Bellinghausen’s Lost Hawaii

Amazing 19th-century images of Hawaii have surfaced from a monk’s collection of plate-glass-negative photos.

Probably Saint Louis students, Bellinghausen played (and most likely taught) the violin.

Photos: courtesy Chaminade University

Bellinghausen took these photos between 1883 and 1905. Unfortunately, he did not document the location, subject or date of many of them—a task Dr. Albert Lum is addressing as curator of the Bellinghausen photo exhibits.

Photos: Courtesy Chaminade University

Brother Gabriel Bertram Bellinghausen took nearly 2,000 photographs in Hawaii between 1883 and 1905. He used an 8-by-10 camera box and fragile glass photographic plates to capture images, and his photos have surprising clarity. Bellinghausen, who came to Hawaii as the first principal of Saint Louis College (now Saint Louis School), photographed his fellow brothers, the students, the landscape, the people, special events, and the monarchy—some members with whom he reportedly had close ties, such as King David Kalakaua.

Now, you can get a glimpse of Bellinghausen’s lost Hawaii. His photos will be on display in a traveling exhibit to show on Maui in late December and the Big Island in February (and possibly the Smithsonian in June), and in an ongoing exhibit at Chaminade University in Sullivan Library. Dr. Albert Lum, professor emeritus at Chaminade University, is curating the exhibits and describes the ongoing research process as “detective work.”

Because not all the photographs Bellinghausen took are accredited to him, and not all the photographs are marked with the location and event (let alone the people), Dr. Lum is “reading the photograph:” he looks at the style of the photograph and the people pictured in it, among other clues, as ways to determine whether the photo is one of Bellinghausen’s and where it might fit in a timeline of events. Most of the people featured in the photos are unidentified. “I’m waiting for someone to say, ‘Oh, that’s my grandmother’,” says Lum, indicating a favorite photo that’s framed and sitting on his desk. He smiles and offers a possible caption: “‘Whose tutu is this?’”

Photos: Courtesy Chaminade University

Once Chaminade Associate Provost Henry Gomes and his staff finish transcribing Bellinghausen’s diary (which reads like a captain’s log and is written in minute cursive), Lum plans to use the transcription as another source of clues and include portions of it in the traveling exhibit. The transcription will also become part of the Bellinghausen archive collection at Chaminade. 

Bellinghausen liked to play with trick photography (one of his photos features a double of the same man) and had a sense of staging. “A lot of his pictures are blocked,” says Lum, adding that one of the subjects Bellinghausen taught was drama. But mainly his photos show Hawaii and its people as they were.

Chinatown fire, 1900.

Traveling exhibit info

Maui: (808) 325-5327; Big Island: (808) 281-7562