Colonialism’s Currency: A Short Numismatic History of the Hawaiian Kingdom

Hawaiian Mission Children's Society Library
Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Library

In October 1874, a New Zealand traveler bound for San Francisco stopped over in Honolulu, taking lodging at the idyllic Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The gentleman’s pleasing stay was, however, soon disrupted when he tendered a sovereign to settle the bill for a sumptuous breakfast. To his “utter amazement,” he received the following in change: “one English sixpence, two American dimes, two ditto half dimes, one quarter-dollar, a silver coin of Napoleon III, a Peruvian dollar, and a Mexican coin of some value indistinguishable.” Dashing the money back in anger, he demanded “some one currency or other” that “represented something definite,” but it was coolly returned by the proprietor with assurances that it was “all current coin of the realm.” With nothing to do except pocket the “museum,” as he took to calling his new collection of coins, the bewildered gentleman went for a stroll while considering the extraordinary monetary system that prevailed in the Hawaiian Islands. While United States coins had become the predominant currency by the 1870s, a motley mix of English, Austrian, French, Italian, Russian, Belgian, Mexican, Peruvian, and Spanish coins also had legal tender status at fixed rates set by the minister of finance. Moreover, a table published in an 1875 Hawaiian almanac shows an even greater range of coinage in circulation. This combination of currency turned everyday transactions into complicated affairs that could often overwhelm unfortunate visitors like our touring New Zealander.

Silver dollar of the Hawaiian Kingdom, 1883
Silver dollar of the Hawaiian Kingdom, 1883                       (ANS 1933.122.4)

The diversity of coinage present was a reflection of the prominent role that the Hawaiian Islands played during the nineteenth century as the crossroads of an emerging Pacific world shaped by the integrative forces of colonialism and capitalism. What follows is a short numismatic history of the islands during this transformative century, one that begins with the introduction of Western money during the late eighteenth century and ends with annexation of Hawai‘i by the United States in 1898. !is period was defined by the rise and fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the shifting cultural, commercial, and international relationships in which it was enmeshed. A numismatic perspective offers an illuminating, if admittedly idiosyncratic, way of looking at how Hawaiian history unfolded over the course of the nineteenth century. Coins and currency played a varying role in the islands, at once undermining the traditional basis of Native Hawaiian society while also buttressing the fortunes of the Kingdom in its struggle to remain independent. !e apogee of this story was the national coinage issued by King Kalākaua in 1883, which was meant to bring order to the chaotic currency situation and to reaffirm Hawaiian sovereignty. The removal of the Kalākaua coins from circulation a few years after the annexation of the islands in 1898 was thus a richly symbolic move by the United States as it consolidated control over the new colony…read more.

Part II: Aloha America, or, What’s in a Name?

Tonight, ESPN is airing what looks like a cool documentary about Eddie Aikau that delves into ongoing conflicts between Native Hawaiians and the United States. I figured this made it as good of a time as any to write a continuation of an earlier post, which looked at the history and politics of the nomenclature of the islands. By the end of the nineteenth century and despite the persistence of the British designation of Sandwich Islands among outsiders, in its official documents and diplomatic relations the Kingdom of Hawaii invariably referred to the archipelago as the Hawaiian Islands. In January 1893, the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown and Queen Lili’uokalani was deposed by a moneyed cabal pushing for American annexation. This resulted in the relatively brief and tumultuous period in which the islands were known as the Republic of Hawaii (1894-1898). Despite resistance by both Native Hawaiians and anti-imperialists in the United States, the so-called Newlands Resolution that provided for “for annexing the Hawaiian Islands to the United States” was controversially approved by Congress and signed by President McKinley on July 7, 1898.

The Hawaiian Organic Act of 1900 subsequently designated the islands as the “Territory of Hawaii” and officially made them an “organized incorporated territory of the United States.” Although political and legal struggles over the islands were ongoing, this more or less settled the nonmenclature issue for a time as the graph below shows.

Screen shot 2013-10-02 at 1.51.18 AM

After 1900, the Anglo-inspired “Sandwich Islands” slides into obscurity and the singular Hawaii ascends as the preferred designation. But if the name of the islands was for the time being no longer a significant point of contention, its political and legal status continued to be. Historians have generally located “the birth of an American Empire” in the last decade of the nineteenth century when U.S. foreign policy took a distinctly imperial turn and overseas intrusions multiplied. Whatever the merits of this rather creaky interpretation, American exceptionalism dictated that the United States was manifestly not a colonial power. This meant that the imposition of American rule needed to be refigured as something benevolent, and welcomed by Hawaiians (for more on the complicated cultural interactions through which this was accomplished, see Adria Imada’s aforementioned study). But it was also an issue of terminology. To be clear, the relationship between the United States and Hawaii from 1900 forward was clearly a colonial one, but this was obfuscated by the classification of the islands as an “organized incorporated territory,” which ostensibly put Hawaii on a path to statehood. And yet a combination of racial prejudice, island politics, and U.S. satisfaction with the status quo ensured that statehood was consistently deferred. Hawaii’s status became a more pressing issue as the end of World War II approached and Franklin Roosevelt’s vaunted anticolonialism roiled the postwar plans of the Allies. In 1946, Hawaii was placed on the United Nations list of “non-self-governing territories.” Although it obviously remained under American jurisdiction, the list was viewed by many as a precursor to political independence and the United States was required to submit annual reports on conditions there and to support the development of self-government going forward.  The United States of course had no intention of parting with what was perhaps its most strategically significant overseas territory, but Cold War politics and widespread decolonization made Hawaii’s status an increasingly problematic concern for the U.S. in the 1950s. Statehood offered a potential solution, but the politics of Hawaiian statehood proved contentious both in the islands and on the mainland.

Screen shot 2013-10-02 at 2.15.20 AM

The graph above illustrates something of the confusion, charting how Hawaii was variously described during its time as an American territory (note the post-WWII spike in discussions about statehood). As momentum in the United Nations was building for a resolution granting independence to colonial countries and peoples (resulting in the landmark Resolution 1514 in 1960, which unanimously passed the General Assembly with the U.S. and other major colonial powers abstaining), the Eisenhower administration was finally able to push through the Hawaii Admission Act. The act put the matter of statehood to a vote in the summer of 1959, and despite some noteworthy Native Hawaiian opposition, it was overwhelmingly approved. The United States duly notified the U.N. Secretary General and Hawaii was removed from the list of non-self-governing territories in September. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii was formally “admitted” to the Union. Despite some continuing discontent, statehood seemingly resolved for a time what exactly the islands should be known as, i.e., the State of Hawaii.

This proved short-lived. In the 1970s, the Hawaiian Renaissance and the concomitant rise of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement again threw the name of the islands and their political status into question. One result of the political ferment and the revived interest in Hawaiian language was a push to return to the putatively traditional pronunciation and orthography of Native Hawaiians. This involved a shift from Hawaii (huh-WY-ee) to Hawai’i (huh-WAH-ee or huh-VY-ee) with the ‘okina marking a glottal stop and the pronunciation of the middle syllable as either a w or soft v still in dispute. However it is pronounced, the standard spelling in academia and Native Hawaiian circles is now Hawai’i, and it would seem to be gaining purchase in the larger culture as well.

Screen shot 2013-10-02 at 1.37.41 AM

What the future holds remains to be seen, but the two-hundred-year struggle over what the islands should be called aptly demonstrates the link between language and power. Ultimately, what’s in a name is politics, and given its history, the nomenclature of the Hawaiian Islands will undoubtedly remain contentious.


Aloha America, or, What’s in a Name?

aloha americaI recently reviewed Adria Imada’s book Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire for the Journal of Pacific History. It is an engaging study of how the popularization of hula fostered an “imagined intimacy” between the United States and Hawai’i that facilitated that hula played in the United States. The full review is here.

One interesting aspect to note is that like most contemporary studies, Imada’s book follows modern Hawaiian orthography and refers to the archipelago of islands as Hawai’i, i.e., including the ‘okina to mark a glottal stop. One outcome of the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s and the related rise of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement has been increased emphasis on the politics of language. Beyond simply forgoing English words for Hawaiian ones, there has been a concerted effort to use Hawaiian rather than English orthography for various terms. Perhaps the most visible manifestation of this latter shift is promoting the use of Hawai’i over Hawaii. In academia at least, Hawai’i is now the conventional spelling. Still, it remains to be seen if and when this change might be effected at the official government level (the University of Hawai’i and some other local and state institutions have already made the shift). Part of what is so interesting about the debate over what to call the islands (and how to spell it) is that it has been an ongoing and very political issue for over two hundred years.

When Captain James Cook sailed through the archipelago in 1778, he recorded the names of the islands given to him by the local inhabitants, including that of “Owhyhee,” which seemed to have been used interchangeably as the name for the largest of the islands (Hawai’i, i.e. the Big Island) and for the overall group. The seemingly extraneous O in Owhyhee was due to a misunderstanding of the Hawaiian language in which the o’ was used as a copula verb. In short, Cook recorded a phrase, O’ Hawai’i (This is Hawai’i) as the name. Of course, it did not much matter to him, as it was also Cook who designated the group the “Sandwich Islands” after John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty. Cook’s name stuck and at least through the 1840 most foreign sources and early Hawaiian laws and treaties referred to the islands as the Sandwich Islands. When missionaries standardized an alphabet and written Hawaiian in the 1820s, the native name was rendered as Hawaii. And despite the predominance of the Sandwich Islands in foreign/official usage, there was clearly Hawaiian resistance to that name. Librarian Russell Clement has noted that official correspondence resulting from USN Captain W. C. B. Finch’s visit in 1829 includes the following passage: “the Government and natives generally have dropped or do not admit the designation, of ‘Sandwich Islands’ as applied to their possessions; but adopt and use that of ‘Hawaiian Islands.'” Indeed, by the time of the 1840 Constitution, “Hawaiian Islands” was clearly the government’s preferred designation and it was codified as such. Below is a Google Ngram graph of the rival names:

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Of course, this graph only accounts for what British and American sources were choosing to call the islands. Although Google Books has some stray works, the vast majority of the abundant Hawaiian-language books and newspapers produced in the nineteenth century have not been indexed. The preferred designation among Native Hawaiians in the nineteenth century was “Hawaii nei,” or the fuller appellation of “Hawaii nei pae aina.” Although it is not necessarily evident in the above graph because foreign, and particularly British publications, continued to refer to the Sandwich Islands, the government and island residents almost invariably used Hawaiian Islands after 1850. This shift was clearly initiated by the Hawaiian monarchy and supported by its allies, but it was also a reflection of the waning of British influence and the increasing involvement of the United States in Hawaiian affairs. Whether a way of thumbing their noses at the British or simply acceding to the wishes of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the United States dispensed with Sandwich Islands in favor of Hawaiian Islands in all its official diplomatic relations after an 1849 treaty. Insomuch as American and Hawaiian preferences were now aligned, there was a distinct shift in usage as the century progressed.


Matters only became more complicated with the overthrow of the Kingdom and the subsequent annexation of the Hawaiian Islands by the United States at the end of the century. In part II, we’ll have a look at the ramifications of these events on how the islands were referred to and then trace the debate up to the present day.


Ballooning in Hawai’i: A Very Short History

Joseph Lawrence was born in 1863 in Salem, Ohio and owned a hardware business until he was 24, when he somewhat unaccountably began a new career as a daredevil balloon ascensionist. The French inventor and aviation pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard first brought the practice of ballooning to the United States in 1793. Unmanned balloons were used by American circuses as early as the 1820s for advertising and publicity, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that the great era of circus ballooning got started. Aeronauts, as they were often styled, would ascend a mile or so into the air in a hydrogen balloon, performing tricks on a trapeze dangling from the basket and then parachuting to the ground for the finale. It was also, perhaps curiously, one of the few lines of circus work in which African-Americans were accepted and so-called “colored aeronauts” were fairly common. Some shows had multiple balloons upon which customers could pay to ride during the day, but Joseph Lawrence made his name as a daredevil aeronaut. Beginning in 1887, he traveled around the country giving exhibitions, eventually adopting the “Van Tassell” surname after joining forces with Park Van Tassel, a competing aeronaut who made a name for himself performing around the American West.

Courtesy of Chronicling America

The Van Tassell Bros. troupe made plans for an ambitious tour through the Pacific during the fall of 1889. After performing in San Francisco, Joseph Lawrence “Van Tassell” arrived in Honolulu in late October and made his first ascension on November 2, safely parachuting to the ground in front of a crowd of 500 or so spectators. After his initial success, the newly minted pioneer of Hawaiian aviation planned a follow-up performance in honor of King King David Kalākaua’s birthday on November 16. Unfortunately, the wind picked up that day as the balloon rose into the sky and although he was able to successfully cut loose and deploy his parachute, a gust carried Joseph out to sea. He landed some miles from shore and drowned before help could arrive.

Courtesy of Chronicling America

Despite a hopeful advertisement from the troupe’s manager, Joseph’s body was never found. And so in relatively short order, Joseph Lawrence went from the first flyer on Hawai’i to the first aviation fatality. Park Van Tassel continued to tour around the Pacific in the years that followed. Another performer with whom he was affiliated, Jeannette Van Tassel (variously described as his wife or daughter), was killed after a fall at Dhaka (Bangladesh) in March 1892, after which he finally retired from the balloon business.

On balloon and the American circus, see Bob Parkinson, “Circus Balloon Ascensions,” Bandwagon (Sep.–Oct. 1964), 3–6; on the many tragedies that accompanied them see William L. Slout, “What Goes Up…Comes Down, Bandwagon (March–April 1996), 22-27.