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date: 01 October 2022

The Cowrie Worldlocked

The Cowrie Worldlocked

  • Bin YangBin YangArts and Humanities, University of Macau

Summary

For a long time cowrie shells originating in the Maldive islands had been used as a form of money in various Afro-Eurasian societies The use of cowrie shells as money was first adopted in Bengal around the 4th century, and cowrie money soon expanded into the Tai world, then into Yunnan province, on China’s southwestern frontier, where it became a legal currency. Local shell money was also adopted as early as the 10th century along the great bend of the Niger River in West Africa, and cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were also shipped there by way of the Mediterranean. From the 16th century onwards, European merchants, led by the Portuguese, initiated the cowrie slave trade and the cowrie palm oil trade by shipping Maldivian shells through Europe to West Africa, thus reshaping the cowrie monetary zone in West Africa and creating a broad network that connected two oceans (the Indian and Atlantic oceans) and two worlds (the Old and New Worlds). The cowrie trade and cowrie money enabled the acquisition of Asian and African resources by Europeans and so promoted European dominance across the world, until a glut of cowrie shells destroyed this monetary system.The case of early China is different. While cowrie shells shared the same origin of the Indian Ocean, and played a significant role amongst the Chinese elite, they did not constitute a form of money.

Subjects

  • China
  • Economic/Business
  • Indian Ocean Studies
  • World/Global/Transnational

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