That Time When You Could Buy A Human Being For Two Seashells

While researching our Shilling Blanket, we learned that Uganda’s pre-colonial currency was the cowrie shell and there was a time when it cost less to buy a woman than a cow. But if history has taught us anything, it's that modern economies can't run on seashells and cows.

First things first, this is a cowrie:

Monetaria moneta, aka the "money cowrie"

This little bugger is literally made of money. [Philippe Bourjon]

Meet Monetaria moneta, aka the "money cowrie." It’s a species of small marine sea snail whose scientific name translated from Latin is literally "monetary money" because for thousands of years cowrie shells have been used as money by many Pacific and Indian Ocean cultures. This particular species can be found everywhere from South Africa to the Persian Gulf, Japan, Galapagos, and Australia.

Ancient Chinese cowries made of shell, bone, and bronze

Ancient cowries from China made of shell, bone, and bronze.

The snail lives in coastal waters and coral reefs, and can be collected from under rocks and in shallow tide pools at low tide. In other words, it’s quite easy for any beach comber to collect them. For this reason it seems incredible that something so abundant and easily obtained could function as a stable currency for so long in so many places. 

Nonetheless, cowrie money was the first widely adopted currency and became the backbone of the trade networks of Africa and Asia.

The Character of Money

 Cowrie with stripes

Lyncina leviathan looks a heck of a lot like the Chinese character for money: . [Andre de Molenaar]

The first evidence of the cowrie's use as money can been traced to China as early as 1,200 B.C.E. In fact, the classical Chinese character for money () is a drawing of a cowrie shell and is now part of the modern characters for the words coin, buy, and tax.

Chinese character 'bei' stroke order.

Stroke order of Chinese character for money [Micheletb / Wikipedia]

Chinese bei character compared to the mole cowrie shell

The character in the upper left is a spitting image of the cowrie []

The Chinese pinyin is bèi which reminds me of Queen Bey. I bet she could afford like every cowrie shell in the world at this point. [The British Museum]

In a textbook example of supply and demand, the purchasing power of the cowrie was extremely localized. In places far away from coasts or trading centers—like the East African interior—the cost of even the most valuable goods ran in the single digits. However in places close to harvesting—like the Maldives which harvested a particularly desirable shell—one gold dinar could cost hundreds of thousands of shells.

Cow to Cowrie Exchange Rate

It’s no wonder then that in the pre-colonial kingdom of Buganda (present day Uganda) with no access to the coast, the cowrie shell (known as the ensimbi) was accepted currency until the early 20th century. Scholars believe that when the cowrie was first introduced—via Arab traders on the coast—into the Bugandan hinterland, its comparative rarity to other currencies (such as beads and ivory discs) caused the exchange rate to be quite high—for instance, a woman could be purchased for just two shells.

Cowrie and ostrich feather ceremonial headdress from Uganda.

Cowrie and ostrich feather ceremonial headdress from Uganda. [Horniman Museum & Gardens]

Now that of course doesn’t sound like a lot, but we need to know the unit of measure. Well, the single most valuable asset in Bugandan society was the cow and consequently all currencies were pegged to the value of one cow—which would set you back a whole 2,500 cowrie shells. That’s right, a regular (not magical or solid gold) cow was worth 1,225 times more than a human woman. (We suppose one could call this cowpitalism.)

1 cow was equal to 1,225 women in pre-colonial Uganda.

'Cause that makes sense... [Cédric Villain / Noun Project]

Unfortunately for the cowrie (but fortunately for the mollusk) its reign would not last long. As one might expect, when the kingdom fell under British colonial rule in 1894, the new government found it difficult to organize monetary policy around a money supply that couldn’t be counted or controlled, and that could be gathered from the shore by anyone whenever they wanted. As a Bank of Uganda archivist wryly put it:

“The core central bank function of issuing this legal tender currency was left in the hands of nature.”

The end came in 1901 when the government got word that canoe loads of cowrie shells were being dispatched to Uganda from neighboring German East Africa (present day Tanzania). The government officially demonetized the cowrie, burned the central bank's shell reserves to make lime, and began refusing to accept shells in lieu of taxes. What a shame, imagine if you could pay your taxes with a trip to the beach.

Basket of Monetaria moneta from 1758

The cowrie economy was a total shell game. [Brehms Tierleben]

Thanks for reading, we found this one completely fascinating. There’s quite a bit that we didn’t include—for instance that European slavers in West Africa actively promoted the adoption of cowrie money and were so successful that the contemporary currency of Ghana, the cedi, is named after the Akan word for cowrie, or that evidence of shell money usage has been found on nearly every continent—so we would recommend reading more on the internets.

Check out our website for more information on the Shilling Blanket.

– Hiller Dry Goods


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