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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Paying Tribute to Henry Opukaha'ia

As we walked around the tide pools and inlets to the right of Punalu'u Beach, I noticed a building set atop a nearby hill.  It looked as if a steeple rose from its roof.  I thought this strange, as the Sea Mountain Golf Club had incorporated part of that hill into its 18 hole course.  Had the Club converted an old church into a bunker?

Returning to the road, we found a path up the hill, and decided to follow it.  At the summit, we saw a sign for the chapel.  The weekly service times had been taped over.  Yet flowers decorated the graves in the chapel cemetery, and a bell still hung in the adjacent bell tower.

The left side of the building featured a plate glass window, as well as small horizontal windows that could be opened to allow air through.  The right side and the back (where the front door should have been) were open to the elements.  The backless concrete benches announced that this was a BYOC (Bring Your Own Cushion) chapel.

More flowers had been placed on the altar, along with a card with a photo and a few paragraphs about someone who had recently died.

A plaque inside the chapel commemorates Henry Opukaha'ia, who was born here in 1792.  During a period of civil war, a battle swept up the residents of Ninole, and young Henry, only around ten or twelve years old at this time, watched his parents and brother die.  Henry made his way to the west side of the Big Island, where he lived for a time with his uncle, a kahuna (or leader in the Hawaiian religion).  But he found life there not to his liking, and in 1807, hoping for something better, he swam out into Kealakekua Bay, climbed aboard a merchant ship, and convinced the captain to take him on as a cabin boy.  

Two years later, Henry ended up at the captain's home in New Haven, Connecticut.  Wishing to learn to read and write, he applied to Yale, but was denied admission.  A student named Edwin took pity on him, and used his connections to help Henry out.  The young Hawaiian went to live for awhile with a relation of Edwin's, who also happened to be the president of Yale.  Then he was taken in by a preacher.  He served in the U. S. Marine Corps. during the War of 1812.  Then he returned to Connecticut, where in 1817, at the age of 25, he was finally accepted as a student at a foreign mission school.  

At that time, Hawaiian was not a written language.  Henry threw himself into his studies, working hard to compile a Hawaiian dictionary, grammar, and spelling book.  He completed a Hawaiian version of the Biblical Book of Genesis, working not from an English translation, but directly from Hebrew sources.  He started learning Latin.  And he made plans with his fellow Hawaiian students to return to his homeland.

Sadly, Henry Opukaha'ia (who also went by the name Henry Obookiah) was not destined to return to the Big Island of Hawaii, or to visit his former hometown set on the hill overlooking Punalu'u Beach.  Instead, he died while still a student at the foreign mission school, in February of 1818.

Henry spent only a short time in school.  Yet he made the most of his time there, and is credited with bringing missionaries of his adopted religion to Hawaii.  He is commemorated with this small chapel set on the site of his hometown.  Those who worship there, and pay tribute to departed family and friends, learn about him.  His memoirs have been published, as have books describing his life and work.  And his name was immortalized by perhaps the most famous of all American authors, Mark Twain.  In his book Roughing It, Twain writes: 

"Obookia was a young native of fine mind, who together with three other native boys, was taken to New England by the captain of a whaleship during the reign of Kamehameha I, and they were the means of attracting the religious world to their country.  This resulted in the sending of missionaries there.  And this Obookia was the very same sensitive savage who sat down on the church steps and wept because his people did not have the Bible."

When your past and present are filled with disappointments and failures, it's easy to tell yourself that, because no one seems to notice your efforts, they have little value to others.  Yet Henry Opukaha'ia serves as an example of the type of impact you can make on the world, if only you refuse to give up on yourself, and continue pursuing your dreams.

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
The Henry Obookiah Collection
Wikipedia: Henry Opukaha'ia
Mark Twain: Roughing It

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