Hawaii Legacy Series documentary tells story of Henry ʻOpukahaʻia

  • Laokoa Fruean as Opukahaia in Kealakekua. (Jeff Rogers/Special to West Hawaii Today)

“‘Opukaha‘ia,” a documentary produced by Hawaii Legacy Series, portraying the true story of a young man’s journey that changed Hawaii forever, releases today.

This first Hawaii Legacy Series documentary tells of ‘Opukaha‘ia, the lone survivor from a village killed in King Kamehameha’s conquests. He swam away to a trading ship in 1807 and voyaged for two years.

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“Standing by the shores of Kealakekua Bay, looking at that boat, I think he saw one more shot at finding hope. And the only way to find it was to get out,” Kahu Kealoha Keopua, of Kailua-Kona, said of the inner turmoil ‘Opukaha‘ia likely felt.

Alone in the frigid surroundings of New England, ‘Opukaha‘ia was adopted into a family and became a scholar. Shocked by his untimely death and inspired by ‘Opukaha‘ia’s writings, three Hawaiians and 14 New Englanders then sailed across the globe on the brig, the Thaddeus, as the first missionary team to Hawaii, arriving April 4, 1820.

His once-forgotten life story is told in interviews with authors, artists, kupuna (elders) and descendants of Hawaiian leaders who, in October 2019, retraced Henry ‘Opukaha‘ia’s journey to New England.

A young musician featured in the documentary, Keikialoha Kaohelaulii-Kahokuloa, described the trip, saying, “We’re getting along, we’re talking story, listening about each other’s past…not only exchanging information but exchanging lives.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many events planned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Thaddeus have been either postponed or canceled. However, with broadcast, streaming and downloads, the filmmakers hope to share ‘Opukaha‘ia’s story with a new generation.

“It has to be part of the Hawaiian curriculum because it’s a heroic story,” said cultural advisor Leina’ala Fruen.

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Jeff Rogers, who directed the documentary, and assistant director Kalepo Brown reside in Kailua-Kona.

The film will air at 8 p.m. April 11 and 12 on KALO TV. It is available to rent or buy today at vimeo.com/ondemand/hawaiilegacy. Cost is $5 to rent; $15 to buy.

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