Bernice Pauahi Bishop was a Hawaiian princess, the last direct descendant of the Royal House of Kamehameha. With her husband, Charles Reed Bishop, she is remembered as one of the most remarkable philanthropists in the history of the Islands. Her bequest endowed the Kamehameha Schools, which to this day specialize in educating the children of native Hawaiians. After her death, Charles Bishop spent many years bringing her vision to fruition.
Pauahi was born in December 1831, the great-granddaughter of King Kamehameha the Great, conqueror and unifier of the Hawaiian Islands. In her earliest years, she was raised as an aliʻi (noble), steeped in native traditions. At the age of seven, however, she was sent to the Royal School. Run by a pair of married Protestant missionaries, the school was committed to providing the children with the finest possible course of Western education. “Miss Bernice” quickly became a star pupil, excelling in both academics and etiquette, and a devout Christian. She was often compared favorably to her spoiled, misbehaving aliʻi classmates—including Prince Lot Kapuaiwa, the future King Kamehameha V.
In 1846, Charles Reed Bishop arrived in Hawaii. The 24-year-old clerk had sailed from New York en route to Oregon; after rough passage through Cape Horn, the ship put in at Honolulu for provisions. Bishop decided to wait out the winter in the Islands. He found work with local Yankee merchants, soon becoming a clerk at the U.S. consulate. He met Pauahi and soon began regularly calling on her at the Royal School. Though her family firmly reminded her of her obligation to marry Hawaiian royalty, Pauahi resisted. In June 1850, in a small ceremony which her parents refused to attend, Pauahi became Bernice P. Bishop.
Bishop reconciled with her family within a year, and by 1857 had inherited from them an estate totaling 16,011 acres. With it came a wide range of responsibilities. Throughout her mid-20s, Bishop served as a traditional Hawaiian philanthropist, offering guidance, support, and assistance to those who approached her. She spent many working hours in her garden, seated under a tamarind tree, taking visits from fellow islanders and working through their problems in her native Hawaiian tongue.
At the same time, Bernice was ever more involved in American forms of civic engagement. She was a leader in several charitable organizations, including the Stranger’s Friend Society, which aided sick travelers, and the Women’s Sewing Society, which provided clothing for the poor. An accomplished contralto singer and pianist, she conducted performances of the works of Haydn and Verdi with the Amateur Musical Society, and gave music lessons at the Royal School. A devout Protestant, Bishop regularly taught Sunday school at Kawaiahaʻo Church.
Charles Bishop, meanwhile, found mounting success as a businessman, opening a bank that profited from the booming sugar trade. (It would eventually become First Hawaiian Bank, which remains the oldest and largest bank in the state, with assets totaling $16 billion and branches in Guam and Saipan.) Before the islands were annexed, he held a series of public offices, even serving as minister of foreign affairs from 1873 to 1874. With her royal lineage and his growing fortune, the Bishops were the social leaders of Honolulu, hosting visiting dignitaries, including ambassadors and royalty.
In 1872, Bernice was summoned to the deathbed of King Kamehameha V, where he named her successor to the throne. Bishop refused, simply saying, “Do not think of me.” Rather than assume the crown, she spent the next decade traveling the world, hosted by the royal and noble visitors who had enjoyed her hospitality on Oahu. In 1883, Ruth Keʻelikolani—royal governess of the Islands—passed away, leaving nearly 353,000 acres to her cousin Bernice. Bernice was instantly the largest landowner in the Islands, in personal possession of about 9 percent of the Hawaiian landmass.
With their newfound wealth, the Bishops decided to write their wills. Bernice made individual provisions for a number of charities, friends, and servants. The great bulk of her estate—some 378,569 acres of land—was to be held in trust, for the purpose of opening “two schools, each for boarding and day scholars, one for boys and one for girls, to be known as, and called the Kamehameha Schools.” Her will further stipulated that the schools give preference to “Hawaiians of pure or part aboriginal blood,” providing them with an English-language education and inculcating strict Protestant morality. It was an ambitious project, unprecedented in Hawaiian history. In a letter written years later, Charles noted that his wife “no doubt had given more thought to the matter than I had.”
It was fortunate that the Bishops wrote their wills when they did. Bernice was diagnosed with breast cancer within a year. She died in October 1884.
The future of the schools was left to five trustees, including her husband. An accomplished philanthropist in his own right, Charles Bishop had already helped found the Hawaiian Historical Society, the Honolulu Public Library, and dozens of kindergartens throughout the Islands. (In 1889, he founded the Bishop Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of Polynesian cultural artifacts.) To launch the Kamehameha schools, Bishop drew on his previous service on the board of the Punahou School, where he funded the construction of Pauahi Hall, Charles Reed Bishop Hall, and the Bishop Hall of Science.
In November 1887, 39 students formed the first class at the boys’ school; in 1894, 35 students filled out the first class at the girls’ school. Today the schools have campuses on Oahu, Hawaii, and Maui, educating nearly 7,000 children annually. Thus do Charles and Bernice Pauahi Bishop, childless themselves, rank among the greatest patrons of Hawaii’s children.
~ Mithun Selvaratnam