In 1836, Honolulu was just a large village with only one street, King Street, and less than 6,000 people. About 500 were haole (Hawaiian for foreigners) and the rest ka Hawai’i. It was a major port for whaling ships, and as one writer put it, one of the most "unattractive" places in the world.
Emma, the future queen, was born in Honolulu on January 2, 1836 to Fanny Kekelaokalani Young, daughter of John Young, King Kamehameha I's haole counselor, and Ka'oana'eha, Kamehameha's niece. Her father was high chief George Naea.
The little chiefess had been offered, as was the custom, to her mother's sister, Grace Kamaikui Rooke and her husband, Dr. T.C.B. Rooke. Unable to have children of their own, the Rookes adopted Emma.
Dr. Rooke was a young English surgeon who had arrived in Hawai’i in 1830 and was serving as the court physician. He doted on the baby girl, a small, pretty child with a fair complexion and delicate features. As she grew, her nature was fun-loving, sensitive, bright and a little stubborn.
While Dr. Rooke raised Emma to be very British, her aunt Grace raised her to be Hawaiian as well. She learned about the world from her scholarly father, with the help of many letters from her paternal grandmother in England who instructed Dr. Rooke on how to raise Emma properly.
The British did not indulge children, while the Hawaiians did. Dr. Rooke did his best not to allow Emma to be spoiled rotten by Grace, her hanai (Hawaiian for adopted) mother, whom she called Kiawai.
Emma grew up speaking both Hawaiian and English, the latter "with a perfect English accent." She began formal schooling at age 5 in the Chief's Children's School, where she was quick and bright in her studies.
At age 13, Dr. Rooke hired an English governess, Sarah Rhodes von Pfister, to tutor young Emma. He also encouraged reading from his extensive library. As a writer, he influenced Emma's interest in reading and books. By the time she was 20 years old, she was a beautiful and accomplished young woman.
She was 5'2," slender, well-proportioned, with large, beautiful black eyes. Her musical talents as a fine vocalist, talented pianist and good dancer were well known. She was also a skilled horsewoman.
Emma became engaged to the king of Hawai’i, Alexander Liholiho, also called Kamehameha IV, a 22 year old who had ascended to the throne in 1855. The couple had known each other since childhood. The young king was tall, dark and handsome, very intelligent and well-read, fluent in both Hawaiian and English.
At the engagement party, accusations were made that Emma's Caucasian blood made her not fit to be the Hawaiian queen, and her lineage was not suitable enough to be Alexander Liholiho's bride. Tempers flared, Emma burst into tears, and the party was a shambles.
The wedding was held as planned however, and the new queen soon became involved in the business of the kingdom, particularly that of saving the Hawaiian people from extinction.
In his first speech as king, Kamehameha IV stated the need for a hospital to treat the native population. Due to introduced diseases, the Hawaiian population had plummeted from 350,000 at the time of Captain Cook's arrival, to 70,000, with extinction a very real possibility. The treasury was empty, so the king and his queen undertook the mission of soliciting enough funds to establish a proper hospital in Honolulu. Within a month, their personal campaign had raised $13,530, almost twice their original goal.
To recognize and honor Emma's efforts, it was decided to call the new hospital "Queen's." The original building, housing just 18 patient beds, opened its doors on August 1, 1859. Within a year, a much larger building with room for 124 beds was built on the same site where The Queen's Medical Center stands today. It took time to convince the Native Hawaiians to take advantage of the new hospital, as many preferred the traditional Hawaiian methods of healing.
The King and Queen rejoiced at the birth of their son, Albert Kauikeaouli Leiopapa a Kamehameha, on May 20, 1858. The entire populace welcomed the new heir to the throne with joy, only to be stricken by utter grief four years later when the little boy died suddenly of "brain fever." Just 15 months later, the young king, weakened by chronic asthma and a broken heart, died at age 29.
In her grief, Queen Emma took a new name, Kaleleonalani, which means "flight of the heavenly chiefs." To ease her pain, Emma dedicated herself to many worthy causes, among which was organizing a hospital auxiliary of women to help with the ill. She also helped found two schools, St. Andrews Priory in Honolulu and St. Cross on Maui. Her work included the development of St. Andrews Cathedral. She journeyed to England where she and her friend, Queen Victoria, raised $30,000 for the construction or the cathedral.
When King Lunalilo died in 1874, Emma became a candidate for the throne (the Kingdom had become a constitutional democracy). Lunalilo had wanted her to succeed him, but he failed to make the legal pronouncement before he died. Had he done so, she would have reigned as sovereign queen. Instead, an election for a new sovereign was held. Although she campaigned actively, she lost the throne to David Kalakaua.
Politics was not her strong suit -- humanitarianism was. Queen Emma was much loved by the people and hundreds of mele have been composed in her honor. Her humanitarian efforts set an example for Hawaii's royal legacy of charitable bequests. After her death on April 25, 1885 at age 49, she was given a royal funeral and laid to rest in Mauna 'Ala beside her husband and son.
Emma Kaleleonalani left the bulk of her estate, some 13,000 acres of land on the Big Island and in Waikiki on O’ahu, in trust for the hospital that honors her.