Did you know that Hawaii had a king? Before joining the United States union in 1959, the Hawaiian Islands had their own kingdom, with the unification of the independent islands of Hawai’i, Oahu, Maui, Moloka’i, and Lāna’i under one government in 1795, and then the addition of Kaua’i and Ni’ihau in 1810. Two major dynastic families ruled the kingdom: the House of Kamehameha and the House of Kalākaua.
The last King of Hawaii, Kalākaua (born David La’amea Kamananakapu Mahinulani Naloiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua), was elected to the throne in 1874. A jovial monarch who enjoyed entertaining, Kalākaua was inspired to take a trip around the world in 1881 to encourage the importation of contract labor for plantations. This 281-day trip lead him from the United States, to Asia and finally Europe. It was following this trip that the king came to believe that legal tender Hawaiian coins bearing his effigy would raise Hawaiian pride and project a strong fiscal image of the island kingdom to foreign nations, assisting in the business endeavours he sought out across the globe.
In 1883, sugar baron Claus Spreckels, an advisor to the King, financed the minting of Hawaii’s official coinage. Produced by the US Mint in San Francisco, these coins were minted to mimic the size and shape of US coins, a well-known and well-received currency. Four different denominations were produced – dimes (umi keneta), quarters (hapaha), half dollars (hapalua) and silver dollars (akahi dala).
Hawaii’s coins were poorly received with a change in government, and in 1903, the United States called for redemption of all Hawaiian silver coins at face value exchange for US coins. Kalākaua’s coinage ceased to be legal tender after January 1, 1904. It is unknown how many Hawaiian coins remained in private hands, and today exist as keepsakes of this historic kingdom and numismatic history.
Left: King David Kalakaua, 1891. Middle: Kauikeaouli Gate, located in front of Iolani Palace, decorated in honor of King Kalakaua's return home from his trip around the world in 1881. Right: Kalakaua with his military staff officers, 1882.