Cowrie shell

The cowrie shell Cypraea moneta is native to the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. Between 1650 and 1880 more than 30 billion cowries were imported into western Nigeria. They were harvested by British ships, carried back to London and then imported to West Africa, mainly for the purchase of slaves. 

There is a long history of beads in Nigeria. Even today red coral beads signify chiefly status, and the use of multicoloured beads in royal regalia has a history dating back to the 13th century. Beads in Ife have been identified as coming from medieval Europe (Murano) and Islamic states. 

The Portuguese made the first major import of cowrie shells in 1515, and by the late 16th century cowries had become recognized as currency. The entire monetary system changed as the Yoruba entered into Atlantic trade. Cowrie shells started to be used as bride-price, dowries and taxes. Market exchange was no longer by barter, but by payment. The individual could accrue wealth in the form of cowries, and market traders, including women, became adept at counting and also very wealthy. A form of individualism had developed: it no longer only mattered if you were born into a prestigious household – through your own talent and hard work you could become wealthy. 

The development of the cowrie economy had important impacts on Yoruba cultural life. The goddess Olokun (literally “owner of the Atlantic/sea”) became an established part of the Oriṣa pantheon – even today she is petitioned for wealth and abundance more generally. An increasing reliance on self-realization and individual work accumulation led to an increase in reliance on the cult of Ori – the individual head. Whereas Ile Ori in ancient Ife were made from terracotta, throughout the 18th century these individual shrines became garlanded with cowries – a form of storing wealth as much as demonstrations of individual success. Even today the cowries are a significant component of Oogun used to make money or in regalia dedicated to the Orisa. 

The most significant commodity purchased with cowries was the human body in the form of the slave. Europeans on the coast demanded more and more human cargo for the plantations of Brazil, the Caribbean and the southern states of America. They quite literally "shelled out" great numbers of cowries. Once the British had become established on the coast of Nigeria, the number of Yoruba people transported across the Atlantic increased. Between 1780 and 1850 1.12 million Yoruba people were sold into slavery. The slaves mainly came to the coast from the Yoruba interior. In the early 18th century slaves were traded from Oyo through Owu and Ijebu to Epe and Lekki, or through Egba to Egbado and then to Badagry. 

By the late 1780s Oyo was declining and new routes opened in the east – the main ports were now Badagry, Lagos and Porto Novo. The developing trade meant that the Yoruba became increasingly entangled in the Atlantic trade world. Iron bars, rum, firearms and cloth became important commodities. Underlying the whole system was the cowrie shell. 

Wealth and the body became tangled. Stories of slaves drowned in the ocean in order to grow more shells became quite commonplace (even though the Maldives are the only place where these beads grow). The notion of the body and money became intertwined. The imprint of bodily dismemberment and its association with wealth may provide the dark undercurrent to the rumours that occasionally erupt around us.

©Will Rea
©Will Rea
©Will Rea
©Philip Henry Gosse