At a time when empires ruled the world, David O’Keefe created the most successful trading company in the Pacific with little more than a sharp business mind and a willingness to win the trust of those he worked with. Oh, and the exploitation of centuries-old stone coins.
Before the 1870s, O’Keefe was just an unskilled Irish labourer who moved to the US state of Georgia in the late 1840s. And had he stayed there, that’s probably all he would have remained. Instead, he hopped on a boat to Hong Kong and by 1872 found himself in Yap, an archipelago of islands in the western Pacific Ocean. The island had its advantages – it was warm, fertile and well positioned for trade – but it was the local’s love of stone currency that sparked O’Keefe’s rise to power.
Known as rai, the coins varied in size from a few centimetres to up to 12 feet tall, with the bigger ones weighing over four tons. The Yapese may have been using these stones as a form of money since the early 1400s, but any islanders wishing to get their hands on one had to sail to Palau, an island 250 miles away.
Unsurprisingly, due to the extreme difficulty of getting any, the coins were extremely valuable to the Yapese. O’Keefe realised he could import all the stones he liked, with the help of his new neighbours, and then exchange the rai for local labour. With 10% of the population quarrying for the coins, he set hundreds of others to work harvesting copra. There is one recorded instance where he swapped the worthless stones for 100 bags of copra, which he later sold for almost $4200 (around £75,000 now).
By 1880 he was allegedly worth up to £175 million in today’s money.
When the press learnt of his adventures, they painted him as a king who ruled over thousands of uncivilised indigenous people and had an army of savages at his every beck and call. The journalists might have been exaggerating, as journalists so rarely do, but whilst he may never have been ‘King of Yap’, he was happy to fly his own home-made flag over the island, reportedly the US flag with the letters OK over it.
In 1901 he finally decided to go home, but his schooner was shipwrecked by a typhoon and he was never seen again. However, his memory remains very much alive on the island, where he is still remembered as the friendly Irishman who brought a level of prosperity to Yap not seen before or since.