In 1840, as the ship carrying the missionaries’ offspring pulled away from the dock, a distraught seven-year-old, Caroline Armstrong, looking at her father on the shore, the distance between them widening every moment … “Oh, father, dear father, do take me back!” (Judd)
Her plea echoed in the hearts of the community. In June of that year the mission voted to establish a school for the missionary children at Punahou. (Emanuel)
Let’s look back …
Over the course of a little over 40-years (1820-1863 – the “Missionary Period,”) about 180-men and women in twelve Companies served in Hawaiʻi to carry out the mission of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in the Hawaiian Islands.
The Prudential Committee of the ABCFM in giving instructions to the pioneers of 1819 said: “Your mission is a mission of mercy, and your work is to be wholly a labor of love. … Your views are not to be limited to a low, narrow scale, but you are to open your hearts wide, and set your marks high.”
“You are to aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields, and pleasant dwellings and schools and churches, and of Christian civilization.” (The Friend)
The missionaries were scattered across the Islands, each home was usually in a thickly inhabited village, so that the missionary and his wife could be close to their work among the people.
In the early years, they lived in the traditional hale pili (thatched house) – “our little cottage built chiefly of poles, dried grass and mats, being so peculiarly exposed to fire … consisting only of one room with a little partition and one door.” (Sybil Bingham) The thatched cottages were raised upon a low stone platform. Later, they lived in wood, stone or adobe homes.
The missionary family’s day began at 4 am (… it continued into the night, with no breaks.) The mission children were up then, too; in the early morning, the parents taught their children. “We had one tin whale-oil lamp between us, with a single wick…. Soon after five we had breakfast.” (Bishop)
By 9 am, after accomplishing all domestic duties and schooling of the children, the wives would begin the instruction of the Hawaiian children – and taught them for six solid hours, occasionally running into the house to see that all was straight.
The missionaries established schools associated with their missions across the Islands. This marked the beginning of Hawaiʻi’s phenomenal rise to literacy. The chiefs became proponents for education and edicts were enacted by the King and the council of Chiefs to stimulate the people to reading and writing.
These early missionaries taught their lessons in Hawaiian, rather than English. In part, the mission did not want to create a separate caste and portion of the community as English-speaking Hawaiians. (In later years, the instruction, ultimately, was in English.)
“During the period from infancy to the age of ten or twelve years, children in the almost isolated family of a missionary could be well provided for and instructed in the rudiments of education without a regular school … But after that period, difficulties in most cases multiplied.” (Hiram Bingham)
Missionaries were torn between preaching the gospel and teaching their kids. “(M)ission parents were busy translating, preaching and teaching. Usually parents only had a couple of hours each day to spare with their children.” (Schultz)
From 1826, until Punahou School opened in 1842, young missionary parents began to make a decision seemingly at odds with the idealizing of the family so prevalent in the 19th century; they weighed the possibility of sending their children back to New England. The trauma mostly affected families of the first two companies, and involved 19 out of 250 Mission children. (Zwiep)
“(I)t was the general opinion of the missionaries there that their children over eight or ten years of age, notwithstanding the trial that might be involved, ought to be sent or carried to the United States, if there were friends who would assume a proper guardianship over them”. (Bingham)
“Owing to the then lack of advanced schools in Hawaii, the earlier mission children were all ‘sent home’ around Cape Horn, to ‘be educated.’ This was the darkest day in the life history of the mission child.” (Bishop)
“Peculiarly dependent upon the family life, at the age of eight to twelve years, they were suddenly torn from the only intimates they had ever known, and banished, lonely and homesick, to a mythical country on the other side of the world …”
“… where they could receive letters but once or twice a year; where they must remain isolated from friends and relatives for years and from which they might never return.” (Bishop)
The parents in the first company demonstrate the range of options available: going home with all the children (as did the Chamberlains and Loomises;) keeping all the children to be educated by the mother (the Thurstons’ choice;) or sending some or all of the children home, not knowing when or if they would be reunited (the course taken by the Binghams, Ruggleses and Whitneys.)
In 1829, Sophia Bingham was sent back to the continent. “It was a sad, sad day when our Sophia left us. She stood at the rail clutching her only toy, a wooden doll made for her by her father. Our hearts said farewell beloved child!” (Sybil Bingham; Punahou)
Mail was so slow that her mother Sybil waited a year and a half for her first letter from Sophia. “This poor, waiting, anxious heart,” she confessed, “has been made so glad by your long, crowded pages, that it would not be easy to tell you all its joy.” (Zwiep)
On July 11, 1842, fifteen children met for the first time in Punahou’s original E-shaped building. The first Board of Trustees (1841) included Rev. Daniel Dole, Rev. Richard Armstrong, Levi Chamberlain, Rev. John S Emerson and Gerrit P Judd. (Hawaiian Gazette, June 17, 1916)
By the end of that first year, 34-children from Sandwich Islands and Oregon missions were enrolled, only one over 12-years old. Tuition was $12 per term, and the school year covered three terms. (Punahou)
By 1851, Punahou officially opened its doors to all races and religions. (Students from Oregon, California and Tahiti were welcomed from 1841 – 1849.)
December 15 of that year, Old School Hall, “the new spacious school house,” opened officially to receive its first students. The building is still there and in use by the school.
Sophia Bingham, the first white girl born on Oʻahu (November 9, 1820,) is my great great grandmother. The image shows Sophia.