The Cowrie Shell: Monetary and Symbolic Value

Cowrie shells adorn two wooden Yoruba Ibeji dolls.
Yoruba Ibeji Male and Female Dolls dressed in cowrie shells. (Source)

The cowrie — or cowry — shell was one of the most successful and universal forms of currency in the world. In West Africa though, the humble shell worked its way into the cultural fiber, taking on a deeper symbolic and ritualistic meaning that has never been entirely lost.

Cowrie Shells as Currency

The attractive white shell has all the characteristics required of money: easy to handle and carry around due to its light weight, non-perishable, good for small and large purchases. Its shape makes it instantly recognizable and difficult to forge. The cowries also have very little variation in size and form, which makes them easy to count.

They were often threaded into bracelets or long strings of forty, or packed into pouches to form greater quantities. For large payments, the shells could be tossed into baskets and weighed to determine their value.

  • 40 cowries made 1 string,
  • 50 strings made 1 head (2,000 cowries total),
  • 10 heads made 1 bag (20,000 cowries total).

 

For very large sums, however, the cowrie shells were not very convenient… An anonymous Islamic historian described a man who received a large payment in cowries, but ultimately lost money in the deal because hiring porters to carry such a large number of shells back to his village cost him more than the value of the payment.

History of the Shell Money

Caravans of Arab traders were probably the first to introduce the cowrie shell into West Africa, possibly as early as the 8th century. By the 15th century the shells circulated as money, especially in the Empire of Mali. But it is only with the Portuguese, French, British and Dutch that Africa found itself under an avalanche of these shells. The Europeans had seen the fondness that certain African tribes had for the little shells and helped to make them the main currency in the trade of slaves, gold and many other goods.

"Dutch traders reported that African merchants in Dahomey [in present-day Benin] who were unfamiliar with paper and writing were highly suspicious of the European promissory notes, checking them frequently to make sure that the writing hadn’t disappeared, leaving them a worthless scrap of paper. Similarly, European traders were at first wary of trading their manufactured goods for shells until they saw that cowries were widely accepted as money throughout the region."

— Willie F. Page & R. Hunt Davis, Jr, 2001*

For a long time, the cowrie coexisted with many other forms of currency across West Africa: silver coins and gold dust, but also salt bars, brass and copper rods and horse-shoe shaped manillas, cloth currencies, beads, etc.

By the 18th century, the cowrie had become the currency of choice along the trade routes of West Africa. It conserved its status as a means of payment, and a symbol of wealth and power, until the 20th century.

Everyday Usage

In small villages, trade was the elders’ responsibility and privilege. The goods that the villagers produced — excess grain, honey from beekeeping, cloth, forged metals, etc — were sold and the proceeds stored in common funds as obligatory contributions. Elders used the stored cowries to buy necessities like tools, medicine, or cattle for the community. Much of the trade the villagers, themselves, did was in the form of barter, and involved no money: a sack of peanuts in exchange for a cooking pot, a hoe for a nice basket.

1895 illustration of African women counting cowries.
Counting cowries, 1895.
Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Trading on a large scale was the specialty of a few groups: the Hausa, the Dyula and the Yarse, especially. They engaged in bulk commodity barter that eventually ended up in long-distance trade, with cowries.

Demonetizing the Cowrie

Europeans had once used the cowrie eagerly: replacing the shells with European currency would have been very costly. Besides, most thought the cowrie would eventually die a quiet death. But the shell was inconvenient: the cowries were cumbersome to store compared to bank notes and counting large numbers of them was imprecise. These challenges were not insurmountable, of course, but the French in particular wanted to divert the trade from the British Gold Coast to their colony in the Ivory Coast, which was one added reason for them to force their currency, the French franc, onto their colony.

Colonizers had a particularly hard time getting the African people to accept new, more centralized forms of currency. For one thing, the West Africans, accustomed to multiple currencies coexisting on the markets, had no problem with the idea of just adding one more. But when the French prohibited the use of the shells as money around 1907, the elders resisted, refusing to include the new money in their hoards or to use it in ceremonies instead of the cowrie. Some people kept both currencies. Others simply thought the francs a nuisance and refused to use the coins and notes.

The French had imposed a tax system on their new colony. Between 1899 and 1902, half of the taxes came in the form of cowries and other currencies. By 1907, one third were still being paid in other forms than the official franc. The prohibition on the cowrie didn’t do much to change the people’s habits, though. Sentimentality for the cowrie, combined with the enormous stocks of shells in the area and the depreciation of the French franc — whereas the cowrie retained its value — contributed to the resistance of West Africans to adopt the new currency until the 1940s.

"The attachment to the cowry and the refusal to adopt the money of the White man was a way of defending the independence and sovereignty that they possessed before the [colonial] conquest. They felt that the demonetization of the cowries was a way to cut them off from a significant symbol of their past and of their culture, in favor of the franc, an anonymous money." 

— Félix A. Iroko, 1987**

Present-day Status of the Cowrie as Money

A coin of 20 Ghanaian cedi, 1991. The back of the coin features a cowry shell.
Ghanaian 20 cedis coin featuring a cowry shell. (Source)

Cowries no longer serve as currency in West Africa, but traces remain of their history as a form of money. In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, people still occasionally give alms to the poor in the form of cowries, either alone, or mixed  with coins. Some traders specialize in selling items such as cowries as ritual offerings. People across West Africa may still pay for ritual services using the little white shells.

In Ghana, the national currency is the cedi, which is the Akan (Twi) word for “cowrie”. The coin for 20 cedi featured the image of the beloved shell in 1991.

The West African central bank (the BCEAO — Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest) has its headquarters in Benin. The modern-looking corporate building is decorated with cowries the size of windows.

"The skyrocketing cowry prices are now a scandal. Elderly men who want to buy them for ritual uses find themselves competing either with those who produce craft items for sale to tourists or with young men who seek cowries to trim costumes that have become popular for stage use. In my recent trips to Burkina Faso, when I mention the Indian Ocean origins of cowries people listen attentively. I would not be surprised if someday one of the enterprising men or women traders of West Africa discovered the Maldives during an import/export trip to Dubaî or Hong Kong and restarted the historical shell trade."

— Mahir Şaul, 2004***

The Symbolic Wealth of the Cowrie

The cowrie’s elegant shape represents the female form, its rounded top reminiscent of a pregnant woman’s belly. Thus it is a symbol of fertility. The slit on the underside of the shell can look like a black pupil against the pearly white surface, which is why it is often used to ward against the evil eye.

The benedictive power only enhances the elegance of the shells. Cowries are often used as ornamental beads: incorporated into jewelry, worn in the hair, decorating statues and baskets.

The cowrie is a protective charm (gris-gris) adorning the outfits of hunters and warriors, woven into sacred masks and costumes for dance ceremonies. It can be an element in traditional medicine and may accompany the dead on their journeys out of this world.

The Lodagaa of northern Ghana, for instance, believe that the deceased need a fee of twenty cowries to cross the River of Death and reach the land of the dead to the west.

Image of a flat, dusty circular mat with scattered cowrie shells.
A Dogon fortune teller tries to divine the outcome of a soccer match with cowrie shells. (Source)

Many communities across western Africa and beyond use these shells as divination tools. The fortune-teller throws or simply drops the cowries onto a typically circular surface, and interprets their positions to tell the future. The number of shells used depends on each diviner and the tradition they come from. The Yoruba, for example, use sixteen cowries in their Merindinlogun divination to ask the Orisha spirits for advice. Some use the cowries in conjunction with — or instead of — other tools like bone fragments or kola nuts.

Although the cowrie, as currency, lies in West Africa’s past, its symbolic value endures. As the Hausa say: “Whoever is patient with a cowrie shell will one day have thousands of them”.

Sources and Further Reading

Books:

 

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