“The Providential Life and Heritage of Henry Obookiah” by Christopher L. Cook

The Providential Life and Heritage of Henry Obookiah

In school, we discuss the impact of the missionaries in Hawaii – the positive impacts, like literacy; the negative impacts, like the suppression of cultural traditions; and the lasting impacts, like the success of missionary descendants in accumulating land and wealth. But we seldom think about why missionaries came to Hawaii.

Henry Obookiah (‘Ōpūkaha’ia) was one of the driving forces behind the missionary presence in Hawaii, as we learn in Christopher L. Cook’s “The Providential Life and Heritage of Henry Obookiah: Why Did Missionaries Come to Hawaii from New England and Tahiti?” (2015). His book is an expansion and exploration of the 1818 book “Memoirs of Henry Obookiah: A Native of Owhyhee.”

Cook based his narrative on primary research and interviews with family and descendants. The biography is scholarly and densely written, with meticulous detail. It is not for the casual reader; it is intended for those with a scholarly interest in Hawaiian history and early foreign Christian missions from New England. It is as much about the changing world around Obookiah as it was about Obookiah himself, illustrated with historical drawings, photographs, maps, excerpts, and quotes.

At times, there are tangential discussions of life in the 1800s, such as life for sealers on Isla Guadalupe (I was disturbed and amazed to learn that 50,000 fur seal skins were harvested in 1808 by the sealing crew of the Triumph), the design of Guilford merchant ships, and an exhaustive discussion of the New England religious revival.

‘Ōpūkaha’ia (1788?-1818) was born in Ka’ū, Hawaii Island possibly in 1788. Life in Ka’ū could be harsh: drinking water was scarce (divers had to fill hollow gourds with fresh water from underground springs), the grasslands were dry, and there were some times famines. At age 10, ‘Ōpūkaha’ia was orphaned in the war between Chief Nāmakehā and Kamehameha. For one year, he was a captive of the warrior who killed his family in front of him, until his uncle Pahua, a kahuna pule (praying priest) at Hikiau Heiau, claimed him. In 1808 at around age 20, Obookiah was invited by Captain Caleb Brintnall (1774-1850) to sail aboard the merchant ship Triumph, along with 12-year old “Hopu” Thomas Hopoo. Eager for a new start, Obookiah signed on as a sailor, escaping from his room when his uncle Pahua forbade him to leave.

We learn that Obookiah was “a sprightly active lad, of uncommon agility of body – tall in stature – straight built – his limbs proportional… mildness and modesty are the most prominent expressions of his countenance,” according to Reverend Chauncy Lee. He was “considerably above the ordinary size, but little less than six feet in height,” according to Edwin Dwight; his disposition was “amiable and affectionate,” his temper was “mild,” with good sense, an inquisitive mind, ingenious, and inventive. He was eager to learn, studious, a good mimic, and a captivating storyteller. A student at Bradford Academy wrote about Obookiah: “He had so much frankness, honesty, and simplicity that no one could be offended with him.”

After struggling with his faith, he embraced Christianity whole-heartedly and advocated for a Christian mission to Hawaii, looking forward to the day he could return home. He helped build an ‘ohana of Owhyhee youths whose lives were disrupted by war and political uncertainty in Hawaii, including “Hopu” Thomas Hopoo, the royal prince of Kauai George Tamorree (George Prince Kaumuali’i or Humehume), William Tennooe (Kanui), and John Honooree (Honoli’i). He began translating the Bible into Hawaiian, and started writing a primer of Hawaiian and English words.

Obookiah never returned to Hawaii; he died of typhus fever in 1818, a year before the Sandwich Islands Mission set sail.

Obookiah’s life was indeed providential: he escaped death as a boy; was sponsored by a Christian sea captain, Captain Brintnall, who did not treat him as a slave; found supporters and benefactors who gave him room and board in their own homes and arranged for him to receive an education; and was championed by a passionate anti-slavery advocate, Father Samuel Mills.

Hawaii would be a much different place if Obookiah had not defied his uncle, become a sailor, made Christian friends, or sparked a missionary fervor for Hawaii.

Henry Obookiah’s experiences and journal are collected in a book, “Memoirs of Henry Obookiah,”  and published by the Woman’s Board of Missions.

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