Opukaha’ia: The Catalyst for Christian Missionaries

Opukaha’ia, known in America as Obookiah, was the catalyst for the first Christian missionaries to set sail for Hawai’i.  On his deathbed in 1818 in Cornwall, Connecticut, Opukaha’ia had begged the people around him — Americans and Native Hawaiians — to return to Hawai’i in his place.  His memoirs, which were published shortly after his death, created a groundswell of religious fervor in New England.  Fourteen missionaries and four Native Hawaiians arrived on the Big Island in 1820 after five months at sea.  Three of the Americans had spent quite a bit of time studying the Hawaiian language before the “Thaddeus” set sail; all of them studied it while on the high seas.

Photo 1:   This engraving of Opukaha’ia was used as the frontispiece for the first editions of Memoirs of Henry Obookiah (1818 and 1819).  (More photos are posted after the article.)


“There are those who impact the world in ways that defy explanation.  Henry Opukaha’ia, born near the Black Sand Beach at Punalu’u, Ka’u, on the Big Island, was such a person.  This orphaned but brilliant man once fled Hawai’i…and returned a favorite son.

It was during the turbulent years of Kamehameha the Great’s ascension to power that Opukaha’ia was born.  His original gravesite in Cornwall, Connecticut, as well as monuments later erected in his memory on the Big Island, record the approximate year as 1792.  Hawaiian elders from the Kealakekua Bay area, however, were convinced that he was born five years earlier in 1787.

Opukaha’ia’s diary was published shortly after his death in Connecticut in 1818 and generated a groundswell of religious fervor throughout much of America’s east coast.  Men and women with scant knowledge of the Sandwich Islands (as named by Captain Cook in 1778) embraced Opukaha’ia’s deathbed entreaties and applied for membership in the newly formed Sandwich Islands Mission.  When the first missionary party — which was also comprised of four Hawaiians — landed on the Big Island two years after Opukaha’ia’s death, they were shocked beyond measure.  King Kamehameha II, with the full support of his prime minister and highest priest had overthrown the established religious order in a bloody battle only months before.  Temples had been demolished and religious artifacts and images destroyed.  (Indeed, Opukaha’ia’s uncle had served with Hewahewa, the kahuna nui or high priest of the island, who had been the first to set fire to a heiau, a religious temple.)

Memoirs of Henry Obookiah (as he was known in New England) was later translated into Hawaiian and two other languages and is comprised of Opukaha’ia’s letters as well as his diary.  An engraving of his image is also included, as well as astute and affectionate observations by friends, and an early 19th century elementary grammar of the [Hawaiian] language.

The riveting, first-person account of civil war on the Big Island described in Memoirs was later clarified by Hawaiian elders familiar with Opukaha’ia’s family.  They believed he was referring to a revolt by Namakeha against Kamehameha I that took place in 1976.  (Kamehameha defeated the rebel leader who was sacrificed January 1797 at the heiau of Kaipalaoa in Pi’ihonua, Hilo.)

In Opukaha’ia’s own words, “…a war [was] made after the old king died, to see who should be the greatest among them.”  (The “old king” may have been Kalani’opu’u, the aging, undisputed head chief of the Big Island whose death in 1782 triggered approximately 15 years of on-and-off tribal warfare.)  Unfortunately, Opukaha’ia’s mother, a relative of the king, and his father, a commoner, had aligned themselves with the losing party — possibly in opposition to the ambitious Kamehameha — and a widespread, brutal retaliation had begun.

Opukaha’ia, who would have been approximately 10 years old, fled with his parents and baby brother to the mountain known as Mauna Loa where they managed to hide for a few days in a cave.  Overcome by thirst, they ventured outside their refuge and were overpowered by their enemies while drinking water from a spring.  The father escaped, but the loud cries of his family as they were being tortured forced his return — as the captors had planned.  Opukaha’ia parents were brutally “cut in pieces” before his eyes.  As the boy attempted to flee with his baby brother on his back, a spear fatally pierced the infant’s body.  Opukaha’ia was then adopted into the home of the man who had murdered his family.

“I was now brought away from my home to a strange place,” Opukaha’ia later wrote,  “and I thought of nothing more but want of father or mother, and to cry day and night.”

After residing with his family’s murderer “a year or two,” Opukaha’ia was unexpectedly reunited with his uncle, Pahua.  Pahua was a kahuna who served at the Hikiau Heiau in Kealakekua Bay.  (It was a luakini temple, one used for human sacrifices and visited by Captain Cook eighteen years earlier.)  He lived with his uncle for a number of years as an apprentice priest and was trained in all of the chants, prayers and genealogies of the time.

The next sequence of events is not clear, but it was probably while living with Pahua that Opukaha’ia and his aunt, his father’s only remaining sister, were captured by a hostile party.  Certain of their impending deaths, Opukaha’ia managed to escape by “crawling through a hole into a cellar” and then outside to freedom.  While in the act of fleeing, he witnessed the enemy party hurling his aunt over a cliff.  Desperation took over, and when he thought no one was watching, Opukaha’ia ran toward the cliff to commit suicide at the same spot where his aunt had met her untimely death.  He was stopped at the precipice’s edge by two men who had been quickly dispatched by an observant chief and inexplicably allowed to live.

By 1808, Opukaha’ia had spent years observing the foreign ships that regularly harbored in Kealakekua Bay.  He was increasingly curious about the world outside Hawai’i and frequently ruminated over the loss of his parents and baby brother.  One day, he resolved to leave on the next ship that entered the harbor.  Soon after, the brig Triumph arrived from New York.

“As soon as the ship anchored I went on board,” Opukaha’ia wrote.  He and another Hawaiian from the island, Thomas Hopu, dined with Captain Brintnall that evening.  In the morning Opukaha’ia informed his uncle, and a tearful grandmother, of his intentions to leave.  He was held captive for a time, but escaped to the ship.  His uncle finally relented and demanded a sacrificial hog as payment for his nephew’s departure.

Opukaha’ia was approximately 21-years-old when he left Hawai’i.  His journey on the Triumph took him to China, New York and eventually Connecticut.  (Thomas Hopu was also a passenger.)  Over the next nine years he resided with numerous families, including Captain Brintnall and his wife, and with Dr. Timothy Dwight, the President of Yale College.  His travels throughout New England included Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and he periodically labored in the “farming business.”

Shortly after arriving in New England, Opukaha’ia’s formal American education began when Edwin W. Dwight, a resident graduate of Yale (who later edited Memoirs), found him weeping on the college’s steps because he “thirsted for instruction.”  The highly disciplined Hawaiian began a rigorous study of many subjects, attended various schools and was tutored by students from more than one college.  Opukaha’ia eventually became proficient in English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as geography and mathematics.  (One historian believes he received the equivalent of a Ph.D.)

In addition, Opukaha’ia became a Christian and in 1814 was formally accepted as a candidate for ministry by the Congregational Church of Connecticut.  He preached in numerous churches and was acclaimed for his candid attitude and critical observations.  The Foreign Mission School, which began operation in 1817 in Cornwall, Connecticut, was birthed from Opukaha’ia’s outspoken desire to teach his countrymen their written language as well as a new religion, and he was one of its first students.

Opukaha’ia’s dream of returning to Hawai’i was shattered when he contracted “typhus fever.”  He lingered on his sickbed for weeks, an uncommonly model patient who somehow summoned the strength to voice his concerns for his contemporaries and for his homeland.  Surrounded by friends, both American and Hawaiian, he passed away in Cornwall, Connecticut, on February 17, 1818.  Besides his spiritual legacy, he left behind an academic treasure: a Hawaiian dictionary, grammar and spelling book, and possibly the whole Book of Genesis translated from Hebrew into Hawaiian.  Surrounded by friends, both American and Hawaiian, he passed away in Cornwall, Connecticut, in February 1818.  Besides his spiritual legacy, he left behind an academic treasure:  a Hawaiian dictionary, grammar, and spelling book, and possibly the whole Book of Genesis translated from Hebrew into Hawaiian.

Henry Opukaha’ia’s remains were returned to the Big Island of Hawai’i in 1993 and is lovingly interred at Kahikolu Church in Napo’opo’o which overlooks Kealakekua Bay.  His academic works, however, are missing.  Intriguingly, an article from 1923 with proof of Opukaha’ia’s accomplishments has come to light:   “In  the Congressional Library at Washington, D.C., authenticated copies of the original translation of the first two chapters of the Bible by Henry Opukaha’ia, a Native Hawaiian, are on file.”  Until these are found, Henry Opukaha’ia’s long journey from ancient Hawai’i to America – and back again – may not be over.”

(A special thank you to Albert J. Schütz, Professor of Linguistics, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, for his letter of February 11, 1999 to C.E. Chambers that contained the quote regarding the Congressional Library.  The article from 1923 was written by Hawaiian language teacher, Fred W. Beckley.)

(“Opukaha’ia: The Catalyst For Christian Missionaries” was written by C.E. Chambers and was published with two of her photos by the Waimea Gazette in August 2001.  It was originally titled “Henry Opukaha’ia: Hawai’i’s Ongoing Legacy.”

(NOTE:  The email address for Pastor Wendell Davis of Kahikolu Church is daviswo15@hawaii.rr.com.)

Photo 2 (above):  Opukaha’ia’s gravesite overlooking Kealakekua Bay (where Captain Cook was killed) on the Big Island of Hawai’i.  It’s located on the grounds of the historic Kahikolu Church.   (Photo by C.E. Chambers.)

Photo 3 (above):  2003:  Kahu (Pastor) Wendell Davis of Kahikolu Church, on the far right, with descendants of Opukaha’ia.  They gathered together in 2003 for a special commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the dedication of his gravesite.  Deborah Li’ikapeka Lee, second from the right, assisted with the exhumation of Opukaha’ia’s remains from Connecticut to the Big Island of Hawai’i in 1993.  (Photo by C.E. Chambers.)

Photo 4 (above): 2011:  Pastor Wendell Davis and his wife, Maria, at Opukaha’ia’s gravesite in February 2011.  Native Hawaiian churches statewide hold an annual memorial service in February to “commemorate Opukaha’ia’s legacy as God’s instrument in bringing the Gospel to Hawaii and its people.”  (This photo is the property of Pastor Wendell Davis.)

Photo 5 (above): Opukaha’ia was born near here.  This is the Memorial Chapel in Punalu’u on the Big Island of Hawai’i.  It’s situated on a hill overlooking the Black Sand Beach where turtles abound.   (Photo by C.E. Chambers)

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