Her Highness

We retrace Queen Kapi‘olani’s steps in her “strive to reach the summit.”


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Queen Kapi‘olani; the Queen with Prince David Kawananakoa; the Hawaiian monarchs at Westminster Abbey

Esther Napelakapuokakae “Julia” Kapi‘olani was born on December 31, 1834 in Hilo, Hawai‘i, to high chief Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole and High Chiefess Kinoiki Kekaulike of Kaua‘i. She was named Kapi‘olani after her great-aunt, also a High Chiefess. The name “Kapi‘olani” is composed of three words—Ka pi‘o lani— and translates to “the heavenly arch.”

Julia spent her childhood in Hilo and Kona. Then, in 1852, she moved to Honolulu to marry her first husband, High Chief Bennett Namakeha, who was an uncle of Queen emma and was over three decades Kapi‘olani’s senior. in 1857, she and her husband voyaged to the Gilbert Islands on The morning star with the hope of improving his health. Although he would live for three more years, Namakeha died and was buried on December 31, 1860—Kapi‘olani’s birthday.

At that point, a widow at the age of 26, Kapi‘olani became a nursemaid for Prince Albert, the only son of King Kamehameha iv and Queen Emma. Together, they traveled to Hanalei on the island of Kaua‘i at the invitation of then foreign minister Robert Crichton Wyllie. There, Wyllie had a sugar plantation that he renamed “Princeville” after this visit by the royal party. This would be the first time Kapi‘olani would travel to the island of her maternal lineage, as she was granddaughter of Kaumuali‘i— the last independent King of Kaua‘i.

Two years later, however, tragedy would befall the family when 4-year-old Albert, suddenly became ill. The little boy’s death overwhelmed the king and queen. Kapi‘olani, too, was besieged, even blaming herself for his death. Even in her sorrow, Emma wrote to her the following. “Dear Kapi‘olani, my companion in the caring of my son. You were my son’s favorite, your chest must be filled with hurt.” Just months later, the death of King Kamehameha iv, some say due to a broken heart, further devastated Queen Emma and all the people of Hawai‘i.

The reign of Kamehameha iv would be followed by that of lot Kapuaiwa as King Kamehameha v, as he had been chosen by Kamehameha iv to be his successor. Upon lot’s passing, thus ending the Kamehameha line, Lunalilo took the throne as the first elected king. However, he would reign for just a little over one year before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1874.

On December 8, 1863, David Kalakaua and Julia Kapi‘olani married in a quiet ceremony. The two were said to have been wonderfully close, and, during the 17 years of his eventual reign, they traveled to America, England and Europe and would be entertained by the president of the united states and the Queen of England.

As Hawai‘i’s Queen, Kapi‘olani was largely committed to philanthropy. The Kapiolani home for girls was established in 1885 and served, for 53 years, young people whose parents had been stricken with Hansen’s disease. The dedication of the home reads as follows:

Devoted to the care of girls, the children of leprous parents, not yet confirmed as lepers, and others suspected of the disease.

It is unknown when or how leprosy arrived in the Hawaiian islands, but it was detected as early as the 1830s. Fearing spread of the disease, the Kingdom of Hawai‘I set aside land for those who had been diagnosed. Individuals with advanced cases were sent to the isolated North Shore of Moloka‘i.

Although Hawai‘i’s legislative body of 1884 promised $15,000 to build Kapiolani home, the funds were not readily available. So Queen Kapi‘olani set forth to raise the money needed. A “liberal sum of $6,575” was secured by their majesties, and the creation of the home began.

Sadly, the year 1884 also brought the death of Kapi‘olani’s youngest sister, Victoria Kinoiki Kekaulike. Two of her sons would come under Kapi‘olani’s care, David Kawanakoa and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole, while her sister Po‘omaikelani adopted Edward Abnel Keli‘iahonui. In a grand coronation, Kalakaua made Kapi‘olani’s nephews Princes of Hhawai‘i.

England’s Queen Victoria, in 1887, held a golden Jubilee for the 50th anniversary of her accession. In attendance were Queen Kapi‘olani and crown Princess Lili‘uokalani, King Kalakaua’s sister. She had traveled with Kapi‘olani as her interpreter because, although Kapi‘olani understood English, she chose to speak only Hawaiian. Throughout their stay and during all of the splendid affairs, the members of the Hawaiian royal family were honored as esteemed dignitaries and were seated with the British Royal Family inside Westminster Abbey for the event.

Among the many places that bear Kapi‘olani’s name is the Kapi‘olani Medical Center for women and children. in 1890, Queen Kapi‘olani established the Kapiolani maternity home in Honolulu to care for Hawaiian mothers and their babies. Victoria Kekaulike’s home “Ululani” would eventually come into Kapi‘olani’s possession and would exist as the foundational site for the maternity home. She worked tirelessly, traveling the islands holding lu‘au and other events and benefits to raise the money needed to convert the home to a hospital. Over the years, the hospital has expanded its services from labor and delivery to providing all health care for island women and children.

In addition, Kapi‘olani Park was dedicated in her honor by her husband Kalakaua. It is situated on 180 acres of land at the foot of Diamond Head and was presented to the people of Hawai‘i on Kamehameha day 1877 calling it “the first public park of the kingdom.” in December of 2001, a life-sized bronze statue of Queen Kapi‘olani was unveiled. she has a warm smile, and one of her arms is slightly extended, palm open, welcoming all who visit.

After Kalakaua’s death in January of 1891, Kapi‘olani retired to her private residence Pualeilani in Waikiki but continued to supervise her beloved hospital. After suffering a series of strokes, she passed away on June 24, 1899, at age 64. she is interred in the Royal Mausoleum of Hawai‘i along with her husband and the rest of the House of Kalakaua.

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