Monday, October 24, 2011


The use of sea shells as a currency was widespread across the ancient world, before metal coinage and even paper money, or bullion came into use as the medium of payment.

Money Cowrie Shells

The Maldives and other such Indian Ocean beaches as Sri Lanka and the Nicobar Islands were a common source of these shells. The photo illustrates some collected on one day on a hundred metre stretch of a Sri Lankan beach.
Perceived value, it is possible to suppose, derived from the fact that these shells were commonly used for personal decoration...a kind of popular equivalent of gems!
Parts of China, especially Yunnan, used the shells as currency from as early as 1,000 years before the Common Era.  The shells have been found in tombs long before the Common Era, especially in the Southwest corner of China.
It seems reasonable to speculate that such use, which only began to fade with the 17th Century and remained not uncommon until much more recently, derived from the Southwest Silk Road, with trade between Sichuan and Yunnan especially (through Burma and Assam) flowing to the trading crossroads of much of the world at the mouth of Ganges, present day Bangladesh.
The shells remained as a currency, particularly for small, local transactions, in the Bengal of the east India Company, now mostly Bangladesh, well into the 19th Century.
In Sylhet, a district in Bangladesh, once part of Assam province during British rule and which bordered the Kingdoms of Northeast India such as Tripura and Jaintha, there are records of the use money cowrie shells for payment of dues and taxes. The late 18th Century ‘Collector’ (district level representative of the East India Company) Robert Lindsay, cousin of the famous novelist William Makepiece Thackeray, whose own connection to Bengal comes from being born in Calcutta, records, for the purposes of tax collection in Sylhet, exchange rates of Rupees and Sterling to cowries as 3,500 and 45,000 respectively.

Cowries may be more common in Asia than elsewhere in the world, but other varieties of shell currency were commonplace in North America, Africa and the Pacific region.
To the student economist, studying the international trade of the last two or three millennia, who has caught up with the astonishingly contemporary history of Chinese trade...the way in which the Han Dynasty, selling low cost products, such as silk, to high demand markets such as Europe and Middle east, managed to make such markets so indebted as to threaten their economies through export of bullion to pay for imports, may find the concept of money that, whilst not exactly ‘growing on trees’, but lying on beaches, an additional twist to economic studies that beggar belief!
Somewhere in Bangladesh, and other parts of the great international trading centre of the Ganges, one suspects, there may be hoards of shells, lying in wait to confuse future archaeologists!

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