The intangible qualities of a four-tonne rock
They’re called Rai stones and are available in an intriguing variety of sizes and denominations ranging from 63cm to 3.6m in diameter with some weighing up to 4 metric tonnes. There is no uniformity to the value of a Rai stone and their unique history underlines the abstract nature of money in a rather wonderful way.
The thing about the Yapese Rai is that while it’s a coinage with extreme, tangible heft, the way it’s spent is highly conceptual. Rather than lugging a 4-tonne limestone wheel from one end of the island to the other to pay your daughter’s dowry, you would simply tell the groom’s family the Rai is theirs now. Rai transactions are based entirely on an oral history of ownership, so no physical movement of the stone is required. Which is just as well, given that the alternative would be an extremely impractical wallet that crushes you to death with your life savings.
“Being crushed to death by a Rai stone could suddenly increase its value”
That said, being flattened by your own Rai could suddenly increase its value. The Rai is perhaps the only currency in the world with a worth partly determined by the story behind each unit. The limestone from which Rai was carved came from the neighbouring island of Palau, and would be transported to Yap by boat. These journeys were made treacherous by the heavy cargo, and if many men died in the process of transportation (or, for that matter, none at all), the stone’s value would increase by virtue of its distinct history. Meanwhile any Rai that fell from the boat would remain in circulation, the Yapese secure in the knowledge it had sunk to the ocean floor and was unlikely to go anywhere.
Yet as much as the Rai seems entirely unique as a currency it has nevertheless been subject to volatile market forces remarkably similar to those we’re familiar with. What initially imbued Rai with value was the scarcity of limestone on Yap, the difficulty in obtaining it from Palau, and the work that went into crafting them.
Then, in 1871, Irish-American sailor David O’Keefe was shipwrecked near Yap, and repaid the help he received from natives by providing them with iron tools that made manufacturing Rai far easier (see 1954 Burt Lancaster movie His Majesty O’Keefe). The sudden increase in production constituted a form of inflation, and although some of the O’Keefe-produced stones were larger than those already on Yap, the comparatively safe and unchallenging method of production ultimately meant they were worth less.
While the Yapese have turned from the Rai (and the smaller units of woven mats, coconuts and beads) to the mighty USD, they are still used to make the more symbolic, traditional payments that they’ve always been used for.
Weirdly, this ancient method of payments reminds us of the intangibility of our payments today – the fact that we accept a configuration of pixels on a screen telling us that our money has gone from one place to another. Is it so different to one person from Yap telling another person from Yap that a big stone at the bottom of the sea is theirs now?
We are reminded of the unpredictable forces that influence the value and production of money – forces that are entirely outside of our control, that we can only hope we react to.
We are reminded of our desire to find something stable and immovable in an ever-changing world. Something we can trust and rely on.