David O’Keefe had been born in Ireland in 1823, and was driven by the potato famine to the US as an unskilled laborer at the age of fifteen. He ended up in Savannah, Georgia in 1854, and went to work on the railroad, and then at sea, until he became captain of his own ship, the Anna Sims, moored in Darien. He ran the Union blockade of the Confederacy, during the American Civil War. When a member of his crew assaulted him with a metal bar, O’Keefe shot him in the forehead. After eight months in prison, in 1869 he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, and married a Savannah teenager named Catherine Masters. Less than a year later, frustrated and reduced to running day excursions for picnickers, O’Keefe knocked a second crewmember into the Savannah River, and fled. He signed on to the steamer Belvedere and escaped to Liverpool, reappearing briefly in Hong Kong long enough to send his wife a bank draft for $167, along with a brief note promising to be home by Christmas. He never made it.
O’Keefe was hired by the Celebes South Sea Trading Company and, on a dangerous mission to the Hermit Islands in search of bêche-de-mer, lost most of his men to fever. When his boss was killed by an ax blow to the head on Palau, O’Keefe was fired, and he retreated down the trade winds headfirst, beaching up on the spot in front of us in 1871. A local Yapese named Fanaway nursed hum back to health, and O’Keefe experienced two successive epiphanies, that turned him from an ordinary Southern Sea trader, into one of the greatest merchants in the Pacific. The first came in the Freewill Islands, of the north coast of New Guinea, when he concluded a treaty with the Sultan of Ternate granting him the exclusive rights to harvest coconuts on the isthmus of Mapia, in exchange for an annual tribute of fifty dollars. Less than ten years later, the little sandspit was producing over four hundred thousand pounds of copra annually, allowing O’Keefe to establish a network of other trading stations, recruit European agents to the waterfronts of Singapore and Hong Kong, and expand his fleet with the addition of the Seabird in 1876, the Wrecker in 1877, the Queen in 1878 and the Lilla in 1880.
But it was the second epiphany that would truly make his fortune. In 1874 O’Keefe realized the real value of the big money on Yap, for which the islanders would work like demons. By eight years later he had 400 Yapese, nearly ten percent of the population, quarrying rai on Palau- with iron tools- and transporting them back to Yap on his ship, the Catherine (of aragonite). He paid them in their own stone money, for sea cucumbers and more copra, and, despite the inflation it produced, allowed O’Keefe to build his trading company into a private enterprise worth almost ten million dollars.
He continued to send money back to Catherine in Savannah, the last draft drawn arriving in 1936. But his letters gradually became less frequent, and less affectionate, ending initially from ‘Your loving husband,’ through ‘Good bye, yours truly,’ and finally ending with a final ending of ‘Yours as you deserve.’ In 1954, Burt Lancaster was cast as the forgettable Hollywood version of His Majesty O’Keefe, but the real big money Irishman was far more interesting, and complicated. He introduced the Yapese to alcohol and firearms, and himself to three wives and several mistresses. His first wife was Charlotte Terry, the daughter of an island woman and an ex-convict that O’Keefe had employed to manage his affairs on Mapia; his second wife was, scandalously, Charlotte’s aunt; and his third wife was named Dolibu, a Pacific islander sorceress from Nauru, who bore him several children.
By the early 1880s, His Majesty had built himself a red brick home on Tarang, an island in the middle of Yap’s harbor. He filled it with a large library of books, a piano, valuable antiques, and sterling silver utensils. He flew his own flag over Tarang, the letters OK in black, on a white background.
But it wasn’t OK, of course. The man who had made Yap the greatest entrepôt in the Southern Sea, with thirty sailing ships a year and a large steamer every eight weeks in its harbor, had also made enemies. He was “at war with all the other whites of the Island, all of whom thoroughly detest him.” Leaf lice pests were brought to the island in trading cargoes, and devastated copra production to less than a hundred tons a year. The island was hit by two more massive typhoons. And the Germans were muscling in on the action. When O’Keefe had finally had enough, in 1901, it was another typhoon, like the one that had first shipwrecked him on Yap thirty years earlier, that caught his schooner Santa Cruz, and drowned him and his two eldest sons, on their way to Savannah, and mythology.
With O’Keefe dead and the Germans thoroughly entrenched, things began to go badly for the Yapese.