From A Blast From the Past:
It was a typhoon, or so it’s said, that cast up David O’Keefe on Yap in 1871, and when he finally left the island 30 years later, it was another typhoon that drowned him as he made his way home to Savannah.
Between those dates, though, O’Keefe carved himself a permanent place in the history of the Pacific. So far as the press was concerned, he did it by turning himself into the “king of the cannibal islands”: a 6-foot-2, red-haired Irishman who lived an idyllic tropical existence, was “ruler of thousands” of indigenous people, and commanded “a standing army of twelve naked savages.” (“They were untutored, but they revered him, and his law was theirs.”) [New York Times; New York Tribune; Watchman & Southron] It was this version of O’Keefe’s story that made it to the silver screen half a century later in the forgettable Burt Lancaster vehicle His Majesty O’Keefe (1954), and this version, says scholar Janet Butler, that is still believed by O’Keefe’s descendants in Georgia. [Butler pp.177-8, 191]
The reality is rather different, and in some ways even more remarkable. For if O’Keefe was never a king, he certainly did build the most successful private trading company in the Pacific, and—at a time when most Western merchants in the region exploited the islanders they dealt with, then called in U.S. or European warships to back them up—he worked closely with them, understood them and made his fortune by winning their trust and help. This itself makes O’Keefe worthy of remembrance, for while the old sea-captain was most assuredly not perfect (he had at least three wives and several mistresses, and introduced the Yapese to both alcohol and firearms), he is still fondly recalled on the island. It doesn’t hurt, so far as the strangeness of the story goes, that O’Keefe ingratiated himself on Yap by securing a monopoly on the supply of the island’s unique currency: giant stone coins, each as much as 12 feet in diameter and weighing up to four and a half tons.
But wait; we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the convoluted history that brought O’Keefe to Yap.
So far as it is possible to tell, the captain was born in Ireland around 1823, and came to the U.S. as an unskilled laborer in the spring of 1848. [Butler pp.26-7] This date strongly suggests that he was one of more than a million emigrants driven from Ireland by the potato famine that began in 1845, but—unlike the many Irish who landed in New York and stayed there—O’Keefe continued traveling, eventually washing up in Savannah in 1854. After working on the railroads, he went to sea and worked his way up to be captain of his own ship. During the Civil War, it is said, he worked as a blockade runner for the Confederacy. [Butler pp.76-8; Hezel]
Whatever the truth, O’Keefe did flourish briefly in the Reconstruction period before the hot temper he was noted for landed him in serious trouble. As captain of the Anna Sims, moored in Darien, Georgia, he got into a violent argument with a member of his crew. The sailor hit O’Keefe with a metal bar; O’Keefe retaliated by shooting the man through the forehead. He spent eight months in jail charged with murder before winning an acquittal on the ground of self-defense, and at around the same time—it was now 1869—he married a Savannah teenager named Catherine Masters. [Butler pp.33-4, 79-80]
What drove O’Keefe from Georgia remains a minor mystery. Family tradition holds that he knocked a second crewman into the Savannah River some months later; fearing he had drowned the man, O’Keefe signed up to join the steamer Beldevere, fleeing to Liverpool, Hong Kong and the Pacific. [Butler p.80] Yet there seems to be no evidence that this fight actually occurred, and it’s just as likely that fading fortunes drove the Irishman to desperation. One historian points out that, by 1870, O’Keefe had been reduced to running day excursions up the coast for picnickers. [Hezel]
In any event, the captain left Savannah, and little seems to have been heard from him until he popped up in Hong Kong late in 1871, writing to send his wife a bank draft for $167 and vowing that he’d be home by Christmas—a promise that he failed to fulfill. The next Catherine O’Keefe heard from her husband was when he wrote requesting that she send him the Master’s certificate he needed to skipper a ship—a sure sign that he was staying put in the Pacific. By early 1872 O’Keefe was in Yap, a little archipelago of connected islets in the Carolines. [Hezel]
There were good reasons for liking Yap. The island lies just above the Equator in the western part of the Pacific and was well placed for trade, being within sailing distance of Guam, the Philippines, Hong Kong and the East Indies (Indonesia). The people there were welcoming at a time when those on other islands were still killing foreigners. And Yap was extremely fertile. Coconut trees abounded, which made the place attractive to dealers in copra (dried coconut flesh, an important source of lamp oil), while the lagoons teemed with sea cucumbers—bêche-de-mer, a noted Asian delicacy.
According to traditional accounts, O’Keefe came to Yap more or less by chance—washed ashore in a typhoon and found and nursed to health by a Yapese man named Fanaway, who taught him something of the local language. [Butler pp.38, 95, 167-8] That version of events is certainly what his family believed, but local tradition suggests that O’Keefe actually came to Yap to trade, arriving in a Hong Kong junk named Catherine in honor of his wife, and simply liked the place so much he stayed. [Hezel] Whichever story is correct, though, it did not take him long to shrug off family ties. Catherine O’Keefe was never actually abandoned—her husband continued to send her substantial sums once or twice a year, and the last draft drawn on his business in Yap was received in Savannah as late as 1936. [Butler p.143] O’Keefe’s letters home, though, quickly became less and less affectionate, the closings moving within months of his arrival from “Your loving husband” through “Good bye, yours truly” to a frankly discouraging “Yours as you deserve.” [Butler pp.85-6]...MORE
It is not difficult to understand why Catherine, miles away in the United States, soon faded in her husband’s memory. Life in the Pacific was less than idyllic at first; O’Keefe, who was employed for his first few years by the Celebes South Sea Trading Company, was sent on a dangerous mission to the Hermit Islands in search of bêche-de-mer, losing so many of his men to fever that he never again sailed to Melanesia. Soon after that, he lost his job when his boss was killed by an ax blow to the head on Palau, and he spent the remainder of the 1870s struggling to build up a business of his own. That meant establishing a network of trading stations in the face of competition, recruiting European agents of dubious reliability on the waterfronts of Hong Kong and Singapore, and slowly adding sailing vessels to his fleet: the Seabird in 1876, the Wrecker in 1877, the Queen in 1878 and the Lilla in 1880. [Hezel]...