Hawaiian philanthropist Bernice Pauahi Bishop (1831–1884) established the Kamehameha Schools, which were dedicated to the education of native Hawaiian children. A member of Hawai'i's royal family, Bishop was offered the Hawaiian throne but declined.
Bernice Pauahi Bishop was born Bernice Paki in Honolulu, in what was then the Kingdom of Hawai'i, on December 19, 1831. She was a member of the Hawaiian royal family: her mother, Princess Laura Konia, was the granddaughter of King Kamehameha I (Kamehameha the Great), who unified the Hawaiian island chain under his rule. Her great-grandfather was also an illegitimate son of Kamehameha. She was given the Hawaiian name Pauahi, meaning finished by fire, after her aunt, a widow of King Kamehameha II. The surname Paki came from her father, Abner Paki, a Hawaiian chief from Molokai whose roots also included the chieftain's lineage on the island of Maui.
A Hawaiian child of a noble background such as Bishop had was traditionally adopted and raised by a member of the royal family. Thus, she was transferred to the household of Princess Kinau (soon to become the Hawaiian regent Kuhina-Nui Ka’ahumanu II). In exchange, her birth parents were given Liliuokulani to raise, and this girl would eventually become the last queen of independent Hawai'i. Bishop remained with Princess Kinau until 1839, when the princess died of mumps. She then returned to her parents and was enrolled at the Chiefs’ Children's School, an institution founded by U.S. missionaries Amos and Juliette Cook that worked to educate Hawai'i's hereditary aristocracy in Western religion, literature, and the arts as well as the English language.
Bishop was eight years old when she enrolled at the school, and she completed her education there, doing so well in her literature and music classes that she was allowed to teach music to younger students. She also excelled at sports (horseback riding and swimming) and horticulture, and became a close friend of Juliette Cook. Photographs depicting her as a young woman show a slender beauty with a taste for clothes that would have been considered elegant in both the United States and England.
While at Chiefs’ Children's School, Bishop met Charles Bishop (1822–1915). A U.S. customs official, he arrived in Hawai'i in 1846 and dated Bernice for several years before they married. According to Hawaiian tradition, Bernice had been betrothed to her adoptive brother, Prince Lot Kapuaiwa, and her family opposed her marriage to the American. When Charles and Bernice wed on March 4, 1850, only a few close friends and relatives from the bride's side were present. Fortunately, her family eventually became reconciled to the marriage and contributed to the mansion in which the newly married couple would live.
Bernice Bishop enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle due to her husband's position as a partner in Hawai'i's first bank (still in existence as the First Hawaiian Bank). The couple remained childless, however, and their attempt to adopt a child (the son of Bernice's cousin) in 1862 ended in sadness when the boy died in infancy. Rallying from this tragedy, Bernice began to lay plans for a long-term project that would benefit island children, especially those of the increasingly besieged native Hawaiian culture.
As their civic involvement expanded, the Bishops became central figures in Honolulu's developing social scene. Bernice became involved with religious and charitable organizations, and the couple's home was a frequent stop for visiting international figures. She also retained high status among Hawaiians, helping to bridge Honolulu's Hawaiian and white high society.
Prince Lot was elevated to the Hawaiian throne as King Kamehameha V in 1863. So great did Bishop's influence grow that, as the king lay dying in 1872, he offered to make her Hawai'i's queen. When Bernice demured, he passed rule of Hawai'i to the House of Kalakaua. Although it is likely that Bishop shared the motivations for her refusal in her correspondence, her collected letters were destroyed in 1906, during a major earthquake that struck San Francisco.
In early 1884, Bishop made another voyage, this time alone, to San Francisco, where she underwent surgery for a persistent health problem that may have been breast cancer. She returned to Honolulu in June and died there on October 16, 1884. As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, a funeral sermon by the Rev. J.A. Cruzan alluded to Bishop's unwillingness to accept the Hawaiian crown. “The last and best of the Kamehamehas lies in her last long sleep …,” Reverend Cruzan noted. “Refusing to rule her people, she did … better: She served them and in no way so grandly as by her example.”
Bishop's legacy began with her will and has extended through the present day. As the last surviving member of the House of Kamehameha, she inherited vast tracts of land and owned between nine and eleven percent of the land area of the State of Hawai'i. These holdings—the largest in the island—were assessed at $474,000. As of the mid-1990s, the Bishop Estate was still the largest single tract of land in Hawai'i, although some of it has more recently been broken up by land reform mandated by the Hawai'i State legislature. Early in the 21st century, the Bishop holdings had an estimated value of $6 billion.
As Bishop wrote her will in 1883, she looked out on a Hawaiian population that had been decimated by colonialism: from an estimated 300,000 people only a century earlier, the island's population was by then reduced to about 44,000, about 4,000 of whom were foreign-born. Causes of this decline included the introduction of European diseases, alcoholism, and servitude on the vast sugar and fruit plantations established to exploit the islands’ warm climate.
Bishop viewed education as the key to reversing the decline of her people, and the most important provision of her will was the stipulation that her holdings be used to establish schools for children of native Hawaiian descent. With Charles Bishop as trustee, a Kamehameha School for boys opened in 1887, followed by one for girls in 1893. Today the Kamehameha Schools (formerly Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate) comprise high school campuses on Oahu (in Honolulu), Maui, and the large island of Hawai'i in addition to a system of preschools, enrolling more than 6,000 students in total.
Bishop's legacy also includes the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, which was funded by Charles Bishop, using his own funds rather than those of his wife. Located in Honolulu, the Bishop Museum contains anthropological and natural history collections from the Hawaiian Islands and across the Pacific Ocean. It remains the largest museum in Hawai'i, hosting the world's largest collection of Polynesian natural and cultural items and one of the largest collections of insects in the United States.
Menton, Linda K., and Eileen H. Tamura, A History of Hawai'i, 2nd edition, University of Hawai'i Press, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2012.
Kamehameha Schools website, http://www.ksbe.edu/ (July 21, 2016).
Royal Family of Hawaii website, http://www.keouanui.org/ (July 21, 2016), “Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop.”
The Esoteric Curiosa blog, http://theesotericcuriosa.blogspot.com/ (August, 2010), “A Traveling Kamehameha: Princes Bernice Pauahi Does the Grand Tour of Europe.”❑