“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.” (ABCFM Annual Report, 1826)
The exchange was at the sad time of when Liholiho (Kamehameha II) and his Queen Kamāmalu died in England. Boki was with them at the time; Liholiho and Kamāmalu died without ever getting to meet King George IV. Boki returned May 6, 1825.
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.’”
Hawaiian was a spoken language, but not a written language. Historical accounts were passed down orally, through chants and songs. The planning for the formal written Hawaiian language in the early part of the nineteenth century was started by the Protestant missionaries who arrived in Hawaii, starting in 1820.
The missionaries selected 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).
The missionaries established schools associated with their missions across the Islands. This marked the beginning of Hawaiʻi’s phenomenal rise to literacy. The chiefs became proponents for education and edicts were enacted by the King and the council of Chiefs to stimulate the people to reading and writing.
“Throughout the islands, the schools prospered; though, from the system pursued … At Lahaina, 922 pupils were present at one examination, of whom 500 could read, and 300 had read all the books in the language. At Honolulu, 600 pupils were examined in April.”
“As early as February, about 40 schools were known to be in operation on Hawaii, and the number was greatly increased during the year. In October, 16,000 copies of elementary lessons had been given out, and it was supposed that there were nearly that number of learners on the islands.”
“The people were not allowed to wait in ignorance for accomplished teachers. Everywhere the chiefs selected the most forward scholars, and sent them out to teach others. Such of these teachers as were conveniently situated for that purpose, were formed into classes for further instruction.” (Tracy, 1840)
By 1831, in just eleven years from the first arrival of the 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)
The word pīʻāpā is said to have been derived from the method of teaching Hawaiians to begin the alphabet “b, a, ba.” The Hawaiians pronounced “b” like “p” and said “pī ʻā pā.” (Pukui)
By 1832, the literacy rate of Hawaiians (at the time was 78 percent) had surpassed that of Americans on the continent. By way of comparison, it is significant that overall European literacy rates in 1850 had not risen much above 50 percent. (Laimana)
In 1839, King Kamehameha III called for the formation of the Chiefs’ Children’s School (Royal School.) The main goal of this school was to groom the next generation of the highest ranking Chiefs’ children and secure their positions for Hawaiʻi’s Kingdom. The King asked missionaries Amos Starr Cooke and Juliette Montague Cooke to teach the 16-royal children and run the school.
The King also saw the importance of education for all. “Statute for the Regulation of Schools” was passed by the King and chiefs on October 15, 1840.
Its preamble stated, “The basis on which the Kingdom rests is wisdom and knowledge. Peace and prosperity cannot prevail in the land, unless the people are taught in letters and in that which constitutes prosperity. If the children are not taught, ignorance must be perpetual, and children of the chiefs cannot prosper, nor any other children”.
This legislation mandated compulsory attendance for all children ages four to fourteen. Any village that had fifteen or more school-age children was required to provide a school for their students. The creation of the Common Schools (where the 3-Rs were taught) marks the beginning of the government’s involvement in education in Hawaiʻi.
By 1853, nearly three-fourths of the native Hawaiian population over the age of sixteen years were literate in their own language. The short time span within which native Hawaiians achieved literacy is remarkable in light of the overall low literacy rates of the United States at that time. (Lucas)
Over the course of a little over 40-years (1820-1863 – the “Missionary Period,”) about 180-men and women in twelve Companies served in Hawaiʻi to carry out the mission of the ABCFM in the Hawaiian Islands.