04 April 2021

Book review: The Shell Money of the Slave Trade (1986) by Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson, *****


Synopsys

This study examines the role of cowrie-shell money in West African trade, particularly the slave trade. The shells were carried from the Maldives to the Mediterranean by Arab traders for further transport across the Sahara, and to Europe by competing Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French traders for onward transport to the West African coast. In Africa, they served to purchase the slaves exported to the New World, as well as other less sinister exports. Over a large part of West Africa, they became the regular market currency but were severely devalued by the importation of thousands of tons of the cheaper Zanzibar cowries. Colonial governments disliked cowries because of the inflation and encouraged their replacement by low-value coins. They disappeared almost totally, to re-appear during the depression of the 1930s, and have been found occasionally in the markets of remote frontier districts, avoiding exchange and currency control problems.

Review 

 A most thoroughly researched book on a peculiar aspect of monetary economics in Africa and South Asia for several centuries. We learn how the Maldives played a central role in this system that could be considered an aspect of embryonic globalization ante-litteram. We learn how the shells were collected, with strenuous labor-intensive efforts, then stored underground until putrefaction had gotten rid of the mollusk, and finally shipped to Malé for export. Of course, the latter was a royal prerogative for centuries!

See my other reviews of books on the Maldives here in this blog.


 

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