By Jeffrey Allen Smith
The New York Times February 25, 2014
While America was embroiled in a bloody civil war for its very survival, a little over 5,000 miles away from Washington, in the middle of the South Pacific, the people of the Marquesas Islands were in a struggle of their own over slavery.
The American war, unsurprisingly, more detailed documentation. In the Marquesas conflict, differing witness testimony, secondhand accounts, various newspaper articles, translations and time all conspired to obscure details. Nevertheless, in sifting through the historical minutiae, a relatively clear picture emerged of an incredible series of events that ultimately came to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1864.
In 1856, slavery technically ended in Peru, but the need for workers to toil in slavelike conditions in the country’s tin and guano mines did not. As a result, “blackbirding” ships roamed the Pacific ensnaring unfortunate souls “by hook or by crook” to labor in Peru. The victims were often the peoples of the South Pacific.
In 1863 a Peruvian blackbirding ship sailed into Puamau Bay on the northeastern shore of Hiva Oa Island in the Marquesas. After opening fire on people gathered onshore, the slavers made off with all the Puamau men and women they could grab, including the chief’s son. Understandably distraught and angered by this atrocity, those who lived through the assault pledged to exact a frightful vengeance if foreign sailors dared show again.
Unfortunately, the crew members of the American whaling ship Congress from New Bedford, Mass., were the next foreign sailors to show. Capt. Francis E. Stranburg and his men were blissfully ignorant of the islanders’ oath of revenge and the raid on Puamau Bay when they casually dropped anchor there Jan. 13, 1864. For to the captain and crew, this was routine, just another stop to make repairs and obtain provisions. The sailors lowered two longboats loaded with trade goods, and a small detachment of men led by the first officer, Jonathan Whalon, rowed toward the beach in Puamau Bay.
Probably intoxicated by tales of Polynesian hospitality and the “custom” of offering attractive young females to traders, Whalon interpreted the hand gestures, broken English and disposition of the islanders who paddled out to greet them as signs of a people eager to trade. Foolishly, Whalon went ashore alone with the Marquesans, ordering the crew of the two longboats to stay back and wait for his return.
However, once well inside the tree line, the Paumau men seized Whalon, stripped him of his clothes and bound him. They took him to their village, where tribal members reportedly pinched him, tweaked his nose, bent his fingers back over his hands, menacingly swung hatchets at him and eventually began building a fire with which to cook him.
Back in Paumau Bay, more islanders were actively trying to entice the waiting sailors in the two longboats to come ashore. The whalers almost complied, and would have but for the efforts of a Marqusesan girl who ran out frantically shouting and waving her hands. The chaotic scene proved unnerving and unsettling to the sailors, so they returned to the Congress without Whalon.
By this time word had begun to spread on the island about the kidnapped American sailor. A Hawaiian missionary improbably named Alexander Kaukau (Kaukau is Hawaiian pidgin for “food” or “to eat”) and Bartholomen Negal, a local German carpenter, tried and failed to dissuade Mato, the Paumau chief, from killing Whalon. According to some reports, Kaukau pleaded with Mato for Whalon’s life but Mato replied, “The white men are wrong in kidnapping my son and carrying him to their land. I dearly love my son.” Again Kaukau implored Mato claiming that Americans were “good people.” Unpersuaded, Mato simply shot back, “They are all one kind, white men.”
However, fate interceded with the arrival of another Hawaiian missionary, James Kekela, the first Hawaiian ordained as a Christian missionary and Kaukau’s senior. He had fortuitously just returned from a neighboring island to reports of a “white man is about to be roasted.” After gaining what information he could, Kekela donned his black preacher’s jacket and, with only his bible in hand, set off for Mato’s village. The negotiations were tense, and at one point Kekela declared he would trade “anything and everything he possessed” for the sailor’s release.
But ultimately Kekela purchased Whalon’s freedom with much less: his black preacher’s jacket and prized whaleboat. In fact, some contend that the entire event was a ruse by Mato to get Kekela’s boat, given its high value in the islands. Nevertheless, Kekela returned Whalon to the waiting Congress, which sailed to Honolulu, where tales of “cannibals” capturing an American sailor and Kekela’s heroics prompted the American minister to Hawaii, James McBride, to write a note to Secretary of State William H. Seward.
McBride’s letter, dated Feb. 26, 1864, detailed the harrowing events in the Marquesas and requested that Seward “show to the world … we have tender regard for each one of our number, and that we highly, very highly, appreciate such favors.”
Taking almost a month to make its way across the Pacific, the letter arrived on Seward’s desk by April 18, 1864. Three days later Seward replied that he had submitted McBride’s account of the rescue to Lincoln and that the president had “instructions” for the diplomat. McBride was directed to “draw on this department for five hundred dollars in gold” to purchase presents for Whalon’s rescuers, and to engrave the gifts with the words: “From the President of the United States to – for his [or her] noble conduct in rescuing an American citizen from death-Island of Hivaoa-1863.” (McBride took it upon himself to correct the year to 1864.)
Roughly a year later, on Feb. 14, 1865, McBride sent word to Seward detailing the presents he distributed. He had sent gifts to the Hawaiian missionary Kaukau, the German carpenter Negal and even the young Marquesan girl who warned the sailors in the two long boats. He gave Kekela two new suits and a gold Cartier pocket watch with the inscription, “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.”
To express his gratitude, Kekela wrote a seven-page letter of thanks in Hawaiian to “A. Linekona” on March 27, 1865. Accompanied by an English translation, the letter opened with a short autobiographical sketch of Kekela before transitioning into a retelling of how he saved “a citizen of your great nation, ill-treated, and about to be baked and eaten, as a pig is eaten.” Kekela also commended Lincoln stating, “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.” Unfortunately, Lincoln never read Kekela’s words. The letter did not reach Washington until almost two months after Lincoln’s assassination.
However, the impact of Kekela’s saving Whalon from “cannibals” and the gold watch Lincoln gave Kekela grew with time. In subsequent decades, newspapers reprinted and recounted Kekela’s actions, the gold watch from Lincoln, and Kekela’s letter to the president. The heartfelt prose in Kekela’s letter to Lincoln moved many, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote in his book “In the South Seas,” “I do not envy the man who can read it without emotion.”
Jeffrey Allen Smith is an assistant professor of history at the University of Hawaii, Hilo. Research assistance for this article was provided by Samantha Aolani Kailihou and Noah Gomes.