By Bob Krauss
Letters tell of forgotten Hawaiians
HIVA OA, Marquesas Islands—At Atuona, a tattooed Marquesas wearing a “Aranui Crew” tank-top pointed from the cargo deck down the pier and shouted, “Hawaiian.”
We walked over to a medium-sized man beside a pickup loaded with copra andshook hands with James Kekela. He is the descendant and namesake of a Hawaiian missionary to the Marquesas who was honored by President Abraham Lincoln for saving an American sailor from the cannibal pot.
Since then, Hawaiian Kekelas have spread all over the Marquesas. So have other Hawaiian families. It’s the best-kept secret in the Pacific. The man who uncovered it is Dwayne “Nakila” Steele, who piloted Grace Pacific into the top 10 list of Hawaiʻi construction firms before he turned historian.
Steele learned Hawaiian so he could study history as Hawaiians wrote it. That’s how he discovered the letters and journals of Hawaiian missionaries who went to the Marquesas 149 years ago.
The missionaries’ stories are epic tales of low pay and hardship, of devotion a human frailty. Today, the remains of Samuel Kauwealoha lie unmarked amid weeds on the island of Ua Pou. Zakaria Hapuku lies under a stone with no name on Hiva Oa.
Five of Hapuku’s six children died on Hiva Oa. His sixth was seriously ill when a heathen Marquesan priest told him the child would die if Hapuku didn’t give the priest a horse. Hapuku’s wife gave the priest a horse and the child lived. Other missionaries chastised Hapuku, then forgave him.
The missionaries were paid $200 a year, later reduced to $1500. They planted gardens for food. They introduced new plants to the Marquesas where the chiefs were less interested in the gospel than in tobacco, cloth, boats and guns. It took Kekela three years to make three converts.
Toua Tetuanui lives at Omoa, Fatu Hiva, where the missionaries first landed in 1853. Toua said the reason that Matunui, the chief of Fatu Hiva at that time,let the missionaries to set up stations on other islands was because of the new foods they introduced in garden inland of Omoa.
In those days, Marquesans were so dependent on breadfruit that they starved when it failed to fruit. Toua said people still go to the garden for cuttings of taro and banana. The Hawaiian sweet potato has long since spread all over the island.
In 188e Tahitians took over the mission, but some Hawaiian missionaries stayed on. We saw the ruins of a mission house and school at Puamau, the foundation stones of Hapuku’s house at Atuona, forgotten monuments to sacrifice without recognition. It’s time somebody in Hawaiʻi remembered.
(Advertiser, 9/1/2002, p. A23)