From Bingham to Wilcox, Telling The Whole Story


Photo Courtesy of Punahou School

At Punahou, the names of buildings are utilized by students and teachers as shorthand for their locations on campus: Mamiya, Alexander, Griffiths, and so on. However, it’s less common to talk about the people those names belong to. Many of the older campus buildings bear the names of missionaries and other settlers, and their stories provide a glimpse into the multi-faceted histories of Hawaii and Punahou itself. 

In her TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests that “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” Punahou School exercises significant control over the stories of people who have played roles in the school’s history and, more broadly, the history of colonialism in Hawaii. The narratives shared on the Punahou website and in environments like Chapel directly influence the perceptions and understandings of students, faculty, and other community members. As illustrated in the following passages, while the perspective shared by Punahou may be one story, it isn’t the only story of these people and their actions.

Bingham Hall – Academy Math – Named for Reverend Hiram and Sybil Bingham

From the Punahou website: “Reverend Hiram and Sybil Bingham arrived aboard the Brig Thaddeus in 1820… [Mr. Bingham] contributed to the development of the written Hawaiian language and is credited with translating several chapters of the Bible. Mr.Bingham’s position as trusted advisor to the King and the chiefs resulted in the gift of the land of Ka Punahou from Boki and Liliha. Kaahumanu is considered responsible for this gift… The Binghams left Hawaii in 1840 before Punahou School became a reality, but their commitment to the ideals of education and their selflessness in support of their mission is still remembered on today’s campus.”

Not included: In addition to bringing Christianity to the islands, Reverend Bingham advocated for capitalist economics and property law, successfully laying the groundwork for the colonization and exploitation of Hawaiian land and its indigenous people. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions recalled Bingham to New England in 1840 for interfering in Hawaiian politics, and subsequently stripped him of his missionary status. 

Dole Hall – Cafeteria – Named for Reverend Daniel and Emily Dole

From the Punahou website: “Reverend Daniel and Emily Dole arrived in Honolulu in 1841 as members of the Ninth Company of Missionaries. Their arrival and Mr. Dole’s acceptance of the position as principal of Punahou School signaled the founding of the long-awaited school… Once school began at Punahou, [Mr. Dole] oversaw the teaching and fieldwork, as well as running the small school… Reverend Dole resigned his position at Punahou in 1855 and moved to Kauai where he ran a church and school.” 

Not included: In 1844, Reverend Dole wrote to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to say that “Evidently, the population must soon change its character….I know that most of my brethren do not like to entertain these views. They do not wish to think of the Hawaiian nation becoming extinct.” He also spoke about the potential for the children of the missionaries to form “the character of [a new] nation.” Writers in Punahou’s student newspapers at the time (the Punahou Gazette and Critic) echoed and built upon Dole’s philosophy, with one young contributor writing “[The natives] are an indolent people, yet not destitute of intellect and might, in time, become an enlightened independent nation, were white men to stand out of the way and wait their snail pace motion in improvements. But the superiority of the Anglo Saxon race in constitution and mind, will in all probability overrun the natives and prove their extinction.” Daniel Dole’s son Sanford Ballard Dole led the Committee of Safety to overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii, becoming the President of the Republic of Hawaii and then the first Governor of the U.S. Territory of Hawaii. 

Montague Hall – Punahou Music School – Named for Juliette Montague Cooke

From the Punahou website: “Mrs. [Juliette Montague] Cooke, wife of Amos Star Cooke, arrived in Honolulu in 1837 and, with her husband, founded the Chiefs’ Children’s School. She was known for her love of music and taught most of the singing classes at the Mission and in the school.” 

Not included: Juliette Montague Cooke was the Matron at the Chiefs’ Children’s School, which is now known as Royal School. Students were isolated from other native Hawaiians whenever possible, and while parents were permitted to visit the school, the youth enrolled there were not allowed to leave. Along with her husband Amos, Cooke punished violations of the rules with slapping, whipping, confinement, or withholding of food. Most of the 16 young Hawaiian royals who attended the Chiefs’ Children’s School under the Cookes’ leadership died by early adulthood, and historical records suggest that none of them were survived by children. 

Thurston P.E. Center – Athletics – Named for Asa Thurston

From the Punahou website: “[Asa Thurston] was ordained with Hiram Bingham I, one of the founders of Punahou, and sailed with him as part of the First Company of missionaries. In addition to building churches and schools and a considerable following, he was one of the first translators of the Bible into the Hawaiian language… Subsequent generations were prominent in the development of Punahou and in the history of Hawaii.” 

Not included: Asa Thurston and Rev. Hiram Bingham worked closely together to spread Christianity in Hawaii. Unlike Bingham, Thurston did not go against the wishes of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions by meddling in politics. Still, the arrival of the missionaries in Hawaii is difficult to decouple from the colonialism and imperialism that rapidly followed – many modern historians draw direct connections between Christian missionary practices and settler-colonial outcomes. Thurston’s wife Lucy wrote happily about the first time he preached to the Hawaiian royalty through an interpreter: “they all knelt before the white man’s God.” 

Wilcox Hall – K-1 Admin & Learning Spaces – Named for George Norton Wilcox

From the Punahou website: “[George Norton Wilcox] came to Punahou at the age of 10, graduating in 1860… He was made a Trustee of Punahou by royal decree in 1882 and held that position until 1901. He was an active public servant, involved in every legislature under the Kingdom and the Republic. Beyond his significant gifts to Punahou to help build the original Bishop and Dillingham Halls, Wilcox contributed to The Salvation Army, the Boys’ and Girls’ Homes of the Salvation Army, Honolulu Military Academy, Mid-Pacific Institute, the YMCA and YWCA, and the Hawaiian Board of Missions.” 

Not included: George Norton Wilcox was a well-known businessman and politician both before and after the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. He was also a member of the Hawaiian League, a secret society with close ties to the group that plotted and successfully executed the takeover of Hawaii. This eventual overthrow of the Hawaiian government was facilitated by a document called the Bayonet Constitution, which drastically weakened the monarchy and linked the right to vote with property ownership, shifting power from indigenous Hawaiians towards white colonists. George Norton Wilcox was among the group that wrote the Bayonet Constitution, along with Sanford B. Dole (son of Daniel Dole) and Lorrin Thurston (grandson of Asa Thurston).

The Aims of a Punahou Education include “develop[ing] within each Punahou student the capacity for critical and creative thought.” Punahou students are encouraged to evaluate the purposes and meanings of everything from mathematical calculations to Shakespearean poems. In history courses, students analyze the source, credibility, and potential bias of documents and histories using tools like graphic organizers and mnemonic devices.

Adichie offers a simpler framework for understanding the power of stories and histories in The Danger of a Single Story: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.” As for how the many stories in this article will be used in the future, and what role the Punahou community might play in shaping a more holistic narrative, only time will tell.

Our own story is still unfolding.