Cypraea moneta, a global money unit: fourthousand years of history of the Cowry Shell, c. 2000 BC to 1960 AD
Long before the first man on earth thought about striking a coin, cowries were used for payment. And at least in 1960 AD in some parts of the world cowries were still accepted as money.
Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in... stop, where are we supposed to stop?
The currency we are talking about today was widely used in Asia, Africa and Oceania, and some evidence suggests that it was also known in Russia and North America. Okay, let’s take a trip around the world and through time. As our currency was used for a good 4,000 years, from the end of the 3rd century BC to the second half of the 20th century AD.
Yes, that used to be a currency and an extremely successful one too. The porcelain-like shell of the cowry circulated around the globe longer than any other currency in the history of money. The oldest written evidence of cowries being used as money was found in China.
A ritual bronze vessel from around the turn of the 1st century BC, for instance, bears the inscription: “This precious vessel was made for Yuan, Count of Chu, who paid 14 cowry double strings for it” – that is 140 cowries. A lot of money at the time.
We learn about the relative value of shell money from another inscription from the year 925 BC: “Citizen Ju Bai received from Qiu Wei one jade tablet worth 80 double strings of cowry for six fields of his lands.” So, 800 cowries were worth a jade tablet or six fields.
No wonder the Chinese soon started to make cowry imitations from bone or bronze.
This is how the cowry became the model for one of the oldest Chinese currencies, the so-called ant nose money, which circulated in the Southern Chinese Kingdom Chu around the time between the 3rd and the 5th centuries BC.
Evidence of the immense importance of the cowry in the history of Chinese coinage is the fact that our modern day symbol for money has its origin in the stylized image of a cowry.
The shell of the cowry, also known as “porcellana” in Old Italian, was highly coveted. Her Latin name – Cypraea moneta – indicates that the shell served as money for centuries.
The species was native to tropical and subtropical coral reefs from the Red Sea in the West to Northern Australia, Japan, Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that cowries were a means of payment in so many different parts of the world. This is for instance a jetak, a plaited string decorated with cowries and other precious objects which was used by the Dani people in New Guinea to determine and to pay for the exact price of a pig.
This cowry string is originally from Africa. Cowries were exported to Africa since the 14th century, first by Arabic, then by English and even by German merchants.
This cowry imitation from stone, too, has its origin in Africa.
Today, the coins and banknotes of several states still refer to this ancient currency as this banknote from the Maldives shows.
By the way, even cowries weren’t safe from the danger of inflation. Probably the biggest devaluation of the porcelain-like shell was caused by the trade company Adolf Jakob Hertz & Söhne in Hamburg. The company’s fast ships transported cheap cowries from Africa’s East Coast to its West Coast. The business boomed. The profit margin was 400 per cent. This went well for a while because the Bornu Empire in Central Sudan introduced the cowry currency roughly at the same time. But when more cowries kept being imported to West Africa although eventually demand was declining, inflation hit.
Oh yes, and from time to time people still tell the curious tale of Dutch explorers in the 1960s who couldn’t continue their expedition in the middle of New Guinea because they ran out of cowries and the carriers refused to accept a currency other than that.
Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.