Maldives - the central banker for trade in the ancient world

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Cowrie Shells used to exported from the Maldives which were a form of money used in the ancient world.

More on primitive forms of money;

Porcelain-like shells from mollusks found mainly in the Indochina-Pacific region were the first kind of money to circulate freely in trade in the ancient world.

Maldivian Cowrie Trade History;

As early as the mid-ninth century AD, the Maldives were known to the Arab merchant Sulayman as a producer of cowries (Cypraea moneta), the tiny shells once used as a medium of exchange in Bengal, China, Southeast Asia, and throughout large parts of Africa. Although there are no indications of a direct trade in cowries between the Maldives and East Africa, it is known that huge quantities of these shells were taken to the ports of Southern Arabia as ballast in Arab dhows crossing the Indian Ocean from Southeast Asia by way of Male. These cowries must have been re-exported to Africa via Sinai, the Red Sea, and the ports of the Somali and Swahili coasts. It is also likely that dhows sailing to Africa carried cowries as ballast, exchanging them for slaves and local produce in ports such as Mogadishu, l amu, Malindi, Mombasa and Kilwa.
The profits attached to the cowrie trade were substantial. Ibn Baututa, who visited the Maldives in 1343-4 and again in 1346 (and who did some trading in cowries) records that cowries sold at Male for between 400,000 and 1,200,000 to the gold dinar. Seven years later this 'Traveler of Islam' was to see similar cowries, almost certainly of Maldivian origin, selling at 1,150 to the gold dinar in the West African Kingdom of Mali-a tidy profit margin indeed!

With the arrival of European vessels in eastern waters during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Arab domination of the cowrie trade between the Maldives and eastern Africa was rapidly superseded first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch. During the 16th and early 17th centuries Maldivian cowries were generally shipped in bulk to Bengal, often aboard Maldivian vessels, and then re-exported in European ships to both the east and west coasts of Africa.

During the latter half of the 17th century the Maldivian cowrie trade was largely re-routed via Ceylon, which had fallen under Dutch control between 1640 and 1658. The Dutch did very well out of this trade, and each successive governor of Ceylon was urged by the Dutch authorities at Batavia to supply larger quantities of Maldivian cowries for the rapidly expanding slave trade on the West African coast. By the middle of the 18th century, when the West African slave trade was at its peak, Dutch control of the traffic in Maldivian cowries was long-established and their value in West Africa, although still substantial, had started to fall. An anonymous Dutch account published in 1747 draws attention to this development in the following matter-of-fact teens: 'Formerly twelve thousand weight of these cowries would purchase a cargo of five or six hundred negroes, but those lucrative times are now no more; and the negroes now set such a value on their countrymen that there is no such thing as having a cargo under twelve or fourteen tons of cowries.'

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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on December 29, 2007 2:42 AM.

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