She was a Hawaiian princess. She could have been Queen – twice. Apparently that is not what she wanted. She was the great-granddaughter of King Kamehameha, his last surviving descendant.
She was well educated, and lived and dressed as any proper Victorian young lady. A haole eight years her senior fell in love with her when she was sixteen and he wooed her for two years.
She had been promised from a young age in marriage to the man who was to become King Kamehameha V. But she wanted to marry for love. Her betrothed gallantly allowed her out of the agreement, and she married her love over the objections of her parents at the age of 18.
Many years later, when King Kamehameha V was dying, he offered her the throne because she was the last descendant in the Kamehameha line. A second time she could have become Queen, but she turned it down again. That resulted in the throne moving to another Ali’i family, that of David Kalākaua (see Art History 101; Sad History 201 posted February 25, 2013).
When she died at age 52 of breast cancer, she was one of the richest people in Hawai’i with respect to land. She was Bernice Pauahi Bishop (1931-1884), wife of Charles Reed Bishop. They had no children.
After her death, her vast holdings went into a trust. She wanted her legacy to be one of service to Hawaiians. Today the Bishop Trust is the largest landowner in Hawai’i, holding about 9% of the state. Her legacy includes the funding for Kamehameha Schools for native Hawaiians. Princess Bernice’s will directed that her estate be used “to erect and maintain in the Hawaiian Islands two schools…one for boys and one girls, to be known as, and called the Kamehameha Schools.” These schools continue to this day, educating native Hawaiians.
The boys’ school was built on the grounds of what is now the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, State Museum of Culture and Natural History. Charles built the museum to honor his wife of 34 years, starting in 1889.
Bishop’s Museum is the place to go if one wants to investigate the history of Hawaii. It has photos, diaries, maps, oral histories, and papers that researchers can review, and much of this content is on-line: anyone can access it. I knew about the historical documents. What I didn’t know is that the Bishop’s Museum also houses a planetarium, a garden, a science discovery center and so much more.
What they have on display would take the average person weeks to peruse. We had less than two hours.
We started our “tour” with the bookstore before we even got into the grounds. It had a wide variety of books about Hawaii, including birds, gardening, history, culture, crafts, cookbooks (two on Spam®!), and fiction. Beyond books, the store also had beautiful shaker gourds, art prints, posters, dresses, Hawaiian toys and books for children, and more.
Once inside the grounds, we saw an exhibit of giant bugs. It was hard to miss. They were all animated – I guess they don’t worry about electronics out in the weather. I took a few pictures while we were waiting for our docent to round up her guests. I found out later that the Bishop Museum has the third largest entomological collection in the US at 13.5 million bugs.
A handsome Hawaiian Bishop administrator joined us briefly, sang a greeting chant, then sent us on our way with our docent. She was a retired college professor of biology, who spent every Sunday here helping people understand what they saw. She took us to the main building, the Hawaiian Hall. It houses the world’s largest collection of artifacts related to Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures. At the time it was built (1898), Hawai’i did not have anyone skilled in stone masonry. So Bishop brought in Portuguese stone masons to work with the basalt rock used for the building.
Hawai’i also did not have the infrastructure to create the Koa woodwork laid throughout the building. Bishop had the wood harvested on the Big Island and Maui, shipped to Minnesota for milling, and then shipped back to Oahu for installation. The docent said that the koa woodwork alone is now worth more than the whole original building.
One of the many unique specimens that the museum houses is one of only three historic carvings of the god Kū, the protector and provider. The other two are in British and mainland museums. Kū is an example of a ki’i, or God image, mangled to today’s English word, tiki. Kū is one of four ancient gods described in the Hawaiian Hall: Kanaloa, the ocean god, Kane, the life giver, Lono, god of peace, and Kū, god of war and politics. These four are only a few of the 40,000 gods that governed every aspect of Hawaiian life and death.
Specimens of the royal capes made from bird feathers caught everyone’s attention. The birds and feathers were small – I wonder how many birds these capes represented. The docent told us the story of how the Hawaiians used a sticky substance on tree branches to capture the birds. Once a few feathers were removed, the captors cleaned the birds’ feet and they were released. Interestingly, this story was also shared at a Talk Story event I recently attended. In that telling, these birds became extinct because the Chinese immigrants who arrived to work the plantations used the method to capture the birds for food.
The three-story central portion of this hall also contained a double-hulled canoe and the skeleton of a sperm whale hung from the ceiling. When the tour was over, I decided to go out to the garden and listen to a talk on plants important to the early Polynesian settlers. They came in their double-hulled canoes, loaded with everything they might need for a long voyage with plans to populate new islands.
Our docent from the earlier tour did this talk as well. She described some of the 40 cultivars that the early Hawaiians brought. Number one on her list was ti. Ti leaves are used to make lei, skirts for hula, sandals (huge), and raincoats. They also wrap food for cooking, such as laulau, and the pig for luau (see Experience a luau at least once).
Second on her list was the paper mulberry tree that Hawaiians used to make kapa cloth by beating the bark. We also had the chance to sample candlenuts, the nut of the kukui tree (number 3). These nuts were so oily, that people could skewer them and light them like candles. The nuts also have laxative properties; unfortunately she told us after we had sampled them.
Ulu, or breadfruit, was number four on her list. The travelers only brought one variety of ulu, from among the many that were available. Because the trees from this one variety bore fruit at the same time, the early people could not count on having breadfruit year-round. This is how taro came to be the main carbohydrate in the Hawaiian diet.
I didn’t get to hear the rest of the story, as it was time to go. I never made it to the Bishop planetarium, the science center, the actual garden, or the traveling exhibits. This is one museum that deserves more time. I’d also like to have more time to get to know Bernice Bishop, an extraordinary woman. I need to come back to Honolulu with the whole family. Even BG would like to come someday, to take the girls to Pearl Harbor. Maybe soon.
For more essays on Honolulu and things to see there, see:
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