Henry Obookiah, a young Hawaiian, caused a stir in the spring of 1815 when he sat in front of the white worshippers at the Church of Christ Congregational in Torringford, Conn. Parishioners preferred Henry to sit in the slave pews high up in the back gallery, where the white people wouldn’t have to see people of color.
The Rev. Samuel Mills, however, insisted that Henry Obookiah remain seated up front. He had taken the young man under his wing and loved him like a son. Henry found solace in Christianity after leaving his native land suffering tremendous guilt. Twice he had survived when his family met cruel, violent deaths.
At the time, a debate raged over whether heathens like Henry Obookiah could comprehend the Bible. Henry ended that debate with his intellect, charisma and work ethic. His conversion to Christianity would inspire many New England Christians to pour money and effort into missionary work in Hawaii. That work would ultimately result in Hawaii’s annexation to the United States.
Henry Obookiah was born around 1792 (though possibly earlier) in Ninole along the southern coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. His Hawaiian name, ‘Opukaha’ia, was Anglicanized to Obookiah when he lived in Connecticut.
He was descended from a family of Hilo chiefs, and his family ranked somewhere between royalty and commoner.
Henry grew up in the small village learning to fish, swim and memorize family lore. In 1796, King Kamehameha’s warriors invaded the island and slaughtered the village’s defenders. Henry Obookiah and his family fled to the mountains, but Kamehameha’s men captured and tortured his mother and father before his eyes.
Their blood spattered his body as he watched the warriors mutilate his parents with sharp knives. Suddenly he grabbed his infant brother and ran for his life. But a spear impaled the baby and knocked Henry to the ground. The warrior who murdered his parents captured Henry and took him home as his personal slave.
For years Henry wrestled with survivors’ guilt, tormented by the questions of why he survived and what he should have done differently.
Henry’s uncle, a kahuna, or priest, came upon his nephew while traveling around the island collecting tribute. The uncle’s authority outweighed that of Henry’s master, and he took Henry away with him to train as a kahuna. Henry studied hard and memorized long litanies to ask the gods for good weather and protection from tsunamis, volcanoes and earthquakes.
While studying for the priesthood, Henry Obookiah learned of an aunt in a nearby village. He didn’t know his aunt had angered a chief by breaking a taboo (kapu in Hawaiian). While visiting his aunt, the chief had Henry and his aunt seized and confined under guard in a hut.
Henry overheard two sentries discussing the chief’s plans to execute him and his aunt. Terrified, he found a small hole in the wall of the hut and escaped through it. No one noticed him and he hid in thick, tropical foliage nearby.
From his hiding place he watched as the chief’s men dragged his aunt to the edge of a cliff and threw her over. She crashed to her death hundreds of feet below.
Desperate, Henry ran from his hiding place toward the cliff, where he hoped to follow his aunt. The chief’s men caught him in time and took him to the chief, who finally realized Henry’s close relationship to a powerful kahuna. The chief returned Henry to his uncle.
But Henry Obookiah began to think about leaving Hawaii.
One day in 1808 the China trade ship the Triumph sailed into Kealakekua Bay from New Haven. Henry swam out to the vessel and asked, through a Hawaiian translator, to come aboard as a crew member. The captain agreed.
A Yale divinity student on board took a liking to Henry and began to teach him English on the voyage back to America. Upon arrival in New Haven, the ship captain took Henry Obookiah into his household as a servant.
One day Henry sat weeping on the steps of Yale College. Edwin Dwight, a divinity student and relative of college President Timothy Dwight, saw Henry crying. Dwight asked him what was wrong, and Henry cried, “No one will teach me.” Edwin Dwight thus agreed to tutor Henry Obookiah.
Henry learned quickly. His charm and his gift for mimicry soon endeared him to many at Yale, and he moved in with another tutor: President Timothy Dwight.
By 1815, the midst of the Second Great Awakening, Henry Obookiah converted to Christianity. He continued his studies in various Christian households, working through summers to earn his keep.
School for Heathens
One of the places he stayed was the home of the Rev. Samuel Mills in Torringford, Conn. His friends and benefactors thought it a good idea for Henry to leave New Haven, where he risked capture into the slave trade.
The Rev. Samuel Mills’ son, also Samuel Mills, wanted to organize a mission to Hawaii to convert the heathens to Christianity. Henry Obookiah, they believed, could bridge the gap between the Christian proselytizers and the pagans of the Pacific islands.
Mills and other Christian missionaries organized the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Conn., to train non-white missionaries. They, in turn, would serve as ambassadors for the white missionaries to their own people as missionaries, preachers, translators, teachers and health workers.
Henry entered the school as the first, and quickly the model, student. He won local acclaim for his sincerity, his studiousness and his winning personality. Others, including Hawaiians and Native Americans, enrolled in the seminary, often called the School for Heathens.
Henry Obookiah once visited the home of Lyman Beecher, an early supporter of the missionary effort. Beecher’s children, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, long remembered the visit. Henry helped persuade these two future abolitionists that all men were indeed created equal.
In 1816, Henry came down with typhus, an epidemic that swept New England during the Year Without A Summer. As he lay on his deathbed, friends and followers came to visit. He insisted that a Hawaiian be with him at all times, and they prayed together in their native language. Throughout his final illness, Henry remained cheerful, calm and resigned to the will of God.
Henry Obookiah died on Feb. 17, 1818, surrounded by his Hawaiian friends who he had told to love God or perish.
Repatriating Henry Obookiah
One night in 1992 in Seattle, Wash., a native Hawaiian woman named Deborah Li’ikapika Lee woke from a sound sleep with a restless, uneasy feeling she could not ignore. She rose from her bed, searching for the comfort of her Bible. And then she clearly heard five words: “He wants to come home.”
Thus Debbie Lee, a descendant of Henry’s first cousin, began her campaign to bring the body of Henry Obookiah back to Hawaii.
Nick Bellantoni, Connecticut’s former state archaeologist, chronicled the effort to repatriate Henry Obookiah, as well as a Lakota Indian, Albert Afraid of Hawk, from Connecticut. Titled The Long Journeys Home, it describes how Bellantoni and his team carefully disinterred Henry Obookiah in 1993 from his grave in Cornwall Cemetery.
They didn’t know what they’d find, but were surprised to find a largely intact skeleton, rare in Connecticut’s acidic soil.
Bellantoni’s team identified Henry’s remains in part by examining his skeleton and in part by the pattern of brass tacks on the coffin lid: H O AE 26, inside of a heart.
Churches in Cornwall and in Hawaii then held services and tributes to Henry Obookiah. An airliner carried his remains to Hawaii, and two outrigger canoes lashed together carried his casket to Kona’s Kealakekua Bay. Then mourners buried him in the Kahikola Church cemetery overlooking the bay.
His tombstone in Cornwall was replaced with a bronze plaque inscribed with his dying words: “Oh, how I want to see Hawaii!”
Twenty years later, Nick Bellantoni and his wife Angela visited Henry Obookiah’s final resting place. In his book, he explained why Henry Obookiah’s repatriation had such importance to Henry:
For years he had probed his mind for the reason he was the lone survivor of all the ferocity forced on his family and for the agonizing guilt associated with complicity in their suffering. He now had an answer and a joyous reason for his homecoming.
And why it was important to Deborah Lee:
He could serve the same inspirational role he provided the missionaries in the nineteenth century for young Native men and women of present-day Hawaii, who were striving to maintain cultural identity within their rapidly changing social world.
Image: Foreign Mission School Steward’s House By Bphil8835 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52913450. Kelakakedua Bay By Travis.Thurston at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10632640. Kahikolu Church By W Nowicki – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8151155. This story last updated in 2021.