Paper Money

Hawaiian seminary notes first for the islands kingdom

The most expensive item in a sale is not always the most interesting. That is not to say that an $18,000 opening bid on a $30,000 to $50,000 estimate isn’t notable, but sometimes the story is as impressive as the price. A set of six rare Hawaiian notes from 1843 to 1844, the oldest Hawaiian paper currency extant, in the Sept. 6 Heritage Currency Signature Auction in Long Beach, California, is such an example.

They are from the Lahainaluna Seminary, a Protestant missionary school established in 1831. When the founding missionaries landed in Hawaii eight years earlier, they found neither a written language nor an educational system. The language they established is still used, and the seminary is now Lahainaluna High School on Maui. It is the oldest public school west of the Rockies.

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In 1834, the Hale Pa’i, (house of printing), was built to house Hawaii’s first printing press. It was used to make Bibles in both English and Hawaiian, books and newspapers, and in 1843, says historian Peter Morse, Hawaii’s first paper money. 

The notes were done by intaglio engraving and six denominations were produced — ekolu keneta (3 cents), hapaumi ($1/16), hapawalu ($1/8), hapaha ($1/4), hapalua ($1/2), and hookahi dala ($1). Their original purpose was to pay students for work done, and the designs reflected the school’s curriculum: industry, law, science, geography, and education. The hookahi dala note had a map of the Hawaiian Islands and the kingdom’s flag.

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These notes being offered are actually Hawaii’s second series of notes. By May 1844, a student had been expelled for counterfeiting, and Morse assumes “that the ‘forgery’ was actually a further printing from the original plate,” created by some individuals for their own use, and indistinguishable from the originals. 

The solution was to destroy all the originals that could be found, and re-engrave the original copper plates with a distinctive “secret mark,” such as a small added line, for each denomination. Morse states that all currently known examples contain the secret marks.

“The Lahainaluna Money Forgeries,” by Peter Morse (1968) in the Hawaiian Journal of History, offers the full, fascinating story of this historic issue.

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