold, and so much so that I was confined to my berth. I complained of a lightness around my chest and a very bad cough, and was also feverish - The Doctor of the ship was asked to attend on me. He applied a Mustard plaster on my chest, and after giving me several nasty little knickknacks that physicians generally give, and kind nursing, I slowly began to recover after an illness of four days."
The European trip was undertaken with his brother, Lot, on a diplomatic mission to France and Washington, D.C. The boys were accompanied by Dr. Gerritt P. Judd. The young men had a variety of memorable experiences, including introductions to Napoleon and Prince Albert of England. Their impact on European society was splendid, and they enjoyed the parties, fencing and French language lessons immensely.
A bad experience with a rude train conductor in America tainted his feelings toward Americans for the rest of his life. The conductor "had probably taken me for somebody's servant, just because I had darker skin than he had. Confounded fool." Alexander, in later years, feared the Americans might try to establish slavery in Hawai’i.
When Alexander was twenty, the old king died, and the young man became Kamehameha IV. He was an imposing monarch. Tall, slender, athletic and with the high forehead greatly favored by Hawaiians, he was admired for his intelligence and aristocratic manner.
His marriage to Emma Rooke came in 1856. Fearful of American power and possible annexation, King Kamehameha IV did not encourage missionaries to be part of his government, preferring his relatives and friends instead.
The King and Queen were dedicated to the creation of a hospital for the people of Hawai’i "to stay the wasting hand that is destroying our population," and it was a powerful bond between them. The king and queen both went personally soliciting funds, on foot and at times in the rain. Within a month they had achieved their goal. Once the hospital was established, the king and his cabinet agreed to name it for the queen without whose efforts it could not have been built.
He and Queen Emma were great favorites in Honolulu society, whom they entertained often and well. Operas, musicals and equestrian events were greatly enjoyed. Tennyson, Thackery and Shakespeare were among the King's most-read authors.
Amidst his brilliance however, were mood swings and fits of melancholy. The sudden death of little four-year-old Albert, his only son, shattered him and he never recovered. After years of suffering from nerve disorders and asthma, he died unexpectedly in 1863.