by das monde
Fri Jun 26th, 2015 at 04:10:02 AM EST
This is almost a lazy quote diary, except my primary inspired source is in Dutch. So this is a sketchy translation, with a few quotes in English from elsewhere.
Yap is a small island of just 100 km2, some 1500 km to the east of Philippines. Until the end of the 19th century, it was one of the most isolated and disregarded islands on Earth. In 1903, an American anthropologist visited the island for two months. Soon he published a lively book on Yap's social hierarchy, religion and... the most remarkable economy. What can be amazing about the economy based on fish, coconuts and sea cucumbers? Well, John Maynard Keynes was impressed in his early years.
The money system on Yap is really jaw dropping. A damn heavy, hard currency...
for centuries, the main form of currency on this tiny Micronesian island was stones. Very large stones. Looking like Claes Oldenburg sculptures of oversized bagels, the stones -- or rai, as they're called -- can stand as high as ten feet and weigh several tons each.
While these carved stones may not look like big bucks to an outsider, some have enough value to purchase a new house.
Here is a rich girl:
A certain type of mineral called aragonite was prized by the Yapese in making rai. Aragonite, a white limestone that glistens, was only found on the island of Palau some 250 miles away, necessitating a long and arduous journey by canoe with a heavy rock in tow (see map below). The stones were quarried in the mountains of Palau and shaped into discs with holes in the centre. The holes allowed the stones to be carried on long poles, facilitating transportation.
The value of each rai depended on its size, but also on its provenance -- if explorers died during the expedition to retrieve a stone, it acquired a higher value. A transaction did not require the physical exchange of a disc, merely the acknowledgement of a transfer of ownership. In fact, one of the rai stones in active circulation sits on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, having tumbled from a canoe during a storm on the way back to Yap. Islanders agreed on its value after hearing the story of how it came to rest on the ocean floor.
The richest family was "enjoying" the stone (that no one saw!) for a few generations. Or alternatively, it is tricky to make out rai facts and fiction.
In 1871, the Irish-American David Dean O'Keefe was shipwrecked near Yap and was helped by the natives. Later he assisted the Yapese in acquiring rai and in return received copra and trepang, which were valuable exports in the Far East. O'Keefe provided the Yapese with iron tools. As a result, a form of inflation set in and rai stones acquired with his help were less valuable than more ancient ones. His Majesty O'Keefe is the story of his life on Yap.
the Germans bought control of Yap from the Spanish in 1899. In order to motivate Yapese to work on improving the island's road system, the Germans marked a certain number of rai with black crosses, indicating that the government now claimed these stones. To regain control of their rai, people had to labour on the road system. It was in this way that Yap got its first roads.
Here is money as trust, a belief, a cultural agreement, an authoritative story, brute power. Electronic blips plus IMF rules. A civilization driver and social hierarchy builder. Modern overlords O'Keefes as great vampire squids wrapped around the face of humanity
. One man's asset is another's schuld
. How would we do without all of this?