One of the topics in the new Economics qualification is an introduction to the role of money and it was quite fitting, therefore, when Economics teacher, Bascal Bilon, from the Baa Hithaadhoo School, presented me with some examples of one of the oldest currencies in the world, the cowrie shell.
Money and the Maldives
As part of the launch of our International Advanced Levels in Economics and Business, I visited Malé to talk with teachers about our new qualifications.
Cowrie shells have been used as tokens of exchange in the same way as gold and silver. The shells have an alternative use as jewellery, but as a currency they are portable, durable and hard to forge. As a measure of value, they could be weighed or counted. For thousands of years, they have been used as a currency in China, Bengal and all over Africa and Asia.
The main source of the Cowrie shell was the Maldives Island in the Indian Ocean. Sailors exported the shells to Bengal. The value of a shell tended to increase with the distance from the Maldives, their source. The further from the Maldives, the greater their scarcity.
The shells themselves were collected by harvesting local molluscs (cypraea moneta) which would settle on mats made from coconut leaves, left on the surface of the ocean water.
In the 19th century, shortages of the shells in the Maldives led to traders using cypraea annulus, found on the East African coast and which looked similar to the Maldivian cowries. This increase in the supply of cowries led to inflation and they became less attractive as a currency.
Please click here for a student student worksheet on cowrie shells as money.