The Explorers

The first recorded contact with outsiders was on October 1, 1525, when the Portuguese exploret, Dioga da Rocha, and his crew landed in Ulithi. Da Rocha and his party remained in Ulithi for four months waiting for good winds to continue their journey. Micronesian historian Fran Hezel, S.J., records their description of the people in his book
The First Taint of Civilization:


“Both men and women were quite pleasant in appearance, with happy faces, quite friendly, neither thin nor fat, without sign of physical ailments… When the chief saw our men he expressed great happiness and because of the easiness and mild-ness (of the natives) everyone thought that the people of the island were of simple rationality, without any malice, fear or cautiousness…”

While da Rocha’s observations about the feelings of the Ulithians towards his crew of outsiders may not have squared exactly with their true feelings, it is notable that the first records of contact between the island people and the outside world were friendly and relatively free of strife.

Over the next three centuries at least twenty other vessels from Spain, Britain, Holland and the United States recorded visits to the islands of Yap. During this period, contact between Yap and the outside world was limited and centered primarily an trade for sea cucumbers which were cured and sold by the ton in China and Manila. In exchange for diese goods, the Yapese often asked for functional items like knives or metal and tobacco.

boat The Outer Islands of Yap probably had more consistent contact with the outside world, in particular the Spanish, as they regularly rnade trading expeditions to Guam and the Marianas.

Relations during this period were not always as cordial as they had been when da Rocha made his passage. A Catholic Mission was established by Jesuit missionaries on Mogmog, Ulithi, in 1731, but after their ship left for Guam on a supply tun, the remaining group of foreigners were killed. Although the reasons for the massacre are not certain, the missionaries’ proselytizing had clearly angered die traditional religious leaders and perhaps in a bid to protect their status, they may have been chief plotters.

Contact and interchange grew dramatically in the 19th century. In 1818, a group of 100 islanders from Lamotrek sailed to Guam and later established a perma­nent colony in Saipan. Fleets of canoes from Woleai and other islands began to gather each April at Lamotrek for voyages to Guam.

There the islanders sold shells and woven handicrafts in exchange for highly valued metal tools and knives.

On Yap proper, outsiders came and went, but the Yapese remained largely indif­ferent to the Europeans. Sailors, like Britain’s Andrew Cheyne, who visited the Island in 1843 in search for sea cucumbers, were exploited for practical things like tools and knives or used as pawns in complex political struggles between the paramount villages in Tomil, Gagil and Rull. But, unlike many islanders in the Pacific, the Yapese were not enamored by the outsider’s religions or customs and maintained their traditional way of life.

The first permanent foreign presence was established in 1869 by a German com-pany named Godeffroy & Son. It opened a trading station at Nungoch under the management of Alfred Teten. The company initially prospered in Yap and by 1874 its holdings included 3,000 acres of fand, copra making facilities, a cotton plantation and a ship repair Operation.

The German trading station brought little immediate change to Yap. Within a few years, though, three other trading cornpanies set up stations, and by the early 1880s Yap had a dozen foreign residents and was visited regularly by twenty to thirty ships a year. It was the commercial center of the region and exported over 1,500 tons of copra per annum, as weil as serving as a coaling station for steamers on the Guam-to-Manila trading route.

Yap Village View Hotel08
The copra trader who had the biggest impact on Yap during this time was an Irish-American named David O’Keefe. The sole survivor of a shipwreck on the Belvedere, O’Keefe washed up on the reef off of Yap in 1871 and was nursed back to health by a magician from Dulkan. Once his health was restored, Teten, the German manager of Godeffroy & Son, arranged for Ins passage on a Hong Kong bound steamen A year later O’Keefe returned, this time as captain of a Chinese junk named the Catherine (in honor of his estranged American wife) and began a legendary thirty year career as Yap’s pre-eminent trader.

The secret of O’Keefe’s success was his recognition that the key to trade with the Yapese was a traditional, not modern, commodity. While others achieved only mod­est success swapping Western goods for copra, O’Keefe flourished by agreeing to help the Yapese quarrt’ and transport highly valued stone money from Palau in exchange for copra and laborers. Using his Zarge seaworthy ship and western tools, the Yapese were able to transport larger stone discs in greater quantities and at considerable lens personal risk. Acquisition of stone money became a tauch more feasible objective for villages and individuals. In exchange, the Yapese had only to provide O’Keefe with dried coconuts which were available to them at no tost.

O’Keefe, who lived in Tomil harbor on Tarang Island, also skillfully built alliances with Yapese chiefs and magicians, respected local customs and developed a reputation as one who always dealt fairly and above-board with the local people. He had a fierce temper and had constant feuds with the Spanish and Germans whose interest he challenged. But because of his good relationship with the Yapese people, he dominated the copra market until he disappeared at sea in 1901 – probably the victim of a typhoon.

In 1874 Spain, the pre-eminent regional power, proclaimed its sovereignty over Yap, but did not act to establish a formal presence in the islands. Eleven years later, in 1885, a royal decree was signed ordering the Spanish authorities in Manila to appoint a governor for all of the Caroline Islands and to build its head-quarters in Yap. On August 21st of the same year, two Spanish ships arrived with a governor, two priests, soldiers, convict laborers, horses, water buffalo, cattle and stones for a governor’s house and a Catholic Mission.

The Spanish landed, but delayed the hoisting of the Spanish flag while they consulted with local chiefs about where to build their headquarters. Four days later a German gunboat, the Iltis, dropped anchor and a small party raced ashore to holst a German flag and claimed the island – just prior to the formal coloniza-tion ceremony the Spanish were planning.

A bitter feud followed between the great German Chancellor Otto von Bismark and Spain’s King Alfonso. Unbeknownst to the people of Yap, they were in the middle of a power struggle that at one point brought 40,000 Spaniards into the streets of Madrid clamoring for war. Bismark rationally decided that the tiny coconut covered islands of Yap were not worth the fight and quickly looked for a graceful way out of the controversy. He suggested that Pope Leo XIII be brought in to resolve the question of ownership of the islands and the proposal was quickly accepted by the Spanish. The Pope was awarded the islands Yap and Spain and the Spanish began work on a small garrison named Santa Christina near Tomil Harbor. They also promptly began work on the first of six Catholic Churches.

The Spanish did little to change Yapese society, although they introduced nominal Catholicism, metal tools and rudimentary Spanish education for a limit-ed number of Yapese. At the turn of the century Spain’s role in the Pacific as a whole was diminishing and they sold the islands in 1899 to Germany for 4.5 million dollars.

Western development on Yap accelerated during the German administration. The island assumed new importance with the construction of a radio tower and undersea cable system linking Germany’s Pacific territories with the Asian mainland and Europe. A hundred kilometers of new roads were built, linking Yap’s villages closer together. German administrators ordered the planting of over 80,000 trees and created an organization of over 100 village presidents to enforce new laws and complete assigned projects. A foreign land ownership system was established, municipal boundaries were surveyed, the Tagreng Canal was completed (between Gagil-Tomil and Yap islands), and many new buildings were constructed.

The German administration’s technological and administrative achievements were overshadowed, though, by the fact that its rule coincided with the onset of rapid depopulation in Yap. Western disease and epidemics especially influenza and leprosy – reduced die population of Yap proper to less than 6,000 by the end of the German era.

The Germans tried in vain to stop the spread of disease, but may have successfully slowed die pace of depopulation. They trained several young men frorn each municipality as medical officers and set up village dispensaries. They also built Yap’s first hospital at Fanbuywol and set up a leper colony on a small island in Tonia Harbor.

Vestiges of the German era still remain at present, most notably the old residence of the German priests now home to a mission of Catholic num – and Tagreng Canal, which is still in tue as a passageway between Gagil-Tornil and Yap islands.

German rule came to an abrupt end in 1914 with the onset of World War 1. The British warship Minotaur shelled the radio tower on August 12, 1914 and a Japanese expeditionary squadron occupied the island less than two months Tater, on October, in a bloodless takeover.

Once again Yap became the pawn in an international chess game. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, the British and Japanese had entered into a secret treaty at die beginning of the war guaranteeing Japan control over all the Pacific islands north of the Equator at war’s end. Japanese rule was announced publicly in Versailles at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and formal Japanese civilian administration began under a League of Nations mandate in 1922.

The Japanese Administration operated with in eye to the eventual incorporation of Yap in its planned Pacific “Co-prosperity Sphere.” Ultimately, plans called for Japanese colonies to be established throughout the Micronesian region and the population of Japanese in Yap vent from 97 to 1,933 in the twenty years from 1920-1940.

Japanese rule was complete and direct. Few Yapese participated in governance. Order on the island was maintained via a police station on the Northeastern island of Maap. Elementary education in the Japanese language was available to many Yapese and a few top students were rent on for further study so that they could serve as middle men and managers for the Japanese administration. A separate educational system was also in Operation for Japanese children.

The Japanese also began mining bauxite and phosphate on Yap and Fais, but as tensions increased near the outbreak of World War II, development increasingly focused on the infrastructure needed for wartime. World War II was a time of suffering for both the Yapese and the Japanese. The Yapese were forced to work in labor gangs on airfields and other military projects. The labor crews included first year elementary students and old men considered by the Yapese too old to keep up with the heavy work and pressure. Stone money was smashed as punishment for disobedience or slow work and the smashed pieces were used as road fill. As hostilities began to heat up, there was one rumor, which may or may not have been true, but is widely believed, that the Japanese had plan to gather the Yapese together in a cave and dynamite them to ensure that no one spied for the Allies.

The negative stories are counterbalanced to some degree, though, by the lifelong friendships that have developed between many Yapese and former Japanese soldiers who were befriended and protected by the Yapese during the war as the American onslaught escalated. Daily air raids were conducted by the Americans for three consecutive years. Bombing was concentrated mostly on the Colonia area, airfields and military facilities, but all parts of Yap and some of the Outer islands were affected.

A Yapese anywhere in the islands could come home from gardening one day, only to find the family house aflame or a loved one dead – a casualty of a bombing run.

The damage could have been much worse. A full scale attack on Yap had been planned in 1944 by the Allied Command, but on the day that Peleliu was stormed in Palau, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to cancel the contemplated action – a decision that without a doubt saved many lives.

The Outer Islands of Ulithi, Fais and Ngulu were all occupied by Allied forces at some point during the war. Ulithi, which was seized by the U.S. Army 81st Division in late 1944, was rapidly turned into a massive staging area. At one point over 1,000 ships were anchored in Ulithi lagoon (the fourth largest lagoon in the world). The island of Mogmog was cleared of local residents and turned into a fleet recreation center, where soldiers and officers, like young “Frank” Roosevelt, U.S. President FDR’s son, could kick back and relax before heading out on missions.

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the Islands of Yap were occupied and administered by the U.S. Navy. The Navy administration lasted until 1952 and was characterized by a hands-off approach. Although the Navy administrators did act to gready upgrade medical care and helped reverse Yap’s downward population trend, they did little else to help Yap begin making a transition to a modern society.

The U.S. operated in Yap and the rest of Micronesia under a U.N. Security Council monitored “Strategie Trust Territory” agreement established in 1947. Under the terms of the Trusteeship, the U.S. was obligated to promote the establishment of institutions needed for self-government as well as economic, social and educational development. Under the Trusteeship, the U.S. also maintained security and defense privileges throughout the region. Compliance with the terms of the Trust was determined by the U.N. Security Council, but since the U.S. had Veto power within the Council, it could effectively do anything it wished in the region.

The period of U.S. administration in Yap lasted longer than any other foreign administration – from 1945 until 1978. During the thirty-plus years of U.S. control the islands underwent more dramatic changes than in all the preceding four centuries. Perhaps the three most significant changes were the introduction of a cash economy, universal education for children and the creation of Western style political institutions. Millions of dollars were poured into the island during the American era, providing jobs (mostly in government), infrastructure improvements, buildings and health services.

Initially, U.S. contract workers and Peace Corps Volunteers held many of the top government administrative posts, but as the Yapese began to master the new ways of the Westerners they increasingly demanded a greater role in government. The changes also inevitably rekindled the desire of die Yapese people to return to the self rule the islands had known for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Dioga da Rocha in 1525.

The U.S. administration ended for all practical purposes after the passage of the FSM and Yap State Constitutions in 1978 with this declaration of sovereignty:

“We, the people of the States of Yap desire to live in peace and harmony with one another, our neighbors and our environment. Recognize our traditional heritage and villages as the foundation of our society and economy. Realize our prosperity and welfare require an intelligent selection and integration of modern technology and institutions. Dedicate ourselves to govern our State, now and forever, for the general welfare of all generations to come…” preamble, Constitution of the State of Yap.

Formal termination of the U.N. Strategie Trusteeship occurred in December 1990. Despite the changes introduced by the Americans, Japanese, Germans and the Spanish; the Yapese and Outer Islander have tenaciously held on to their languages and many of their customs and traditions.

Even as the 21st century dawns, one can still see Yapese walking through villages or the main town of Colonia in traditional clothing, or working in the village on a traditional house.

And in the Outer Islands, except for die regular arrival of the field ship, life continues much as it has for hundreds of years.