FROM A to Z SERIES
MARSHALL ISLANDS - A GOOD DEAL GONE WRONG
Last time we talked about Malta - a tiny place,
a bit over 100 square miles. Well, the Marshalls add up to more territory,
almost 200, but it's spread out in tiny islands over about half a million
square miles of the blue Pacific Ocean. My encyclopedia tells me
that somewhat more than 40,000 people are resident, that half of them live
in two urban centers, and you and I know
what they use for money over there, don't we?
Look. It's not their fault. They couldn't
redeem those coins. There's not enough money in the country.
It's the fault of those guys out in Wyoming, if it's anyone's, for smart
talking a neophyte country into a bad deal. And, at the time, at
least at first, it seemed to be working.
I shall explain. Let's start at the beginning.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands consists of
more than 1000 low coral islands formed into atolls surrounding lagoons.
Typical high points are 50 feet above sea level. The southern islands
get a lot of rain, the north is drier, and largely lacking in ground water.
Vegetation is limited, dominated by coconut, breadfruit, and pandanus.
There is nothing much in the way of
minables. On most of the islands even stones are scarce.
If you live there you're going to eat a lot of fish. And you're going
to be isolated, and "poor." That's what life is on the out islands.
Withal, a true tropical paradise. Plenty of
food, lovely climate, everything they could possibly need when the first
people arrived perhaps 5,000 years ago. Where did they come from?
We'll probably have the answer in a couple more years when someone studies
the genetic drift in the Pacific islands.
People came to these islands without pottery, or
metal work, or the bow and arrow, and they never developed those tools.
They worked in stone when they could get it, but their main tooling materials
were shell and bone. Whatever developments occurred over 4,500 years
have left no material relics.
Skip to the 16th century. In 1521 Magellan
put in at Guam, in the Mariannas, 1200 miles west of Eniwetok atoll, now
a far western outpost of the Marshalls. So he probably knew about
them, but his informants undoubtedly told him there was nothing there.
The Spanish continued to find Guam convenient, and they annexed it in 1565.
They treated the natives in their traditional abusive way, the natives
rebelled, and were decimated as usual. But that's another story.
The Spanish claimed the Carolines, to the south and east of Guam, but they
didn't actually do anything there. In the Marshalls there was no
foreign presence whatsoever.
A British captain named John Marshall visited in
1788, and his name came to be attached to the islands, though Britain never
sought to establish a claim.
In the 19th century traders and missionaries from
Europe and America spread out all over the world, looking for profits to
be made and souls to be saved, and eventually they arrived in the Marshalls.
German traders came to predominate, and in 1886 the German government declared
a "protectorate" to protect them.
In numismatic terms, we really have no idea what
was going on in thePacific islands before the 17th century, and then only
scraps of description until very recently. The traditional trade
items "still" in use in the 19th century had the aura of picturesque survivals
of vast antiquity, but they could just as well have been modern fads.
Whatever the truth of the unknowable past, the Europeans found a well developed
trading system among the islands, with local specialty products moving
great distances. Some of these items were used as standard values
in certain places, so that we can make a case for calling them "money,"
or something like it.
The bibliography on "primitive money" is not large.
The two books in my library are "Odd and Curious Money," by Charles Opitz,
which is a valuable catalog of what's out there, but which must of necessity
give short shrift to the vital background, and "A Survey of Primitive Money,"
by A. Hingston Quiggin, which is something of a bible to the field. Quiggin
says (in 1948) that in the Marshalls they liked to trade lanyards of woven
black and white palm leaf strips called ihrik, standard shell money strands,
tekaroro shell strands, and fishhooks.
I've never seen ihrik. The shell money strands
are about 20 inches long, made of a few hundred tiny circular beads strung
parallel in a stack. They come in more valuable "red" (really pink),
less valuable "white," and mixes. Old ones were strung on handmade
twine. They were still making these for use in the Solomon Islands,
1200 miles southwest, during the 1980s, but
they were stringing them on nylon fishing line. They had function
in a lot of local transactions, like land sales, which were done in dollars
and shell money. At least that's what they told me when I bought
them at the going rate of $20.00 a piece for a "mostly white."
Tekaroro is a shell money strand made of alternating
white shell beads and brown coconut. In contrast with the standard
length shell money, tekaroro was made and measured by the fathom - the
length of the outstretched arms of
one or other of the involved traders. I obtained a couple of
feet of tekaroro from a bloke in Australia once. That well appears
to have gone dry.
The fishhooks are large items with very impressive
barbs, usually made of pearl oyster shell, and tied to a stout, wooden
shank. I got a few from the Solomons. Very nice items.
Not particularly cheap, and long gone from my inventory. And that
fellow has moved back to the States and changed his name.
There are also shell rings made of conus, and other,
larger ones made of the tridacna, or giant clam. These things are
valuable, and tend to be expensive should you try to get one on the collector
market. This discussion notwithstanding, approximately none of the
Micronesian "primitive money" that shows up on the market is from the Marshalls.
Most of it seems to hail from the Solomons. or points west.
These traditional manufactures began to become obsolete
with the introduction of western trade goods in the 19th century.
Metal knives, axes, pots and pans, cloth, trade tobacco, and so forth became
the standards by which values were judged, and more and more, the old trade
items became restricted to ritual use in bride purchase and such.
Japan picked the winning side in World War I, and
no sooner had hostilities commenced than it set out to capture the German
possessions in the Pacific. The Marshalls were taken in 1914, and
Japan continued to administer them under a League of Nations mandate during
the interwar period. Captured by American troops in 1944, they were
made into a so-called "Trust Territory" by the UN, to be administered by
American development of the islands was minimal.
From 1946 a number of atomic and hydrogen bomb tests were performed on
Bikini and Eniwetok atolls. I suppose the logic of the decision to
have those tests there was inescapable
at the time - those islands are very far away from anyplace else.
The two islands were evacuated, and the people set up in camps elsewhere.
The tests ended in 1962, but the islands were contaminated and the people
could not return. Some of those camps stayed open for decades.
Not a pleasant story.
During the '70s the strategic usefulness of the
islands to the USA seemed to diminish. At the same time, thoughts
of self-determination were becoming strong in the Pacific. The Marshallese
looked at the mixed bag that was American trusteeship and thought they
had a moral card to play, because the Americans had indubitably made a
mess out of some of the islands.
Negotiations led to the promulgation of a constitution
in 1979, and a "Compact of Free Association" was drawn up between the Trust
Territory and the USA in 1982. The terms allowed the continuation
of an American missile testing range on Kwajalein atoll, for ongoing, partly
reparational support payments on the part of the Americans, and the USA
to handle defense needs, if any. The compact was ratified on both
sides, independence was proclaimed in 1988, and the Trusteeship was formally
terminated in 1990.
In 1988 I got a piece of promotional material from
an outfit in Wyoming. They had been designated the sole agent for
the coins of the new Republic of the Marshall Islands. The coin was
a copper-nickel $5 piece, which was being sold at face value plus shipping
and handling of $1.50 per coin. Total price $6.50. Strictly
limited to five coins per customer.
I got probably five or more of these flyers.
$6.50 was a bit much for a copper-nickel crown at the time. We were
used to those big, cheap 25 pence the British Commonwealth was putting
out, though actually they had inflated to 50 pence by then. Now of
course you pay $8.50 for such things, and don't bat an eye. But back
then it was high.
Still, it was a new country, and dealers like me
can do well with new countries if the coins are cheap enough. I ordered
a total of 20 coins as Bob Reis, Robert Reis, R. A. Reis, etc. I
got them all. They sold too. I made a cool $2.00 or so per
coin. Welcome Marshall Islands to the community of nations.
Welcome their legal tender coins to your one-of-every-country
You and I know that the only money in the Marshalls
is American. We've always known that. It doesn't matter.
Like Bosnia-Herzogovina, and Eritrea, we know they don't use the coins
over there, but we put up with it, because they're pretty, they fill a
space in the concept we're collecting. As long as they're cheap enough.
Well, the next coin was the 1989 "space" $50.00.
Again, only minimal shipping costs. But I've always had, and continue
to have strong reservations about silver dollars with issue prices over
$30.00, which is most of them these days, I admit, but there's no good
reason to go ten times the bullion value and keep on calling them coins.
So I didn't buy them. Never participated at
that level. I bought the moonwalk $5 in 1989, and then dropped out
of the program. JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.
Now, I can't understand why anyone went for the
$50.00 coins. By the time the tenth one was issued in mid-1989 it
became obvious that this was going to be a rival to the Isle of Man in
coin issues. The public got out of Marshall Islands coins in a hurry.
Sales plummeted. The result being that while the "space" coins are
reasonably easy to collect, and the Discovery
coins are a glut, the rest of the coins are SCARCE and, to my mind,
Now the latest scandal about this mishandled promotion
is that the Marshalls doesn't want them back. Well, you wouldn't
either. They're afraid of 20,000 of them coming home. A million
dollars is a whole lot of money in the Marshalls. I don't know what
the government's cut was on those coins, but I guarantee you it wasn't
None of this had to happen. If they had made
them $10.00 coins instead of $50.00 everything would have been fine.
Meanwhile, you can't find anything other than the depreciated space coins.
For six months I offered 80-100% of
catalog for all the base metal coins, and SOMETHING for silver coins
other than the space series. Nothing much appeared. I had the
Elvis $10.00. Sold it high. People are always asking me about
the Marilyn Monroe coins. Sorry, I tell them. Can't get them.