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Two Extremes in Hawaii’s History

Two of the most prominent figures in Hawaii’s history were related — Bernice Pauahi Paki Bishop was the great-granddaughter of Kamehameha I, the warrior chief who united all the islands of Hawaii under his rule in 1810, thereby creating the Hawaiian monarchy.

Kamehameha the Great of the Big Island made his mark by conquering each of the other major islands’ leadership – with more than a little help from British and American traders who sold him guns and ammunition and trained his men in their use.

Princess Pauahi Paki was born in 1831 and educated by American Protestant missionaries. She met and married a young American named Charles Reed Bishop, whose surname is found throughout the islands on roads, schools, the famous museum, and the facades of leading businesses and institutions. Widely respected in his own time, he was a widely successful businessman who through banking, real estate, and other investments, became one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom. Because the name is so prevalent in the islands, many assume it relates somehow to the missionaries. Nope.

At the time of Pauahi’s birth, Hawaii’s native population was about 124,000. When she wrote her will in 1883, only 44,000 Hawaiians remained.

Pauahi witnessed – and deplored — the steady physical and spiritual demise of Native Hawaiians. Foreign influences that had been introduced with Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaii in 1778 had weakened the traditional order of Hawaiian life and culture. Diseases to which Hawaiians had no immunity caused tens of thousands of natives to die in epidemics.

Pauahi Bishop was certain that a lack of education helped bring that decrease about. She hoped there would come a turning point – a time when, through enlightenment, the adoption of regular habits and Christian ways of living, the natives would not only hold their own in numbers, but would increase again like the people of other races. Remember, she not only was married to enormous wealth, she also was the heir to most of the lands of high-ranking Kamehameha chiefs. She said she “felt responsible and accountable” for having so much.

She was determined to establish an institution bearing the name Kamehameha, and a hospital and schools for boys and girls. The schools’ enrollment would not be restricted to boys and girls of pure or part aboriginal blood, but that class “should have preference.” In her will, she left her estate, about nine percent of the total acreage of the Hawaiian kingdom, to found the Kamehameha Schools.

After Pauahi’s death, Charles Bishop, as president of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate’s Board of Trustees, ensured that his wife’s wish was fulfilled. He provided his own funds for the construction of facilities and added some of his own properties to her estate. Until his death in 1915, he continued to guide her trustees in directions that reinforced her vision of a perpetual educational institution that would assist Native Hawaiians to become “good and industrious men and women.”

Pauahi’s original endowment has grown to become one of the most important trusts for Hawaiian people. Today, her estate encompasses nearly 365,800 acres of land in Hawaii which, combined with other assets, are valued at more than $6 billion. The revenue generated by these assets fund Kamehameha Schools’ educational programs and services for thousands of students statewide. Her endowment supports the largest independent pre-kindergarten through grade 12 school in the United States.

It’s ironic that those two relatives – Kamehameha and Pauahi — made their marks in entirely different ways. One gained stature and position through the spilled blood of his countrymen; the other earned adoration through her benevolence and compassion.

Hawaii’s history is complex and fascinating in spite of the simplicity of her culture. If you’d like to delve a little, The Bishop Museum on Oahu is the ideal place to start. Plan on spending at least a day.

Posted by: Jamie Winpenny on Nov 17, 2008