John Papa ʻĪʻī, one of the leading citizens of the Hawaiian kingdom during the nineteenth century, was born at Waipi‘o, Oahu, on August 3, 1800.
At the age of ten John was brought to Honolulu and became an attendant of Kamehameha I and later became a companion and personal attendant to Liholiho (later King Kamehameha II.)
Upon the arrival of the missionaries in Hawai‘i in 1820, John ʻĪʻī was among the first Hawaiians to study reading and writing with the missionaries, studying under the Reverend Hiram Bingham.
As time passed, John ʻĪʻī divided his time between the ruling Kamehamehas and the missionaries, particularly Reverend Bingham. John soon became an assistant to Bingham and a teacher at the latter’s school.
Ultimately, John ʻĪʻī served Kamehameha I, II, III and IV. He also was selected to be kahu of the students (effectively a vice principal) at the Chiefs’ Children’s School in 1840 (effectively serving the next generations of the Kamehameha dynasty.)
By 1841, John ʻĪʻī was general superintendent of O‘ahu schools and was an influential member of the court of Kamehameha III.
In 1842, he was appointed by the king to be a member of the new Treasury Board. This Board was empowered to set up a system of regular and systematic account keeping.
In 1845, as a member of the Privy Council, he was appointed with four other men to the Board of Land Commissioners.
In 1852, as a member of the House of Nobles, he was selected to represent that body in drafting the Constitution of 1852.
John ʻĪʻī’s service in the House of Nobles was from 1841 to 1854 and from 1858 to 1868. He served as a member of the House of Representatives during the session of 1855.
He lived in an old fashioned cottage where the Judiciary building now stands. His home was named “Mililani,” which means exalted or lifted heavenward.
In addition to his duties in the two legislative houses of the kingdom and his service on various governmental commissions, John ʻĪʻī served as a Superior Court judge, as well as on the Supreme Court.
His lifetime spanned many years of the Kamehameha Dynasty, beginning with the autocratic rule of Kamehameha I, extending through the transition period of rule by king and chiefs and continuing into the rule by constitutional monarchy.
He was raised under the kapu system and his life ended with him in service of the Christian ministry.
Mary A. Richards in her “Chiefs’ Childrens’ School” says, “Through the perspective of a century, John ʻĪʻī stands as one of the most remarkable Hawaiians of his time.”
The Reverend Richard Armstrong had this to say about him, “John ʻĪʻī, a man of high intelligence, sterling integrity and great moral worth.”
At nearly seventy years of age, after a life devoted to the furtherance and development of Christianity in Hawai‘i and the development of a democratic form of government, John ʻĪʻī died in May 1870.
ʻĪʻī received training at Lahainaluna Seminary, where the Rev. Sheldon Dibble and others encouraged Native Hawaiians to record their history.
With rare insight into the workings of the monarchy as well as the common people, ʻĪʻī did just that, contributing regularly to the Hawaiian language publication Ka Nupepa Ku‘oko‘a from 1866 until his death in 1870.
The articles – first-hand accounts of life under the Kamehameha dynasty and detailed descriptions and observations on cultural practices, events, social interactions and other topics – were collected and translated by Mary Kawena Pukui and Dorothy Barre in the 1959 publication “Fragments of Hawaiian History,” a standard resource for historians and students. (I have a copy and often refer to this book for information.)
Here’s a link to a YouTube video of a Mission Houses Oʻahu Cemetery Theatre portrayal of John Papa I’i (1800-1870) (portrayed by William Hao:)