The State of Aloha

Lahainaluna High School is more than a school. The school opened its doors above the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1831 and has never closed. It’s the last public boarding school in the country.

Unlike Punahou School, which was established a decade later and devoted to educate only the children of white missionaries, the school was devoted to the education and betterment of young Native Hawaiian men and boys of all social classes and islands. And it’s a good thing too.

David Malo was neither a white missionary’s kid nor the scion of royalty. He was a commoner who hailed from the leeward side of the Big Island. The only image of the man that has survived depicts a thoughtful and almost brooding man. He is looking right at you with a thoughtful gaze. His lips are closed, and he looks confident and relaxed in his Western-style clothing. The shading around his face is dark, but the areas around his eyes are bright with expression.

Malo moved to Maui in the 1820s and studied at a Congregationalist church. He converted to Christianity and became proficient in English. When Malo enrolled at Lahaina Seminary School, he was 38 years old and married to his second wife (his first wife was much older and died before he moved to Maui).

He also saw that his own culture was changing. When Malo was born, the islands had not yet been united by King Kamehameha (that happened in 1810). He saw the nearly simultaneous changes to Hawaiian life: the abolishment of the kapu system in 1819 and the arrival of American and English missionaries a year later.

Given his natural insight and intellect, it’s no surprise that Malo started taking notes on what he saw as a dying indigenous culture and religion. He published his work in 1838. Today, it’s known as Hawaiian Antiquities and is considered one of the great works about pre-contact Hawaii. His other work, a biography of Kamehameha, has been lost.

Malo also saw that his nation, the Hawaiian Kingdom, was part of a larger world and feared that his little nation and his people were in jeopardy of being overtaken by the rising tide of imperialism.

“If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shadows they will eat them up. . . . The white man’s ships have arrived with clever men from the big countries; they know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us.”

He wanted a set of “clever men” representing his country and urged his government to promote education and slow the aggressive efforts of white businessmen. In 1841, Malo was elected to the first legislative House of Representatives of the Hawaiian Kingdom. He soon left public life and returned to Maui to start a church in the isolated fishing village of Kalepolepo (an area we would now call northern Kihei).

Malo did not live long to see his church succeed. He died on the church grounds in 1853. The church carried on for another 30 years until it was believed to have been set afire by proponents of the American overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Flooding from a storm a few years later destroyed what remained.

The Episcopal Trinity Church-by-the-Sea now stands next to the ruins of Malo’s original church. But David Malo is not buried in the churchyard. His body was taken by canoe back to Lahaina. Malo saw that growing appetite of foreigners, their capitalistic plans and, above all, the all-consuming needs of the sugar cane crop and industry. He wanted to be far from the tumult that would dominate the islands for decades and was buried on Mount Ball behind his alma mater and above Lahaina town.

Lahainaluna has not forgotten its famed alumnus. The boys dormitory still bears his name, and the students of the school have a traditional David Malo Day to commemorate him. There’s also my favorite tradition about the school.

Around this time of year, students join the generations of classes before them and hike up to the large “L” carved out of the mountain and highlighted with lime powder. Students — the boarders at Lahainaluna — trek up the 2,000-foot mountain with sacks of lime powder. They pull weeds and carefully spread the lime powder along the lines of the “L” so it can brightly stand out as a beacon over Lahaina.

When their work is done, they go a little farther to the summit of the mountain and clean Malo’s grave. They line the grave with flower lei, sing, chant and pay tribute to one of their greatest alumni. We still have a lot to learn from him.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”