Alatau and James Michener’s Mr Blake

In 1959, to mark Hawaii’s attainment of full US statehood, James A Michener, the novelist and author of the Broadway hit South Pacific, published his blockbuster novel Hawaii, which has since sold tens of thousands of copies. One of the most intriguing characters in the book is called Uliassutai Karakorum Blake, portrayed as a strict schoolmaster whose influence on his pupils was huge. This unusual name is clearly inspired by that of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, Thomas and Lucy Atkinson’s son[i].

Alatau Atkinson was born in eastern Kazakhstan in 1848, spent his first five years travelling with his parents through Siberia and Central Asia and eventually, at the age of 21, emigrated with his wife and first of seven children from England to Hawaii, where he died in 1906.

In the essay below Marianne Simpson – a direct descendant of Lucy Atkinson’s brother – explores the character of Michener’s creation and the extent to which it was based on that of Alatau.

Marianne Simpson writes:
That Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson left a lasting impression on Hawaii and popular culture is evident from his inclusion, in the person of Uliassutai Karakoram Blake, in James A Michener’s 1959 novel, Hawaii.

Michener-Hawaii   james-michener

 James A Michener and his blockbuster, Hawaii, published in 1959

While we will never know who Michener’s informant was, his/her tales about Alatau obviously caught Michener’s imagination because he says Blake is the only character in this epic 900-page novel based on an historical person. Michener presents a fascinating and compelling portrait, starting with an account of Alatau’s origins which, despite some factual errors, is clearly recognisable:

“…the ablest hinese] now flocked to Iolani [School] to which Nyuk Tsin [fictional character in the book] now brought her sons. She was met by one of the most unlikely men ever to inhabit Hawaii, Uliassutai Karakoram Blake, a tall, reedy Englishman with fierce moustaches and a completely bald head, even though he was only twenty-eight.His adventurous Shropshire parents had been with a camel caravan heading across Outer Mongolia from the town of his first name to the town of his second when he was prematurely born, ‘jolted loose ere my time,’ he liked to explain, ‘by the rumbling motion of a camel which practically destroyed my sainted mother’s pelvic structure.’ He had grown up speaking Chinese, Russian, Mongolian, French, German and English. He had long ago learned not to try his Chinese on the Orientals living in Hawaii, for they spoke only Cantonese and Punti, and to him these were alien languages, but when Nyuk Tsin spoke to him in Hakka, it sounded enough like Mandarin for him to respond.”

Alatau Atkinson

Alatau’s proficiency in these languages clearly reflects the geography of his early childhood. The knowledge of German however is interesting. Keeping in mind that his father had previously spent time in Germany and that he had a half-brother buried there, did the family perhaps spend an extended time in that country on their way back from Russia to England?

Michener continued his description of Blake: “In later years, when Hawaii was civilised and lived by formal accreditations, no teacher who drifted off a whaling boat one afternoon, his head shaved bald, no credentials, with moustaches that reached out four inches, and with a name like Uliassutai Karakoram Blake could have been accepted in the schools. But, in 1872, when this outlandish man did just that, Iolani needed teachers, and in Blake they found a man who was to leave on the islands an indelible imprint. When the Bishop first stared at the frightening-looking young man and asked, ‘What are your credentials for teaching?’, Blake replied, ‘Sir, I was bred on camels’ milk’, and the answer was so ridiculous that he was employed.”

While the “ridiculous” claim has a ring of truth (and of course makes a great story!), it is unlikely to have formed the full answer because, between 1868 and 1869, before he left for Hawaii, Alatau had served as “third assistant master” at Durham School, a fee-paying school in the north of England with an enrolment of 150 boys.

Durham School2
Durham School

As well as teaching the traditional curriculum for boys destined for university (Classical Greek, Latin, English Prose and Composition and Mathematics), there was also a “modern department” for boys not intended for university which perhaps gave Alatau the broader experience which he was to apply so successfully in Honolulu.

There was also a flourishing boat club which (if he had not had exposure to boating at his old school of Rugby) may have been his initiation into the boating which he was subsequently to recommend to his students at Iolani.

Overall, what we see here is a young man of considerable self-confidence, striking out into foreign lands with seemingly little concern about what he might encounter, but rather an assurance based on a solid belief that he was equal to whatever the challenges.

Michener is silent on Alatau’s career and influence as a newspaper editor and it is indeed possible that he was unaware of it. Rather, he focussed his attention on Alatau’s role as an educator and the enormous benefit he brought to the growing Chinese community (thereby strongly suggesting that his informant was of Chinese origin). He writes:

If Blake had been employed in a first-rate school like Punahou, then one of the finest west of Illinois, it wouldn’t have mattered whether he was capable or not, for after Punahou his scholars would go on to Yale, and oversights could be corrected. Or if the teachers in the school were inadequate, the parents at home were capable of repairing omissions. But at Iolani the students either got an education from the available teachers, or they got none at all, and it was Blake’s unique contribution to Hawaii that, with his fierce moustaches and his outrageous insistence upon the niceties of English manners, he educated the Chinese. He made them speak a polished English, cursing them in pidgin when they didn’t.”

The period of Alatau’s incumbency at Iolani coincided with a significant rise in the Chinese population in Hawaii. The Chinese had first begun to arrive in considerable numbers in 1852, when they were contracted to work in the sugar fields. When their five-year contracts expired, they did not renew them but chose to work in haole (white) households, as clerks or to set up small businesses. By 1882, their number in Honolulu was hovering around 5,000, 20% of the town’s population, and, at one point, they actually outnumbered the white population.

Chinese migrants to Hawaii in the 1890s

Michener continued: “In these years there were many in Hawaii who…did not want Chinese going to college or owning big companies. They were sincerely afraid of Oriental businessmen and intellectuals. They hoped, falsely as it proved, that the Chinese would be perpetually content to work on the plantations without acquiring any higher aspirations, and when they saw their dream proving false…they sometimes grew panicky and talked of passing ridiculous laws, or of exiling all Chinese.

What these frightened men should have done was much simpler: they should have shot Uliassutai Karakoram Blake…When Blake taught the first Chinese boy the alphabet, the old system of indentured labor was doomed…The Chinese experiment might have failed except that Uliassutai Karakoram Blake was quietly teaching his boys: ‘The same virtues that are extolled in China will lead to success in Hawaii. Study, listen to your parents, save your money, align yourselves with honest men.’ Not only did he teach them; he inspired them: “He taught them to sail boats in the harbour, contending that no man could be a gentleman who did not own a horse and a boat. Above all, he treated them as if they were not Chinese; he acted as if they were entitled to run banks, or to be elected to the legislature, or to own land.”

Alatau, who had nothing with which to commend himself apart from his intellect and education and who probably saw parallels between himself and the landless Chinese arriving in Hawaii, counselled his students to conform to the expectations of the dominant culture. Michener records his injunction: “Cut your pigtails and dress like Americans. Join their churches. Forget that you are Chinese.”

One famous student from Iolani School who was to cut his pigtails and convert to Christianity was the first President and founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-Sen.

Sun Yat-Sen

Respecting Sun, Michener wrote: “For his part, the eccentric Englishman found real joy in talking with one of the two people who understood his dynamic interpretation of the world. The other was a thin, hawk-eyed young revolutionary then seeking refuge in Hawaii: Sun Yat-Sen. Even better than Nyuk Tsin, he comprehended what his teacher Blake was talking about.”

It is fascinating to consider that Alatau may have been a preceptor to Sun. Sun, born in 1866, was a student at Iolani School between 1879 and 1882 and, while Alatau appears in the press as being appointed Principal of the Fort Street School in March 1878, the records of Iolani School nevertheless list him as head of school in about 1871 and, again, from 1874 to 1888, so it would appear that he, at the least, remained very much involved in the school and Michener’s claim may accordingly be true.

While at Iolani, Sun was exposed to English constitutional law and European history[ii] and it was at Iolani that he began to consider the possibilities for a better China.  It is interesting that, after his return to China, Sun made several subsequent visits to Hawaii: could they perhaps have included visits to the Atkinson home?

Michener makes the provocative claim that Uliassutai/Alatau was Buddhist. He states unequivocally that the schoolmaster “converted them [his students] to the Church of England while he himself remained Buddhist” and, in response to a boy asking him why he remained such, has Uliassutai/Alatau replying, “When I leave Hawaii, I shall return to England, where freedoms of all kind are permitted.  But you will not leave these islands. You will have to live among Americans, and they despise most freedoms, so conform.” (Unsurprisingly, Michener, an American, describes him as a difficult, opinionated man!)

The statement sounds authentic, but it sits somewhat oddly with Alatau’s later ardent espousal of union with America. Perhaps, over time, as his attachment to and hopes for Hawaii grew, he came to consider the merits of annexation as outweighing the perceived intolerances.

The Buddhist claim is intriguing, especially as Alatau is on record as playing the organ in the Kawaiahao church and St Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral, in which latter place his funeral also took place. If he was at heart Buddhist, could his participation in Christian services have been a case of applying to himself the conformity that he counselled others?

Overall Michener portrays Alatau as a man radiating a powerful and dynamic presence, but also well aware of his own considerable gifts. He is depicted as saying: “The compassionate Buddha knows that at Iolani I have given you Chinese the salt of my blood and the convolutions of my brain, and I have raised you from ignorance into light, and the compassionate Buddha also knows that I wish I had done half as well with my light as you wonderful people have done with yours.  If I had, I wouldn’t now be toiling out the evening years of my life as an underpaid schoolmaster.”

As Alatau later rose to become Hawaii’s Inspector-General of Education, Michener was clearly unaware of his later career but perhaps he nevertheless captured the essence of the man? Michener concluded: “The Chinese loved this ridiculous man and his circumlocutions. With his British regard for proprieties and his Oriental love of bombast, he seemed Chinese.”

In Michener’s portrait, we see a human side to Alatau only occasionally apparent in the numerous press references to him. That he was esteemed by the Orientals was known by his fulsome obituary in the Japanese Hawaiian press.  But that he was the means by which the Chinese ultimately rose to assume positions of prominence in Hawaii, if Michener is correct – and there seems little reason to doubt him – is significant new information and shows him to have been a man with an incisively broad world view well ahead of his times. If any reader has access to the early Chinese Hawaiian press (Lung Kee Sun Bo, Wah Ha Bo, Lai Kee Bo or the Man Sang Yat Po newspapers), a search for an obituary of Alatau or any other reference to him could make a significant contribution to this ongoing area of research.


[i] In the very brief introduction to his book Hawaii, Michener writes: “This is a novel. It is true to the spirit and history of Hawaii, but the characters, the families, the institutions and most of the events are imaginary – except that the English school-teacher Uliassutai Karakoram Blake is founded upon a historical person who accomplished much in Hawaii.”

Alatau’s name comes from the mountain range (the Djungar Alatau) behind the town where he was born and the medicinal spring in the town (Tamchiboulac) close to the house in which Lucy gave birth. Uliassutai is a town in north-west Mongolia, and Karakorum is the old name for Genghis Khan’s capital.

[ii] Alatau is recorded as giving history lectures to the general public.

New book on the Atkinsons due in June

JMS cover

John Massey Stewart’s long-awaited biography of the Atkinsons is now due to be published in late June. Called Thomas, Lucy & Alatau: The Atkinsons’ Adventures in Siberia and the Kazakh Steppe, it is being published by Unicorn Press at £25. According to the advance publicity, it is “the first full biography of an unjustly forgotten man: Thomas Witlam Atkinson (1799-1861), architect, artist, traveller extraordinaire, author – and bigamist“.

We very much look forward to this book’s publication, not least because it contains copies of Atkinson’s paintings that have not been made public previously. Biographically, it will be interesting to see how much it adds to my book, South to the Great Steppe: the travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan 1847-1852 (FIRST, 2015), to Susanna Hoe’s superb chapter on the Atkinsons in Travels in Tandem (Holo Books, 2012), Sally Hayles chapter on Thomas in The Hidden Artists of Barnsley (Barnsley Art on Your Doorstep, 2015), Marianne Simpson’s pamphlet on Alatau, To a Higher Destiny, and to the more than 100 postings that have appeared on this blog.

The Two Jacks – and the origins of surfing in Hawaii

Two Jacks01

The picture above – sorry for the quality – shows, on the right, the famous author Jack London. Standing alongside him is ALC ‘Jack’ Atkinson, eldest son of Alatau Atkinson and grandson of Thomas Witlam Atkinson.

It was taken in Hawaii in 1907 on one of Jack London’s many visits to the islands he first visited in 1904. He quickly struck up a relationship with Jack Atkinson and the two men were soon known as ‘The Two Jacks’, which is how they are described by Jack London’s wife Charmian in her book Jack London and Hawaii (Mills and Boon, London, 1918). Jack Atkinson was effectively governor of Hawaii at this time and introduced the other Jack to the pleasures of surfing. The picture above appeared in this book.

According to the website Legendary Surfers, “Jack London first arrived in Hawaii in 1904 and at the end of June, like all visitors of renown, was given his first experience with a surf-ride at Waikiki by local expert canoe-surfers, Jack Atkinson and Col. McFarlane.” Atkinson later went on to found the Outriggers Canoe Club, the world’s first surfing club, where he also introduced Alice Roosevelt, daughter of US President Theodore Roosevelt, to the pleasures of surfing. Kenneth Atkinson, Alatau’s youngest son, was also a keen surfer who played an active role in the early days of surfing in Hawaii.

Finally, just a quick note to say that this is the 100th posting on this blog, creating an unrivalled body of information on the remarkable exploits of the Atkinson family. Whew!

Alatau Atkinson’s legacy in Hawai’ian education

I am publishing today two pictures from Hawai’i. The first was published recently in a pamphlet about the origins of playgrounds and parks in Hawai’i and shows ‘Atkinson Playground’ at its opening in 1916. The Park was one of four created by the Free Kindergarden and Children’s Aid Association and, in part at least, was aimed at providing a place in which youngsters could gather and keep out of trouble. As it was created after 1906 – the year in which Alatau Atkinson died – we must presume it was created in his memory. Alatau Atkinson, who arrived in Hawai’i in 1869, was initially a school teacher, but rose to become Inspector-General of Schools for the islands and well-known for his enlightened attitudes, including the championing of English as the language of instruction and establishing ‘special schools’ for difficult children.

Atkinson Playground 1916

The map below shows the location of the park, which existed up until the 1950s. Today, the playground is buried beneath large warehouses and is at the western end of Ala Moana Drive, which runs along the waterfront in Honolulu, just to the west of Waikiki. We know that Alatau’s son, Robert Atkinson, through his involvement and ownership of the Hawaiian Dredging Company, was responsible for developing much of the land in this area and reclaiming it from the sea. At the east end of Ala Moana Drive is Atkinson Drive, which connects to Kapiolani Drive, one of the city’s major thoroughfares.

Ala Moana Drive runs from north west to south east on this aerial map.

You can see the location of the playground more clearly on the map below – thanks to Peter T Young for pointing it out to me – where it is in the top right quarter.

248 -Honolulu Sanborn Fire Maps-1927-Kakaako (1)

My second picture, which comes from a postcard, shows a view of Lahainahula High School, which is located on the island of Maui and was the earliest school established by missionaries in Hawai’i; for many years it was the leading educational establishment on the islands.

Atkinson Hall-Lahainaluna High School-Hawaii
Atkinson Hall, Lahainahula High School, Maui

In fact, the picture shows the Atkinson Hall at the school. Sadly, the hall no longer exists , but we do know that there is a connection with Alatau. In 1904, in his capacity as Inspector General, Alatau delivered the address at the formal opening of the Lahainaluna Technical High School, where the idea of offering practical subjects to pupils was pioneered. Perhaps that it how the hall got its name. Any further information on this or on Atkinson Playground in Honolulu, would be most welcome. We will come back to this subject.

Charles Dickens’ exchange of letters with Thomas Atkinson

One of the most remarkable surviving exchanges of correspondence involving Thomas Atkinson is a pair of letters between him and the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. The letters, part of the Dahlquist Collection in Hawaii, shed unexpected light on the plight of the Siberian exiles that Thomas and his wife Lucy met during their travels in that vast territory.

Thomas wrote to Dickens in the summer of 1857, very soon after he had first arrived back in England from Russia. “I called at your house yesterday and unfortunately found you had gone to the country for Midsummer. If indeed I had found you at home most probably you would have decided it rude that a perfect stranger should intrude upon you without an introduction. However I determined to present myself without a word or line from anyone and let the object of my visit plead my cause. At least it was not a selfish reason which brought me to your door.”

Dickens’ house at Gad’s Hill Place

Here Thomas is referring to the house at Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester in Kent. Dickens had only moved into the house a month before, but stayed there for the rest of his life.

Thomas continues: “Having spent seven years wandering through Siberia and the Regions adjoining and occasionally receiving some of your works which often helped to pass away an hour and make me feel as if transported from the wild scenes which surrounded me to the fireside in my own land. It is under such circumstances that a man is made to feel the full force of your thoughts and appreciate your works.”

Ho goes on to say that he also wishes to express the gratitude of others for Dickens’ words: “During my travels in Oriental Siberia I made the acquaintance and in fact lived amongst the political exiles banished into these regions since the accession of the late Emperor Nicholas, many of whom had served in our own Navy and others who had lived in our little island. To these men and their families your works were a boon.

The exiles he referred to were the Decembrist exiles who had been sent to Siberia for life for opposing the accession to power of Tsar Nicholas I. Later they were followed by their wives and families and their plight became a cause of great sadness amongst the Russian population, who saw them as champions of freedom and democracy. Atkinson continues: “These men were most particularly desirous that I should convey to you a knowledge of the great pleasure your writings had afforded them (in a region so remote and vested by many with such terrible horrors and such great admiration for you as a man they have often said “should we have  a Dickens in our country with the free use of his pen and consolation of his thoughts what a blessing it would be for the land and what changes he would work in the moral conditions of the people, but this is denied to us.

Atkinson concludes by asking Dickens to forgive his intrusiveness and noting that as he was planning to meet some of the exiles again in the future, “I would not leave England without in this slight degree accomplishing their wishes and be unable to say I had made known their feelings of respect to you.

Dickens clearly received the letter and was evidently much affected by it. On 8th July 1857 he replied to Atkinson, as follows:

Sir, Constant occupation has prevented my replying to your very interesting letter until now. I have been deeply touched by your communication to me of the approval and good will of those unfortunate gentlemen among whom your wanderings have carried you. If you can see any of them again, pray assure them that I believe I have never received a token of remembrance in my life, with so much sadness mingled with so much gratification. I wish I could do more for them than remain true to the principles which faithfully maintained, would render their wrongs impossible of infliction. Lord help them and speed the time when their descendants shall speak of their suffering as of the sacrifice that secured their own happiness and freedom,

Faithfully yours,

Charles Dickens

Dickens1               Dickens2

Charles Dickens’ letter to Thomas Atkinson

Strong words indeed from Dickens, who was clearly very moved by Thomas’ note and his story of the Siberian exiles. The letter has never been published before and ought to lead to at least a footnote in the next Dickens biography.

Nor was this the only connection between the two men, although the second connection is somewhat more distant. Alatau Atkinson, Thomas and Lucy’s son, was married in England in January 1868 – seven years after Thomas’ death – to a young woman called Annie Humble, who came from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her father in turn was Stephen Humble, who had made a reputation as a fine portrait painter. Humble died in 1858, aged 46, when Annie was only nine years old, but amongst the many people he painted was a young Charles Dickens. This is the portrait, seen on display in the 1930s when it came up for auction:

Dickens by Humble
Charles Dickens as painted by Stephen Humble

Thomas Atkinson never returned to Siberia after his return to England in 1856, although there are accounts of Russians visiting him and Lucy at their home in the Old Brompton Road. The exiles in Siberia probably never knew for sure if their message to Dickens had been delivered. Today, after more than 160 years, we can confirm that it was.