While there were several other participants, this story really relates to two people – James Kekela and Jonathan Whalon … and because of the meeting between these two, President Abraham Lincoln stepped into the picture.
James Kekela was born in 1824 at Mokuleia, in Waialua. After public schooling, he was selected as a promising candidate to attend the mission school at Lahainaluna.
“Here he acquired what that center of light had to give; some knowledge of life, of the world in which we live, and of the divine revelation made in the Sacred Scriptures. And more than all else, he acquired a firm faith in a personal Savior and Redeemer.” (The Friend)
Mr. Kekela was the first Native Hawaiian to be ordained as a minister in Hawaiʻi, ordained at Kahuku on December 21, 1849 and settled as pastor of the Hauʻula church.
He served as pastor for two or three years until he was called to foreign missionary work – in 1853, the Hawaiian churches decided to unite to support a mission to the Marquesas Islands, sending out missionaries from among their own ranks.
Rev. James Kekela and Rev. Samuel Kauwealoha, and their wives, were accompanied by New England missionary Benjamin Parker of Kāneʻohe Mission Station; these native couples were the first Hawaiian families to serve as missionaries in the Marquesas, 1853-1909.
They settled on the island of Hiva-Oa in Puamau, a large valley with 500 inhabitants – the valley rises two miles inland, where it terminates in an abrupt precipice 2,000 feet high.
Kekela’s counterpart in this story, Jonathan Whalon, was born at Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1822. On July 13, 1841, he applied for and was granted Seaman’s Protection Certificate #58 at Fall River, Massachusetts.
He served on whaling ships and made a total of seven whaling voyages, working his way up the chain of command, from green-hand to captain on his fifth and sixth voyages.
His seventh and final voyage (in 1864) was on board the whaling ship Congress 2, as first mate. Evidently everything went smoothly until he decided to visit the natives on the island of Hiva-Oa.
Unbeknownst to all, previously, a Peruvian vessel had stolen men from Hiva-Oa, and the Marquesans were waiting for an opportunity to revenge the deed.
Mr. Whalon went on shore to trade for pigs, fowls, etc, and the natives, under the presence of hunting pigs, decoyed him into the woods, where, at a concerted signal, large numbers of men had been collected. Mr. Whalon was seized, bound, stripped of his clothing, and taken to be cooked and eaten.
“Kekela and others made haste to rescue the mate. At first the wrathful chief refused to give up his victim; but he yielded at length to Kekela’s entreaties, and offered to receive as a ransom his new six-oared boat, given him by his benefactor in Boston, which he greatly prized, and greatly needed in his missionary work. But the good man did not hesitate a moment to accept the hard terms.” (Hiram Bingham Jr.)
The dramatic circumstances of Jonathan Whalon’s capture and rescue were reported when his ship reached America, and the incident eventually came to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln.
Although the President was engrossed in the ‘War Between the States,’ he was so moved that he sent $500 in gold to Dr. McBride, US Minister resident in Honolulu, for the purchase of suitable gifts that would express his gratitude to those who had participated in the rescue.
The President presented a total of 10-gifts: two gold hunting case watches; two double-barreled guns (one to the Marquesan chief who rescued Mr. Whalon and the other to B. Nagel, the German who assisted the chief;) a silver medal to the girl who hailed the whaleboat and told the men to “pull away”; and, lastly, a spy-glass, two quadrants and two charts to the Marquesan Mission. All were inscribed in Hawaiian. (The Friend)
“This act of the President, in rewarding these persons, will have a good effect all through the ocean, for it will be circulated far and near, and will show them that the President not only hears of the good deeds of Polynesian islanders, but stands ready to reward them.” (The Friend)
Most interesting among the gifts was a large gold watch the President gave to Kekela (a similar watch was given to Kaukau, Kekela’s associate in the rescue.)
The inscription on it is translated from Hawaiian as follows:
“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.”
Rev. Kekela sent a thank you letter, in response. In part, it stated: “Greetings to you, great and good Friend! … 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 eaten, I ran to save him, full of pity and grief at the evil deed of these benighted people.”
“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 countrymen, 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 love.”
“I gave my boat for the stranger’s life. This boat came from James Hunnewell, a gift of friendship. 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, Jan. 14, 1864.” (Kekela as quoted by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Unfortunately, President Lincoln never received the thank you note; Lincoln was assassinated shortly before the note’s arrival.
After forty-seven years of foreign missionary service in the Marquesas, Rev. and Mrs. Kekela returned to their native islands. Kekela died in 1904. He is buried in Mission Houses cemetery a few steps from where his gold watch and letters are kept at the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives.
The story is depicted in a recent Mysteries at the Museum – here is a link to the full program, the Kekela Watch sequence is within this video (go to 20:44):