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The Providential Life & Heritage of Henry Obookiah: Why Did Missionaries Come to Hawai‘i from New England and Tahiti? Paperback – May 14, 2015
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About the Author
Christopher L. Cook is a Hawai‘i-based author, a graduate of the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa and former editor of Kaua‘i’s The Garden Island newspaper. Cook is the author of The Kaua‘i Movie Book, A Kaua‘i Reader and other regional best-selling books.
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Obookiah's early life would not have seemed providential. His family was brutally slain in tribal warfare, he was captured and indentured, then assigned as a servant in a pagan temple. But after he fled to America and became both a Christian and a scholar, it was these painful memories that made him long to bring the Christian gospel to his homeland.
From our 21 years of living in Hawaii, we knew of Obookiah's fight to Connecticut on an Far East trading ship, his plea to be educated, his scholarly gift, his translation of the scriptures into Hawaiian, and his key role in birthing the American missions movement. What we didn't know was just how influential he was in changing attitudes about race and fanning the flame of the New England anti-slavery movement.
Another surprise was learning how influential a shipload of seemingly misdirected Tahitian Christians were in opening doors of acceptance for the first American missionaries by the Hawaiian royalty. How redemptive it is that people from the islands that introduced human sacrifice, idolatry and the Kapu System to Hawaii should be the ones to introduce a gospel of love and hope.
Chris Cook has researched Obookiah's life for decades, and it shows in The Providential Life & Heritage of Henry Obookiah. There's no more authoritative summary of this great Hawaiian's life and heritage than his new book. It is a gift to all who love Hawaii and want to understand its history.
In January of 1808 Kamehameha made arrangements with Captain Caleb Brintnall, Master of the Triumph out of New Haven, to take his 12-year old son and heir apparent, Liholiho, to New England for his education. In 1804 Kaumuali’i, Kamehameha’s nemesis on Kauai, had sent his son Humehume to New England for school and Kamehameha wanted his heir to equal to his rival’s in Western education. However, Ka’ahumanu, Liholiho's guardian, saw Kamehameha’s plan for the boy as a threat to her influence and political hold on the court. So she sent an outrigger canoe with a mullet dinner out to Brintnall’s ship in Honolulu Harbor—a gift for the Captain and his officers. In the Hawaiian tradition of ‘apu koheoheo (the poison cup) the fish had been basted with the deadly toxins of the keke (puffer fish). However, Brintnall and most of his officers were on shore at Honolulu that evening and the only officer on board was his brother-in-law and supercargo, Elihu Mix, who had dinner and then suffered an agonizing death. When Brintnall returned to his ship he immediately understood that Mix’s death was the result of the ongoing battle between Kamehameha and Ka’ahumanu, his favorite and most contentious queen, over control of 12 year-old Liholiho.
Brintnall immediately weighed anchor and fled to Kealakekua Bay to re-supply for the New England journey. There he picked up a 16 year-old temple apprentice, Henry ‘Opukaha’ia who would become Hawaii’s first Christian. ‘Opukaha’ia went on to study at Yale, became a divinity student, translated the Book of Genesis into Hawaiian (from the original Hebrew,) and wrote THE MEMOIRS OF HENRY OBOOKIAH. This brilliant young Hawaiian became a symbol, an inspiring example of Hawaii’s potential and helped to raise funds for the American Board for Foreign Missions efforts to convert Hawaii. Tragically Henry died from typhus as the Board prepared to send the first group of missionaries to Hawaii. There were four young Hawaiian men on that first missionary voyage. One was Kauai's Prince Humehume, sailing with dreams of reclaiming his lost kingdom.
But Humehume’s is another story--though related. The point of this one is that if Ka’ahumanu hadn’t poisoned Elihu Mix, Captain Brintnall would not have sailed to Kealakekua, would not have recruited ‘Opukaha’ia and taken him on the voyage that led to his life of scholarship and widespread fame among the pious in New England. As Chris Cook wrote “-thus cutting off at the root the scenario that led to the Sandwich Island Mission departing from Boston in 1819.” A mission that enabled Ka’ahumanu to complete her takeover of the Kamehameha court and gain supreme control of the Kingdom. To seal the deal in 1821 she forced Kaumuali’i, Humehume’s father, to marry her—but that’s another story.