Emma Kalanikaumakaʻamano Kaleleonālani Naʻea Rooke of Hawaiʻi was born on 2 January 1836 as the daughter of High Chief George Naʻea and High Chiefess Fanny Kekelaokalani Young. She was adopted under the Hawaiian tradition of hānai by her childless maternal aunt, chiefess Grace Kamaʻikuʻi Young Rooke, and her husband, Dr Thomas C. B. Rooke. She would have been nursed by a royal wet nurse and not by her biological mother. One of the wet nurses probably stayed on as kahu, who not only worked in the house but was also responsible for Emma’s wellbeing. Emma grew up bilingual – she spoke both Hawaiian and English. Emma’s youth was bound by her royal status, and she had little other children to play with. When she was six years old, she entered the Chiefs’ Children’s School with an elite group of 16 other royal children. The school was led by two missionaries – the Cookes.
Just five days after her arrival Mr Cooke recorded in his journal, “She has not yet learned to obey.” He makes no mention as to how she was disobedient. The girls learned to sew, cook, clean but also had more ordinary subjects such as religion and spelling. In 1848, several epidemics broke out in Honolulu, and everyone in the school fell ill as well. Just one of the children in the school died but nearly every infant born that year died. The following year, Emma left the school and returned home to continue her education with a governess. She was almost 14 years old, and Dr Rooke wished her to have a lady’s education so as to become a “fit bride.”
Emma had met her future husband at the Chiefs’ Children’s School, but there is no evidence that they were in love from their school days. His name was Alexander Liholiho, or King Kamehameha IV as he had become in 1855. Their courtship probably started around 1850, but he only became more serious about her after becoming King. We don’t know when he proposed marriage, but he announced his intention to marry her to the privy council in July 1855. The wedding took place on the morning of 19 June 1856 with a ceremony at the Kawaiaha’o Church. A newspaper reported, “The bride’s dress offered unmistakable evidence of its Parisian origin. Nothing could have been more elegant, or have better suited her fairy-like proportions. The robe was of white silk, heavy and lustrous, trimmed with three flounces richly embroidered. The veil was of Brussel’s point lace, confined to the hair by a wreath of roses and orange blossoms beautifully blended. Her jewellery consisted of a superb set of diamonds, elegantly designed.”
The newlyweds moved into the ‘Iolani Palace with its spacious royal apartments, but Emma also had a separate royal residence next to the palace. In August 1857, Emma learned that she was pregnant. It was the first time in over 30 years that a reigning monarch had produced a legitimate heir. On 20 May 1858, around 6 p.m. Emma gave birth to a boy named Albert to great rejoicing. By the late summer, Emma was back to horseriding – her favourite sport – and she resumed her official duties. However, Albert was not a healthy boy, and his health was a constant concern to his parents. In August 1862, Albert became restless and suffered several spasms. Emma had been by his side for days and was exhausted. When he finally died on 23 August, Emma took him in her arms and wept, “My baby, my own baby, and you did not know me!” His little body was placed in a metallic coffin in the stateroom where Emma would sleep at night. His funeral took place on 7 September, and Emma stayed by the grave for four days.
Another tragedy was yet to come. The King was not at all well, and he was ill on and off in early 1863. By November, he was quite weak, and on the 30th, he suddenly began having problems breathing. Alexander died in her arms at 9 a.m. on 30 November 1863. Emma immediately faced the awkward question of whether or not she was pregnant. Emma assured them that she was not and so Prince Lot, the late King’s brother, was proclaimed as Kamehameha V. Emma was devastated; her husband had still only been 29 years old. Bishop Staley wrote, “The Queen sits almost incessantly by the coffin. She has prayers in the room night and morning, in the Hawaiian language, so that all present may understand, taken from the Book of Common Prayer; and I read to her from the Psalms or other consolatory passages of the Holy Scriptures every day. It is beautiful to see how she seeks for consolation only in God….” The funeral took place on 3 February 1864. 1