A pair of queens, 1865

A friendship at royal level

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She was dressed in just the same widow’s weeds as I wear. I took her into the White Drawingroom, where I asked her to sit down next to me on the sofa…

In last week’s Histories we met Queen Emma of Hawaii (1836–1885), whose journals and letters recorded a ‘grand tour’ around Europe and America in 1865–66, after the death of her husband Kamehameha IV. I focused on her impressions of France. One reason she headed towards the Mediterranean was a nasty case of bronchitis picked up in her stay in London – there she had lived in Kensington for a few months, and then in Claridge’s hotel, which had already welcomed a royal guest five years earlier in the form of Empress Eugénie of France, wife of Napoleon III.

Emma’s London sojourn enabled her to cement a friendship – with none other than Queen Victoria herself. Victoria was 17 years older and had had nine children by the time Emma’s only son died in 1862. He had been Victoria’s godson, and the loss brought the two queens together in spirit if not in person yet – and in that year they began what was to become a 20-year correspondence.

In Emma’s first letter to Victoria, on 10th September 1862, she wrote: “With that depth of feeling which is fully known to the heart of none but a mother, I pray Your Majesty to accept my thanks for Your Royal benevolence towards me and mine”.1 Victoria’s reply didn’t come until February 1863, but was certainly personal:

As a Mother you will understand how fully I am able to appreciate the depth of your grief, at the sad loss which so soon succeeded to the Holy Ceremony. As a wife I can sincerely hope that you may be spared the heavier blow which has plunged me into life long sorrow,—but which makes my heart tenderly alive to all the sorrows of others.

By the time of Emma’s visit to London, both women were widowed, emphasising a common bond. Emma, of course, had received a very English upbringing in the Rooke household, but one also very much in the context of her Hawaiian roots, so the queens had certainly had different experiences too.

The two queens finally met in person on 9th September 1865, and we have a record of each of their impressions. (For another of Victoria’s notable encounters, see the previous Histories article about her meeting with Buffalo Bill.)

[On 9th September, Victoria wrote in her journal…]

After luncheon I received Queen Emma, the widowed Queen of the Sandwich Islands of Hawaii. Met her in the Corridor & nothing could be nicer or more dignified than her manner. She is dark, but not more so than an Indian, with fine features & splendid soft eyes. She was dressed in just the same widow’s weeds as I wear. I took her into the White Drawingroom, where I asked her to sit down next to me on the sofa. She was much moved when I spoke of her great misfortune in losing her husband and only child. She was very discreet and would only remain a few minutes. She presented her lady, whose husband is her Chaplain, both being Hawaiians…

[Emma didn’t record the meeting in her diary, but she did write this in a letter to King Kamehameha V, her late husband’s brother and successor…]

I have this moment returned from Windsor Castle where the Queen received me most affectionately, most sisterly.

[A few weeks later, Victoria invited Emma to spend a night at Windsor Castle. Again, Victoria gives us the details…]

November 27. Went with Vicky & Fritz [Victoria’s eldest daughter and her husband, the Crown Prince of Prussia] to see Queen Emma, who has come for the night. She is not looking well, & coughs poor thing, for which reason she is ordered to go to the south of France, to Hyeres… The Queen sat between Vicky and me. She was amiable, clever, & nice in all she said, speaking of her own country, which she said had originally been very mountainous. There were no animals, but small dogs and pigs, and these only since they had been imported and introduced in the time of Van Couvers [sic]—the same with flowers. The people were now always dressed like Europeans & were all nominally Christians, but not very fervently so. . . . Took the Queen to her room remaining a little with her.

November 28. …Directly after breakfast, we went to wish good Queen Emma goodbye & I gave her a bracelet with my miniature and hair. She thanked me much for my kindness, & for consenting to be godmother to her poor little child.

[By mid-December, Emma was in the south of France, convalescing from that cough, and a letter she wrote to Victoria shows the continued warmth between the women…]

When I was last at Windsor you most kindly made me promise to write and tell you of my journey and safe arrival to this place… I reached Hyere on Saturday last after five days traveling from London. The journey through France was very pleasant and every thing was new and interesting. At Boulogne through the courtesy of Earl Russell [the British prime minister] I was met by Your Majesty’s consul with every offer of assistance and mark of attention. Lyon, Avignon, Marse[i]lle, all were new to me and my attention was constantly occupied. This appears to be a warm snug little place although the residents are complaining of its being unusually cold at present… Allow me to say with how much gratitude and affection I shall always cherish the remembrance of you and yours…

And so their letters continued, exchanging gifts and news of their families. The last letter we know Emma sent to Victoria was on 9th April 1882, after Roderick Maclean had tried to shoot the British monarch. (“How shall I express my horror and grief over the narrow escape Your Majesty’s valuable life had met at the hands of an insane person,” Emma wrote, and Victoria’s grateful reply has also survived.) In the end, Victoria would outlive Emma by almost 16 years; the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893, and in 1898 the fledgling republic was annexed by the United States, although it only officially became the 50th state in 1959.


My source for this correspondence is Rhoda E.A. Hackler’s 1988 article in the Hawaiian Journal of History, ‘“My Dear Friend”: Letters of Queen Victoria and Queen Emma’. My other source, as for last week, is Alfons L. Korn’s The Victorian Visitors: An Account of the Hawaiian Kingdom, 1861–1866 (University of Hawaii Press, 1958).