A siren fractures the afternoon calm, and Lahainaluna students pour from a dozen school buildings on their way to their next class. Across the parking lot, all but forgotten, an old stone structure sits in quiet contrast to the bustle of campus. If you asked, the students could tell you that it’s Hale Pa‘i, the little print shop that opened in 1834, soon after the founding of their alma mater, the oldest school west of the Rockies.
Not that most of them have such ancient history on their minds. Gadgets of the modern age absorb their attention: IPods, cell phones, BlackBerries. But 174 years ago, Hale Pa‘i—“the house of printing”—brought a wondrous new technology to the island. And what it wrought so long ago may yet change their tomorrow.
By the time Protestant missionaries settled in the Islands in 1820, Hawaiians had had four decades of contact with the world beyond Polynesia. Explorers, fleets of whalers, and traders in sandalwood and fur brought news of faraway lands. Valued for their prowess at sea, many kanaka maoli signed on as crewmen and sailed off to see the world.
In 1809, a young Hawaiian named ‘Opukaha‘ia arrived in New Haven, Connecticut, where he proved to be both a superb scholar and an avid convert to Christianity. The 1937 edition of the Missionary Album would later note, “The story of the American Missionary labors in the Hawaiian Islands begins with the incident of Obookiah [‘Opukaha‘ia] . . . being found on the steps of the Yale Chapel . . . crying because his people were in ignorance.”
Prompted by ‘Opukaha‘ia’s concern, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent twelve missionary companies to the Hawaiian Islands, the first arriving in 1820, the last in 1848.
“You are to open your hearts wide and set your marks high,” the American Board directed. “You are to aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields, and pleasant dwellings and schools and churches, and of raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization. You are to obtain an adequate knowledge of the language of the people; to make them acquainted with letters; to give them the Bible, with the skill to read it…”