Ululani Special Feature

Lāhui Rising Series

This educational series is designed to create a safe, respectful and enriching learning space for all audiences to hear and honor various perspectives on matters of Hawaiian interest.

King Liholiho led the Hawaiians’ amazing rise to literacy in the 1820s

Kaʻanoʻi Walk, Hoʻokahua Cultural Specialist

February is Hawaiian Language Month! The Kamehameha Schools Hoʻokahua Cultural Vibrancy Division is commemorating the occasion by sharing a series of KSOnline articles through the end of the month. The following story looks at how King Liholiho (Kamehameha II) cultivated literacy in his people.

Liholiho – Kamehameha II – Mōʻī of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, was the driving force behind his people's amazing rise to literacy in the 1820s.

The eight-track tape player, the Walkman, the CD player, the iPod… In a very short span of time we’ve all witnessed the sweeping tide of advancing technologies. Just as technology impacts us today, it profoundly affected the lives of our kūpuna.

Aided by the technology of their time – stone tools and open-ocean sailing without navigational instruments – ancient Hawaiians evolved into some of the world’s greatest explorers, traveling the vast Pacific Ocean and choosing Hawaiʻi as their home.

This reproduction Ramage printing press housed at the Mission Houses Museum in Honolulu is similar to the one brought by the missionaries to Hawaiʻi in 1820.

We can all learn from these tech-savvy people and draw from their rich history of creativity, innovation, and adaptation.

The following research comes from the master’s thesis of John Kalei Laimana, Jr., doctoral candidate in history at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. It examines the circumstances surrounding Hawaiians’ amazing rise to literacy in the 1820s:

Not long after the passing of Kamehameha I in 1819, the first Christian missionaries arrived at Kailua, Hawaiʻi on March 30, 1820. Their arrival here became the topic of much discussion as Liholiho, known as Kamehameha II, deliberated with his aliʻi council for 13 days on a plan allowing the missionaries to stay.

Interestingly, the missionaries promised a printing press and to teach palapala, or reading and writing. Because Liholiho had learned the alphabet prior to the missionaries’ arrival, he had a notion of the value of a printing press and literacy for his people. A key point in Liholiho’s plan required the missionaries to first teach the aliʻi to read and write. The missionaries agreed to the King’s terms and instruction began soon after.

During the first year of instruction, the missionaries struggled to learn ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and delivered their lessons in English. After one year of English instruction, the following pupils had developed such great skill that they were selected to be teachers and taught English to fellow Hawaiians: John Papa ʻĪʻī, James Kahuhu, Haʻalilio and Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III). To reiterate, in one year’s time, this group of Hawaiians learned English well enough to teach their peers!

On the other hand, the missionaries had not made the same kind of progress in their acquisition of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. Concerned, Liholiho met with them and pledged his assistance. On January 7, 1822, nine months after Liholiho’s visit, the first eight pages of the pīʻapā were printed in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. This resulted in the formation of an alphabet book and elementary reading primer. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the missionaries that created the Hawaiian orthography, but it is more likely that the literate Hawaiians of the time deserve credit for that work.

The first published book in 1822, the pīʻāpā, printed the Hawaiian language alphabet and served as the first educational reading and writing lesson book.

The first printing of 500 pīʻāpā copies was quickly devoured and two thousand more were printed six months later. To keep up with the boom in interest and demand, many Hawaiians needed to move quickly from students to teachers. This movement of learning the palapala, initiated by Liholiho, was thought to be good for all ages.

There are accounts of the rapid acquisition of reading and writing by young Hawaiian children in that time. Their prowess was such that they would be “surpassed by few American pupils of a corresponding age.” Even those in the latter stages of life learned the palapala quickly.

Kakupuoki, an aliʻi wahine and widow of Kalaniʻōpuʻu, tenaciously pursued literacy at the tender age of eighty. The missionaries questioned her dedication to learning this new technology and even advised her to give up, but Kakupuoki persevered with the assistance of a female attendant and mastered the palapala in two to three years.

Hawaiian historian Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau explains that this was not uncommon and names three individuals over 80 and 90 years that could read the Bible before the end of 1823: Kekupuohi, Kaeleowaipio, and Kamakau.

By August 30, 1825, only three years after the first printing of the pīʻāpā, 16,000 copies of spelling books, 4,000 copies of a small scripture tract, and 4,000 copies of a catechism had been printed and distributed. On October 8, 1829, it was reported that 120,000 spelling books were printed in Hawaiʻi. These figures suggest that perhaps 90 percent of the Hawaiian population were in possession of a pīʻāpā book!

This literacy initiative was continually supported by the aliʻi. Under Liholiho, ships carrying teachers were not charged harbor fees. During a missionary paper shortage, the government stepped in to cover the difference, buying enough paper to print roughly 13,500 books. In fact, while Liholiho was on his ill–fated trip to England, Kaʻahumanu, the kuhina nui (regent), and Kalanimoku reiterated their support by proclaiming that upon the completion of schools, “all the people shall learn the palapala.”

During this period, there were approximately 182,000 Hawaiians living throughout 1,103 districts in the archipelago. Extraordinarily, by 1831, the kingdom government financed all infrastructure costs for the 1,103 school houses and furnished them with teachers. Our kūpuna sunk their teeth into reading and writing like a tiger sharks and would not let go.

This legendary rise in literacy climbed from a near-zero literacy rate in 1820, to between 91 to 95 percent by 1834. That’s only twelve years from the time the first book was printed!

All of this clearly shows us that our kūpuna were not afraid of any kind of knowledge or technology, and they excelled and mastered it. Equally important, we enjoyed these successes in our mother tongue, ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.

What we can glean from this research is that language, culture, and the governance system of our kūpuna came together as an estuary for great success, namely literacy. In one missionary account, a young Hawaiian man shared his thirst for knowledge:

One young man asked me for a book yesterday, and I inquired of him who his teacher was. He replied, “My desire to learn, my ear, to hear, my eye, to see, my hands, to handle, for, from the sole of my foot to the crown of my head I love the palapala.”

Now that we see the historical achievements of our kūpuna, we know that we come from intelligent, capable people. What then, are the next steps for us, as 21st century Hawaiian education stakeholders? What will we draw from to inform our future? How will we innovate, create, and be successful like our kūpuna?