I n the fall of 1809, Yale College student Edwin Dwight came upon a strange scene. At the main gate of Yale College stood a young man from a foreign land, crying. Out of compassion—and maybe curiosity, too—Dwight asked him what was wrong.
No one would help him learn, the young man replied.
In an era when merchant vessels from all over the world were docking in New Haven, bringing goods, ideas and people, one such ship had brought Dwight’s new friend. He was Henry ‘Ōpūkaha’ia, from Hawaii, and the chance encounter with Dwight, who would also become his teacher, was the first in a series of improbable events that would change his native land forever.
In the early 21st century, a trip around half the globe takes about half a day. In the early 19th, travelers spent months heading to barely known places, enduring drudgery and danger the entire journey.
That prospect wasn’t enough to keep ‘Ōpūkaha’ia in Hawaii. He was born around 1790, during the violent unification of the Hawaiian islands by Kamehameha I. By his own account, his father, mother and infant brother were killed right in front of him, perhaps during a rebellion in 1798. Raised by the family of the man who killed them, as a young man ‘Ōpūkaha’ia began training to become a priest. But his past haunted him. In 1807 he escaped in the Triumph, a ship captained by New Havener Caleb Brintnall.
They sailed to China, docking at Macau and Guangdong, then to New York. In his memoirs, ‘Ōpūkaha’ia says Brintnall offered to take him back to Hawaii, but the young man had other plans.
He wanted an education.
To that end, ‘Ōpūkaha’ia’s chance meeting with Edwin Dwight was more significant than he could’ve known. A distant relative of Yale president Timothy Dwight IV, Edwin made an introduction, which led Timothy to take the young Hawaiian into his home. ‘Ōpūkaha’ia stayed there until March of 1810, when he went to Torrington to live with the family of seminary student and future missionary Samuel J. Mills. One of the first to conceive of spreading Christianity to Hawaii, Mills was inspired in large part by ‘Ōpūkaha’ia’s vigorous interest in the Christian faith.
Then again, ‘Ōpūkaha’ia was interested in nearly everything. In his memoirs, he describes some of his intellectual endeavors. He “studied geography and mathematics. And a part of the time was trying to translate a few verses of the Scripture into my own language; and in making a kind of a spelling-book.” The book was intended to help English speakers make better sense of Hawaiian phonics.
The early 1800s was a time of great religious fervor in the U.S., and Connecticut was no exception. Founded by Mills and others, and helmed during its first year by Edwin Dwight, the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut, was established in 1817. By 1819, it had 32 students from Hawaii, China and Native American nations, who school administrators hoped to turn into missionaries. Life at the Foreign Mission School was difficult; students not only studied but also labored back-breakingly hard for their keep.
‘Ōpūkaha’ia was one of them, but he was also the star pupil. He’d already established that his language facility was astounding. Having learned to read English, primarily the Bible, he had even learned Hebrew by the time the Mission School was founded, according to Edwin Dwight. ‘Ōpūkaha’ia’s example was so inspiring to evangelical Christians that his speeches, about possible missions around the world, especially in Hawaii, attracted crowds in Connecticut and beyond. He became a celebrity, feeding the desire of many New Englanders to preach to “heathens” themselves or to support their local missionary corps.
But ‘Ōpūkaha’ia’s celebrity and proselytic promise were short-lived. He died of typhus on February 17, 1818, in Cornwall. He was at most 29 years old and perhaps as young as 26, and his death was a blow to many who saw him as their great Hawaiian hope.
His absence wouldn’t stop the missionaries, though. In 1819, the first U.S. mission to Hawaii set sail with a Yale and Connecticut contingent aboard, many of them inspired by ‘Ōpūkaha’ia’s story. They carried his and others’ notes on the Hawaiian language, and their work would greatly influence the spiritual and political life of the Hawaiian islands.
‘Ōpūkaha’ia would make the same journey 175 years later. In July of 1993, his body was disinterred from Cornwall and reburied at Kahikolu Congregational Church in Kona, Hawaii. It fulfilled the wish contained in his final words, in which he expressed a longing to return to the land he’d left behind.
Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.