On the afternoon of January 20, 1778, Cook anchored his ships near the mouth of the Waimea River on Kauai’s southwestern shore.
When Captain Cook first made contact with the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, Hawaiian was a spoken language but not a written language. Historical accounts were passed down orally, through oli (chants) and mele (songs).
Before the foreigners arrived, Hawaiians had a vocational learning system, where everyone was taught a certain skill by the kahuna. Skills taught included canoe builder, medicine men, genealogists, navigators, farmers, house builders, priests, etc.
After a couple of weeks, there, Cook headed to the west coast of North America.
A new era opened in the Islands with the arrival of the first American Protestant missionaries. On October 23, 1819, the Pioneer Company of American Protestant missionaries from the northeast US, led by Hiram Bingham, set sail on the Thaddeus for Hawai‘i. They arrived April 4, 1820.
The American Protestant missionaries were preachers and teachers.
On May 10, 1820, Ruggles notes, “This afternoon the king (Kaumuali‘i) sent to me and requested that I would come and read to him in his bible. I read the first chapter of Genesis and explained to him what I read as well as I could.”
“He listened with strict attention, frequently asking pertinent questions, and said I can’t understand it all; I want to know it; you must learn my language fast, and then tell me all. No white man before ever read to me and talk like you.”
In addition to preaching the gospel, one of the first things the missionaries did was begin to learn the Hawaiian language and create an alphabet for a written format of the language.
After Western contact and attempts to write about Hawaiʻi, 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.
Initially, the missionaries worked out a Hawaiian alphabet of 17-English letters. 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).
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. The missionaries established schools associated with their missions across the Islands.
By 1831, in just eleven years from the first arrival of the missionaries, Hawaiians had built 1,103 schoolhouses. This covered every district throughout the eight major Islands and serviced an estimated 52,882 students.
The proliferation of schoolhouses was augmented by the 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)
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)