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Museum Month: Brush Up On Hawaiian History at Maui's Hale Pa'i Museum



"My Kingdom will be a land of literacy", Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), 1813

If you didn't know that Hawaii at one point had it's own currency, that's ok, neither did I. It was called the "Dala", and the exchange rate was pegged to the US dollar from which it took its name.

Did you know that for a six-month period of its history Hawaii was officially and illegally occupied by the British? Overthrown in February, 1843, the eventual nullification of the takeover by the British Crown would prompt King Kamehameha III to utter the phrase which now stands as the Hawaii state motto: Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono. The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.

Looking for more Hawaiian history? At Maui's Lahainaluna High School--itself the oldest public school in the United States west of the Rocky Mountains--the restored stone museum known as Hale Pa'i (The Printing House) offers visitors a fascinating window into the history of 19th century Hawaii.

When Western explorers arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1700's they found a native populace with no system of reading or writing. Instead, through the use of chant, song, and dance such as hula, native Hawaiian stories were passed orally down through the generations.

All of this changed, however, when American missionaries in 1821 decided to formulate an alphabet for the Hawaiian language. Using the naturally occurring sounds of the language, an original alphabet of 17 letters was penned down on paper before ultimately being shaved down to the current alphabet of only five vowels and seven consonants.

With an alphabet now firmly in place, missionaries next took to the task of converting the Hawaiians to Christianity via scripture translated into the printed Hawaiian word. As it happens, much of this initial printing would take place in Lahaina at Hale Pa'i.

Using a printing press shipped over from the neighboring island of Oahu, the press housed at Hale Pa'i would not only be the first press to grace the island of Maui, but also churn out the first newspaper to exist west of the Rocky Mountains--Ka Lama Hawaii, a Hawaiian language periodical with an initial circulation of 25 copies in 1834.

In addition to newspapers and books (namely the Bible, the Hawaiian translation of which is said to be the thickest Bible ever printed), the printed Hawaiian alphabet now gave the ruling Hawaiian monarchy a means of establishing a written constitution and instituting written laws.

The voracious demand for the printed word which ensued soon after the introduction of the printing press prompted builders to swap the original thatched roof of Hale Pa'i for a permanent structure which would endure as a house of literature for generations to come.

Operated by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, the museum also houses cultural artifacts from Ancient Hawaii and documents detailing specific events in Hawaii's recent yet captivating history.

Hale Pa'i Museum is open Monday-Friday from 10am-4pm on the campus of Maui's Lahainaluna High School.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, History, Learning, North America, United States

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