From Derry to Hawaii and a billion dollar legacy

Derry native James Cambell
Derry native James Cambell

It could be argued that very few sons of Derry led such a colourful and varied life as Derry native James ‘the Millionaire’ Campbell.

Born in Derry in 1826, the eighth of twelve children, he would leave these shores as a 13-year old, bound for a new life in the new world.

Campbell's second wife Abigail Kuaihelani Maipinepine Bright, and their four daughters

Campbell's second wife Abigail Kuaihelani Maipinepine Bright, and their four daughters

Smuggled aboard a lumber vessel sailing for New Brunswick, Canada, Campbell made for New York, where he stayed with a brother for two years, putting to use the carpentry skills he had learned at home and honed aboard the ship.

But it was on the island of Hawaii that the Derry native would make his mark, and where his multi billion dollar estate and reputation as one of the isle’s greatest industrialists and landowners still resonates.

Writing in 1925 in the Honolulu Star Bulletin, George F Nellist, said of Campbell: “His ability to envisage the future of Hawaii, his persistent energy, courage and devotion to business brought him in a comparatively few years to a foremost place as a financial power and industrial builder.”

Yet his lasting legacy may never have come to be.

Leaving his brother in New York while still only 15, the teenage Campbell took passage on a whaling ship to sail around the Pacific Horn - with near disastrous consequences.

Nellist picks up the story: “This ship was wrecked near a small island in the South Seas. A spar enabled Mr. Campbell to float to this island where he suddenly found himself facing the unpleasant fact that his lot was cast amongst savages and cannibals.

“They tied him to a tree and while they were busy discussing his apparent fate, Campbell noticed the chief of the tribe fingering a flintlock musket, which was broken and useless; he made signs that he could repair it and did so with the aid of a rusty barrel-hoop. The chief ordered him set free and he was forthwith adopted by the tribe.”

Within a few months Campbell left the island, grabbing passage on a schooner bound for Tahiti.

Nellist continues: “He lived among the natives there for some time, and in a general uprising which followed between the Tahitians and the French, Campbell fought on the side of the Tahitians. After the natives were subdued, he left aboard a whaler which landed him in Lahaina.”

Settling in Hawaii, almost a century before it became the 50th state, Campbell was soon putting his inherent business acumen to use.

Historian Joe Theroux says initially Campbell continued to work as a carpenter - but it was not long before he left the saw and chisel behind.

“He built houses and boats, and married the daughter of a landowner. She died a year later. They had no children, but he did inherit her family’s land. He grew sugar cane there, eventually founding Pioneer Plantation.

“Flush with success, he began purchasing large tracks of land on Oahu, around Honolulu, as well as other ranches.”

As his land and sugar empire expanded Cambell remarried, taking 19-year old Abigail Kuaihelani Maipinepine, a descendant of the Hawaiian Royal family, as his wife - they would go onto have eight children.

Married and with a growing family, Campbell took a gamble that many contemporaries were quick to ridicule - but one that would make him and his heirs a vast fortune.

“At a time when most others considered them worthless, Mr. Campbell acquired vast tracts of land in Honolulu, district of Ewa, thousands of acres,” writes Nellist.

Those thousands of acres were deemed worthless because they were so arid. Campbell was undeterred, enlisting California well-driller James Ashley to drill a well on his Ewa ranch.

Now with the water flowing, Campbell grew sugar cane on the dry lands thought worthless by many, but that would bring him untold wealth.

His standing also allowed him to enter the world of politics and Campbell was appointed to serve in Hawaii’s House of Nobles in 1887 and 1888

By 1885, Campbell retired from business - his shrewd land dealings and acumen had earned him an unrivalled fortune.

But the quiet life did not come without one more colourful chapter to an already eclectic life.

Nellist continues: “He figured in a sensational episode in San Francisco when he was kidnapped in 1896 and held for a $20,000 ransom by one Oliver Winthrop, who later went to San Quentin penitentiary to serve a life sentence for the crime.

“Mr. Campbell, of indomitable spirit despite his advanced age, defied his abductor, refused to meet his demands and although brutally mistreated managed to make his escape.”

Campbell died in 1900, leaving an estate then worth some $3million left in trust to his children and heirs.

His legacy lives on. Today, the Estate of James Campbell is one of Hawaii’s largest private landowners. A High School is named in his honour, while the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge also bears testament to his legacy

The philanthropic James & Abigail Campbell Family Foundation also continues to this day, aiming to promote their “values and beliefs by investing in Hawaii’s people and the communities that nurture them.”

His great great grandson Quentin Khi Kawnanakoa, who now oversees the vast landholdings of the James Campbell Estate, is seen by the native Hawaiian community as the lapsed heir to the Kingdom of Hawaii.

In 2004, the 170 plus beneficiaries of the James Cambell estate - which included 59,645 acres of Hawaiian land, including the city of Kapolei, 59 properties, including 27 industrial centres, 16 office complexes, four retail centres and 12 other properties - converted the private trust into a national real estate operating company.

In 2006, the Cambell estate was estimated to be valued around $2.3billion.