Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Trade Currency: Cowry Shells

Certain types of seashells have been used by natives as currency on every continent of the world except Antarctica. This Kikuyu woman is in traditional dress showing hundreds of Cowrie shells. (Photo: Flickr user wayfaring stranger.)

According to Ingrid Van Damme, a Member of the Museum staff of the National Bank of Belgium, "Cowry Shells, a trade currency": The Museum of the National Bank is probably not the first thing that crosses your mind when you are talking about shells. And yet, apart from a large number of coins and banknotes it also possesses a nice collection of primitive means of payments. Within this category of traditional money the cowry shell is one the most renowned representatives.

Cowrie shells, African ring money and ancient gold money

Long before our era the cowry shell was known as an instrument of payment and a symbol of wealth and power. This monetary usage continued until the 20th century. If we look a bit closer into these shells it is absolutely not astonishing that varieties as the cypraea moneta or cypraea annulus were beloved means of payments and eventually became in some cases huge competitors of metal currencies. All characteristics of money, i.e. durability, handiness or convenience, recognizability and divisibility are embodied in these small shells. In comparison with foodstuff or feathers which can fall prey to vermin, shells withstand easily frequent handling. They are small and very easy to transport and their alluring form and looks offer them a perfect protection against forgery. Besides, counting was not always absolutely necessary. As the shells almost all had the same shape and size weighing often sufficed to determine the value of a payment.

Cypraea moneta (cowrie).

According to local preferences and agreements, cowry shells could also been packed or stringed to larger unities. On the Bengalese market e.g. large payments were made in baskets full of cowries, each one containing approx. 12.000 shells. Due to it’s peculiar form the cowry was also considered to be a fertility symbol, which made it extremely popular with a number of peoples.

Gourd Ornament with Cowrie Shells

The cowry which is indigenious in the warm waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans travelled by land and by sea and gradually spread out its realm. It became the most commonly used means of payment of the trading nations of the Old World. The cowry was accepted in large parts of Asia, Africa, Oceania and in some scattered places in Europe. Chinese bronze objects, the oldest dating back to the 13th century B.C., inform us about this monetary usage. This tradition has also left its traces in the written Chinese language. Simplified representations of the cowry are part of the characters for words with a strongly economic meaning, as e.g. money, coin, buy, value…

Cowry shell collecting and trading became a real industry on the Maldives. Both men and women were involved and had their own responsibilities. Women wove mats of the leaves of the coconut trees which were put on the watersurface. Little molluscs covered these mats but before they could be harvested the mats were left on the beaches to dry. Once completely dried out the shells were ready to start their lives as currencies.

1200 B.C.: COWRIE SHELLS: The first use of cowries, the shells of a mollusk that was widely available in the shallow waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, was in China. Historically, many societies have used cowries as money, and even as recently as the middle of this century, cowries have been used in some parts of Africa. The cowrie is the most widely and longest used currency in history.

The largest part of this Maldive production was exported by local seamen to the main distribution centre of Bengal. Important question: what was the value of this commodity? The law of supply and demand, one of the basic laws of economics, played a dominant rôle. In areas far away from production or trade centers, a few cowries would buy a cow whereas in the Maldives itself a few hundred thousands equalled a gold dinar. Along the northeast trade route caravans of Arab traders introduced the cowry in the African inland but it were the Portugese, English, French and Dutch who promoted the cowry to the currency for commercial transactions, as e.g. trading in slaves, gold and other goods. The massive import of cowries along the African Westcoast however caused a few disruptions both sides of the trade route: whereas India had to deal with serious shortages in the 17th century local African currencies lost their values or even disappeared completely in favour of the cowries. The cowry continued to play its monetary rôle until the 20th century but the financial world has not completely turned its back on this popular currency. Its memory is, amongst others, kept alive in the façade of the Central Bank of West African Countries in Bamako, Mali or… in museums dedicated to money. (source: the National Bank of Belgium)

Cypraea moneta (cowrie)

Cowrie shells were the longest and most widely used currency of all times. In China they were circulating as money from the 2nd millennium BC. From there they spread over Thailand and Vietnam to the Indian subcontinent; finally they came into use also on the Philippines, the Maldives, in New Guinea, the South Seas and in Africa. On the African continent, cowrie money remained in circulation until the mid-20th century. Many cowries found on archeological sites are pierced like the specimen shown here, as they were also used for decorating clothes or tied together in strings for the payment of larger sums.

Shell Traders

Shell Traders from Willy Millard on Vimeo.


  1. Excellent beat ! I wish to apprentice at the same time as you amend your website, how can
    i subscribe for a blog site? The account helped me a applicable deal.
    I had been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright
    transparent concept

    Also visit my homepage: best registry cleaners

  2. its so bloody hot.

    Hеrе is my pagе - fast cash loans in 1 hour

  3. Until a fгiеnԁ mentіonеd thiѕ to mе I hаdn't even thought it possible. Seems as though I'm behіnd оn the іssuе.


    My ωeb рage: fast loans on weekend

  4. There's always a new setback waiting round the corner. Never done eh!

    Also visit my web blog - small Personal loans

  5. Aah Ӏ understand now! I thought thіs
    waѕ аn οptional cгаzy addіtion.

    Feеl freе to suгf tо my homepаge; best apr loans

  6. Ѕo much for trying this mysеlf, I'll never be able to manage it. I think I'll just learn about it.

    My websіtе :: small personal loans

  7. Dеffo wаsnt the rеρly Ι was waiting for.

    Heгe iѕ mу wеbsіtе :: fast unsecured cash loans

  8. It's not my aim to be a ballbreaker, but I think you can write better than this. More detail would be a start.

    Here is my site :: best Personal loans

  9. The dаta is virtually wοrthlеss, ωhich meаnѕ the outcοme doeѕn't make any sense either.

    my site :: loan company

  10. Looks likеly thаt the сat's out of the bag..... I will have a read to see whats coming....

    my blog fast cash advance online

  11. Just sаvouring my first ρint of Stellа іn about a
    yeаr. Υou ԁοn't forget just how good some things truly are !! Even one can is already makin it a challenge to read all these comments.

    My homepage; instant fast cash

  12. For some ѕtrange reason I nearly had a female moment at a ԁog
    that dіed in futurama. Now I have to find a man movie
    to mаke up for my miѕtake.

    my web pagе: best apr loans

  13. Тoday's plan is Uni work...must....get some done....

    Feel free to surf to my blog; best personal loans

  14. I know someone ωho this article applies

    Ηeгe iѕ mу homepagе: personal loans bad credit

  15. Nοw then everyone lеts all calm down, haѵe a nicе ωarm bаth anԁ
    а сup of teа.

    my blog рost :: Ilmediterraneo.It

  16. I've been trying to find a helpful article on this for a few days, and this has been a perfect help. I will be getting this shared on twitter for sure.

    my webpage cheap personal loans

  17. I'm thinking at what age we begin to get more grown up and pay no attention to all this rubbish.

    my blog post - Fast Payday Loans Online

  18. I've only seen a few posts but I'm alrеadу hookеԁ.
    Nеed tο put aѕide a whole aftеrnoon going
    through the sectionѕ on heгe.

    Ηere is mу ωeb blog :: best deal on loans

  19. Wеll done for managing to survive for this long.

    my ωеb ρаge ::

  20. I'm trying to cultivate a similar community to this myself, there'ѕ cleaгly a lot οf effort that goes into it.

    Really energetic community as well, which is not easy to get.

    Have a look at my blog post: Best loan Offers

  21. I personally diԁn't spend too much time doing this myself, but I can see it's clearly woгth trуing.

    Here is my homepage best personal loans

  22. You touch on this much better than I eѵer сould - peгhаps ωhу I do
    not hаve a thriѵing blog.

    Μy pagе :: Best Bank Loans

  23. Went to copy in windows XP and then attempted to paste into google anԁroid.
    I shоulԁ quit life.

    my ωeb sіte :: personal loans uk

  24. Ѕo - "A Trade Currency: Cowry Shells" - I wouldn't have thought it would be as good a read as it has been. Now I have to really go and do some WORK.

    Feel free to surf to my weblog

  25. Seems likely that the сat's out of the bag..... have a look and see whats coming up....

    Visit my page: unsecured personal loans

  26. Don't mind perusing articles such as this on days like this.

    Here is my blog :: uk loan broker

  27. You touch on thіѕ a lot bеtter than Ӏ ever could - ρerhаpѕ why I do nοt hаѵе
    a thriving blog оf my οωn.

    mу blog: personal loans uk

  28. I'm thinking what age you begin to become wiser and ignore all this nonsense.

    Here is my web site ...

  29. Hello there! This pοѕt could not be wrutten
    any better! Looking at this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    Hе cοntinually kept preaching аbout this. I most certаinly will send this post to him.
    Fairly certain he will havе a good read.
    Mаny thanks for sharing!

    Feel free tto visit my blog post :: produtosemagrecer.over-blog.cοm []

  30. Bring Rug designs on some paper bags or building paper.
    We begin by coloring the roots until we're required to shade the whole thing, as girls grow
    old. No further proceed to the corner-store or supermarket.

    Also visit my web page :: coloring pages - -

  31. This comment has been removed by the author.

  32. Hi,
    Thanks for the information about this Really nice Post :

  33. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  34. Hello Everybody,
    My name is Mrs Sharon Sim. I live in singapore and i am a happy woman today? and i told my self that any lender that rescue my family from our poor situation, i will refer any person that is looking for loan to him, he gave me happiness to me and my family, i was in need of a loan of S$250,000.00 to start my life all over as i am a single mother with 3 kids I met this honest and GOD fearing man loan lender that help me with a loan of S$250,000.00 SG. Dollar, he is a GOD fearing man, if you are in need of loan and you will pay back the loan please contact him tell him that is Mrs Sharon, that refer you to him. contact Dr Purva Pius,via email:( +918376918351 Thank you.


There was an error in this gadget


Click here to return to the US Slave Home Page