The king's letters
In 1825, Kauikeaouli, the third king of the Kamehameha dynasty, proclaimed: “He aupuni palapala ko‘u”—mine will be a nation of letters and learning. He was only 12 years old when he uttered these words, and the government was still controlled by Ka‘ahumanu, the favorite (and most powerful) wife of Kauikeaoli's father.
Amazingly, within a few short decades, Kamehameha III—the child king—would deliver on his promise.
In 1826, Ka‘ahumanu ordered the district chiefs to erect schools on Maui, which was at the time the capital seat of the Hawaiian government. These “common schools,” which initially focused on adults and later on children, proliferated to 1,100 by 1831, with 52,000 students—about two-fifths of the population. The first of these schools, Lahainaluna, still exists today.
Founded as Lahainaluna Seminary, the new school was established to train pastors and assistant teachers of religion—a kind of second layer of clergy in the quickly Christianizing island nation.
Six years before Lahainaluna's founding, a small school was established there by Betsey Stockton, who was born a slave in New Jersey, and was freed to join the missionaries in Hawai‘i. She was the first African-American woman in Hawai‘i.
An early principal, Sheldon Dibble, had the foresight to see that, in an environment of cultural loss, the Hawaiian scholars of the school should study and preserve their own culture rather than that of others. Famed historians and Hawaiian scholars David Malo and Samuel Kamakau were both trained at Lahainaluna. At Lahainaluna, the first Hawaiian history textbook was published, as well as the first world map in Hawaiian. The scholars there also “translated” the boundaries of Hawai‘i’s ahupua‘a (land districts), kept mainly in chant form, onto maps for the first time. Far from a high school (which it is today) or vocational training program, the school was building the intellectual infrastructure for the fledgling nation to enter the world stage. The printing press at Lahainaluna doubled as the government press for a time and, in 1834, the first of over one hundred Hawaiian language newspapers, Ka Lama Hawaii, was established at the school.
In 1836, Hilo Boarding School was founded by Rev. David Lyman and his wife, with a school for girls opening the very next year. Schools at Wailuku and Wai‘alua followed and, by 1839, the Chiefs’ Children’s School (later called the Royal School) opened. At this school, the next generation of chiefs—Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V, Bernice Pauahi, Emma Na‘ea Rooke, David Kalākaua—were all taught by Amos Starr Cooke and Juliette Montague Cooke. Punahou School opened in 1842 as Oahu College for the purpose of educating the children of Protestant missionaries throughout the Pacific, and Marianist Catholic missionaries founded St. Louis School in 1846.
Religious in nature, the development of these schools roughly paralleled the translation and printing of the Bible into Hawaiian. The New Testament was completed in 1832 and most of the Old Testament by 1839. By the 1860s, a Hawaiian-controlled press emerged, which was willing to critique the now-entrenched missionary presence. Laiekawai, the first Hawaiian novel also emerged during this period.
This infrastructure of schools, newspapers and books led to Hawai‘i becoming the world's leader in literacy by the mid-19th century—all of which were vital in the turbulent years to come.