The Incredible History of the Hiram Binghams

The Incredible History of the Hiram Binghams

There are some individuals who undeniably affect the course of human history. On rare occasions do their children pick up where they left off, to shape the world in their own way. It’s even more extraordinary for this character trait to be passed down for multiple generations. Yet this is the case of one family of world travelers, four generations of Hiram Binghams, whose influence touched lives and molded the outcome of world events across the globe.

The incredible history of the Hiram Binghams began with Hiram Bingham I, a New Englander who traveled in the first wave of Christian missionaries to the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1820. Then known as the Sandwich Islands, Hawaii was being eyed greedily by Russia, France, Great Britain, and the United States—everyone wanted access to Hawaii’s sugarcane and strategic location in the middle of the Pacific, and to proselytize to its peoples.

Hiram Bingham I—a Protestant—found success with his mission, baptizing Queen Kaʻahumanu and six high chiefs within three years of his arrival. The resulting “taming” of Hawaii –the eradication of prostitution and drunkenness—opened Hawaii to the shipping industry and a capitalist market. Although Bingham criticized the Hawaiian natives’ way of life, he was instrumental in creating a writing system for the Hawaiian language, and his influence helped shape the fate of this part of the world.

{Follow in the footsteps of Hiram Bingham I: 15-night Hawaiian Islands Cruise}

Bingham was called home to New England twenty years after his arrival, on the concern that he was interfering too much in Hawaiian politics. But his son, Hiram Bingham II, would follow in his footsteps. Hiram II was also a missionary to Hawaii, arriving in Honolulu 1857. The Yale graduate and his wife were only there for a brief stopover en route to the Marquesas Islands, Micronesia, and the Gilbert Islands. Like his father, Hiram II was a linguist, and translated the Bible and other texts into Gilbertese.

{Follow in the footsteps of Hiram Bingham II: 17-night South Pacific Discovery Cruise}

Hiram Bingham IIIThe third Hiram Bingham is undoubtedly the most famous of the Bingham men. A Hawaiian kid, Hiram III was an academic at heart, earning degrees from Yale, UC Berkeley, and Harvard before serving as preceptor at Princeton. He was also an intrepid explorer. As a lecturer of South American history at Yale, Hiram III served as a delegate to the First Pan American Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile. It was this trip that sparked his interest in lost cities and cultures; on a 1911 expedition, he would return to discover Machu Picchu, the pre-Columbian estate built by the Incas high in the Andes and heretofore known only to local indigenous populations.

Today, the highway that leads to the site—and the famous Orient Express railway—are named after Hiram Bingham III.

Hiram Bingham III would go on to serve as Lieutenant Governor, then Governor of Connecticut, then United States Senator. However, his most influential legacy was unveiling the mysterious city of Machu Picchu.

{Follow in the footsteps of Hiram Bingham III: 8-nights Peru: Mysteries of Machu Picchu}

The son of the explorer, Hiram Bingham IV, also led a life of discovery and exploration. His travels included Japan, India, and Egypt, then China, Poland, and England when he earned his Foreign Service assignments.

In 1939, Hiram IV was posted to the U.S. Consulate in Marseilles, France, where his responsibilities included issuing entry visas to the United States. When France fell to the Nazis, thousands of refugees headed to Marseilles to seek visas. At this time, the U.S. policy was to limit visas, and the State Department actively discouraged diplomats from helping refugees in order to maintain good relations with the Vichy government. However, Hiram Bingham IV soon earned a reputation for ignoring this policy. He toured internment camps, sought American aid to improve conditions at these camps, and freely issued many Nansen passports, the first refugee travel documents. As a consequence of defying State Department policy, Bingham was transferred to Portugal, then Argentina, where he nonetheless kept up his noble cause, helping track Nazi war criminals in South America.

Although he didn’t like to talk about his role during World War II, his family found documents squirreled away in his Connecticut farmhouse and donated them to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

{Follow in the footsteps of Hiram Bingham IV: Marseille |  Argentina | Washington, D.C.}

Further generations of Hiram Binghams appear to be living quieter lives closer to home in Connecticut. But the impact of this family is far-reaching in history. From working to open Hawaii to U.S. interests during the era of American Expansionism, to bringing ancient cultures to life, to saving the lives of thousands of refugees, the legacy of the Hiram Binghams lives on.