Anybody dealing with West African archaeology and history is well used to the idea of cowries. In historical sources, cowrie shells are central to transactions on the subcontinent; they are also recovered relatively routinely in excavations, albeit typically in small numbers. And cowries loom large in the oral history of Crossroads’ field of inquiry, since nooru bangu, the cowry shell pond, lies within our landscape. There, the shells which kept the Songhai polity wealthy were said to have been collected. Here’s the thing, though: whatever oral history in Dendi may have to say, the fact is that cowrie shells per se, Cypraea moneta, originate from the Indian Ocean and in particular from the Maldives where this herbivore gastropod can be collected on rocks. Ibn Battuta, who spent nine months in the Maldives in the fourteenth century, and who was later to visit what is now Mali, described cowries being used in both places. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the English were shipping some 100 tons of cowries a year to Africa (Johnson, 1970: 22 citing Mungo Park). Johnson comments that “The cowries of the trans-Saharan trade must have been almost exclusively small ones of Maldive origin; heavier cowries would have been at a great disadvantage in the long and costly journey over the desert”. The traveller Giovanni D’Anania appears to refer to them being used in the sixteenth century in the Hausa city of Katsina.
How did cowries become a major item of trade in West Africa? Who fished for these shells in the Maldives, who took them across the Indian Ocean and the Sahara, and how did a whole system of value become constructed around them thousands of kilometres from their place of origin? Having seen plenty of dead cowries in my time, I am aiming to see a live one in the Maldives, even if I cannot answer all the above questions.