The Island Of Stone Money

Milton Friedman
Senior Research Fellow
Hoover Institution

Large stones quarried and shaped on a distant island were used as money on the Island of
Yap. After Germany acquired the island at the turn of the century, its officials had dificulty
inducing the residents to repair the footpaths until they resorted to the desperate expedient
of taking possession of many of the stones by marking them with a cross in black paint, to he
removed when the paths were repaired. The apparently meaningless measure had real results.
That was equally true of an eerily similar event that occurred in 1932 when the New York
Federal Reserve Bank transferred gold to the Bank of France by earmarking gold in its vaults.

From 1899 to 1919 the Caroline Islands, in Micronesia, were a German
colony. The most westerly of the group is the Island of Uap or Yap, which
at the time had a population of five to six thousand.
In 1903, an American anthropologist by the name of William Henry
Furness III spent several months on the island and wrote a fascinating book
about the habits and customs of its inhabitants. He was particularly im»
pressed by the islanders’ monetary system, and accordingly gave his book the
title I have given this chapter: Qhe Island of stone honey (1910).
"[A]s their island yields no metal, they have had recourse to stone;
stone, on which labour in fetching and fashioning has been expended, is
as truly a representation of labour as the mined and minted coins of
"Their medium of exchange they call tei, and it consists of large,
solid, thick, stone wheels, ranging in diameter from a foot to twelve
feet, having in the centre a hole varying in size with the diameter of
the stone, wherein a pole may be inserted sufficiently large and strong
to bear the weight and facilitate transportation. These stone 'coins'
[were mde from limestone found on an island some 400 miles distant.
They] were originally quarried and shaped [on that island and the
product] brought to Uap {gig} by some venturesome native navigators, in
canoes and on rafts ...noteworthy feature of this stone currency ... is that it is not
necessary for its owner to reduce it to possession. After concluding a
bargain which involves the price of a fei too large to be conveniently
moved, its new owner is quite content to accept the bare acknowledgment
of ownership and without so much as a mark to indicate the exchange, the
coin remains undisturbed on the former owner's premises.
"My faithful old friend, Fatuak, assured me that there was in the
village near—by a family whose wealth was unquestioned, —— acknowledged
by every one —- and yet no one, not even the family itself, had ever laid
eye or hand on this wealth; it consisted of an enormous fei, whereof the
size is known only by tradition; for the past two or three generations it
had been, and at that very time it was lying at the bottom of the sea:
Many years ago an ancestor of this family, on an expedition after fei,
secured this remarkably large and exceedingly valuable stone, which was
placed on a raft to be towed homeward. A violent storm arose, and the
party, to save their lives, were obliged to cut the raft adrift, and the
stone sank out of sight. When they reached home, they all testified that
the fei was of magnificent proportions and of extraordinary quality, and
that it was lost through no fault of the owner. Thereupon it was
universally conceded in their simple faith that the mere accident of its
loss overboard was too trifling to mention, and that a few hundred feet
of water off shore ought not to affect its marketable value, since it was
all chipped out in proper form. The purchasing power of that stone
remains, therefore, as valid as if it were leaning visibly against the
side of the owner's house....
"There are no wheeled vehicles on Uap and, consequently, no cart
roads; but there have always been clearly defined paths communicating
with the different settlements. When the German Government assumed the
ownership of The Caroline Islands, after the purchase of them from Spain
in 1898, many of these paths or highways were in bad condition, and the
chiefs of the several districts were told that they must have them re~
paired and put in good order. The roughly dressed blocks of coral were,
however, quite goo enough for the bare feet of the natives; and many
were the repetitions of the command, which still remained unheeded. At
last it was decided to impose a fine for disobedience on the chiefs of
the districts. In what shape was the fine to be levied?... At last, by
a happy thought, the fine was exacted by sending a man to every railu and
papa} throughout the disobedient districts, where he simply marked a
certain number of the most valuable §ei with a cross in black paint to
show that the stones were claimed by the government. This instantly
worked like a charm; the people, thus dolefiully impoverished, turned to
and repaired the highways to such good effect from one end of the island
to the other, that they are now like park drives. Then the government
dispatched its agents and erased the crosses. Presto! the fine was paid,
the happy railus resumed possession of their capital stock, and rolled in
Unless you are very unusual, your immediate reaction, like my own,
will be: "How silly. How can people be so illogical?" However, before
criticizing too severely the innocent people on Yap, it is worth contemplat-
ing an episode in the U.S. to which they might well have your reaction, In
1932-33, the Bank of France feared that the U.S. would not stick to the gold
standard at the traditional price of $20.67 an ounce of gold. Accordingly,
it asked the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to convert dollar assets that
it had in the U.5. into gold. To avoid the necessity of shipping the gold
across the ocean, it requested the Federal Reserve Bank simply to store the
gold on the Bank of France’s account. In response, officials of the Federal
Reserve Bank went to their gold vault, put in separate drawers the correct
amount of gold ingots, and put a label or mark on those drawers indicating
that they were the property of the French - for all it matters they could
have done so by marking them."with a cross in black paint" just as the
Germans did to the stones.
The result was headlines in the financial newspapers about "the loss
of gold," the threat to the American financial system, and the like. U.S.
gold reserves were down, French gold reserves up. The markets regarded the
U.S. dollar as weaker, the French franc as stronger. The so~called "drain"
of gold by France from the United States was one of the factors that ulti~
mately led to the banking panic of 1933.
Is there really a difference between the Federal Reserve Bank's be-
lieving that it was in a weaker monetary position because of some marks on
drawers in its basement and the Yap Islanders’ belief that they were poorer
because of some marks on their stone money? Or between the Bank of France's
belief that it was in a stronger monetary position because of some marks on
drawers in a basement more than 3,000 miles away and the Yap Islander's
conviction that he was rich because of a stone under the water some 100 or
so miles away? Or, for that matter, how many of us have literal personal
direct assurance of the existence of most of the items we regard as consti~
tuting our wealth? Entries in a bank account, property certified by pieces
of paper called shares of stocks, and so on and on.
The Yap Islanders regarded stones quarried and shaped on a distant
island and brought to their own as the concrete manifestation of wealth.
For a century and more, the "civilized" world regarded as a concrete mani-
festation of its wealth metal dug from deep in the ground, refined at great
labor, and transported great distances to be buried again in elaborate
vaults deep in the ground. Is the one praetice really more rational than
the other?
What both examples -— and numrous additional ones that could be
listed -— illustrate is how important "myth," unquestioned belief, is in
monetary matters. Our own money, the money we have grown up with, the
system under which it is controlled, these appear "real" and "rational" to
us. The money of other countries often seems to us like paper or worthless
metal, even when the purchasing power of individual units is high.