For more background, please read “Opukaha’ia: The Catalyst for Christian Missionaries.”
When Opukaha’ia left Hawai’i in 1808, the kapu system was still very much in effect. (Kapu is sometimes defined as “taboo” or “sacred.”) Forced upon the islands’ peaceable inhabitants by conquering Tahitians some time between 1300 A.D. and 1500 A.D., this brutal religious system governed almost every aspect of a Hawaiian’s daily life and imposed harsh penalties for minor infractions. Opukaha’ia made reference to a kapu in his diary when he expressed surprise at seeing men and women eating together in America…an act punishable by death in his homeland.
Over time the priestly vanguards of the kapu system sought to gain control over kings as well as commoners. King Kamehameha II, however, overthrew the taboos, and thus the religion, within six months of taking office in May 1819. When Christian missionaries arrived in March 1820, completely unaware of the political and religious changes, the islands had been impacted for decades by sailors, whalers, traders and merchants. The first missionary party was comprised of a physician, a printer, a farmer, teachers, as well as two ministers and Native Hawaiian graduates of the Foreign Mission School in Connecticut. Schools were soon established and Native Hawaiians learned to read and write their own rich language. By the mid-1800s, Hawai’i boasted the highest literacy rate in the world.
In a newspaper article published in 1869, a Native Hawaiian historian reported that Hawai’i was the only Pacific government to be represented at an Exposition in Paris. Granted its first constitution in 1840 by King Kamehameha III, books of law, newspapers, agricultural products, Bibles, textbooks, as well as other examples of “civilized” accomplishments were exhibited. European visitors to the Paris Exposition were, for the most part, ruled by monarchs and only their highborn were privy to excellent educations. Faced with their failed preconceptions about Hawai’i, some exclaimed: “This…island is ahead in literacy; and the enlightened countries of Europe are behind it!”
(Written by C.E. Chambers and published in the “Waimea Gazette” August 2001, this was part of an article titled “Henry Opukaha’ia: Hawai’i’s Ongoing Legacy.” (It was renamed “Opukaha’ia: The Catalyst for Christian Missionaries” for this website.)
References used regarding Hawai’i’s literacy rate and the exposition in Paris: Perpetuated in Righteousness by Daniel Kikawa and Colonizing Hawai’i by Sally Engle Merry.