Henry Opukahaia was one of Hawaii’s first and most revered missionaries; his prayers to God for Hawaii inspired the 1820 arrival of American missionaries from Cornwall, CT, that would change the course of Hawaiian history forever. Unfortunately his life was cut short at age 26 by typhus fever in Cornwall. CT but not without profound effects upon its future development.
Kauai author Chris Cook’s new book on Henry Opukahaia can be found at BLC Bookstore and will tell his tale.
Early Life and Education
Henry Opukahaia (or Obookiah), born around 1792 at Ka u on the Big Island of Hawaii, witnessed his parents and baby brother being executed by warriors loyal to Kamehameha before jumping into Kealakekua Bay to swim to a merchant ship where one of its sailors took care of him before eventually joining their family as one of its sailors’ children.
As someone dedicated to learning, he quickly mastered English and Hebrew languages. He traveled throughout New England pleading with churches for missionaries to send to Hawaii from New England churches; eventually helping found the Foreign Mission School. Unfortunately he died of typhoid fever at 26 in Cornwall Connecticut before his remains could be returned home where they would eventually be interred at Kahikolu Congregational Church of Napoopoo Hawaii.
Henry Opukahaia, or Obookiah, was born in 1792 and became an orphan as a teenager after his village fell to rival kings fighting over control of the Hawaiian Islands. Obookiah’s stirring conversion story moved American Protestant missionaries to travel there and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
He traveled throughout New England pleading with churches to send missionaries back to his native Hawaii so they could share Christianity with native peoples there. Additionally, this remarkable Hawaiian scholar translated the Book of Genesis from Hebrew into Hawaiian as well as publishing Hawaiian dictionaries, grammar, and spelling books.
His achievements led to the establishment of Connecticut’s Foreign Mission School. Although he died at 26 while still serving on board ship, his memoirs and fiery preaching disproved any notion that heathens couldn’t be educated or converted to Christianity.
Achievement and Honors
Henry Opukahaia played an essential part in convincing American missionaries to travel to Hawaii. As one of the most influential speakers for the Foreign Mission School in New England, his speeches and sermons raised large sums of money for its coffers.
He created the first written Hawaiian language and translated Genesis into Hawaiian; unfortunately his life and dreams were cut short when he contracted typhus at 26 and died at Cornwall Cemetery, Connecticut.
Chris Cook of Kauai has published an in-depth nonfiction book detailing Opukahaia’s life and legacy in the islands, providing students from K-8 at Punahou school as well as members of their community with insight into his story through an exhibit in Bishop Learning Commons, class visits and an evening community event.
Heneri Opukahaia was orphaned as an infant when both his parents were killed during a violent tribal war battle near Punaluu in Hawaii around 1792. While fleeing from enemy warriors he attempted to carry his infant brother away, only to be fatally speared through the neck by one.
At 19, Heneri Opukahaia signed on the Yankee ship Triumph along with Thomas Hopu, much to his uncle’s disapproval. Brintnall then brought them both to New Haven where Heneri received housing and formal education from Brintnall; working as a servant he learned English before spelling and writing words himself eventually; by 1818 He had begun “to systematize his native tongue”, according to Edwin Dwight.
At a time when there was fierce debate about whether heathens could understand the Bible, Henry encouraged New Englanders to invest money and effort into missionary work that eventually led to Hawaii being annexed by the United States. It is estimated that his net worth ranged between $2 million and $2.5 million. Born around 1792 in Ninole on Hawaii’s Big Island he came from a family which comprised both royalty and commoners; upon signing aboard as crew of an American ship captain’s vessel that transported him back home his name was officially changed by Anglicanization when signed aboard as crew member; after which his Hawaiian name became Henry on arrival back at port when signed aboard for passage from Hawaii back home to Connecticut.