Friday, 24 January 2014

Big Money 5

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.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Big Money 4


                              “It's all about the money.”
                                                           Joe Jackson

                              “Money just draws flies.”
                                                    Mahalia Jackson

The big money had been drawing flies long before the castaway arrived. There were five kinds of traditional currency strewn about the island. There was New Guinea shell money called Yar, which was still used to buy oneself a bride.
The local stone stuff was small and either about a foot wide, Reng, or up to two feet, Mmbul, from the municipality of Aalipebinaw. The fourth was Gaw, long, up to ten feet in length, and imported from an island called Ganat near Pohnpei, our next port of call. The most valuable stone money on Yap was also of foreign provenance, but had transmuted from coinage to cult. On a tropical paradise where ‘all food, drink and clothing were readily available, so there was no barter and no debt,’ life was still a game, and money was how the Yapese kept score. High value transactions were given higher value through the material and materiel and medium of the transaction, transactions conducted with five-ton rocks that had been towed on rafts behind wind-powered canoes, almost five hundred kilometers across the open ocean. It is reasonable to deduce that the Yapese that had done this, and the purposes for which it was done, were nuts.
The Palau stone from which they quarried their ray or rai or fe’ or fei, was a special sort of translucent limestone that glistened in the light, called aragonite, the same stone that the Spanish King Ferdinand, husband of Queen Isabella, and his daughter Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, were named after. The Yapese had only shell tools, to make their large twelve-foot wide calcite donuts, thicker toward the middle, beginning around 1400 AD. It took twenty men to carry one, on a pole slung through the hole bored through its center.
Their value, kept high because of the hazards and difficulty involved in obtaining them, was measured by a complex formula that included their size, age, quality, and the number of lives lost in bringing them to Yap. The money supply was fixed and shiny, like gold had been, in other parts of the world that the Yapese had yet to be illuminated about.
Once on Yap, the rai were used for land title transfers, the tattoo masters, in marriage gifts, or as compensation for damages suffered by an aggrieved party. Despite the widespread use of US currency for everyday transactions today, stone money is still mandatory for more traditional or ceremonial functions, despite the fact that it no longer physically moves around. The islanders know who owns every one of the 6800 pieces, and can trace that ownership through centuries of trade. It isn’t even necessary for the stone to have reached Yap to be still considered valuable. There are stories of some gigantic rai that remain the valuable property of the chief that had sponsored its carving, even though it was in several hundred feet of water, after the canoes transporting them had been lost at sea.
Robyn and I walked along the coast south of Chamorro Bay, beyond a green corrugated tin house with a purple door and roof, to a beach with stone money and a solitary palm that survived the hurricane winds of Typhoon Sudal. The sun beat down on us, and the place where another typhoon had dumped the castaway into the history of Yap, 130 years earlier.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Big Money 3

A shaded path provided a welcome detour on our descent through lush forests and gardens. We came out at the bakery. Its exterior was lavishly painted in murals of Yapese legends. One in particular, the Legend of the Lizard-Man of Dugor, seemed to dominate.

   In the village of Dugor, lived a lizard who could turn himself into a
   man. As a man he was very handsome, and every young woman on Yap
   was attracted to him. Unfortunately, however, any woman who went
   with him to his cave was never seen again. Their families never found
   out what had happened to them. After a time, and the disappearance of
   several young women, the villagers began to suspect that there was
   something not quite right about this handsome young man. One day,
   the lizard-man met another beautiful young lady, who promptly fell in
   love with him. He thought he would enjoy her company for a while
   before eating her, and took her to his cave. When she became hungry,
   he brought her foul smelling frogs and crabs and other dead creatures.
   Terrified, she remembered the stories she had been hearing about a
   suspected lizard-man, and ran away home as fast as she could. The
   young woman told her parents about the horrible experience, and the
   father thought of a way to deal with the lizard-man, and discover his
   identity. He waited for him to come looking for his daughter, and when
   he arrived, the father asked the lizard-man to climb a tree and get him
   a coconut. Anxious to please the old man, lizard-man climbed the tree.
   But as he came down the tree with the coconut, he gave away his
   identity, descending headfirst. The father was prepared, with a pole
   with a loop at the end, and at just at the right moment he slipped the
   loop over the head of the lizard-man and pulled it tight, strangling him.
   The lizard-man fell to the ground, dead, and reverted to his true form
   as a lizard.

Robyn and I read and obeyed the warning on the entrance. Do not drink beer inside the bakery...Thank you. We walked past a large hardwood carving of a maiden with generous naked breasts. She had a red and white Santa cap on her head. The air conditioning had cooled my ardor, and Robyn had already ordered two coconut tarts, and a Japanese bottle of water from the beer fridge. A valid drinking permit is required to purchase any alcoholic beverage! I think I was less astounded by the fact that you needed a valid drinking permit to buy a beer, than by the fact that the drinking water was imported from Japan, and wondered from where the drinking permits were imported. The bakery seemed to be the hangout for local teenage girls who, between sips of their colas, seemed to be waiting for their own lizard-man to arrive. One of them drove up to the entrance as Robyn and I were leaving, slicked-back hair, sunshades, and a four digit license plate on the rusted bumper of his Japanese Corolla. Yap State... Island of Stone Money.
The next morning, Robyn and I walked along the southern shore, to find some. Hibiscus grew wild along the roadside, humungous flowers as big as your head, sharing the traffic with bird of paradise and a hundred other inflorescences. Here was stone money, large heavy wheels of it, leaning up against rock walls and coconut trees and lining paths, like it was waiting for a ride. And we rubbed it for luck and posed for pictures on it, and we must not have given it a second thought, because of the flagstone path that took us up into the tropical garden and mimosas and big leaf taro above it, and eventually to a truck box painted with a Japanese zero undercarriage, in flight overhead, and back to the I.L.P. restaurant that night, where we offered to pay in stone money.

                                    *         *        *

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Big Money 2

But there was another natural catastrophe that had occurred just as we were flying into Yap, which was about to affect our day. It was waiting in the form of a telex from my sister-in-law, back at the ecolodge. Call your father. My heart jumped into my throat. What could it mean? And where could I make an international long distance call, on one of the most remote islands in the Southern Sea, after the worst typhoon in fifty years.
“You’ll have to go to the Telecom dish.” Said T-shirt.
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“At the top of that hill.” He said, pointing to the sky. Of course, I thought, that’s where it would be. It was 32 degrees. The sun was overhead. We started across the causeway and up the hill. The views of the inlets and bays on the way were beautiful, with wide expanses of silver shimmering off the ocean below, but I was drenched by the time we made the connection to the connection. The official inside the telecommunications office was wonderfully accommodating, and handed me the receiver, even before I had finished thanking him for his efforts. It rang the ring of Northwestern Ontario on the other end of the line, half a world away.
“Hello.” My father answered.
“This better be good.” I said. “I’m paying big money for this call.” He paused for a brief moment, until the voice recognition software kicked in.
“Stay out of the water!” He shouted.
“What?” I said, not getting this at all.
“Stay out of the water!!” He repeated, even more desperate.
“Why?” I asked, confused.
“There are tidal waves all over Asia!” He shouted.
“What?” I asked.
“People are dying all over Asia!!” He said again.
“We’re not in Asia.” I said. And then, there came a long pause.
“Oh.” He said. It became apparent to me that, while my father had always kept up well with news and current events, and knew of the Boxing day Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami which had killed almost a quarter of a million people in over 14 countries, his knowledge of geography was still a bit on the challenged side.
“You said you were going to Indonesia.” He said.
“I said we were going to Micronesia.” I said.
“Where the hell is that?” He asked. I told him that it was time for a map, and that I loved him very much. When I hung up, Robyn asked me what was wrong.
“He got his natural disasters mixed up.” I said. And we started back down the hill.