The King of Hard Currency
Sea captain David O’Keefe spent 30 years on the islands of Yap in the western Pacific. In that time, he established a successful trading company, married two wives (with another waiting in America), introduced alcohol and firearms to the islanders, and gained a monopoly over the island’s currency of giant stones called fei. Fei was a rare commodity, as it was quarried and carved on the island of Palau, 250 miles from Yap.
The Yapese may have been using fei as early as 1400, though the stones were so difficult to quarry with shell tools and then transport that they remained very rare as late as 1840. [Price p.76; Berg pp.151-4; Gillilland p.3] Their existence was first detailed by one of O’Keefe’s predecessors, the German trader Alfred Tetens, who in 1865 traveled to Yap on a large ship ferrying “ten natives… who wished to return home with the big stones they had cut on Palau.” [Gillilland p.4] It’s clear from this that the Yapese were eager to find alternatives to transportation by canoe, and O’Keefe fulfilled this demand. By 1882, he had 400 Yapese quarrying fei on Palau—nearly 10 percent of the population. [Berg p.150]
This trade had its disadvantages, not least the introduction of inflation, caused by the sudden increase in the stock of money. But it made huge sense for O’Keefe. The Yapese, after all, supplied the necessary labor, both to quarry the stones and to harvest coconuts on Yap. O’Keefe’s expenses, in the days of sail, were minimal, just some supplies and the wages of his crewmen. In return, he reaped the benefits of thousands of man-hours of labor, building a trading company worth—estimates differ—anywhere from $500,000 to $9.5 million. [Evening Bulletin; Hezel]
Read O’Keefe’s story at Smithsonian’s Past Imperfect Blog. Link
(Image credit: Eric Guinther)