The life of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson

We are publishing today a detailed biographical essay about Lucy and Thomas Atkinson’s son, Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, written by Marianne Simpson, who is a direct descendant of Lucy’s brother, William York Finley. The essay discusses Alatau’s move to the then very remote Hawaiian Islands in 1869 and his subsequent career there in journalism and education, as well as his significant role in the American annexation of the territory. It is no less fascinating than the history of his parents. Below is a short precis of the essay, but those of you who wish to read Marianne’s full essay can find it here: to-a-higher-destiny-alatau-atkinson


The life of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson (1848-1906)

By Marianne J E Simpson


“Convinced that circumstances had inevitably linked the destiny of Hawaii with that of the United States of America, he wrought, in season and out of season, to make the political alliance secure and permanent. Abandoning for the time his duties as school master he took up the editorial pen and through the medium of journalism did master work for annexation. To him more than to any other one man it is due that, during the long period of waiting which followed the first enthusiastic hopes of annexation, the determination to unite Hawaii’s fortunes with those of America, never faltered.”[1]

These remarks were part of the fulsome obituary for Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson that appeared in the columns of The Hawaiian Gazette at the time of his death in April 1906. Alatau Atkinson, a name well known in Honolulu for 40 years, left his mark on the evolution of modern Hawaii, both with respect to its annexation by the United States and the forging of an education system in which English was the single medium of instruction. With this international language, he helped prepare the island nation to enter into meaningful exchange with the rapidly advancing world beyond.

Alatau Atkinson was born on 16 November 1848 in Kapal, Kazakhstan to English parents, Thomas Witlam Atkinson and Lucy Sherrard Atkinson. Thomas, an architect and artist, had obtained a passport from the Czar of Russia giving him open access to all parts of the Czar’s dominions. Although there are conjectures concerning the reasons for the journey, one outcome is indisputable: it generated several hundred works of art, many of which were subsequently exhibited in London and some of which were reproduced in the two books Thomas subsequently wrote, Oriental and Western Siberia: A Narrative of Seven Years’ Explorations and Adventures (1858) and Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (1860).

Alatau was born nine months into a journey which would take the family down into the rugged Kazakh Steppes, to Siberia and to the very border of China. His birth was premature, which was attributed by the doctor to the fact that Lucy had spent every day of the preceding months on horseback. Lucy later wrote that, had he been born in a native yurt, they would both undoubtedly have died. However, wonderfully, he survived and early became accustomed to the icy mountain streams in which his mother bathed him and being held close in her encircling arms while eagles hovering above swooped for their prey.

After almost seven years of travels, the family arrived back in St Petersburg just before Christmas 1853 and remained domiciled there until 1858. Andrew Dickson White, subsequently one of the cofounders of Cornell University, met Alatau and his parents at that time, recording that “The Atkinsons had also brought back their only child, a son born on the Siberian steppe, a wonderfully bright youngster…”.[2] That Alatau made a lasting impression on Dr White is shown by the following item from The Hawaiian Star:

“For about fifty years Dr White had tried to find [Alatau] but without result…The rumour was that the young fellow had gone into the navy in after years and so Dr White often but vainly enquired after him at British naval depots…”.[1]

Andrew Dickson White

Thomas Atkinson died in England in 1861 and, in straitened circumstances, Lucy was encouraged by her friends to write a book of her experiences, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants (1863). This work was rewarded by a British pension, and Alatau’s future was further assisted when a number of eminent gentlemen, including Charles Dickens, joined together to pay for him to complete his education at the prestigious Rugby School.

We can only imagine what a jolt the transfer to school must have been to Alatau. Speaking Russian equally as well as English and only four years in the country, during which time it is believed that he was educated at home by his mother, then suddenly thrust into the hurly-burly of a boys’ boarding school. Not to mention the burden of his name – inherited from the region where he was born, the Alatau mountains and the Tamchiboulac Spring, with which his parents had become captivated. In a surviving letter, his mother writes that he had just left for school and she hoped he would do well there!

As his later life showed, Alatau embraced learning, so it may be surmised he did not disappoint. Upon leaving Rugby, he returned to Russia in 1867 as secretary of the Turkoman-Russian boundary commission. He was afterwards a writer for the Newcastle Courant newspaper and then went to Durham Grammar School as a teacher. In January 1868 he married Annie Humble in Newcastle-upon-tyne and their first child, Zoe, was born at the end of that year. The following year he left England – as far as we know, never to see the country again – and the little family made their way to Hawaii, via Panama and San Francisco.

In Honolulu, Alatau was first Master at St Alban’s Missionary School and subsequently principal of its successor, St. Alban’s Collegiate Grammar School. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported that “Among the many educational establishments on these islands…none deserves more to be noticed for its efficiency than St Alban’s College”. Alatau was also musically endowed. In 1873, he was engaged as organist at Kawaiaha’o Church and in February 1874, as choirmaster, participated in the funeral service of King Lunalilo.

St Alban’s College in Honolulu

In March 1878 Alatau was appointed Principal of the Fort Street High School, described as the leading public school of the city. Around this time, he was also reported as playing a major role in the establishment of a Teachers’ Association of the Hawaiian Islands.

In January 1881, while retaining his position at Fort Street School, Alatau also became editor of The Hawaiian Gazette, and public opinion was thenceforth to be largely shaped by his own convictions. His views were formed from observations of Hawaii as he experienced it, which was very different from the Hawaii that Captain James Cook had found a century earlier when the Islands were ruled by local chieftains and the combined population has been estimated at 300,000. The islands were gradually united in the 1780s and 1790s due to successive conquests by Kamehameha the Great.

After Cook’s arrival, the region was visited by European explorers, traders and whalers. By 1820 Eurasian diseases, famine and wars among the chiefs had killed more than half of the native population and, by 1876, the population had further declined to 53,900. At the 1896 census (organised by Alatau), the population comprised 31,019 Hawaiians, 8,485 part-Hawaiians, 3,086 Americans, 2,250 British, 1,432 German, 15,191 Portuguese, 21,616 Japanese and 1,534 other nationalities.

In 1874 King Kalakaua was elected to the throne. His spending habits and gambling losses put the government continually into debt and he was poorly advised by his corrupt Prime Minister, Walter Murray Gibson. Both men were satirised in pamphlets written by Alatau. On 30 June 1887 a meeting of residents demanded that King Kalakaua dismiss his cabinet and that a new constitution be written. The King was advised to accept the demands and the Constitution which followed severely curtailed his power.

One of Alatau’s pamphlets satirising the King and his advisors

In the wake of the new order, in August 1887, Alatau was appointed Inspector-General of Education. In his new position, his responsibilities were to visit the schools of Hawaii, report upon their proficiency, and give advice and instruction to teachers. After 1887, his name frequently appears in the shipping columns of the press, either departing from or returning to Honolulu, as he continually criss-crossed the Islands in the discharge of his duties.

On 17 January 1893, anti-royalist insurgents composed largely of United States citizens living and conducting business in Hawaii, engineered the overthrow of King Kalakaua’s successor, Queen Lili’uokalani. A Provisional Government was proclaimed and, in 1894, a constitution was drawn up for the now proclaimed “Republic of Hawaii”. Alatau played no small part in the events leading up to the overthrow, being one of the 14 original members of the pro-annexation Hawaiian League.

Eight years of constant travel took a toll on Alatau’s health and in January 1896 he resigned from his position. A year later, he took up his new post as editor of The Hawaiian Star. He wasted no time in declaring his views, the following being published in the paper a few days after he took over:


The policy of this paper under its present management may be at once laid down. It will advocate the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands to the United States in season and out of season. There is no other great issue before us. It is either annexation or a feeble state that is anybody’s meat…

“The Hawaiian Islands are the outpost of Western civilization in the Pacific…Can it be possible that the United States will leave an outlying fort unassisted? For the battle of the Eastern and the Western civilizations is sure to come, and come much quicker than many people forsee [sic]. Where will the United States be if they leave so strong an outpost at the mercy of an enemy? Held in other hands Hawaii would be a constant menace to the commerce of the United States in time of war. Held by the United States the practical command of the Pacific is obtained.”

In light of subsequent history, prophetic words indeed!

In April 1897 the Republic of Hawaii opened negotiations for a political union with the United States. Shortly after, Alatau was elected on the ticket of the American Union Party to serve in the last session of the House of Representatives acting for a sovereign country.

The official transfer of power to the United States took place on 12 August 1898. The following year Alatau was appointed as Special Agent in charge of the United States 1900 census of the Territory of Hawaii and was directed to proceed to Washington for discussions and further instructions. The Hawaiian Star reported his visit: “Alatau T. Atkinson…had an extended interview with President McKinley… [who] displayed not only great interest in the Islands, but a keen knowledge of them”.

It also reported his return: “The preparation for the Hawaiian census,” Mr Atkinson said, “is practically complete…One of the most important features of the census in the Islands…was the decision to enumerate by race and not by color. On the mainland the enumeration will be by color. I insisted, however, that there was no color line here and that enumeration by race was not only the most scientific but the method that harmonized with our social and political ideas and conditions.”[3]

In June 1900 the Territory Governor appointed Alatau to the new position of Inspector General of Public Instruction, which position he held until the year before his death.

Alatau Atkinson died in Honolulu on 24 April 1906, survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters. On the day of his funeral, the Board of Education and all schools in Honolulu closed for half a day as a mark of respect. One of the obituaries which appeared in The Hawaiian Star[4], alluding to his outstanding contribution, stated the following:

Alatau’s gravestone in Oahu, Hawaii.

“…no enumeration of the individual achievements of his career, however complete, and highly creditable as these are, would in any degree do justice to his life work, without a recognition and appreciation of the…prophetic ideal which he held throughout his career…For such possibilities as he foresaw for Hawaii it was needful that she have a world language. No great destiny was possible for an isolated people speaking a little known tongue, having neither a literature nor a vocabulary of commerce or science…If Hawaii were to accomplish her high destiny, every faculty and gift of all her people must be given the best possible training and opportunity…”.

The Japanese press was also fulsome, the Hawaii Shimpo reporting, “Mr Atkinson worked among a population of a dozen races and…always held that it was the duty of the state to educate all…the Japanese especially appreciate the policy that gave them equal right in the schools and respect the memory of the man who did so much to bring it about.”[5]

And what kind of a man was Alatau? According to The Hawaii Herald (Hilo)[6], “Brilliant far beyond his opportunities, he was in every sense a man who could not fail to leave his work wherever he may have travelled”. From The Evening Bulletin[7]: “Constantly in public life…he encountered many of life’s open battles and they always found him unruffled and unprejudiced.” And from The Hawaiian Star[8], who knew him well, “Enthusiastically fond of Hawaii, he believed it possible for her to achieve a great and glorious destiny…To that ideal he devoted great talents, an indomitable energy, an enthusiasm that never failed or faltered and a luminous zeal.” The editor of The Hawaii Shimpo wrote, “Those who knew Mr. Atkinson saw in him a scholar and a thinker, an eloquent and powerful writer and a strong organizer, and more than this – they could not but feel in his presence, the influence of a true heart and a broad human charity and friendship.”

[1] The Hawaiian Star, 9 December 1911

[1] The Hawaiian Gazette, 30 April 1906

[2] “The Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White”, p.464.

[3] The Hawaiian Star, 25 and 31 October 1899

[4] The Hawaiian Star, 30 April 1906

[5] Quoted in The Hawaiian Star, 23 May 1906

[6] The Hawaiian Herald, 26 April 1906

[7] The Evening Bulletin, 24 April 1906

[8] The Hawaiian Star, 25 April 1906

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