Hawai‘i’s first missionary was a young native Hawaiian

Literary / This curious, charming and slender volume feels incomplete, but then so was the truncated life of the writer, Henry Opukaiia, who died in 1818 at the age of 26 in Connecticut, far away from his Big Island home. Though labeled a memoir, it is annotated by the editors and interspersed with recollections of others who knew the author.

Reminiscent of Pip in Great Expectations, Henry is an orphan who seeks to improve his lot in the world. Like Pip, he seems stamped by an heroic destiny; unlike Pip, Henry, who left Hawaii of his own volition on his personal voyage of discovery, did not live to fulfill his vision. Others did, however: The impression Henry made as a Bible student and a friend in New England, his expressions of love for his home and his desire to return and teach his people Christianity inspired the first missionaries to embark for the Islands after his death.

The Henry we meet is open-minded and eager to learn, and he learned quickly. He seemed to have no fear of the outsider, the haole, perhaps because he had had more reason to fear his own people, having seen his mother, father and siblings killed by a rival chief when he was a boy.

In New York, invited to an American home, he writes, “I thought while in the house of these two gentlemen how strange to see females eat with men.” This is followed by the editor’s annotation: “It is well for the young to understand that in the Sandwich Isles, as in all heathen countries, females were degraded, and made the servants and drudges of men. The Gospel raises them from this servitude . . .”

Scarcely able to speak or understand English, much less read or write it, Henry is at first perceived as dull. “But when the question was put to him, ‘Do you wish to learn?’ his countenance began to brighten,” the editors recount.

Neither shy nor easily intimidated, Henry is quick-witted, turning the tables on his interlocutors who have kept telling him, as he struggles to pronounce English words, ” to just “try . . . it is very easy.” Henry asks them to make a cup with their hands, dip them into water and raise this to their mouths, as Hawaiians do when drinking from a spring. When they inevitably spill the water, he urges them to “try . . . it is very easy.” He proves an excellent parlor companion due to his gifts of mimicry, and a good sport when he himself is imitated–it so delights him that he rolls laughing on the floor. He also works hard for his room and board, with scythe and sickle, in the fields.

Twenty years ago, in Cornwall, Connecticut, I attended the burial of a writer friend who loved that place, where she spent every summer with her young daughter. It was autumn, and the graveyard was on a hill, bordered by hand-stacked New England rock walls and overhung by old willows, oaks and maples in their fiery prime. It was bitterly cold; even the bright gold sunlight gave no warmth.

I wish I had known at the time of Henry Opukaiia who was buried in Cornwall. The old rock walls, following the curves of the land, must have reminded him of his home. In 1993 his remains were reburied in a church cemetery in Kona–photos in this revised edition include the inscription, on his headstone, of what were nearly his last words: “Oh! I want to see Hawaii! But I think I never shall–”

Perhaps, if he had lived, the outcome might have been happier for his people.

Memoirs of Henry Obookiah

Edwin Dwight

Women’s Board of Missions for the Pacific Islands, softcover, 89 pages, $24.95