Money had very different appearances in the Maldives and the first currency used was cowry shells (cypraea moneta). Cowrie shells were also the most popular currency in Africa. Egyptians considered them to be magical and used them as money in foreign exchange transactions. Egyptologists have found millions of cowry shells in the tombs of the Pharaohs.
In the 13th century, cowry shells were brought to Africa from the Maldives by Arab merchants. But the cowry was also accepted in large parts of Asia, Oceania and in some scattered places in Europe.
Cowry shell collecting and dealing became a real industry in the Maldives. Maldivian Men and women were involved in this business, everybody with different tasks.
Women pleated mats of coconuts leaves. These mat were put on the water surface, little molluscs attracted covered the floating coconut leaves mats . Before they could be harvested, cowry shell needed to be completely dried out. Mats were removed from the water and left under the sun, on the beaches to dry. Once dried out the shells were ready be used as currency.
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Cowry shells are small and easy to transport. Their charming forms and shapes offer them a perfect protection against forgery. Furthermore, counting was not always necessary. As the shells almost all had the same shape and dimension weighing was enough to find out the value of a payment.
The main part of this Maldives production was shipped by Dhoni by local seamen to the main distribution centre of Bengal. Cowry shells were packed or stringed to large units. In the Bengal region large payments were made in baskets full of cowries, each basket containing about 12.000 shells. Because of it’s strange shape, the shell was also considered as a fertility symbol.
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What was the value of the cowry shell? In areas far away from Maldives or trade centres such as Bengal region, a few cowries would buy a cow, while in the Maldives a few hundred thousand equalled a gold dinar.
European trade in cowry shells started in the 15th and 16th centuries with the Portuguese .
During the 17th and 18th centuries the trade was dominated by the Dutch and the English
In 18th and 19th centuries the French and Germans also got involved in the shipping of cowries to Africa.
These western European nations brought cowry shells from Indian Ocean and more specifically from Maldives in such a large quantity to Africa subsequently ruining all local monetary systems and
Economies. By the mid-18th century coins made of copper replaced the use of cowries and made the shells of little or no value.