The Youth Who Changed
by Betty Fullard-Leo
Henry Opukaha'ia was only 26 years old in 1818 when
he died of typhoid fever in Cornwell, Connecticut, but
because of a slim volume he wrote about his life, his
feelings, and his philosophies that was published after
his death, the destiny of Hawai'i was forever changed.
Few details are known about Opukaha'ia's early life,
though most historians believe he was born about 1792
in Ka'u at Ninole near Punalu'u on the Big Island. From
Opukaha'ia's own account, written much later, both of
his parents were killed during a war made after the
old king died, to see who should be the greatest among
them. Opukaha'ia, who is thought to have been ten or
12 at the time, fled from the rampaging warriors carrying
his infant brother on his back. A spear thrown by one
of the soldiers found its mark, and the baby brother
was killed. Opukaha'ia survived, but the same soldier
who had killed his parents became his guardian for the
next year and a half.
During this time, Opukaha'ia discovered that a kahuna
at a nearby temple was his uncle, so he was allowed
to go to live with his grandmother and this uncle. While
he was visiting an aunt in a nearby village, soldiers
came to take her prisoner for some infraction of the
kapu system, but Opukaha'ia once again survived by escaping
through a hole in the grass hale (house). While he watched,
a soldier threw this aunt over a pali (cliff) to her
death. Opukaha'ia returned to the home of his uncle
at Napo'opo'o where he was schooled in the rituals of
the priesthood, so eventually he could take his uncle's
place as a kahuna at Hiki'au Heiau, the same heiau where
Captain James Cook had met his demise two decades earlier
In his memoir Opukaha'ia wrote, ...I began to think
about leaving that country to go to some other part
of the world... probably I may find some comfort, more
than to live there without father or mother.
As soon as the sailing ship Triumph anchored in Kealakekua
Bay, he went on board. Captain Brintnall invited another
young Hawaiian boy named Hopo'o, along with Opukaha'ia,
who spoke no English, to stay for dinner and to spend
the night on board ship. The next day, it was arranged
that the two boys would sail with the ship. Opukaha'ia
was 16 years old.
The sailors called Opukaha'ia Henry, and spelled his
last name the way they pronounced it, Obookiah. During
the next two years, Opukaha'ia sailed on the Triumph
to the Seal Islands (situated between Alaska and Japan),
back to Hawai'i, to Macao, and around the Cape of Good
Hope, landing in New York in 1809. On board he developed
a friendship with a Christian sailor named Russell Hubbard,
who began teaching Opukaha'ia how to read and write,
often using the bible as a primer.
When the ship was sold in New York, a merchant invited
Opukaha'ia and Hopo'o home for dinner. The boys were
astounded at the number of rooms in the house and by
the fact that cooking was done indoors, but they found
it even harder to believe that women sat at the same
table and ate with men, and the gods did not harm them.
In Hawai'i, the old kapu (taboos) were still observed;
women could not eat with men.
Opukaha'ia continued his studies while he lived with
Captain Brintnall and his family in New Haven, Connecticut,
but it wasn't until he met a man named Edwin Dwight,
a student at Yale College who became his teacher, that
he made real progress. Certain English sounds proved
especially difficult-r was often used in place of l
for example. Years later, in the writings of early missionaries,
words such as Honolulu and Kilauea were written Honoruru
With his new reading skills, came a new view of religion.
As Opukaha'ia began to believe in a Christian God, he
compared Hawaiians' worship of gods represented by wooden
idols. He said, Hawai'i gods. They wood-burn. Me go
home, put 'em in fire, burn 'em up. They no see, no
hear, no anything. On a more profound note he added,
We make them (idols). Our God-he make us. His new faith
was further ingrained when he lived for a time with
the family of the president of Yale College, who, as
he put it, was a praying family morning and evening.
During the spring, summer and early fall, Opukaha'ia
moved from farm to farm around Torringford and Litchfield,
Connecticut and Hollis, New Hampshire, planting, harvesting
and always studying. The church communities of Litchfield
encouraged him, and by 1814, in addition to speaking
publicly, he began to translate the bible into Hawaiian
and to start compiling a dictionary/grammar book in
the Hawaiian language. People in Connecticut had begun
to talk of sending missionaries to foreign countries-Hawai'i,
in particular, as several young native Christians (like
Opukaha'ia) would be able to pave the way. Opukaha'ia
continued to fill his inquisitive mind with knowledge
at Yale College. Not only did he undertake Latin, Hebrew,
geometry and geography, he improved his English by writing
the story of his life in a book called Memoirs of Henry
Obookiah. By 1815, he had finished writing his personal
history and had begun to keep a diary that detailed
his feelings about his faith.
By 1817, a dozen students, six of them Hawaiians, were
training at the Foreign Mission School to become missionaries
to teach the Christian faith to people around the world.
But the following year, Opukaha'ia fell sick. A physician,
Doctor Calhoun, quickly diagnosed his illness as typhus
fever. Though treatment seemed at first to help, Opukaha'ia
continued to get weaker and weaker, and he died on February
17, 1818. Attendants noted a heavenly smile on his face.
He was 26 years old. Among his last words were Alloah
o e-translated in his memoirs as My love be with you.
The little book about his life was printed and circulated
after his death. It inspired 14 missionaries to volunteer
to carry his message to the Sandwich Islands. Of those
who sailed on the Thaddeus on October 23, 1819, only
Samuel Ruggles had met Opukaha'ia face-to-face. The
work Opukaha'ia did on translating the bible and recording
the Hawaiian language in a grammar/dictionary/spelling
book, paved the way for the missionaries to print the
first Hawaiian primer and bible stories in the Hawaiian
Opukaha'ia's body was buried in a hillside cemetery
in Cornwall, Connecticut, where it remained for 185
years. In 1993, a group of his descendants, spearheaded
by Deborah Lee, brought the body home to the Big Island.
The remains were reinterred at Kahikolu Cemetery in
Napo'opo'o, near Kealakekua Bay in South Kona. A plaque
marks the spot, cared for by Ka 'Ohe Ola Hou, a group
formed to perpetuate the achievements of the devout
young man who is believed to be the first Hawaiian convert
to Christianity-a young man whose zeal was the reason
the first missionaries came to Hawai'i in 1820.
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