Another Missionary Clan Jackpot

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - June 29, 2005

The headline in the business section of the morning paper last week read “Damon heiresses ready to cash in.” The heiresses in question, sisters Sharon Damon and Madeleine Wright, stand to inherit $100 million each with the dissolution of The Estate of Samuel Mills Damon.

The story of Ms. Damon’s and Ms. Wright’s impending monstrous pay day is an alltoo- familiar one in Hawaii’s history. It begins with a fortunate, well-placed and acquisitive haole ancestor.

Born in 1845, Samuel Damon came from missionary stock. His father served as chaplain of the Seamen’s Institute which, through a couple of transformations, eventually became Central Union Church. Like most of the sons and daughters of the American missionaries in Hawaii, Samuel Mills Damon did not seek a career in the ministry himself.

He turned to banking instead, becoming a partner of Charles Reed Bishop in the mid-1880s. At that time, Bishop and Company, the forerunner of today’s First Hawaiian Bank, was the Kingdom’s only banking institution.

Like many other missionary descendants, Damon kept his personal life on the missionary farm; he married Harriet M. Baldwin, a daughter of Maui’s most prominent missionaryto- business family. They had four children.

Between 1884 and 1900, Damon served two Hawaiian monarchs — King David Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani — and the socalled Republic of Hawaii. He was Finance Minister to Hawaii’s last queen, and was one of those in her cabinet who persuaded Lililuokalani to abdicate. He also held the finance portfolio during the Republic.

Damon’s most profitable work, however, wasn’t really work at all. It was his relationship to Charles Reed Bishop and Bishop’s wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi. Damon served as a trustee of the Bishop Estate for almost 30 years, and the Princess gave him the ahupua’a (land division) of Moanalua. It extended from the mountains to the sea, and the land area from Sand Island to what is now the airport.

A nice piece of property, to say the least. And thus Ms. Damon and Ms. Wright, both of whom have been receiving $5 million per year from the Estate’s annual revenues and living very comfortably in the Pebble Beach-Carmel, Calif., area, will receive their jackpot.

The real origins of their good fortune, of course, was something called the Great Mahele of 1848. The Mahele gave secure western land title to various claimants, with crown and the ali‘i initially benefiting most: 1,619,000 acres went to 245 ali‘i, 1,495,000 to the government and 984,000 to the King.

The makaainana — the commoners, 8,205 of them — received 28,600 acres, an average of 3.4 acres per claimant. Two-thirds of the adult population of the Islands were left landless.

In 1876, King David Kalakaua negotiated the Reciprocity Treaty with the United States. Besides giving the United States exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor, that fateful — and fatal — document secured the American market for Hawaii’s sugar crop.

The Islands’ sugar industry exploded. The sugar planters’ thirst for land and water knew few bounds; the pressure on Hawaiian ali‘i to sell, lease or grant their lands to sugar growers was enormous. By 1893 and the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, two-thirds of all the land grants were in foreign hands.

Samuel Mills Damon received one of those grants. Next time you see some Hawaiians — the children of the land — living on the beach, remember Ms. Damon and Ms. Wright. There’s a connection.

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