James Kekela, Abraham Lincoln, and the Marquesas Cannibals Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

James Kekela, Abraham Lincoln, and the Marquesas Cannibals

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Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

- Luke 10:36-37 Authorised Version

The history of missionaries in Hawaii is decidedly mixed. Some, like Father Damien of Molokai, came to help, and did so selflessly. Others, not so much. Some missionaries, and the navies that brought them, contributed mightily to the decline of indigenous culture in Polynesia, introduced diseases, and facilitated imperialism. Writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, who were there, had very little good to say about missionaries. Basic complaints about missionaries included a lack of respect for other people's cultural attitudes and the willingness to be used by imperialists as tools for conquest. These criticisms are valid, and can be backed up with solid evidence.

But from the point of view of Polynesian and Micronesian peoples, the arrival of missionaries was not uniformly a catastrophe. Missionaries brought gifts: the gift of a written language, the gift of education, and the important gift, as they saw it, of the gospel. Western civilisation may have taken the gospel for granted – that doctrine of peace and mutual kindness may have been a big yawn to them, and far more honoured in the breach than the observance – but for some Polynesians, the 'good news' broke on them with the force of a revelation. It gave them a new source for their personal sense of ethics and social responsibility. By their own accounts, this knowledge was important to them. Their stories are also evidence.

This is a tale about bravery in the South Pacific. The hero is Hawaiian, and he was a missionary. We can back up what we're talking about: we have some primary sources, some letters, and at least one artefact. So let's get started.

Who Was James Kekela?

Ignorant foreigners may have tended to think of Hawaiians as simple, friendly islanders. They may have expected them to be unsophisticated. In fact, the Kingdom of Hawaii, in common with other Pacific island groups, was a politically sophisticated place whose leadership intrigues rivalled that of Washington, London, or other European capitals. The Hawaiian nobility had lineages every bit as complex as those found in Burke's Peerage or the Almanach de Gotha.

James Hunnewell Kekela was born on the island of Oahu in 1824, into an aristocratic family. Before his birth, a mele inoa, or genealogical saga, was composed. It described the coming infant as a descendant of 'the high chiefs of Molokai'. The mele included a remarkable prophecy: the child would grow up to 'live in humbleness, walking quietly on a shore to the south1.' This prophecy came true.

Kekela studied with the missionaries, and acquired the knowledge they had to offer along with the orally transmitted culture of his own people. He was well positioned to become a leader, much like David Malo (1793-1853), the Hawaiian educator and historian. Kekela was the first Hawaiian to be ordained as a minister, in 1849. But Kekela and his wife Naomi, also a graduate of missionary schools, took the challenges of 'paying it forward' very seriously. From their point of view, the missionaries had come all the way from Boston to share the gospel with them: now, it was their job to pass it on. The Kekelas became missionaries themselves.

In 1852, Kekela accompanied the Boston missionaries on a reconnaissance trip through Micronesia. In 1853, he and Naomi moved to the Marquesas to work. Life on Hivaoa was tough: so tough that many of the US-born missionaries retreated to the relative safety of Hawaii, 4,000 km away. The Hawaiian missionaries suffered initial poverty, hostility, resistance to change, and danger from tribal wars, cannibalism, and the complexities of shifting alliances and political intrigues. The Kekelas pretty much saw it all, but they stuck it out, even when they had to send their six children away, one by one, to be raised by friends and relatives. It is obvious from Kekela's writings that they saw themselves as being in the same situation as the early Jesus movement described in the New Testament book of Acts. They were willing to give up a lot for their cause.

Just how much they were willing to give up was about to become apparent in 1864. That's when the local cannibals threatened to eat an American.

The Rescue of Jonathan Whalon

A Marquesan chief named Mato had suffered a personal loss. Pirates had kidnapped his son and others, to be sold into slavery in the mines of Peru. Mato was bitter, and vowed revenge on the next white men who came across his path. These turned out to be the crew of an American whaling ship that put into Puamau harbour to fish and trade. Mato's men seized the first mate, Jonathan Whalon. What happened next is best seen through the eyes of the participants.

The natives then proceeded to tear up his clothes into small pieces, and cut the buttons off, making a distribution among the crowd. After this they paid their attention to their prisoner by pinching him severely, bending his fingers and thumbs over the back of his hands, wrenching his nose and torturing him in every imaginable way. They would strike at his head and limbs with their hatchets, always missing him by a hair's breadth. For about three hours they continued to amuse themselves and torment him in this manner. He supposes this was the custom preparatory to being killed, as it doubtless is.
- Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 20 January, 1864, based on an interview with Jonathan Whalon.
January 13 [1864]... I met A Kaukau2 and he explained fully, for he was here and had heard all that was being said, 'It is well to kill the white man.' Therefore Kaukau went to Mato, the chief who desired to kill the white man and said, 'Desist! Do not kill the white man. He has done no wrong.' Mato answered, 'The white men are wrong in kidnapping my son and carrying him to their land. I dearly love my son.'
Kaukau said, 'This is a different kind of white man, an American. They are good people. Those who kidnapped your son are Spaniards.' Mato replied, 'They are all one kind, white men. This is all I have to say to you, Kaukau, whether the captain gives me a new boat or not, I shall roast this white man.'
I heard all that Kaukau told me. I was very sad and unhappy at this act of an ignorant people. So I told Tahitona to go at once to Mato and tell him to spare the life of the white man to me. That here is my boat and everything else that he can have. Great is my pity for the guiltless white man.
January 14. On the morning of that day, A Kaukau and I went up for a friendly visit with the white man and Mato. As we met with Mato and talked with him, Tahitona arrived with a gun in his hands and gave it to him, saying, 'Let the gun be yours and this white man mine.' Mato agreed and the white man was spared. I reached for him at once and took him to my house. We are glad for this white man, for his escape from the hands of those who want to destroy white men.

- James Kekela to Reverend Lowell Smith, 15 January, 1864, printed in the Hokuloa, February 1864.
Kekela soon arrived with the chief under whose protection he lives, and instantly commenced remonstrating with the natives for their inhuman treatment, and besought them to release him. They demanded a ransom as the only terms for his release. After a council among themselves they decided to release him for a whaleboat and six oars, upon which Kekela told them to take his boat. At this offer, however, Kekela's chief Tahitona demurred, as this would deprive the settlement of their only boat. The discussion now waxed warm between the two chiefs, during which Kekela declared that he was ready to give up anything and everything he possessed, if he could but save the foreigner's life – an instance of disinterested philanthropy which the annals of missions cannot equal. After some further parley, it was agreed to give a musket and some other trade in exchange for Mr Whalon, which was immediately done, and he was led beyond the boundary which separated the domain of the two chiefs, and across which to recapture a person would lead to open warfare between the two tribes. Mr W hesitated when they wished to lead him farther inland, as he did not know what the new chief intended to do with him; but upon being assured by Kekela that he was to go to his own house, where he would take care of him, he gladly went.
Upon arriving there, Mr Whalon was astonished to find a pleasant airy cottage, furnished in a neat and tasty manner, much after the style of a New England farm house, surrounded by a garden where flowers, trees and vegetables grew abundantly.

- Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 20 January, 1864.

Jonathan Whalon got home safe and sound, because James Kekela read the parable of the Good Samaritan and actually took it seriously. Now for the rest of the story.

What Abe Lincoln Did

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) wasn't an aristocrat. No seers prophesied about his birth. If they had, they might not have been believed. Lincoln had fewer educational opportunities than James Kekela, and knew fewer languages. Lincoln was largely self-educated. He shared some time on the planet with Kekela. While Kekela was fighting ignorance and cannibalism in the Marquesas, Lincoln was fighting chaos and slave-based capitalism in North America. Lincoln heard the story of Jonathan Whalon through his Secretary of State, William Seward. Lincoln was moved. The president set aside $500 to be used to buy gifts for all the rescuers – Kekela, Alexander Kaukau, an unnamed young woman who warned Whalon's shipmates not to land, and B Nagel, a German carpenter who helped facilitate communications.

In early 1865, James Kekela received two new suits and a gold Cartier pocket watch. The watch was engraved in Hawaiian:

From the President of the United States to Rev. J. Kekela For His Noble Conduct in Rescuing An American Citizen from Death on the Island of Hiva Oa January 14, 1864.

James Kekela wrote a letter to Lincoln to thank him. The letter, written in Hawaiian, was translated into English. Unfortunately, Lincoln never got to read it. He was assassinated before the letter reached him. This was sad, because Lincoln would have known how to appreciate Kekela's story. Robert Louis Stevenson, who did not like missionaries at all, read the published translation and remarked, 'I do not envy the man who can read it without emotion.'

What Happened to Everyone Else?

The Kekelas didn't leave their mission field until 1899, when they retired. Naomi died in 1902, and James in 1904. There is a commemorative plaque to James Kekela in the Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu. It reads, 'O ke Aloha, oia ka molo o na mea pono ame na me oiaio a pau.' Which in English is, 'Love is the root of all that is good and true.' That about sums up the Kekelas' approach to life.

Jonathan Whalon and the crew of his ship, the Congress 2, left Hawaii in June 1865, only to be captured by the Shenandoah, a Confederate privateer that hadn't got the memo yet about the end of the US Civil War. The whaling fleet was scuttled, but Whalon and his crewmates got home safely with yarns to tell.

What happened to the famous Lincoln watch, you ask? Unfortunately, a family member sold the watch. Fortunately, it was rescued by descendants of the missionaries, who gave it to the Hawaiian Mission Children's Society in Honolulu.

Further Reading

Accounts of the story of Reverend Kekela and the cannibals vary a lot in tone and accuracy. Here are some reading tips for your free time.

'The Watch That Lincoln Gave', from Natural History, February 1948. The highly-coloured narrative is by Wilmon Menard, historian, former war correspondent, and former Time-Life correspondent and screenwriter. (You can tell about the screenwriter part.) The notes about Jonathan Whalon by one of his descendants tell more about the rescued sailor. (He was 5'2" and blond, for example.)

Three Early Christian Leaders of Hawaii by Oscar E Maurer, DD, Honolulu 1945. This book is written from a missionary point of view, but is remarkably candid. It also contains the most complete collection of articles and personal accounts. Well worth reading.

Curios and Relics: Watch, Gift from Abraham Lincoln to Rev James Kekela, is a publication of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection. It has photos of the watch and people, and clippings, correspondence and other relevant texts.

Other States: Hawaii is another file from the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection. In addition to more photos, it contains yet another hair-raising version of the cannibal story by the ever-inventive Wilmon Menard. In this version, Menard claims Kekela tried to talk Chief Mato out of roasting his captive on the grounds that 'most seamen's flesh is salty.' We suspect the story improved with the telling.

Image Credits

  • photo of Lincoln courtesy of the Library of Congress
  • image of the watch courtesy of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection
  • picture of the Kekelas is from: Three Early Christian Leaders of Hawaii by Oscar E Maurer, DD, Honolulu 1945
1Source: Three Early Christian Leaders of Hawaii by Oscar E Maurer, DD, Honolulu 1945, pp. 21-22.2Another Hawaiian minister.

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