J. H. Kanepuu the traditionalist, 1970.

Hawaiian Math

By Russell and Peg Apple

BY THE MID 1800s, the Hawaiian people were betwixt and between two cultures. There was the pull and the momentum of the old—the traditional Hawaiian; and the lure and exhortations of the new—a New England brand of Western.

And the Hawaiians were aware of the situation. They were not above pointing out to each other the conflicts they met in their everyday life.

One who did so was a man from Palolo, a Mr. J. H. Kanepuu. He wrote in the Hawaiian language newspaper Ke Au Okoa, and on Jan. 21, 1867, saw the need to call attention to two counting systems that existed side by side.

KANEPUU NOTED the conflict in the markets where Hawaiians bought and sold. There was a generation gap in methods of enumeration. Most of the fishermen and farmers who sold in the markets were old men who counted by the Hawaiian method. Those who bought were younger folks who counted by the haole system. Few knew both well.

The momentum and practices of the past fixed the habit patterns of the fishermen who caught flying fish, mullet, mackerel and milkfish for the Honolulu markets. They either sold their catch themselves, or it was sold by family members of the same generation. They counted Hawaiian style.

Those who bought counted haole style. They had been to the mission and public schools. They knew how to count by tens, from one on up into the tens of thousands. Each had ten fingers, including thumbs, to help.

BUT THE Hawaiian system was based on the numeral four, not the decimal system. Hawaiians had four fingers on each hand to help in counting.

Both the old timers and the younger Hawaiians spoke Hawaiian fluently. But the haole terms had been translated into Hawaiian and taught to the people who went to school, along with the counting-by-tens method. It was the same sort of confusion which occurs today when a nation switches from pounds-shillings-and-pence to a coinage based on the decimal system. Or when a student who learned his work in inches, feet, yards and miles tries to deal with millimeters, centimeters, meters kilometers. Misunderstandings and confusion result.

LOT KAMEHAMEHA, later to rule as Kamehameha V, was educated by Christian missionaries and was versed in the Western system. Kanepuu wrote that when he was still Prince Lot, he received a gift of fish at his house in Honolulu. This was sometime in the early 1800s, before Lot Kamehameha was crowned.

The men who brought the fish used the old system, the Prince only understood the new.

“How much fish?” asked the prince.

“One lau and nine kaau,” answered the Hawaiian servant who delivered the fish, a gift from chief Kuhia.

THIS ANSWER distressed Lot Kamehameha and he alsmost became angry. On seeing this, the Hawaiian switched to the new system.

“Seven hundred and sixty fish,” he said.

Prince Lot relaxed. He could visualize the size of the gift and appreciate it.

But other Hawaiian chiefs preferred the old, and thought there was a place in Hawaiian life for both.

ONE SUCH was chief Kekuanao’a. In April 1855 he publicly took to the task Rev. Richard Armstrong, the man who left the theological ministry to serve as the kingdom’s minister of secular education. He ran Hawaii’s schools.

The confrontation took place at Kaumakapili Church in Honolulu after meeting of the Christian Temperance Union at a luau held at the old palace.

KEKUANAO’A made the point that Hawaiian children needed to know both systems to get along in life. He wanted Armstrong to have both systems taught to the Hawaiian children. But apparently Armstrong turned a deaf ear to this idea of conserving a segment of the Hawaiian culture. He probably felt that the school term was too short and too many other things needed to be taught.

In his own house, however, Kekuanao’a was boss, and he brooked no nonsense with the haole system.

KANEPUU was visiting Kekuanao’a when a Hawaiian arrived to report the number of taro plants ready to plant in Kekuanao’a’s extensive fields.

“How many lau are there?” asked Kekuanao’a.

“One thousand three hundred,” answered the farmer.

“How many lau?”

The farmer was embarrassed. He confessed that he did not know how to count in Hawaiian.

KEKUANAO’A turned to Kanepuu for help. He asked Kanepuu to translate from the haole system of counting to the Hawaiian so he could understand and visualize how many taro plants were ready to plant.

“Three lau, two kaau, and five kauna,” said Kanepuu.

Satisfied, Kekuanao’a ordered them planted.

[What does this say about education today?]

(Star-Bulletin, 4/11/1970, p. 41)


Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Volume 59, Number 101, Page A-11. April 11, 1970.


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