Mahina Hānau o Ke Aliʻi ʻO Kapiʻolani
Julia Kapiʻolani Napelakapu-o-Kakaʻe Nāmākēhā was born on December 31st, 1834 on the island of Hawaiʻi, in the moku o Hilo (the district of Hilo). She was ka hiapo (the eldest child) of aliʻi directly descended from nobility of both Hawaiʻi island and of Kauaʻi.
Through her mother’s moʻokūʻauhau (genealogy), she was the granddaughter of Kaumualiʻi. He was the final reigning aliʻi of independent Kauaʻi and Niʻihau, prior to being unified with the other islands of the Hawaiian Kingdom. From her father, Kapiʻiolani descended from generational aliʻi of the famed rainy district of Hilo.
Her name commemorates her own ancestor, Kapiʻolani, “the heavenly arch”. The arch literally refers to a clearly visible rainbow, a symbol of the presence of aliʻi. Piʻo also refers to the highest ranked aliʻi. Nā-pela-kapu-o-Kakaʻe refers to the kapu (sacred, restricted) remains of Kakaʻe, a historic aliʻi of Maui. Her birth symbolized a rare and highly-esteemed unification of noble lineages across ka pae ʻāina.
She was raised on the island of Hawaiʻi for her entire childhood, and joined the court of Kamehameha III at the age of 16 in 1850. Unlike other aliʻi of her time, she was not educated in a westernized, missionary boarding school. She primarily spoke ʻōlelo hawaiʻi, and acquired some conversational fluency in English later in life.
Two years later in 1852, she married Bennett Nāmākēhā, the uncle of the future Queen, Emma Naʻea Rooke. He was another member of the royal court, and nearly three decades senior to Kapiʻolani. She did become pregnant, but unfortunately suffered a miscarriage. Upon his death in 1860, she, at the age of 26, was left a widow without issue.
In 1863, she was wed to David Kalākaua. The enterprising young governmental official, also of aliʻi heritage, ascended in time to the throne after the 1874 election. Thus Kapiʻolani was crowned Queen Consort at the age of 38. She was committed to her husband’s mission of “hoʻoulu lāhui” — to help the Hawaiian nation grow and thrive. The next decade was truly one of financial prosperity and international prestige. Kalākaua negotiated the Reciprocity Treaty with the American government, infusing the Hawaiian government with much needed funding. These newfound resources were invested in education abroad programs for Hawaiian students, the renovation and electrification of ʻIolani Palace, and the King’s own royal world tour.
Queen Kapiʻolani tended to her lāhui close to home. She personally visited the Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) settlement of Kalaupapa to understand the plight of the disease upon her people. There on Molokaʻi with the jagged pali (precipices) looming overhead, she listened to the painful stories of the lepers. Most had been forcibly removed from their homes and families at the behest of christian missionaries, who were keen to assert their authority that they knew more about the disease than Hawaiians. In reality, their cure was family separation, religious conversion, and the life-long isolation of those inflicted with the disease. Similarly, children born in the settlement were forcibly taken off Molokaʻi, at birth, from their mothers. The isolation, impoverishment, lack of medical treatment, and social stigma brought on by the disease was traumatizing to an indigenous culture that does not innately ostracize their sick and injured. As is so with many other indigenous peoples of the world, the circumstances surrounding foreign disease was yet another ivory pillar of colonialism building a foundation for outsiders to strengthen their grip on the land.
Queen Kapiʻolani felt that something had to be done for her dying people. Following her return to royal court at Honolulu, she founded the Kapiʻolani Home for Girls in 1885 and five years later, she established the Kapiʻolani Maternity Home in 1890 (precursor to todayʻs Kapiʻolani Medical Center). These projects were funded through her personal perseverance, as she relied solely on charity lūʻau events rather than governmental funding. Her mission was the betterment of the helpless and needy, and also recultivating the growth of the Hawaiian people. Population decline due to introduced diseases had decimated and disrupted the entire population of Native Hawaiians.
Left: Queen Kapiʻolani, seated at right. Princess Liliʻuokalani standing at left. Photo taken in London for their attendance of Queen Victoriaʻs Golden Jubilee, formal reception.
Right: Queen Kapiʻolani wearing a dress made for her from Japan. Photo taken during her attendance of Queen Victoriaʻs Golden Jubilee in London.
As Queen, she also represented the Kingdom abroad. In 1887, she attended the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, with Princess Liliʻuokalani traveling along her side. They attended in King Kalākaua’s stead, and were warmly received as monarchs of their station. Kapi’olani is well-remembered for her iconic peacock feather dress, a piece composed of a velvet bodice and bustle, lined with hundreds of peacock eye feathers. There are also photographs of her abroad, dressed in what appears to be a muslin traveling gown, adorned with a lei pūpū niʻihau, the esteemed Niʻihau shell necklace lei.
Unfortunately, her later years were marked by tragedy. Following King Kalākaua’s death in 1890, the Queen Dowager retired to her private residence at Pualeilani, where the Hyatt Regency Waikīkī Beach Resort & Spa stands today. A cabal of American businessman illegally overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in January 17, 1893, deposing and imprisoning the Queen Dowager’s sister-in-law, Queen Liliʻuokalani. The same group of American expansionist annexed the Hawaiian Kingdom, ironically, on American Independence Day, July 4th, 1894. She would pass not long after in 1899 at the age of 64.
Despite the tragedies that plagued the Hawaiian nation later in her life, Queen Kapiʻolani is remembered for her personal resolve upholding the health and livelihood of her people. Her maternity home still stands today after 130 years, and is now a nonprofit hospital that has expanded its care to children and adults alike.
Her motto: “Kūlia i ka nuʻu”— Strive to reach the summit, was demonstrated in her life’s work. She achieved the best, in face of the many obstacles in her way.
All historical images courtesy of The Hawaiʻi State Archives.