Henry Opukahaia

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia
Henry Obookiah, memoir illustration (restored).jpg
Born c. 1792
Nīnole, Hawaii
Died February 17, 1818
Cornwall, Connecticut
Religion Hawaiian religion
Parents Keau and Kamohoula

Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia (circa 1792–1818) was one of the first native Hawaiians to become a Christian, inspiring American Protestant missionaries to come to the island during the 19th century. His name was usually spelled Obookiah during his lifetime. His name Henry is sometimes Hawaiianized as Heneri..


`Ōpūkaha`ia was born at Ka`ū on the island of Hawai`i in 1792. “In a civil war, his father and mother had been slain before his eyes; and when he fled with his infant brother on his back, the child was killed with a spear, he was then taken and raised by the very person who slaughtered his family.’”[1] In 1807, when Captain Britnall took him aboard the Triumph, the teenager boy had his first English lessons en route to New Haven along with fellow Hawaiian cabin boy Thomas Hopu. As a student there and in neighbouring areas, he was looked after in a succession of homes, and worked summers to help earn his keep. Reverend Edwin W. Dwight, resident graduate at Yale, met him in 1809 and took him as a pupil. He had studied English grammar and the usual curriculum in public schools by the time, during a revival movement, he converted to Christianity in 1815. (“The First Great Awakening [mid-18th century]…produced a conflict, often intense, be­tween conservative Protestants - Old Lights - and the revivalistic reformers - New Lights.”[2]) He and other Polynesians and Native Americans requested training to spread the Gospel back home. This inspired the founding of the Foreign Mission School in 1816, administered from Boston by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). It had broad support from the residents of Cornwall, where it moved in 1817, and from donors elsewhere in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. During its ten years, about 100 students attended: "43 Native Americans, 13 Americans (white), and 20 Hawaiians, and other natives of the Pacific. including 2 Chinese".[3]

Even before this school opened, Dwight wrote in 1818, `Ōpūkaha`ia had begun “‘reducing to system his own native tongue. As it was not a written language, but lay in its chaotic state, every thing was to be done. …he had made some progress towards completing a Grammar, a Dictionary, and a Spelling-book.’”[4] None survives. Samuel B. Ruggles, one of the First Company of missionaries to Hawaii and a fellow student of `Ōpūkaha`ia at Cornwall, mentions in an 1819 letter that his own grammar (which does survive) was ‘much assisted by one which `Ōpūkaha`ia attempted to form’. Elisha Loomis, who was to be printer for the first mission, was inspired to join it by reading `Ōpūkaha`ia’s memoirs, edited by Dwight in the year of his death from fever, over a year before the First Company set sail from Boston.

In 1826 the Foreign Mission School was closed by a scandal – two interracial marriages were too much for Cornwall residents. But both the school and `Ōpūkaha`ia were a catalyst for the Sandwich Island Mission and for the first concentrated efforts to analyse the language.


He nearly completed a Hawaiian dictionary, grammar, and spelling book, besides translating the Book of Genesis into Hawaiian. The Memoirs of Henry Obookiah were published in New York City in 1818 and have been republished by the Woman's Board of Missions for the Pacific Islands several times since the 1960s. They have recently republished the 195-year-old book with a new epilogue of how his body (iwi) was returned to the Big Island of Hawaii, along with new photographs. The publication can be found at http://henryobookiahmemoirs.com.


  1. ^ Bartlett, Samuel Colcord. 1869. Historical Sketch of the Hawaiian Mission… Boston: ABCFM. Cited in Schütz.
  2. ^ Schütz, Albert J. 1994. The Voices of Eden: A History of Hawaiian Language Studies. Honolulu: Hawaii UP. p95n8.
  3. ^ Mitchell, Sydney K. 1939. Phases of the History of Cornwall. (Torrington CT: Cornwall Historical Society 1981). Cited in Schütz, p.87.
  4. ^ Dwight, Edwin Wells. 1818. Memoirs of Henry Obookiah…; who died at Cornwall, Connecticut, February 17, 1818. Cited in Schütz p.88.