This is one of the first questions that we get here at the foundation- why did you decide to call it cowrie? The foundation was named after the cowrie shell, one of the most successful and universal forms of currency in the world.
Cowrie is the common name for a group of sea snails, in the family Cypraeidae. The shells are generally seen on the rocky parts of the seabed and are most abundant in the Indian Ocean specifically from the Maldives.
Cowrie shells as currency
Cowrie shells were adopted as currency as they were easy to carry due to being lightweight yet hard to break. They also have distinctive patterns and markings making them hard to forge. On top of this, they are easy to count. Cowrie shells were often threaded into bracelets, long strings, or packed into pouches to form greater quantities. For large payments, the shells would also be put 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)
Cowrie shells in West Africa:
Caravans of Arab traders are thought to have introduced cowrie shells into West Africa as early as the 8th century, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that the shells circulated as money. The Portuguese, French, British and Dutch encouraged the formation of shells as the main currency by trading them with enslaved people, gold, and other goods.
Cowrie currency co-existed with other forms of currency across West Africa such as silver coins, salt bars, copper rods, cloth currencies and beads. The cowrie became the main currency along the trade routes of West Africa by the 18th century. Cowrie currency then remained as a means of payment until the 20th century.
Demonetising cowrie shells:
Despite their many benefits, cowrie shells were difficult to use for large payments. On top of this, Europeans including Portuguese, Dutch, French, German, and English bought large quantities of cowrie shells over between the 15th and 19th centuries which benefitted the palm oil and Atlantic slave trade. This eventually destroyed the local economies and money systems. Although cowrie is not used as a currency they are still used for ritual payments and are sometimes given as alms to the poor.
Legacy of cowrie shells:
In Ghana the unit of currency is known as the Ghanaian cedi. The word cedi is the Akan (principle native language of the Akan people of Ghana) word for cowrie.
The West African central bank has its headquarters in Benin and the building is decorated in cowrie shells.
In Togo, Benin, and Ghana a widely found cloth design called bceao is imprinted with cowrie shells.
Further reading recommendations
If you have found this brief history interesting and would like to read more about the history of cowrie shells we would recommend:
– A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green
– Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
– Economic and Sociocultural Aspects of Cowrie Currency of the Dagaaba of Northwestern Ghana Aspects journal article by Emmanuel
– Golden cowrie shells by National Geographic
Mia Sogoba. (May 2018). https://www.culturesofwestafrica.com/cowrie-shell-monetary-symbolic-value/
The British Museum. https://britishmuseum.withgoogle.com/object/cowrie-shells
Toby Green. (2019). A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution. Penguin.
Yang, B. (2011). The rise and fall of Cowrie shells: the Asian story. Journal of World History, 22, 1-25. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23011676