OPUKAHA'IA OF HAWAII
Opukaha'ia (Obookiah) was born in Ka'u, near the village of Punalu'u on
the Island of Hawai'i. His approximate birthyear was about 1792. He was
orphaned at the age of 10 or 12 after fleeing a bloody battle between
Hawaiian warriors seeking control of the island of Hawai'i. His
father's tribe lost the battle and the victors attacked the family's
village. Henry's family fled, and while seeking drinking water they
were spotted and his parents were killed. Henry tried to run with his
infant brother on his back, but the infant was killed by a spear
intended for him.
Henry eventually was given to his uncle, a kahuna or
priest in South Kona at the Hikiau Heiau at Napo'opo'o. He was again
later captured by enemies of his family, faced death, and escaped. Then
a great change occurred in his spirit. A desire to leave Hawai'i grew
within him and he longed to find comfort in another country. At that
time the ship Triumph out of New York and New England sailed
into Kealakekua Bay and Henry swam out to her and climbed aboard.
Through an interpreter he asked Captain Caleb Brintnall to take him on
as a crewmember. At dinner that night Henry met Thomas Hopu, another
Hawaiian youth, and the two became fast friends. Brintnall's Yankee
pronunciation of Opukaha'ia came out Obookiah, and the Anglicized name
became his common name aboard ship and later in New England.
objected to his leaving, and forced him to return home. However, he
soon again escaped. Finally, the uncle realized he couldn't keep his
nephew from leaving and consented to his departure, but asked for a pig
to sacrifice to his god in return for the boy.
set sail for the Pacific Northwest to pick up sealers, one of whom,
Russell Hubbard, was a Yale student from Connecticut. Six months later
the ship returned to Hawai'i, then went on to China, and finally New
York. During the long voyage Hubbard tutored Henry and Hopu in English.
brought the two Hawaiian youths to his Connecticut home. Henry worked
as a servant and wandered the streets of the seaport of New Haven and
became friends with students at Yale. Some students witnessed to Henry,
and he attended church on Sundays with Brintnall.
frustrated by his limited English and desire to join the students at
Yale, Henry sat on the threshold of one of the buildings and wept
because "nobody gave him learning." He was discovered by Edwin W.
Dwight of Yale, who began his formal education.
his next voyage, Brintnall offered to sail Henry back to Hawai'i, but
the young man refused. Henry then left Brintnall's home and became a
resident in the home of Dr. Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College
and brother of Edwin. Samuel Mills, Jr., one of the college men who
began the vision for the American missionary movement at the famous
Haystack Meeting in 1807, befriended Henry while he stayed with the
Dwights. Henry told Mills that he desired to learn to read the Bible so
he might bring the Gospel to Hawai'i. At this time America had no
foreign missions program, except for work with native Americans.
However the story of Henry's weeping on the steps at Yale became widely
publicized and significantly sparked the American missionary movement
plus interest in Hawai'i as a mission field.
Mill's went to
Andover Theological Seminary at Andover, Massachusetts and brought
Henry with him. There Henry made his first attempts at prayer, and his
interest in becoming a Christian deepened. For several years he stayed
with Christian families in New Hampshire and Connecticut, growing in
the Lord, and in 1817 Henry joined six other young Hawaiian men and
other foreign students at the newly created Foreign Mission School at
Cornwall in western Connecticut. Edwin Dwight greeted the students, as
the principal of the school.
At the school
Henry's goal of being a teacher of the Gospel in Hawai'i began to
appear within hand. His studies in Hebrew and English allowed him to
translate the book of Genesis into Hawaiian, and support for missionary
work in Hawai'i increased as knowledge of his studies spread.
Henry spoke in
many New England churches, challenging young men and women to go on
missions outside of the United States, and raising funds for a mission
to Hawai'i. He actively sought to return to Hawai'i as a Bible teacher,
and felt a pressing need among the Hawaiian people for salvation.
However, it was not to be, for within a year of the opening of the
school Henry died of typhus fever and was buried at a hillside cemetary
nearby the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall.
Henry's vision for Hawai'i was widely read about in the popular
"Memoirs of Henry Obookiah." The slim book was a best-seller with over
50,000 copies distributed through the 19th century; readership was
estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
In 1819 the
brig Thaddeus left Boston Harbor with the first company of missionaries
to Hawai'i. Aboard was Thomas Hopu, Henry's friend from the island of
Hawaii. In April, 1820 the missionaries landed at Kailua-Kona.
funeral, the Rev. Lyman Beecher said of the Hawaiian Christian's life:
"If the churches of New England, knowing the purpose of God concerning
Obookiah, had chartered a ship, and sent it to Owhyhee on purpose to
bring him to Christ, and fit him for Heaven, it would have been a cheap
purchase of blessedness to man, and glory to God."