Denby Fawcett: How A Former Slave Made His Fortune In 19th Century Waikiki - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Anthony D. Allen is finally getting the national attention he deserves.

One of the most prosperous, respected men in early 19th century Honolulu was an African American named Anthony D. Allen — who settled in Waikiki after escaping enslavement and traveling the world for 10 years as a steward and cook on a merchant vessel.

When Allen arrived in Honolulu on the sailing ship in 1810, he became a confidant and household member of Kamehameha the Great. Later, he lived in the home of Kamehameha’s priest Hewahewa whom he successfully petitioned to give him six acres of land.

The land — then considered part of Waikiki — is where Washington Middle School is today on South King street.

Even though I grew up in Honolulu I had never heard of Allen until I came across his name 20 years ago in an article by Marc Scruggs in a copy of the Hawaiian Journal of History I bought at a used book sale. 

Ever since then, I have been looking for an excuse to write about him.

In my history classes at Punahou School in the 1950s, my teachers did not “erase” Allen. The truth is much sadder. 

He did not exist.

Our Hawaiian history lessons focused mainly on the Protestant missionaries and Hawaiian royalty, with no mention of Hawaii’s early entrepreneurs of African or Asian ancestry.

Allen is important because of the special lens he gives into early 1800s Honolulu, an international village teeming with adventurous spirits arriving on ships from all over the world.

He also is valuable to study because his life offers a different glimpse into the larger story of enslaved people everywhere — often driven at great danger to themselves — to escape to freedom.

Allen is acknowledged nationally today in the National Park Service’s project called The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom

The project highlights the lives of people in bondage who fled on routes ranging from forest trails to back roads, swamps, canals or, like Allen, on a merchant vessel on the open ocean traversing the remote corners of the Pacific.

“His story is so important. It demonstrates the urge for personal freedom is essentially a global quest. Allen traveled the longest route to liberate himself but I am hoping to find other freedom seekers who escaped to Hawaii, I am sure there are others,” said Diane Miller, the national program manager of the project.

Allen’s story enlarges our awareness that there was not just a single route to liberation leading from the Deep South to free states and Canada, but rather there were  many “underground railroads,” to better lives.  

Deloris Guttman with a cardboard cutout depicting Anthony D. Allen at the Obama Hawaiian Africana Museum. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

Allen was born into slavery in Schenectady, New York in 1774 — the property of a doctor named Duncan McDougall who also owned Allenʻs mother and sister Diane.

After the doctor died Allen was worried McDougall’s widow would sell him to a new owner far away from his mother. He arranged instead for a nearby neighbor named Kelly to buy him for $300.  But for reasons still unknown when he was 24, he decided to flee.

He traversed mountains and valleys from Kelly’s house, making it eventually to Hartford, Connecticut where he got on a boat to the free city of Boston to begin his seafaring life as a crew member on a merchant ship.

Before he decided to make his permanent residence in Honolulu, Allen traveled to China and France, Cuba and other islands of the Caribbean facing harrowing times including a shipwreck, an encounter with pirates and the extraordinary experience of running into his former master who tried to recapture him.

Once he settled in the islands he became fluent in olelo Hawaii and began to build connections in the highest circles, becoming a well-established businessman in Waikiki a decade before the first group of missionaries arrived in 1820.

Allen embraced the missionaries and helped them to adjust to life in Polynesia which must have been a daunting place for the young New Englanders. He welcomed them with gifts of food from his farm and invitations to feasts served on the finest China and crystal at his comfortable home.

Missionary Maria Loomis wrote: “Among the residents of this Island is a Black man native of Schenectady named Allen. He has been our constant  friend, has daily furnished us with milk, and once or twice a week with fresh meat and vegetables. He has also made us a number of other valuable presents.”

A painting by Deloris Guttman showing a romanticized vision of Anthony D. Allenʻs Honolulu compound. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

In their journals, some of the American missionaries wrote about enjoying tours of Allen’s gardens dotted with 10 separate houses and partaking of wine and spirits at his dinner parties.

Sybil Bingham, a teacher, noted in her journal: “He set upon the table decanters and glasses with wine and brandy to refresh us.”

Missionary Maria Partridge Whitney wrote: “In one corner of the room stood a table filled with decanters and other glasses. He immediately offered us some refreshing cordials, then took his seat with us a short time, and afterwards went to prepare for dinner.” 

After dinner, Mrs. Whitney said dessert was “pudding and watermelon, with wine and brandy.”

But the London Missionary Society missionaries from Tahiti who visited in 1822 were less tolerant of Allen’s use of spirits, lecturing him on the evils of alcohol — admonitions he cheerfully ignored.

Interestingly as an indication of Allen’s high standing with the Hawaiian alii, when Kaahumanu converted to Christianity and went on a rampage closing down all the brothels and bars, she spared a grog shop Allen ran on his property.

Besides his grog shop and herd of 300 goats, many of which he sold as provisions to visiting ships, Allen launched numerous enterprises at his compound including a commercial dairy, a slaughterhouse and a dining facility where Hawaiian chiefs arranged fancy parties for their guests.

He also built Hawaiiʻs first bowling alley and ran a boarding house and a hospital where injured and ill seamen could be treated and recuperate before heading back to sea.

As a former sailor, Allen had firsthand knowledge of the injuries and diseases mariners suffered on sailing ships where they lacked the protection of unions or access to medical care.

“How Anthony Allen knew how to cure the seamen is a mystery like so much else we still donʻt know about his life. Maybe he understood medical procedures from growing up in the home of a master who was a doctor,” says Deloris Guttman.

Guttman runs the tiny Obama Hawaiian Africana Museum on the second floor of the Hawaii National Bank building on Kapiolani Boulevard. It is the only museum in Hawaii honoring Allen’s life.

There is a life-size cutout of him when you enter the jumble of small rooms making up the museum.

Guttman used her imagination and years of research about Allen to paint a picture of his compound and a portrait of him. Since there are no other known drawings of Allen, her image is widely used in publications.

An NPS plaque honoring Anthony D. Allen located on the edge of the parking lot at Washington Middle School. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

The other place Allen is commemorated is on a plaque at Washington Middle School — the site of his former home and many enterprises. The National Park Service erected a memorial marker there in August 2021.

The plaque today is tagged with graffiti and marred with bird poop.

Washington Middle School’s principal Michael Harano says the school is focused now on catching up from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have not done much with Anthony Allen’s story, but I hope to expand on it in the future,” Harano said.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Mahalo Denby Fawcett for your delightful glimpse into the life and time of Mr. Anthony Allen! I am a published Hawaiian historian of many years, but I had never run across his name or his story before. Thank you for teaching me something new about Hawaii's incredible past.I am one of your many fans Denby - I never miss anything you write - looking forward to your next installment.A hui hou e aloha,Rebecca Kamili'iaekaua

Haumea2021 · 6 months ago

Loved the article Ms. Fawcett. The more we discover and honor the early non Hawaiian residents of Hawaii, the richer the tapestry of our community. Please share more stories, they deserve to be told. Mahalo.

Dakinetita · 6 months ago

Great history and a testament not only to the universal thirst for freedom and capacity for genius in everyone, but also the welcoming spirit and egalitarian nature of Hawaiian culture. Funny that things don't change--missionaries from outside were grumpy about grog then and grumpy about people being who they naturally are today too. Would just suggest to editors that the term "slave" in the title be changed to reflect the wording in the story: "enslaved." Anthony Allen wasn't a slave in his nature and shouldn't be called as such--someone else forced that temporary condition on him. Until he outsmarted them...

PlaceBased · 6 months ago

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