E nā ali‘i a me nā maka‘āinana,
he aupuni palapala ko‘u,
a ‘o ke kanaka pono a na‘auao,
‘o ia ko‘u kanaka.
To all ali‘i and commoners alike,
mine is a literate country,
and the just and intelligent man
is my countryman.
(Kauikeaouli – Kamehameha III;
Nūpepa Kū‘oko‘a (May 23, 1868;) Puette)
Hawaiian was a spoken language but not a written language. Historical accounts were passed down orally, through chants and songs. After western contact and attempts to write about Hawai‘i, early writers tried to spell words based on the sound of the words they heard. People heard words differently, so it was not uncommon for words to be spelled differently, depending on the writer.
The planning for the formal written Hawaiian language in the early part of the nineteenth century was started by the American Protestant missionaries who arrived in Hawaii, starting in 1820. A committee of some of these missionaries (Hiram Bingham, CS Stewart and Levi Chamberlain) worked on the development of the Hawaiian alphabet.
Initially, the missionaries worked out a Hawaiian alphabet of 17-English letters. “On the 7th of January, 1822, a year and eight months from the time of our receiving the governmental permission to enter the field and teach the people …”
“… we commenced printing the language in order to give them letters, libraries, and the living oracles in their own tongue, that the nation might read and understand the wonderful works of God.”
Then, on July 14, 1826, the missionaries established a 12-letter alphabet for the written Hawaiian language, using five vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) and seven consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p and w) in their “Report of the committee of health on the state of the Hawaiian language.” The report was signed by Bingham and Chamberlain. The alphabet continues in use today.
Early on, the Chiefs saw the opportunity and in collaboration with the missionaries, first the chiefs, then the makaʻāinana were taught the alphabet, and how to read and write.
Sybil Moseley Bingham, wife of Hiram Bingham, leader of the Pioneer Company of missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM,) is said to have started the first school in Hawaiʻi in May 1820. (“… Sybil Moseley Bingham, opened the first school in this city in May, 1820, surely an historic date.” (Hiram Bingham II)
Sybil’s June 20, 1820 journal entry notes, “After neglect of my journal for more than two months in a most interesting part of our history too … Very soon I gathered up 12 or 15 little native girls to come once a day to the house so that as early as possible the business of instruction might be commenced. That was an interesting day to me to lay the foundation of the first school ever assembled in this dark land.”
June 21st. “The most which has interested me to-day has been my little school. To see the little things so ready to learn, and so busy with their needles, is very pleasant. I long to know more of their language, that I might be pouring into their tender minds more instruction than ab.”
Learning to read and write had already been on Liholiho’s mind, well before he travelled to England. In 1820, missionary Lucy Thurston noted in her Journal, Liholiho’s desire to learn.
“The king (Liholiho, Kamehameha II) brought two young men to Mr. Thurston, and said: ‘Teach these, my favorites, (John Papa) Ii and (James) Kahuhu. It will be the same as teaching me. Through them I shall find out what learning is.’”
Betsey Stockton, a former slave and then missionary with the American mission, was on the 2nd Company of missionaries and was sent to Maui. “Mr. Richards and myself have an island with 20,000 inhabitants committed to our spiritual care – a solemn – a most responsible charge!” (Stewart)
“It was there, as (Betsey said,) that she opened a school for the common people which was certainly the first of the kind in Maui and probably the first in all Hawai‘i; for at the beginning the missionaries were chiefly engaged in the instructions of the chiefs and their families.” (Maui News, May 5, 1906)
Stockton has asked the mission to allow her “to create a school for the makaʻāinana (common people.) Stockton learned the Hawaiian Language and established a school in Maui where she taught English, Latin, History and Algebra. (Kealoha)
“It shows that a sincere desire to accomplish a good purpose need not be thwarted by other necessary engagements, however humble or exacting.” (Maui News, May 5, 1906)
Britain’s King George encouraged Hawaiians to read and write, and noted that the American preachers/teachers could help them. “If you wish to have me for your friend, you and your people must all read and write. If you do not attend to instruction, I shall not be your friend.” (King George of England to Boki, 1824)
Boki asked him whether preachers are good men, and the King said, “Yes, and they are men to make others good. I always have some of them by me; for chiefs are not wise like them.”
“We in England were once like the people in your islands; but this kind of teachers came and taught our fathers, and now you see what we are.”
“You and your people must take good heed to the missionaries; for they were sent to enlighten you and do you good. They came not for secular purposes, but by a divine command, to teach you the word of God. The people would therefore all do well to attend to instruction, and to forsake stealing, drunkenness, war, and every thing evil, and to live in peace.” (ABCFM Annual Report, 1826)
On June 6, 1825, Kauikeaouli was proclaimed king of Hawaiʻi. To the people he said, “‘Where are you, chiefs, guardians, commoners? I greet you. Hear what I say! My kingdom I give to God. The righteous chief shall be my chief, the children of the commoners who do you right shall be my people, my kingdom shall be one of letters.’ Kaʻahumanu and Kalanimōku encouraged this attitude of the king and declared to the people their trust in God.” (Ka Nupepa Kuʻokoʻa, February 22, 1868; Kamakau)
On August 23, 1836, 15-Chiefs (Kamehameha III, Nahiʻenaʻena, Hoapili, Na Malia Hoapili, Kuakini, Kīnaʻu, Kekāuluohi, Paki, Liliha, ʻAikanaka, Leleiōhoku, Kekūanāoʻa, Kanaʻina, Kekauōnohi and Keliʻiahonui) sent a letter to the American missionaries, asking that more American teachers be sent to the Islands.
“We hereby take the liberty to express our views as to what is necessary for the prosperity of these Sandwich Islands. Will you please send to us additional teachers to those you have already sent, of such character as you employ in your own country in America?”
“Should you send the above mentioned teachers, we promise to protect them, and afford them all the facilities for carrying on their work, which are in our power.”
Shortly after, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) sent the largest company of missionaries to the Islands, that included a large number of teachers. The Eighth Company left Boston December 14, 1836 and arrived at Honolulu, April 9, 1837 on the Mary Frasier from Boston.
The missionaries were asked by the King to teach and care for the next generation of the highest ranking chiefs’ children of the realm and secure their positions for Hawaiʻi’s Kingdom.
“We ask Mr. Cooke to be teacher for our royal children. He is the teacher of our royal children and Dr. Judd is the one to take care of the royal children because we two hold Dr. Judd as necessary for the children and also in certain difficulties between us and you all.” (signed by Kamehameha III, Hoapili Wahine and Kekāuluohi)
This resulted in the formation of O‘ahu’s first school, the Chiefs’ Children’s School (The Royal School.) Seven families were eligible under succession laws stated in the 1840 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i; Kamehameha III called on seven boys and seven girls to board in the Chiefs’ Children’s School.
By 1831, in just eleven years from the first arrival of the American missionaries, Hawaiians had built over 1,100-schoolhouses. This covered every district throughout the eight major islands and serviced an estimated 53,000-students. (Laimana)
The proliferation of schoolhouses was augmented by the missionaries printing of 140,000-copies of the pī¬ʻāpā (elementary Hawaiian spelling book) by 1829 and the staffing of the schools with 1,000-plus Hawaiian teachers. (Laimana)
Through the collaboration between the Hawaiian Chiefs and the American missionaries, by 1832, the literacy rate of Hawaiians (at the time was 78 percent) had surpassed that of Americans on the continent. The literacy rate of the adult Hawaiian population skyrocketed from near zero in 1820 to a conservative estimate of 91 percent – and perhaps as high as 95 percent – by 1834. (Laimana)
From 1820 to 1832, in which Hawaiian literacy grew by 91 percent, the literacy rate on the US continent grew by only 6 percent and did not exceed the 90 percent level until 1902 – three hundred years after the first settlers landed in Jamestown. By way of comparison, it is significant that overall European literacy rates in 1850 had not risen much above 50 percent. (Laimana)