Most people have heard of Yap stones, the giant carved stones used as currency by a Pacific island nation. What you may not know is that it was a large, red-haired Irish-American who made them popular.
It’s hard to know the exact story of David O’Keefe and his adventures in the Pacific: most accounts in the press were largely fictional, not helped by the Burt Lancaster movie about O’Keefe that was released in 1954. But even what is known is remarkable.
O’Keefe was an Irish-American who likely fled the Emerald Isle during the potato famine in the late 1840’s. He moved from New York to Savannah, Georgia, in 1854. He worked on the nation’s new railroads, then did as many able-bodied young immigrants did, and signed on to a ship. According to some stories, he became a blockade runner for the Confederate forces during the Civil War. Though he did well during the War and afterwards, he had a nasty temper, which eventually landed him in jail on murder charges (later ruled to be self-defense.) Around this time, he married a young woman named Catherine.
No one is sure why O’Keefe left Savannah. Some, including his family, claim that he had knocked a man into the river and signed up on a steamer to escape a second set of murder charges. There is no proof of this, however, and it is likely O’Keefe was simply in need of money; historians note that by 1870, O’Keefe had been running day trips along the coast for picnickers.
O’Keefe wrote to his wife from Hong Kong in 1871, sending her money and promising to be home by Christmas. In fact, he would not even attempt to return to Savannah for 30 years. He next wrote to request that Catherine send him paperwork needed for him to command a ship in the Pacific. And by 1872, O’Keefe was on the islands of Yap.
Some stories say that he was shipwrecked near Yap, washed ashore, and rescued by an islander who taught him the local language. In fact, it’s more likely that O’Keefe landed on the island intentionally, trying to establish trade. Yap was something of an island paradise: near the equator, plenty of food and tradeable goods, and friendly native inhabitants. Both coconuts (used for lamp oil) and sea cucumbers (a prized food in several cuisines) were numerous in the region.
O’Keefe continued to write and send money to Catherine, but his letters became more and more distant. Within a year or two of his residence on the island, the closing of his letters changed from “Your loving husband,” to “yours truly, “ to the cold “Yours as you deserve.” Despite the beautiful island setting, O’Keefe’s own life was constantly in danger. He lost most of a crew to fever on an expedition to gather sea cucumbers, and his boss was killed on a neighboring island, forcing him into business for himself. He struggled to add ships to his fleet amidst intense competition from Europeans and other traders.
His fortune began to change when he discovered a small island named Mapia, which was covered in coconut trees. Most of the native inhabitants were gone, killed in raids from another island. O’Keefe negotiated a deal that gave him sole rights to the coconuts (and their highly valuable oil) on Mapia for $50 a year.
But the most interesting, and most memorable part of O’Keefe’s story, is when he realized the value of the currency of Yap itself. Yap was so fertile that it provided everything the islanders needed, and they had little need for trade. With one exception: giant stones, carved out of aragonite, and used for transactions of high value. No one is sure exactly when the stones began to be used as currency; it’s possible that they began as an art form and only gradually became true coins. Aragonite is found on the island of Palau, 250 miles away from Yap, so shipping these stones back to Yap was a dangerous endeavor, often costing the lives of the sailors. While some of the stones are only a few inches across, many are very large, up to 10 feet across. The larger stones could only be carried by pushing poles through the central hole, with teams of islanders for each pole. The rei coins were valued by a complex system that took into account their size, age, quality, and even the lives lost in the journey to bring them back to the island.
Since it was not practical to move the larger stones often, when transactions took place, the coin remained where it was, and the Yapese simply acknowledged that ownership had changed. William Furness, an anthropologist who visited the islands in the early 20th century, discovered that the islanders knew who owned which coin, though none were marked; some of them could even trace the lineage of ownership of the coins back for centuries. In fact, some of the more valuable coins never reached Yap at all. The boat that carried one large and very valuable rei sank; however, the survivors of the wreck were able to testify coherently to its specific value, and it was considered to remain in the possession of the owner, despite the fact that it was underwater hundreds of miles from Yap itself.
Rei use may have begun as early as the 1400s, but the cost of labor to produce the stones with shell tools, as well as the cost in human lives to transport them across hundreds of miles of water, ensured that the stone coins remained rare (and valuable.) O’Keefe saw an opportunity; the Yapese were eager to have greater access to rei stones, and O’Keefe’s fleet was the perfect solution. By the early 1880s, approximately 10 percent of Yap islanders worked quarrying the stones: over 400 people.
The results were predictable in hindsight. This increase in supply of coins introduced the first inflation to the Yap economy. O’Keefe, who did not need to rely on the rei currency, garnered the benefits: his Yapese workforce not only quarried the stones, but also worked in his coconut forests. Though estimates differ, his trading company was worth between $500,000 and $9.5 million at its height.
O’Keefe began to succumb to the temptations of wealth and freedom. He married two more women: one of them Charlotte, the daughter of his manager on Mapia; the other was her aunt, an islander named Dolibu. O’Keefe himself determined to enjoy his wealth, and built a home on an island in Yap’s main harbor. He filled the house with books, silver housewares, and an imported piano. A host of workers and servants tended O’Keefe’s business and household, and though the island was part of the Spanish empire in name, O’Keefe’s own flag (OK in black on a white flag) flew over the harbor.
While O’Keefe’s relative kindness to the Yapese is remembered by many, his impact on the economy is undeniable; besides devaluing the rei by importing them in huge quantities, he continually took advantage of the disparity between Western and Yapese incomes. A visitor in 1890 reports that O’Keefe traded a rei stone quarried by Yapese workers (brought to the island on O’Keefe’s ship) for coconut products which he sold for over $4000.
All of his success made him a target of intense jealousy from other traders, and O’Keefe frequently fought allegations of cruelty that were ruled to be unfounded by investigations. His fortunes remained high until the final years of the 19th century, with Yap becoming a major port and trading center of the Pacific. Leaf lice brought by trading ships cut into his coconut forests, reducing the harvest, and Yap was hit by two massive typhoons. In 1901, O’Keefe abandoned his local wives, took his two oldest sons, and set sail for Savannah.
He never arrived. Another typhoon struck while his ship, the Santa Cruz, was far from land, and the old trading captain was never seen again. One story did turn up in Guam: it’s said that 6 months after the typhoon, a man sailed into harbor and asked permission to bury the body of a man he had found clinging to pieces of the ship. The man gave his name as O’Keefe before dying of starvation and exposure.
The Yap economy continued to collapse after O’Keefe’s departure. German traders moved into the area, and began to compel the Yapese into labor. When the islanders refused, the Germans commandeered the rei stones, and painted black crosses on them, informing the islanders that they could have their coins back in exchange for labor. They instituted a law forbidding any Yap from traveling more than 200 miles from the island, which brought all quarrying of rei stones to a complete standstill. The islands were occupied by the Japanese, and then by the United States in 1945, when the extant coins were still in limited use.
However, despite all efforts by outsiders, the rei coins are not completely obsolete. While most ordinary transactions on Yap are completed in dollars today, the stone coins are still used to transfer land and rights.