The coin dies that Adam Jansen has placed on the desk in front of me are simple and elegant, with beautifully engraved faces. They were crafted in Philadelphia by the chief engraver of the US Mint. The reason they’re in an archive in Honolulu? These are the original obverse dies that struck a million dollars in silver currency for King Kalākaua in 1883.
As Hawai‘i’s state archivist, Jansen oversees the preservation of much of Hawai‘i’s past. His passion for old things shows whenever he talks about the scores of documents and artifacts in the Kekāuluohi Building, on the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace. His eyes are alight and he seems to grow a couple of inches as he describes the currency lying in front of us, including a silver “akahi dala,” or one-dollar coin. “This Hawaiian currency is not just money, it is evidence of Hawai‘i as a modern nation in the nineteenth century,” he says. “These coins from 1883 reflect a progressive Hawaiian Kingdom that had its own national currency, a ministry of finance, treasury system, banks. This is evidence of the incredible phenomenon that was the adoption and mastery of a wholly new system in an incredibly short period of time. A people going from not having a written language to—within seventy years—having a very sophisticated monetary system. That shows vision, strength of will, organization, dedication. That’s what these coins evidence.”
Communities in ancient Hawai‘i were generally interdependent, with gifting and informal trade governing commerce; there was no formal currency. Families living mauka (toward the mountains) would bring stone adzes, wood for construction and cooking fires and other upland commodities to those living makai (toward the sea), who in turn would send salt, fish and other ocean goods back upslope. Everyone offered seasonal tributes of pigs, dogs, fish and more to the ali‘i nui (high chiefs).
As foreign ships began arriving in the late eighteenth century, Hawaiians traded for metal, cloth and other items. Livestock was a common currency exchanged both with foreigners and among those living in the Islands—the 1866 census for Lahaina reports that John Kahue White Jr. and wife Kupihe owned two hundred hipa (sheep) and one thousand kao (goats). ‘Īlio (dogs), a common food of the time, were used as currency in a range of transactions from personal debts to land deals. Along the way, standards of equivalency and commerce developed. When trade in ‘iliahi (Hawaiian sandalwood) exploded, the picul of the fragrant timber—133 and one-third pounds—became a prominent unit of currency throughout the kingdom.
As more foreigners arrived, their currencies arrived with them. An official Hawaiian Kingdom government publication of 1848 titled “Table of Coins, Showing the comparative intrinsic value of some of the principal Coins current in the Hawaiian Islands …” lists over 150 different currencies being exchanged in Hawai‘i, including the English shilling, the Spanish doubloon, the Russian imperial, the Portuguese cruzado and the Danish ryksdaler. Although it was true that many different countries’ moneys could get a sailor a drink in Lahaina or Honolulu, it was US gold and silver coins that served as the official standard currency as Hawai‘i became an internationally recognized nation-state in the 1840s. An 1846 Hawaiian Kingdom law declared US coins the national standard but also gave legal tender status to coins “i kau ia ka hoailona o kekahi aupuni kuo-koa” (bearing the impress of any sovereign state).
Commerce between Hawai‘i and the United States—the Hawaiian Kingdom had consulates in the port towns of Boston, San Francisco, Portland and near Seattle—increased the influence of US currency in Hawai‘i. As these connections developed, some began calling for the annexation of the Islands. This sparked a respondent nationalistic fervor in Hawai‘i, which grew during Kalākaua’s reign. In 1879, his sixth year in office, Kalākaua issued paper currency fully backed by deposits of gold and silver—making Hawai‘i one of the few nations in the world to do so. Denominations of $10, $20, $50, $100 and $500 were produced by the American Bank Note Company, a major engraver of national currencies and postage stamps founded by Robert Scot, the first official engraver of the US Mint. The Hawaiian paper currencies of 1879 to 1880 were beautifully drawn notes printed in vivid yellow, green and red; they featured images that portrayed the Hawaiian Kingdom as a vibrant, modern member of the family of nations: Island trains, ships, scenes of agricultural commerce, a Hawaiian paniolo (cowboy), a globe. The kingdom notes never really took hold, however, as both local and international banks and businesses preferred US bank notes for any significant amount of money.
In 1881, Kalākaua undertook an extraordinary worldwide voyage during which he met with heads of state: President Chester A. Arthur, Queen Victoria, Umberto I, Pope Leo XIII and Emperor Meiji. Upon his return, and seeking to remind the world of the sovereign status of the Islands amid growing rumors of political plots and annexation schemes, Kalākaua undertook a host of nationalistic projects. His experiences abroad had reinforced his understanding of the power of national symbols and redoubled his commitment to supplant American currency in the Islands with his nation’s own. The project was taken up enthusiastically by Kalākaua’s minister of finance, Walter Murray Gibson. Gibson was an American adventurer who had served time in a Java prison after being convicted of fomenting rebellion among the native people of the Dutch East Indies. In Hawai‘i he had become a close ally of the king and a strong advocate for native rule. Gibson was insistent that the country should develop its own currency to “inspire the confidence of the people, and add to the prestige of the Kingdom.”
Kalākaua wanted to start with $1 million in coins. After an initial idea to establish a national mint was abandoned as too costly, Gibson asked the Hawaiian Kingdom’s minister to the United States, Elisha Allen, to meet with his contacts in Washington about producing coins at a US mint—America had minted coins for Venezuela in 1876. A deal was made for the new coins to be designed at the Philadelphia Mint by Charles E. Barber and chief coiner Colonel Archibald Loudon Snowden, both renowned for their moneymaking artistry, and struck at the US Mint in San Francisco.
On April 14, 1883, a Philadelphia newspaper reported the deal in a column titled “A Monarch’s Money. King Kalakaua gives Uncle Sam a Job.” The coins’ design included a profile of Kalākaua on the obverse and the Hawaiian coat of arms on the reverse. The largest English-language newspaper in Hawai‘i, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, predicted that “the new Kalakaua coins of this Kingdom will be esteemed among the most beautiful specimens of numismatic art and will be prized by all collectors of coins and will no doubt be assured a hearty welcome in the pocket of every resident of these Islands.” The paper had specific reason to cheer the effort: Its owner and editor was Walter Murray Gibson.
Not everyone jumped aboard the Hawaiian currency bandwagon. Some of the prominent business elite who had been battling Kalākaua on other fronts—a number of them annexationists—opposed the move to create Hawaiian Kingdom coins and, in an attempt to stop the deal, filed lawsuits challenging the bonds used to finance the project. The king prevailed, however, and on December 9, 1883, the steamship Mariposa arrived in Honolulu Harbor from San Francisco loaded with $130,000 in currency bound for the Hawaiian Kingdom’s treasury. It was the first shipment of the $1 million being coined. The business class again sought to resist this significant step away from assimilation into the US economy by filing a new law-suit that delayed the currency’s distribution.
That effort also failed, and after the start of the new year, the “Kalakaua coins” began to make their way into the hands and pockets of an eager community. The Hawaiian Gazette reported that the first Hawaiian Kingdom coin to reach the public, a half-dollar piece, was taken in at the box office of the Music Hall in downtown Honolulu on the evening of January 10. The historic coin was presented as a souvenir to Louise Beaudet, a 23-year-old French-American actress who performed that night. The paper noted, “That lady enjoys the satisfaction of having in her possession the first Hawaiian silver half-dollar placed in circulation.” Those initial coins and the shipments that followed were enthusiastically received by the native population of Hawai‘i and by tourists who could bring home one “Hawaiian dala” for one US dollar—here’s hoping one of your great-great-grandparents saved one or two; today a mint-condition Hawaiian Kingdom dala could fetch you up to $40,000 on the rare coin market.
So what happened to that million dollars in Hawaiian Kingdom currency? In 1902, four years after the United States took possession of the Hawaiian Islands and two years after the Territory of Hawaii was created, around 90 percent of the original million dollars was still in circulation. The Kalākaua silver coins were considered legal tender under US law, but banks and other business interests in Hawai‘i were wary about keeping large reserves of them. Concerned about possible refusals by US businesses to accept them—the Hawaiian money could not be used by US banks for establishing their reserves—they sent representatives to Congress to push for a bill that would end the use of the Hawaiian currency. In January 1903, President William McKinley signed a bill declaring Hawaiian coins valueless after December 30, 1903.
On March 11 of that year, the steamer Alameda departed Honolulu Harbor with its usual crowd of business travelers, sightseers and government officials but with some unusual cargo: thirty sacks of silver coins. This $65,000 worth of Hawaiian Kingdom currency, the first of many more shipments to come, was headed back to the US Mint in San Francisco, where it had been cast only twenty years prior. An Oklahoma newspaper, the Guthrie Daily Leader, explained to its readers the fate that awaited Kalākaua’s currency: “Hawaiian coins are to be melted down and made into good money.” It added its own preferred outcome: “It will be next in order to cool down those excitable natives out there and make them into good citizens.”
By the end of 1903, the crafted images of Hawai‘i’s king and its royal standard, and the words of its motto—“Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono” (The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness)—all of which once graced Hawai‘i’s own silver currency, disappeared, melted in the furnace of a California mint and transformed into American dimes. HH