A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Overview of Hawaiian History
by Diane Lee Rhodes
(with some additions by Linda Wedel Greene)


D. Literacy Increases

Education of the Hawaiians was a high priority among the missionaries. Their first pupils were the chiefs and their attendants and the native wives and the children of the foreign residents. [89] At first lessons were taught in English, but soon the missionaries set about mastering the Hawaiian language. By the mid-1820s they had adopted an alphabet and reduced the spoken Hawaiian to the written word. They then began to print textbooks while continuing to translate religious materials, particularly the Bible, into Hawaiian so that the lessons could be taught to a larger audience. Once materials were printed in Hawaiian, the missionaries could teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion to the native populations. [90] By 1824 the missionary teachers were trading copies of religious texts for basic food supplies, and by 1834 two newspapers were being published in Hawaiian.

Lahaina and Honolulu soon developed into important mission stations where religious tracts and newspapers were published in Hawaiian, augmenting and accelerating the literacy program for the islanders. Because Ka'ahumanu and several key chiefs supported the missionary cause, Christian conversions were accompanied by ever-increasing numbers of natives attending school at the urging of their leaders. However, school attendance was always affected by traditional activities. For example, entire families might be away from an area for a period of several weeks building a wall for one of the chiefs or searching for articles of tribute. The missionaries also accused foreigners "of no very virtuous character" of injuring the educational system by enticing the children away from school. [91] On the other hand, the foreign schooling also drew the younger ali'i and maka'ainana away from traditional pursuits, accelerating the pace of acculturation.

After a time, some of the best educated Hawaiian students were assigned school districts of their own. The area chief furnished their housing, the schoolhouse, clothing, and food and was to ensure that all inhabitants attended school. As the pupils progressed, this process was repeated, and soon the majority of the population could read and write. According to one author, so many schools were established during this time that Hawaiians became one of the most literate peoples in the world. [92] Festive examinations and exhibitions were held at selected places like Kailua on Hawai'i so that everyone could see the excellent progress the Hawaiian pupils had made.

By 1837 the northern district of Hawai'i could report 155 schools, with over 5,010 scholars and 10,000 books ranging in subject from the "Child's First Lessons" to the New Testament. [93] The educational system produced many practical benefits as well. As the Hawaiians learned to read and write, they also learned that they were being exploited by the traders and sailors and were able to revalue their products accordingly. They also learned a number of useful new crafts. Although the Hawaiian school system fell upon hard times following the death of Ka'ahumanu, revitalization of missionary efforts coupled with legislative reforms led to additional emphasis on, and support for, education by 1850.

Levi Chamberlain, an American missionary, played a major role in the early development of Hawaiian schools. In addition to the missionary teachers, administrators actively supported the Hawaiian school system. One of these men, the Reverend William Richards, accepted a post with the Hawaiian government in 1838. He was responsible for the adoption of vocational training in the school curriculum and for the introduction of English as a medium of instruction. [94] His common sense and compassion worked to further the educational system through legislation.

E. Changes in Government

Kamehameha II made few formal changes to the government of the islands following his father's death and the abolition of the kapu system. The land still belonged to the king, though held by the chiefs. Distinguished chiefs were appointed as governors over the different islands and districts, which still paid the king tribute. Commoners worked for a chief who in return supported them in their old age. Priests still enforced the laws and collected revenue for the king.

However, beneath this veneer of normalcy, the old type of government had begun to crumble. Liholiho was caught between two worlds. The Hawaiian people had begun to adopt Western mores, customs, and vices, and their traditional religious and moral precepts were breaking down. Because Liholiho did not know how to rule under the new system of law espoused by the missionaries, his decisions were often swayed by foreign friends with their own self-serving agendas. [95]

Kamehameha II was ill-equipped to deal with these opposing forces. Forced to make choices, he tried to placate the missionaries while also accommodating the traders and merchants. Unfortunately, he dismissed many of his father's shrewdest advisors, depending instead upon foreign companions. [96] Heavy drinking clouded many of his decisions. When he died in London in 1824, he left a troubled monarchy struggling to deal with the changes that had swept across the islands. [97]

Between 1825 and 1840, changes in the Hawaiian government were largely influenced by foreign ideas and the American missionaries. Conversion of Hawaiians such as Keopuolani and Ka'ahumanu to Christianity swiftly paved the way for changes in the lives of ordinary Hawaiians. For example, Ka'ahumanu, once the favorite wife of Kamehameha, possessed more power and property than any other Hawaiian woman. [98] Following her conversion to Christianity, she rigidly enforced many of the religious dictates of the missionaries among her people. During the 1820s, these dictates were established as laws, enforced by the missionaries but resisted strongly by the foreign traders and merchants. Boki, the royal guardian and tutor of the young king, challenged Ka'ahumanu's leadership, but was diverted from attempts to depose her and died on a sailing trip seeking sandalwood.

Following Ka'ahumamu's death, Hawaiian leaders attempted unsuccessfully to regain native Hawaiian control of the islands and return to the old ways. Foreigners, especially the American missionaries, continued to influence the Hawaiian government.

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001