QUESTION: When Was “The Cowries Economy of West Africa?”

ANSWER: YES, there was a period when the Yoruba economy of West Africa was driven by dependency on cowries and tobacco. The cowries became the currency that powered the economy. These were exchanged for human cargo in the Bight of Benin, where almost a million Yoruba entered the Middle Passage, mostly between 1775 and 1840.

Money cowries (Monetaria moneta) retrieved from the São Bento, a Portuguese merchant ship coming from the Maldives and sank on its way to West Africa.

“Human-cowrie conversion”

Money cowries were used for thousands of years as currency across the Indo-Pacific world, but introduced into Atlantic commercial networks relatively late. The Maldives was a major source, with its large-scale, sustainable money cowrie industry.

In the 1550s cowries were a relatively new commodity for Europeans, and they were destined primarily for trade with West Africa. The Atlantic market picked up swiftly and billions of money cowries from the Indian Ocean were shipped to the Bight of Benin on the West African coast between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Cowries were exchanged directly for slaves throughout all centuries of the sea-borne trade of slaves out of West Africa. Nigerian archaeologist, anthropologist and historian Akinwumi Ogundiran describes this trade in terms of a “human-cowry conversion.”

Exact numbers are impossible to calculate, but at a possible (exchange or purchase price) rate of around 6 kg of cowries (5000–6000 shells) for one slave.

A vast legacy

Cowrie shells -now as museum and fashion accessory objects, seem at odds with the heaviness they carry from their historical association with human slavery. This unsettling lightness is amplified by the sinister elusiveness of the specifics of this story, reminiscent of histories of slavery more generally. Irrecoverable, hidden, unspoken, and yet such a vast legacy.