Cradle of Gold
The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu
By Christopher Heaney
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Christopher Heaney
All rights reserved.
The Black Temple
Many years later, when he hefted an Inca war club for the very first time, Hiram Bingham remembered his childhood and perhaps the familial piety that loomed over it all.
In 1819, his grandfather, Hiram Bingham I, left his parents' Vermont farm, sailed around the horn of South America, and made landfall in the Sandwich Islands, as Anglos then called Hawaii. He was twenty-nine years old, tall, and darkly handsome. His name suggested potency, monuments, and service: a Biblical figure named Hiram had helped King Solomon build his temple. By his side was his wife, Sybil, a willowy, sensitive, blue-eyed schoolteacher. They had married only two weeks before leaving. Sybil would bear seven children, five of whom survived infancy.
With each child, Sybil's health grew ever more fragile, but Hiram's energies proved volcanic. He was a fierce Protestant missionary who believed his ship plowed the same waves as the Mayflower. But where the Pilgrims sought religious freedom, Bingham and his brethren sought conversion of the "heathen." They burned to bring native Hawaiians "the great salvation of Jesus Christ."
Their timing was perfect. King Kamehameha I, who had united the islands and protected the old gods, died four months before the missionaries' arrival. His wife, Ka'ahumanu, the wealthiest woman in the islands, was in charge now, and she saw a political advantage in converting to Christianity. Before Bingham met with her, he visited an enormous, toppled temple of black lava stone named Pu'ukohola heiau, whose cornerstone had been laid by Kamehameha himself. Bingham walked its ruins with gratitude and hope.
Over the next twenty years, the Binghams and their fellow missionaries converted the royal family and preached to their people. They encouraged European dress and tamped down native culture and "immoral" customs like the hula dance. Bingham designed the great religious symbol of the new regime. Its name was Kawaiaha'o, and it was Hawaii's largest building, a church built of 14,000 thick slabs of white coral, quarried underwater by King Kamehameha III's subjects.
Bingham would never see his "new Solomon's Temple" finished, however. In 1840, two years before the great white church was dedicated, Sybil's health failed and the family returned to New England, where she eventually died. Bingham remarried, but the missionary board wouldn't let the domineering Vermonter go back to the islands. His piety had become a liability. While there, he had preached against the foreign merchants and sailors who had encouraged the islands' trade in alcohol and prostitution. It wasn't just Protestant prudishness; Bingham wanted the royalty to maintain their political independence. Nevertheless, his efforts won him no friends among other foreigners, and he and his fellow missionaries suffered bombardment and lynch mobs. His critics accused him of manipulating the royalty and called him King Bingham—a reputation that lasted into the twentieth century, when he served as the model for the chilly, arrogant missionary in James Michener's novel Hawaii.
He died in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1869, but by then his legacy had passed on to the next generation. His son, Hiram Bingham Jr., married a woman named Clara Brewster, who traced her lineage back to Mayflower passenger William Brewster. Clara was full of an "inborn love of neatness and order," and she accompanied Hiram Jr. to a remote group of islands in the South Pacific called the Gilberts. Hiram Jr.'s Christianity was as gentle as his father's was fierce, however, and their arrival in the Gilberts was as hard as his father's arrival in Hawaii was easy. Two months into their stay, Clara gave birth to a stillborn boy. Hiram Jr. buried the baby, but the Gilbertese people found the grave and spread his remains across the sand. The Gilbertese saw little advantage in Christianity and wanted to make their dislike for the missionaries known. In their first seven years Hiram and Clara converted a meager four souls.
After seventeen years of struggle, they got a second chance at familial happiness. Clara was pregnant again, and although they were finally building a congregation, she decided to leave the Gilberts. Hiram Jr. was deathly ill with dysentery, and she knew that neither her husband nor baby would survive on a dry coral island. With the help of some native friends, she flagged down a passing ship and talked their way aboard even though it was going to Samoa. From there they sailed to Fiji, and from there to New Zealand, going ever farther from home. Finally, when Clara was eight months pregnant, she got them on a ship headed back to Hawaii. They arrived in Honolulu in early November, and Clara helped her husband take refuge in his sister's school, nestled in the shadow of the great white Kawaiaha'o church.
Clara's contractions began six days later, and at 3:15 in the morning of November 16, 1875, she remembered, "my heart was filled with wonderful love and joy at hearing the cries of my precious darling child, a fine baby boy. Everything went well—except I had too little milk for my darling—which almost broke my heart." At ten the next morning, Hiram Jr. came in to see their son, Hiram Bingham III, who had already traveled further while in the womb than most Americans would their whole lives.
For mainland American children in the nineteenth century, Hawaii was a far-off island paradise warmed by tropical breezes, filled with fabulous fruits and foreign peoples. For young Hiram Bingham III, or Hi, it was a colorful prison.
After Hi was born, the missionary community rallied around his parents, who had little save their piety and a meager stipend. When the family could not afford a home, the missionaries built them a large one in walking distance of Punahou, the school founded on land given to Hiram Bingham I by the Hawaiian royalty. The house was the religious retreat his parents needed—their life's work would be translating the Bible into Gilbertese—but for an only child, it was a cold, lonely place. There was little division between home and church. The Sabbath began Saturday evening and continued with five separate services on Sunday. Hi lived like a tropical monk, "shoved off into a sort of closet space under the slope of the roof on the second floor" where he slept under a thin mosquito netting that hung from the timbers only a few inches above. Playing cards were considered diabolic, and chess and backgammon were nearly as dangerous. His father kept a short, hard stick at hand for discipline.
When young tow-headed Hi wasn't being chided for not living up to his grandfather's standards at home, he was teased for them everywhere else. His father's playmates had gone into business rather than follow their parents into the church. White Americans had bought up much of the islands, shifting control away from the native royalty and disenfranchising poor Hawaiians and Asians. It was all that conversion to Christianity was supposed to prevent, and the missionaries' influence had all but disappeared. When Hi introduced himself at Punahou as "Hiram T'ird," his classmates jeered.
Despite his curiosity and natural intelligence, Hi would always "[struggle] with a sense of inadequacy," one of his sons later wrote. Hi was small for his age and picked on by bullies. For comfort, he escaped into books and his imagination. At first his parents only allowed illustrated Bibles and a green scrapbook containing morality tales for children, a missionary hymn written by his grandfather, and almost oracular engravings clipped from the newspaper—Roman ruins, the German geographer Mercator, an Andean condor. When he grew older, however, he hid in Honolulu's library, an island on an island, where he could read everything he wanted. He loved Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as much for its portrayal of America as for its story of escape. In 1887, Hi visited the United States, his "homeland," for the first time. He and his father spent the summer in California, where Hi thrilled at Gilded Age San Francisco. Brass, gold, ferries, and cable cars clanged in Hi's chest, affecting him so deeply that after returning to Hawaii, he used the money his parents had saved for his theological education to buy a steamship ticket back to the States. His father caught him at the docks before he could run away, but Hiram's sad betrayal devastated the family. "It is dreadful to think that such a boy has so deceived his parents," wrote a family friend. "I believe he got the fancy from books he has read."
The family friend was right. There was something growing in Hiram that thirsted for lands less holy than Hawaii. Following his failed escape attempt, his penitent parents gave him more freedom. Hi started to hike in the mountains of Oahu with his natural history teacher, who taught him "the joys of living out-of-doors and of exploring" and how to collect zoological, biological, and antiquarian specimens for the school's small museum. Under his wing, Hi might have learned that his family's belief in a 6,000-year-old biblical world now conflicted with scientific theories of evolution and geology. Christianity no longer had a monopoly on the truth.
When Hi was almost sixteen, the family returned to the United States. While his parents oversaw the publication of his father's Gilbertese Bible in New York, Hi boarded a train for Massachusetts. He enrolled in Phillips Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Andover, hoping to follow in his father's footsteps to Yale University. Andover was cruel to a boy rich in spirit, intellect, and travel, but desperately poor where it counted most. The other students made fun of his clothes, made cheaply by a Chinese tailor in Honolulu. To pay for his room and board he worked five hours a day in the dining halls. His dorm room went unheated until his father sent money for a stove that raised the room's temperature to a balmy 53 degrees in January.
The experience gave him a lifelong distaste for poverty, but it also gave him focus. A taller, more mature Hiram met his parents in the summer of 1893 at the epoch-making Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Staged in honor of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World four hundred years before, the Chicago World's Fair made a fittingly deep impression on young Hiram. One wonders what a boy raised by Hawaiian missionaries thought of the "White City" and its illuminated, alabaster-stucco classical architecture; what he thought of the displays of Arab alleyways and "savage" villages; and whether he was in the audience when Frederick Jackson Turner declared that because the Western frontier had been closed, American energy would need "a wider field for its exercise"—a trend that the Bingham family had observed in Hawaii for years.
So much had changed since his parents and grandparents devoted themselves to saving the "heathens" of the Pacific. Science and racial theories, not religion, ruled the day. Darwin's theory of evolution had been applied to society, and with the near-total confinement of Native Americans to reservations, white America was eager, if regretful, to prematurely declare the passage of indigenous America from the national stage. (Fortunately, reports of the American Indian's demise were much exaggerated.) Industry, not agrarianism, was changing the country. Dollars and adventurism, not democracy, were shaping American ambitions abroad. That January, American troops had landed in Honolulu to help American businessmen shore up a mostly white revolt against Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani and her people. Although President Grover Cleveland denounced the intervention, Hawaii was looking increasingly like America's first overseas imperial possession. Hi's grandfather had designed the great white church at Kawaiaha'o to replace the Hawaiians' black lava temples, but Anglo Hawaiians now believed that the temples' true successors were the white columns and facades like those of the fair's secular temples, alluding to European civilizations of the past and American empires of the future.
Hi entered Yale the following fall, but first he completed a sacred, filial task. Sybil Bingham, his grandmother, was buried in Massachusetts. Hiram I, who had died two decades later, was buried in New Haven, in his second wife's plot. Hiram Jr. charged Hi with exhuming his grandmother's bones, transporting them to New Haven, and reburying them alongside her husband.
Four days before starting his freshman year at Yale, Hi and a hired laborer spent a September afternoon digging through the sandy soil of her grave. Three feet down they found her. There was no trace of the box that once protected her from the dirt, save "two old fashioned brass handles."
"The bones were all together," Hi wrote his father. "The skull, leg bones and ribs were all within a few inches of each other. We looked very carefully for traces of a box but found none.... The gravedigger searched very thoroughly, and I believe that all of the remains that lay there were safely removed." Hiram packed his grandmother's bones in a pine box and brought it to New Haven by railroad— likely the only member of Yale's class of 1898 to arrive with his family's bones literally in his baggage.
Yet once he started classes, "Sybil's bones were not on his mind," one of Hi's sons would write. His next letter home gushed about the "fine, great, grand," university, and it wasn't until two weeks later that the young man told his father that Sybil had been reburied next to Hiram Bingham Sr. But there had been some wrangling with a family friend, a Mrs. Champion, over the headstone's epitaph.
"It seemed to me that the word 'relict' is obsolete. By the way, Mrs. C has made us a present of a very pretty sofa pillow."
Perhaps Hi's chirpy transition from his grandmother's remains to physical comfort was just that—a transition, to cover the space of what may have been a truly upsetting experience. By the time he reached Yale, Hi had been so weighed down by the darkness and demands of his family legacy that perhaps there was no other way to be other than blithe and cheery, especially when burdened by the bones of his family.
If that cheeriness bothered his father, who had wept while burying and reburying his first son in foreign soils, he said nothing. He was certain Yale would keep Hi pious, as it had him, forty-five years before. Hi would respect the dead. He would be a missionary yet.
The Ivory Tower
It was the spring of 1898, and from the outside, Hiram's life looked perfect. He was about to graduate from Yale, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in America. He was six-feet-four and delicately handsome, a little shy but a little less stiff than he had been as a child. As for wealth, it hardly mattered where he was going. He had his life planned out for him as a missionary in China, his father wrote, as a "teacher of the Emperor of the Celestial Empire just as your grandfather was of the Kings and Queens of the Sandwich Islands."
But if life was so good, then why did he confess in a letter to be "approaching insanity"?
College started off well. Like his father, Hiram raced sailboats and won all cups offered in 1897. He sang, refereed football games, and, as his father hoped, found the university's religious niche. Most visibly, Hiram took a leadership role at Dwight Hall, the university's Christian public service group.
Socially, however, his time at the elite, exclusive institution was challenging. Although there were strivers like himself, Yale in the 1890s was a playground for the children of the Gilded Age, where they could search for their purpose, show off their status, and make the contacts that guaranteed them fortune and glory. Bingham's classmates included future senators, oilmen, diplomats, railroad barons, wealthy philanthropists, authors, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning composer. Some were self-made, others were heirs, and Yale filled both groups—almost all white Anglo-Saxon Protestants—with a driving ambition for worldly, not spiritual, success.
Faced with opportunity at every turn, Hiram began to relax his Puritanism. He tutored the wealthy, studying their habits. He played cards and joined the Psi Upsilon Fraternity and Yale's Hawaiian Club, where he saw friends smoking and drinking, activities forbidden in missionary Honolulu. He read novels openly and danced with women at parties. He read the Bible as allegory, not history, and looked down his nose at evangelists. He was still Christian, he wrote his parents, but he didn't need to be a zealot to prove it.
A wave of more worldly success helped him along. At the end of freshman year, he and two other members of the Yale freshman debate team argued down Harvard's team, giving the campus "the first victory in debate which Yale can boast." The students exploded in cheers, stormed the stage, lifted the three freshmen on their shoulders, and carried them around campus, Bingham later told his sons. Hiram had no illusions that he could become a railroad baron, but his intellect and rhetorical skill suggested other paths to acceptance by his peers. He presided over the senior debate society, broke the Sabbath to study, and worshipped his professors. Hi cruelly declared to his father that "no minister has onefifth of the chance to accomplish more good and affect the world more by his influence than a teacher." He took out more books than any other student, the university's librarian told him, and at the end of his junior year he was on track to graduate Phi Beta Kappa and begin a career in academia. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Cradle of Gold by Christopher Heaney. Copyright © 2011 Christopher Heaney. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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