The Last Grand Hawaiian Royal Wedding

Prince William and Kate Middleton will soon become the most celebrated couple in modern English history. But the British monarchy isn’t the only royal family to enjoy lavish weddings. Over 150 years ago, Alexander Liholiho wed Emma Kaleleonalani at the grandest event of its kind in Hawaii. Their royal wedding took place on June 19, 1856, at the Westminster Abbey of the Pacific, Kawaiahao Church. Thousands of spectators flocked to see the wedding ceremony of Alex and Emma. Flags topped every pole in Honolulu and every mast in the harbor to celebrate their marriage. Soldiers kneeled in respect as the royal couple walked down a street of fresh flowers toward Kawaiahao Church. Colorful cloaks made from the feathers of tropical birds adorned the men who led the wedding procession. Their bright kahili standards stood tall as the battery of cannons at Punchbowl Crater, situated northeast of the church, fired in salute of the ceremony. Enormous crowds filled Kawaiahao Church. Queen Emma wore a lace bridal veil, a gift from Queen Victoria of England. The handsome Alexander Liholiho, now known as King Kamehameha IV, wore a golden feather cloak reserved for royalty. The Kamehameha I statue in downtown Honolulu, located across from the ‘Iolani Palace, wears a similar cloak.

Later that evening, the palace grounds were illuminated and opened to the public. Over the coming weeks, international communities congratulated the couple with grand balls. The most spectacular ball, given by Hawaii’s Chinese residents, attracted twice as many people as the royal wedding itself!    Western culture increasingly influenced Hawaii’s kingdom during the late 1800s. The reception at the Westminster Abbey of the Pacific, or Kawaiahao Church, seemed appropriate for Alex and Emma, who were Victorian in lifestyle yet quintessentially Hawaiian. Emma, whose British father served as a counselor to Kamehameha I, loved to garden, host dinner parties and drink tea. Alex was a world traveler with foreign relations in England, France and the United States. But the wedding ceremony wasn’t flawless—the groom forgot the ring! A lawyer nearby offered his own ring to the king, and the wedding presumed without a hitch. (Let’s just hope Prince William doesn’t do the same.) The royal wedding was meant to ensure the longevity of the Hawaiian kingdom. However, the couple met with tragedy when their only son, Prince Albert, died at 4 years old. When Kamehameha IV died in 1874, Emma lost a royal election to David Kalakaua. In 1891, after Kalakaua’s death, Queen Liliuokalani ruled until 1893, when the United States aided American missionaries in overthrowing the monarchy. Their goal was political and economic control, especially in lieu of the rapid growth of Hawaii’s highly profitable sugar exports.
Politician Sanford B. Dole wrote he could “hardly do justice to the pomp and splendor of the royal cortege.” He knew it was a sight of simple magnificence that no other royal wedding could match. What Dole didn’t know was the marriage between Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma would become the last grand royal wedding to be celebrated in Hawaii. Without US intervention, the businessmen seeking control of Hawaii would have failed in overthrowing the Hawaiian kingdom. To this day, the royal lineage continues to exist. However, the US has yet to recognize the Hawaiian sovereignty. The ‘Iolani Palace, once a residence for monarchs, is the only royal palace in the US. Discover Hawaii Tours offers tours throughout the Hawaiian Islands. The historic landmarks mentioned in this article can be seen on Oahu tours operated by Discover Hawaii Tours.

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