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  • The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic by John Demos
  • Kapali Lyon
The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic. By John Demos. New York: Knopf, 2014. x + 337 pp. Illustrated. Notes. Index. $30.00 cloth

Writer-historian John Demos has added another intriguing episode of American history to his impressive list of works, this time one touching on Hawai‘i. [End Page 208] Through a serendipitous conversation with a fellow dinner guest, he hears “just a piece of local history” which is grist for the mill for this professor emeritus at Yale University, lighting a spark of curiosity and eventually becoming The Heathen School. In his succinct prologue, he gives us the whole picture—the five W’s plus enough self-revelation to get us involved and satisfied that we have what we need to make sense of the story we are about to read and to locate it within the larger framework of American exceptionalism.

This is the story of a school for (mostly) indigenous youth from both America and distant lands located in Cornwall, Connecticut, site of the aforementioned dinner party. During the opening decades of the nineteenth century, as the efforts of Protestant missions to convert the world were reaching their zenith, Congregationalist movers and shakers in New England conceived of a school to bring the heathen to America for education, civilization and Christianization who would then return as missionaries and role models to their native lands. The spark that lit this fire was Hawaii’s own Henry ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia (Obookiah) whose piety, learning, and zeal to convert his countrymen inspired not only the creation of the Cornwall school, but also the Sandwich Islands Mission. No foreign missionary, it was argued, would be nearly so effective as an earnest, well-educated native who already spoke the local language and could navigate the culture from the moment of his return.

In the course of his research, the author also discovered that his own father had been a student in a “heathen school” located in Turkey, sponsored by the very same American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Serendipity? Fate?

In order to understand the nineteenth century zeitgeist propelling the missionary minded, we are treated to a dash around the world of commerce, economics, politics, and philosophic-religious happenings. For instance, a description of the China trade takes us from Boston to the Falklands, to the island of Mas Afuera, from Fiji to Alaska, from Chile to the Philippines and on to Canton, the only Chinese port open to foreign traders. Hawai‘i is, of course, set in the middle of this web. Demos’ story starts with a global perspective and then turns to the school, its short life, and the factors that led to its untimely end.

For readers especially interested in Hawai‘i, the section on ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia (whom Demos regularly calls Obookiah) is particularly good. ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia was a remarkable man who inspired thousands of white people strongly inclined to dismiss dark-skinned “heathens” as not worthy of their attentions. Demos has presented a very human, but no less inspiring, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia while avoiding both hagiography and cynicism. His accounts of the other Hawaiians, John Honoli‘i (Honoree), William Kanui (Tenooee), Thomas Hopu (Hopoo), and George Kaumuali‘i (Tamoree) are less helpful, especially [End Page 209] where he relies on Dr. Judd’s harsh dismissal of Hopu who, despite Judd, figured critically in the early success of the mission, even if his later behavior proved an embarrassment.

The Heathen School is arranged in four parts (I almost said “acts”): Beginnings, Ascent, Crisis, and Finale, each of which begins with an informative overview of the socio-political environment encompassing the events to be covered, a chapter or two relating the events themselves, and, for the first three parts/acts, an interlude wherein the author journeys to one of the three major scenes of his drama: Hawai‘i, Cornwall, and Cherokee country. The interludes are quite personal: the author shares his observations and imaginings with the reader, like the letters of a friend...


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pp. 208-211
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