A Royal Visit to Wellesley

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on October 30, 2014.


Queen Kapi‘olani (right) and Princess Lili‘uokalani at the Golden Jubilee in 1887
Source: Hawaii State Archives

Three weeks ago, an intriguing article was published in Wellesley College’s newspaper, The Wellesley News. Several members of the College community apparently had tried (unsuccessfully) to locate a tree that had been planted on campus by Queen Kapi‘olani of the Hawaiian Islands during her visit to the College in 1887.

The article was well written, but it left you craving more information about her visit to Wellesley. After all, it isn’t every day that a monarch comes to town.

Though ‘flying visit’ is probably a more accurate description. Indeed, Kapi‘olani’s time here lasted no more than a few hours, a mere blip on her voyage from the Hawaiian Islands to England, where she would take part in the Golden Jubilee celebrations that marked Queen Victoria’s 50-year-long reign over the British Empire.

Nine days earlier, Kapi‘olani had arrived in the United States (in San Francisco) along with her sister-in-law and heir apparent to the Hawaiian throne, Princess Lili‘uokalani, as well as several dignitaries and attendants. The royal party then traveled by train to Washington, D.C. before heading to Boston, the ancestral home of the princess’s American husband.

But why come to Wellesley? Well, it appears that the College had invited the queen after hearing of her desire to visit an institution for the education of women — an issue she long supported in Hawaii.

Kapi‘olani and her party arrived at the Wellesley Square railroad station the morning of May 11th. Horse-drawn carriages would then take them along Washington Street to the College’s main entrance at East Lodge (opposite Upland Road).

This short trip through the heart of Wellesley was an event for the ages within this small farming community. Even the children from Hunnewell School (then located on Central Street) gathered near the square to watch the queen pass by.

Once at College Hall — with its porte-cochère decorated in Hawaiian colors — she was greeted by College President Alice Freeman and Pauline Durant, the widow of the College’s founder, as well as the entire student body. They all then assembled within College Hall’s chapel where several addresses were given, including those by Kapi‘olani (entirely in Hawaiian, this being her first trip off the islands) and Lili‘uokalani (in English).

Then it was time for the ceremonial tree planting. The reasoning behind this event is not entirely clear, but the speeches given at the ceremony indicate it was intended as a metaphysical way to remember this day. A tree — with its leaves able to absorb the air molecules that were in the presence of the queen — could permanently capture the royal visit within its tissues.

So where exactly was the tree — a sycamore to be precise — planted? Unfortunately, further research into its location beyond the note of “between the College of Music [now the Schneider College Center] and the avenue” that inspired the recent Wellesley News article yields only the reference “in front of [the original] Stone Hall.” Given the 1899 construction of Houghton Chapel, as well as the vast number of trees in this area, the sycamore’s location might forever remain a mystery.

And that was basically it for Kapi‘olani’s visit to Wellesley. After a brief stop back at College Hall — where she was able to stand on the south porch and look out over Lake Waban — the queen left Wellesley (by train) for lunch in Newton and a tour of a watch factory in Waltham prior to attending a gala at the Governor’s mansion in Back Bay. A few days later, she arrived in New York where she would set sail for England.

The epilogue to this story, unfortunately, is not as festive. As Kapi‘olani was returning home from the Golden Jubilee, a revolution took place in Hawaii: armed men had forced her husband, King Kalākaua, to adopt a new constitution that significantly weakened the monarchy and put more power in the hands of non-native landowners.

This was the first in a series of events over the next decade that culminated in a coup d’état by a group of American and European elites and the ousting of Queen Lili‘uokalani, who had ascended to the throne following Kalākaua’s death. The United States would soon thereafter annex the islands and establish the territory that would obtain statehood in 1959.

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