h2g2 Literary Corner: A Hawaiian Writes to Lincoln

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Want to build a better world? Love your neighbour. A. Lincoln and J. Kekela both knew this.

A Hawaiian Writes to Lincoln

A. LincolnKekela's Lincoln watchThe Kekelas

Ed. Note:   This amazing letter is kept in the Library of Congress collection of Lincoln's papers. It's an English translation of a letter written in Hawaiian. The story it tells is going to end up in a Guide Entry, but here, I'm just going to gloss Reverend Kekela's letter for you.

Lincoln never got to read this letter. The mail was too slow, and he died before it arrived in Washington. That was a shame. Lincoln and Kekela had so much in common, I'm sure the two would have been good friends.

James Kekela's Letter

Hivaoa, March 27, 1865.

To A. LINCOLN, President of the United States of America:

Greetings to you, great and good friend: My mind is stirred up to address you in friendship, by the receipt of your communication through your minister resident in Honolulu, James McBride1.

I greatly respect you for holding converse with such humble ones. Such you well know us to be2.

I am a native of the Hawaiian Islands, from Waialua, Oahu, born in 1824, and at twelve years of age attended the school at Waialua of Rev. Mr. Emerson; and was instructed in reading, writing and mental arithmetic3 and geography.

In 1838 I was entered at the High School of Lahainaluna, and was under the instruction of Messrs. L. Andrews, E. W. Clark, S. Dibble and Alexander. Not being in advance of others, I remained in the school some years, and in 1843 I graduated and was then invited and desired by the teachers to continue my studies in other branches, that is, to join a class in theology, under the Rev. S. Dibble. He died in 1845, and I and others continued the study of the Scriptures under W. P. Alexander. In 1847 I graduated, having been at Lahainaluna nine years. In that year,
1847, I married a girl from my native place, who had for seven years attended a female seminary at Wailuku under the instruction of J. S. Green, E. Bailey and Miss Ogden4.

In the same year 1847, I and my wife were called to Kahuku, a remote place in Koolau, on Oahu, to instruct the people there in the Scriptures, and in other words of wisdom5. I remained in this work for some years. It was clear to myself and to my wife that our lives were not our own, but belonged to the Lord, and, therefore we covenanted one with the other, that we would be the Lord's, 'His only, His forever.' And from that time forth we yielded ourselves servants unto the Lord. In 1852, certain American missionaries, Dr. Gulick, and others, were sent out on their way to Micronesia. I was one of their company, and after seven months absence, 1 returned with E. W. Clark. On my return I was employed in arousing the Hawaiians to the
work of foreign missions6.

In 1853 there came to our islands a Macedonian cry7 for missionaries to Nuuhiva, brought by Matunui, a chief of Fatuhiva8.

The missionaries speedily laid hold upon me to go to this group of islands. I did not assent immediately. I stopped to consider carefully, with much prayer to God, to make clear to me that this call was from God, and I took counsel with my wife, it was evident to us that this was a
call from God, therefore we consented to come to these dark, benighted and cannibal islands9. I had aged parents, and my wife beloved relatives, and we had a little
girl three years old. We left them in our native land. We came away to seek the salvation of the souls of this people, because our hearts were full of the love of God. This was the only ground of our coming hither, away from our native land.

In the year 1853 we came to these cannibal islands, and we dwelt first for four years at Fatuhiva, and in 1857 we removed to Hivaoa, another island, to do the work of the Lord Jesus; and from that time until now, we have striven to do the work of Jesus Christ, without regard for
wealth or worldly pleasure. We came for the Lord, to seek the salvation of men, and this is our only motive for remaining in this dark land10.

When I saw one of your countrymen, a citizen of your great nation, ill-treated, and
about to be baked and eaten, as a pig is eaten11 , I ran to save him, full of pity and grief at the evil deed of these benighted people. I gave [offered] my boat for the stranger's life. This boat came from James Hunnewell, a gift of friendship12. It became the ransom of this countryman of yours, that he might not be eaten by the savages who knew not Jehovah. This was Mr. Whalon, and the date January 14, 1864.

As to this friendly deed of mine in saving Mr. Whalon, its seed came from your great land, and was brought by certain of your countryman, who had received the love of God. It was planted in Hawaii, and I brought it to plant in this land and in these dark regions, that they might receive the root of all that is good and true, which is love13.

. . . 14

How shall I repay your great kindness to me? Thus David asked of Jehovah, and thus I ask of you, the President of the United States. This is my only payment, – that which I have received of the Lord, love – [aloha].

I and my wife, Naomi, have five children, the first with Miss Ogden, the second with Rev. J. S. Emerson; we now send the third to live with Rev. L. H. Gulick; the fourth is with Kauwealoha, my fellow missionary, and the fifth is with us at present. Another stranger is soon expected. There is heaviness in thus having to scatter the children where they can be well taken care of15.

We have received your gifts of friendship according to your instructions to your minister, James McBride16. Ah! I greatly honor your interest in this countryman of yours. It is, indeed, in keeping with all I have known of your acts as President of
the United States.

A clear witness this in all lands of your love for those whose deeds are love, as saith the Scripture, 'Thou shalt love Jehovah, and shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'

And so may the love of the Lord Jesus abound with you until the end of this terrible war in your land.

I am, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, your o'bt serv't17,


Brief stylistic note:   Barring the 'o'bt serv't' bit, the style of James Kekela's letters owes a lot more to the New Testament than to The Oxford Handbook of Commerical Correspondence. It's kind of awe-inspiring to see people reaching across 18 centuries and 16,000 km like that to influence each other.

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1Lincoln sent Kekela an inscribed gold watch and other gifts. Read on to see why.2It was the habit of 'westerners' like British and US travelers to feel superior to 'natives' like Kekela and his family. Lincoln had experienced his fair share of that kind of superiority from his fellow Americans. He was born in a log cabin on a frontier, and didn't have any fancy relatives. Many people thought he was a public embarrassment.3Personally, I think arithmetic warps the brain, but maybe somebody can explain 'mental arithmetic' to us.4The Kekelas probably didn't know it, but they had a lot more formal schooling than Abraham Lincoln. He would have been impressed.5Hawaiians lived in a kingdom that had a long and rich tradition of oral learning. They were enthusiastic about the 'new learning' they got from Western contact, from literacy to science to, at least in some cases, theology and philosophy.6Which was practically in their backyard, a mere 4,000 km away. British and US missionaries had tried to work in Micronesia, but they were frankly so scared of the cannibals that they tended to run back to the relative safety of Hawaii. Kekela and his wife were incredibly brave to stick it out in this dangerous neighbourhood.7In the book of Acts, chapter 6, the Apostle Paul was in Asia Minor when he had a vision of a man from Macedonia (northern Greece) asking for help. Ever since then, a 'Macedonian cry' is a sense of responsibility for a people you haven't met yet. James Kekela seems to have thought that 1800-year-old text was speaking to him, away out in the Pacific.8Who turned out to be 'unstable', according to missionary historians. In other words, he promised support, but did not deliver. The Kekelas lived in precarious circumstances.9Remember, the description of the Marquesas as 'dark, benighted and cannibal islands' is coming from people who grew up in the Kingdom of Hawaii.10They didn't have it easy, these Hawaiian missionaries. There was more political intrigue among those chiefs than in House of Cards. There was chicanery by visiting European and American sailors. There was disease and economic hardship and fighting and meanness of all kinds.11Okay, here's where we get to the story. Some Peruvians came to a nearby island and kidnapped an entire village into slavery, including the chief's son. The chief vowed revenge. The next white men to show up were not Peruvian, but a US whaling ship. The chief seized its first officer, Jonathan Whalon, and prepared to eat him in retaliation for their sufferings. They would have taken others, but a young woman warned them not to land. Sympathetic locals warned the Hawaiian missionaries, who sprang into action. We'll let Kekela tell it from here.12The boat was a big deal: it was extremely valuable. Sources differ on whether the cannibal chief got the boat in the end, or whether Mr Kekela's chief managed to substitute a rifle in the trade in order to keep the boat for his people. But Mr Kekela definitely told the cannibal chief that he could have anything he owned, if he would spare the stranger's life.13We will not comment on the multilayered ironies here. We will, however, note that this letter was written at the same time as the US Civil War, and that Lincoln was not going to live long enough to read it, because he was going to be murdered before it arrived. Maybe the Hawaiians should have sent missionaries to the mainland.14Some Sunday School stuff you probably aren't interested in. You are? Well, bless your heart. Look it up where I got it from, in Three Early Christian Leaders of Hawaii, by Oscar E Maurer, D.D. There are some cool stories in that book.15This is about the saddest thing you could read. . . no wonder Robert Louis Stevenson said, 'I do not envy the man who can read [this letter] without emotion.' Stevenson lived in the general area and probably saw the letter in The Friend   – the 'oldest newspaper west of the Rockies'. Though he was critical of the missionaries in general (with good reason sometimes, see Hawaiian history), Stevenson was obviously impressed by James Kekela.16Lincoln sent $500 in gold to be used to buy thank-you gifts for all the rescuers involved. Reverend Kekela got some new clothes and an inscribed gold watch, which has become an heirloom.17=Obedient servant, which was a way to close letters in the old days, Lord knows why.

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