Q. David Bowers
An Important Half Dollar
The year 1928 marked the 150th anniversary of the January 18, 1778 arrival of British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook at the Hawaiian Islands (at first and for a long time thereafter called the Sandwich Islands in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, a patron of Cook's voyage).
Captain James Cook, born in England on October 28, 1728, joined the Royal Navy in 1755 and eventually became one of the 18th century's most famous navigators. Following exploration and charting of Newfoundland and the upper reaches of the St. Lawrence River, Cook took a group of scientists to the Pacific Ocean to study the predicted transit of Venus across the sun. During this and several other Pacific voyages, Cook carefully plotted the locations of many islands and laid to rest theories about an undiscovered large continent. On his fourth trip to the Pacific, Cook "discovered" the Hawaiian Islands in January 1778, possibly becoming the first white man to land there, although some historians have suggested that Spanish explorer Juan Gaetano had arrived there over two centuries earlier in 1555. Cook returned to Hawaii, where he was considered by the natives to be the white god Lona. He became involved in an altercation, the details of which are unknown, and was killed by natives on February 14, 1779.
In 1883 the San Francisco Mint struck coins for the Hawaiian islands (as it also did on a contract basis for other foreign countries and interests from time to time). Although the Republic of Hawaiian 1893 had expressed interest in being annexed to the United States, nothing happened until 1898, when because of the Spanish-American War the United States realized that a naval base in the islands would protect its interests in the Pacific. The area was annexed on August 12, 1898, and on April 13, 1900 all who had been citizens of Hawaii on August 12, 1898 became citizens of the Territory of Hawaii and of the United States. On August 21, 1959 Hawaii joined the Union as a state.
In 1928 an effort was made to create a coin issue that would serve its intended purpose-to commemorate the anniversary of Cook's landing-without the abuses which had characterized certain other issues of the decade. The enabling legislation, approved by Congress on March 7, 1928, provided for the modest coinage of 10,000 silver 50-cent pieces. A distribution commission was founded with Bruce Cartwright Jr., a well-known numismatist (and whose late father was also a collector of great prominence), at its head.
Bruce Cartwright, Jr.'s Commentary
Bruce Cartwright, Jr. furnished the following commentary to the editor of The Numismatist, who published it in the May 1928 issue:
"Whether the proposed design will be approved or not by the authorities I do not know. The Captain Cook Sesqui-Centennial [sic; but spelled as one word, Sesqui-Centennial, on the issuer's letterhead] Commission has set a price of $2 apiece on these souvenirs, which are to be sold to the public by the Bank of Hawaii, Ltd., Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii. No rules as to distribution have as yet been formulated, but I believe no individual will be given more than one coin. A small part of the total issue of 10,000 pieces will probably be set aside to provide specimens for those interested outside of Hawaii. Dealers approved by the Commission will probably be allowed to purchase up to 100 coins apiece. The profit derived from the sale of these souvenir coins is to be used in forming a collection of Captain Cook memorabilia for Hawaii.
"The proposed designs were drawn by Miss Juliette May Fraser, the well-known Honolulu artist. The obverse bears a prome bust of Captain Cook to left from a Wedgwood medallion owned by the writer. Below appears the inscription HALF DOLLAR flanked by eight small triangles or pyramids representing the eight largest volcanic islands in Hawaii: Oahu, Hawaii, Niihau, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, and Maui. The reverse shows a Hawaiian warrior chief in full regalia gaining the summit of a hill. This represents Hawaii rising from obscurity. The chief holds out his right hand in welcome. Behind him is a coconut tree, denoting romance. In the distance is a Hawaiian village of grass huts nestled along Waikiki Beach at the foot of Diamond Hill, denoting history and antiquity.
"The celebration in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of Hawaii by Captain James Cook will be held in Hawaii about the middle of August 1928. This is the only commemorative coin so far issued for the possessions of the United States and should prove a popular one with collectors. The total authorized issue is only 10,000, all of which will perhaps be readily disposed of, notwithstanding the price is fixed at $2.
"The bill was introduced in Congress by Hawaii's delegate, Hon. V.S.K. Houston. About 400 coins are to be reserved by the commission for presentation to distinguished guests and visitors at the celebration, to include the officers of British and American warships assigned to the function. If the Prince of Wales accepts the invitation to be present, he will be presented with one of the 'Proof coins,' about 50 of which are to be minted. The celebration will be an outstanding function in Hawaii this year .... "
Sketches made by Miss Juliette May Fraser were sent to Chester Beach, who prepared the models, utilizing Miss Fraser's art and some suggestions for modifications made by the Mint and Congressman Victor S.K. Houston, after which dies were made. Beach by 1928 had been associated with several other commemorative issues. In keeping with practice at the time, manufacture of the dies was accomplished by the Medallic Art Company of New York City.