story by David Thompson
photo courtesy Lyman Museum
When Bertram Gabriel Bellinghausen, a Roman Catholic brother with the Society of Mary, arrived in Honolulu Harbor in 1883, he stepped off the ship into a world in transition. Telegraph cables and power lines were going up, and coconut trees were coming down. Hawaiians slept in grass hale (houses) but dressed like Westerners. Sugar plantations were altering the ethnic, ecological and economic face of the Islands. The monarchy was nearing its end.
Bellinghausen’s first order of business was to take the reins of St. Louis College, a boys’ school in downtown Honolulu, the forerunner of today’s St. Louis School in Kaimuki. But it wasn’t long before he mounted an accordion-like camera to a tripod and exposed the glass plate negative inside to light, thereby taking his first photograph in the Islands. He kept taking pictures during his entire twenty-two-year run as St. Louis’ principal. He even displayed his photos to the public in magic lantern shows, charging admission to raise money for the school.
The work Bellinghausen left behind—an estimated one thousand images—offers a rare look at the Kingdom of Hawaii on the threshold of annexation. A small sample is on display at Hilo’s Lyman Museum through October; it focuses on East Hawaii and includes scenes of old Hilo town, Hawaiians in front of their hale, an early plantation camp that could have been lifted from the medieval Japanese countryside and the lake of fire at Kilauea volcano.
The fragile Bellinghausen negatives were discovered at Chaminade University in 1964 by an art teacher who rescued them from the trash. The university donated some to the Hawaii State Archives, and the rest wound up at the Society of Mary’s archives in Ohio. Nobody has counted them all. Nobody has even seen them all. “Every time we print them, we discover something new,” says Albert Lum, professor emeritus of English at Chaminade and curator of Na Pai Kii, the exhibit at the Lyman Museum which runs through October 2009. To date, though, most of the negatives remain unprinted, so the contents are a mystery—or a dissertation waiting to happen.