Hawaii: Visiting the Lyman Museum and Mission House in Hilo, The Big Island

 It was about 1795, during the Hawaiian civil wars, when Kamehameha the Great, having conquered what we now know as the Big Island, departed with an armada of almost 1000 war canoes and 10,000 warriors to unite the most remote archipelago on earth.

Desperate to survive after his parents had been killed in the civil war an orphan named Opukana spotted a foreign sailing ship, Triumph, at anchor in Honolulu harbour and – with nothing to lose – swam out to it, begging its captain to take pity on him.  Opukana became a cabin boy, toured the Pacific and eventually sailed to Triumph's home port in Connecticut, becoming a devout Christian by the time he docked.

"Opukana's dream was to bring Christianity to Hawaii," says Pat Engelhard, my guide at the Lyman Museum and Mission House in Hilo, one of the two largest towns on "the Big Island".

Even on a good day, Hilo is one of the wettest towns on earth. Usually, however, it is a tourism hub because of its proximity to the Volcanoes National Park, one of the most popular in the US. Sadly, most of the park is off limits when I visit because Kilauea (the most active volcano in the world) has been belching lava and brimstone over land and ocean.

This morning, Hilo is also recovering from the onslaught of Hurricane Lane which, having dropped 127 centimetres of rain in three days, has left many roads impassable.   Fortunately, the Lyman Museum and Mission House – higher up the hill from some of the ocean-front attractions  that have borne the brunt of the huge waves and rainstorms – is still open on this wet Tuesday. Even more fortunately, I'm the only person to sign up for the 11am guided tour.

 The mission house is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the 50th state and has been moved from its original location because it would otherwise have been demolished for "roadworks". 

Once she unlocks the mission door, Engelhard continues Opukana's tragic story. Opukana enrolled to become a missionary in the US but died of typhoid in 1818 before he could begin his ministry. His vision and death inspired the grandly-named "American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions" to complete his dream.

A ship, Thaddeus, left Boston in 1819 with two ministers, a farmer, a printer, two teachers, "their wives" and five children. They rounded Cape Horn and arrived in Kona (then Hawaii's capital) after Kamehameha the Great had died. That was very lucky, Engelhard explains. Kamehameha the Great's son, Kamehameha II, had a favourite wife – Ka'ahymanu – who was a champion of what we'd now call equal rights. Under her guidance, Kamehameha II abolished the old Kapu religious system that segregated men and women. When the missionaries arrived, Ka'ahymanu embraced their new faith – and so Hawaii became predominantly Christian. Today, thanks to its multi-cultural influx of labourers working in the now-closed sugar and pineapple plantations, you can find most of the world's religions if you look closely enough.

The Lyman Museum and Mission House began as the Hilo Mission Station, Engelhard explains. The Reverend David Lyman and his wife, Sarah, arrived in 1832 – bringing their New England-style furniture with them round the Cape. For a while they lived in the insect-ridden traditional stone and wooden dwelling their predecessor missionaries had endured. Fearing for the health of their children, however, they commissioned a Western-style, single-storey building in 1839. By the time they'd both died in 1884, they'd raised eight children in the house, educated hundreds of local children, taught the girls sewing and knitting skills that could supplement the family income, and created the Hilo Trade School, which taught the boys necessary skills to make their futures as carpenters, blacksmiths or ironmongers.


In 1929, the mission house was due for demolition but one of the Lyman's  daughters, Emma Lyman Wilcox, purchased it and had it moved across the road to its present location. Since then, the museum has grown enormously. The modern building next door has several permanent exhibitions that explain traditional Hawaiian life before European contact. Here I learned, for example, that  the Hawaiians never entered the Iron Age because there were no metals.  It's all very fascinating. 

I would encourage visitors to Hilo to take a guided tour of the mission house. It's a simple building that speaks volumes about Hawaii's recent history.


Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America.





Qantas, Jetstar and Hawaiian have regular flights to Honolulu. See qantas.com  jetstar.com hawaiianairlines.com 


Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America is the only cruise ship that visits four Hawaiian islands in a seven-day cruise (departing and returning every Saturday). See ncl.com