The orphan was surveying the sea from atop a lava-rock shrine when he saw them—omens that looked just as his uncle, a kahuna, had foretold. There was a flock of airborne stingrays amid a series of towers, all hovering over a forest floating above the surface.
The orphan sounded the alarm as soon as the apparition materialized, just as the kahuna had instructed. But then the boy’s curiosity got the best of him. He ran down to the shore and immediately began swimming. And as he swam he realized: It wasn’t divine intervention—at least, not directly. Rather, what he saw as an omen was a massive, man-made object. And inside that object were actual men, who saw the boy in the water and called to him, inviting him aboard.
The boy found himself among American sailors on a commercial seafaring expedition, one that eventually took him thousands of miles away, to Connecticut. That’s where the boy stayed until he died from typhus a decade later, in 1818, just as he was preparing to finally return to his island home.
Kaipo‘i Kelling, a longtime educator who teaches fifth and sixth graders at one of Hawaii’s several dozen Hawaiian-language immersion schools, told me this mo‘olelo—“story,” “legend,” “history”—because he wanted to make a point. Hawaii is still witnessing the ripple effects of this fateful moment two centuries ago. The merchant seamen from the United States whom the boy encountered, coupled with the wave of American missionaries who followed that ship, fundamentally altered the Hawaiian way of life, nearly destroying the Hawaiian language along the way. In fact, it’s a miracle the language survived at all after what happened in Honolulu in 1893.