Henry Obookiah: The most important man you never heard of

If there is a person on Kauai who knows the history of Kauai, it’s Chris Cook.

Simply put, the man knows his stuff. He’s a University of Hawaii graduate, author of “The Kauai Movie Book” and “The New Kauai Movie Book” (which I have), and other books, and has taught classes on interpreting Kauai’s history. He’s also the former editor of The Garden Island newspaper and edited The Garden Island “Guide to Kauai” published in 1998. I should point out Chris and I have crossed paths over the years. We worked together at The Coeur d’Alene Press in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and were at different times both editors of The Forks Forum in Forks, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula.

One of his recent books is “The Providential Life &Heritage of Henry Obookiah: Why did Missionaries come to Hawaii from New England and Tahiti?”

Now, Henry Obookiah is not exactly a household name that everyone knows and will want to read about. But you should. Here is a little information about him, per our friend, Chris Cook:

“Henry Obookiah, known in Hawaii as Opukaha‘ia, in 1808 left his life as an apprentice kahuna at Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii Island for the sea. He rose from sailor to scholar to evangelical Christian celebrity in New England. Obookiah’s life and death, as told in his memorial biography, made him a leading Second Great Awakening figure in America, Great Britain and beyond.”

The “Memoirs of Henry Obookiah” share some insights into this man. Cook takes readers on a more detailed journey. Mind you, this is not the easiest read in the world. History doesn’t tend to be exciting, riveting stuff that keeps you turning the pages. This is not a book you will read quickly. It is packed with information that takes time to digest. There’s a lot of history in its 200 pages.

But Cook does a nice job of putting things in a smooth manner that doesn’t make it seem like you’re trying to study for a high school history test. He has a way of writing what could be dry material from long ago and bringing it to life today. This book is carefully chronicled and the historical accounts painstakingly vetted. It includes pictures and drawings and a glossary of Hawaiian words.

And we don’t want to give you the impression this is dull. Far from it. Obookiah is a survivor. He was a young boy when his parents were killed and he fled for his life, carrying his baby brother on his back. His life was spared, setting off what would be an amazing journey.

Obookiah only lived until he was about 30 years old, but his impact cannot be understated. As Cook writes:

“During his short life, the path of this adventurous Native Hawaiian youth swept across a wide range of the world. Improbably, Obookiah, a youth from rural Ka‘u, served as the key link in the chain of events that led to the sending of missionaries to the islands by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

“Remove Henry Obookiah’s scholarly work in preserving the Hawaiian language, delete the love he drew out of staunch New England Christians, silence his Macedonian cry to the Second Great Awakening church in America, and Hawaii today would be a lesser place.

“The coming of the gospel to Hawaii was an epic event in the global history of Christianity.”

Obookiah had more of an influence on Hawaii than the vast majority of us will ever know. If you want to know more, this book is for you.

And if you want to know more about Hawaii’s history in general, Chris Cook is your man.


Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or bbuley@thegardenisland.com.


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