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How Money Was Born: The Small Seashell and the Fierce Maldivian Queen That Made the Modern World

How Money Was Born: The Small Seashell and the Fierce Maldivian Queen That Made the Modern World

Money began as a language for expressing gratitude and became the lever of the extraction economy — the currency of aggregate human entitlement. In the golden dawn of modern capitalism, Henry Miller — passionate, idealistic, and broke — sang the thrush song of warning: “The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough.” A century hence, the dilemma has swelled to a carbon cloud of doom — and yet money keeps washing through this pale blue dot no longer capable of regarding itself as a world without its circulating medium.

How did we get here?

It turns out we came on the back of a small marine gastropod mollusk, in the lap of a fierce Maldivian queen.

Money cowries

Known as the money cowry, Monetaria moneta is the world’s least impressive cowry — so plain it was entirely omitted from the most lavish illustrated encyclopedia of seashells — and its first global currency. Its remarkable story, laced with all the imaginative strengths and moral follies that make us human, comes alive in The Sound of the Sea (public library) — Cynthia Barnett’s wondrous evolutionary-cultural history of seashells. She writes:

In the fourteenth century, a queen known as Rehendi Khadijah ruled the islands of the Maldives with epic command. One of the earliest women leaders of an Islamic nation, she derived power from both the sultanate and Islam, even as she declined to cover her head — not to mention other parts. She led the kingdom for a third of the century despite two attempts, both by husbands, to depose her. Neither man survived the effort.

All the more remarkable was the Maldivian queen’s role in the dawn of international trade. The chain of atolls, coral reefs, and lowlying islands 600 miles off the tip of India was the center of production for the first global money.

[…]

The Maldivian tender packed up perfectly and made for excellent ship ballast. It was neither paper nor metal, though it jingled in the pocket and shined up bright as a fresh-minted coin. The first global specie was a species.

Ships arrived from all over the world, riding the southwestern summer monsoons, and filled their hulls with the Sultana’s currency, the production of which she oversaw herself. The tenth-century Arab historian and geographer al-Mas‘udi described the process, at once inventive and cruel:

[The Sultana] orders her islanders to cut coco-branches with their leaves, and to throw them upon the surface of the water. To these the creatures attach themselves, and are then collected and spread upon the sandy beach, where the sun rots them, and leaves only the empty shells, which are then carried to the Treasury.

16th-century Portuguese painting of Maldivian workers.

Cowry-filled ships then sailed back to their respective corners of the globe on the eastern winter monsoons. But more than perfect ballast, the Maldivian cowries made for perfect currency:

The Money Cowrie — named by Linnaeus Cypraea moneta, now classified as Monetaria moneta — makes a glistening shell in the shape of a small shield, with the cowries’ characteristic domed top and flat underside cleaved by a serrated slit. Vaguely toothy, the little ivories range in color from off-white to yellowish. They are enameled, pearly, solid, satisfyingly weighty. Irresistible to pick up and worry, or clack together like dice or coins. The small, durable shells made for ideal currency: Easy to transport and to recognize. Impossible to forge. Perfect for counting — one by one, or by bag or ballast-full. Uniform in shape and size, they yielded a precise value when weighed.

The notion of imbuing a strange ocean shell with value had begun much earlier, with the twin forces of human vanity: superstition and personal aesthetics. As early as the Stone Age, cowries were used as jewelry, amulets, and healing objects. Strings of them — both real shells and gold-cast replicas — were found in Egyptian tombs, believed to bring fertility, protect against the Evil Eye, and bring good fortune in the afterlife.

So accustomed to seeing immaterial worth in these material objects, these vacant homes of tiny lives, people then readily harnessed their practical conveniences — small, light, portable, easy to see, hard to fake — for the perfect fusion of myth and merchandize. (Money, it bears remembering, has always been and will always remain a consensual reality — a handshake of beliefs with no inherent value and no direct equivalence to objects in the material world.)

Before the Romans and their first coins had even arrived onto the scene, Maldivian cowries had reached Europe and China. Cowries were found amid the rubble of Pompeii. By the fourth century, they were a primary coin in India, traveling from there on to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, then to Thailand and Myanmar, and into Southeast Asia, where in some remote regions they remained the primary currency for a thousand years. Soon Arab traders were packing and hauling them across the Sahara dessert. They remained a currency in parts of Africa into the twentieth century.

Late 16th-century Dutch map of the Maldives. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In the first millennium, the cowries drew a Buddhist high culture to the Maldives themselves — that ravishing coral rosary of 1,200 islands, curving northward from the equator for 600 miles, named after the Sanskrit for “garland of islands,” maladvipa, and with an etymological nod to the ancient queens in the word mahiladvipa: “island of women.” Shining cowries are strewn throughout the Buddhist ruins across the islands to this day.

But like every technology of thought, money too began as a salve to human life — something to add ease, convenience and, in consequence, contentment — and then, under the deformist pressures of scale, mutated into a tool of exploitation and manipulation.

By the nineteenth century, money cowries had grown so popular in West Africa that they were used to purchase a third of the human being enslaved and abducted to the Americas.

1917 map of the global distribution of cowries as currency.

Barnett considers the paradoxical legacy of M. moneta both in its global impact and in its local origin:

Long before Queen Khadijah’s reign and long after, gleaming shell money from her part of the world turned up in striking human spaces—from fourth-century graves north of the Arctic Circle to the slave-house subfloor at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The Maldives controlled shell money for centuries. Yet today, the islands’ ancient cowrie history remains buried deep in coral rock and sand. That’s owing to its idolatrous beginnings, frowned upon in the Muslim-governed nation where nothing “contrary to the tenets of Islam” is allowed.

Buried with the cowries, too, is the memory of a tenacious queen.

But for all of their conflicted inheritance in human affairs, the true majesty of these humble creatures dwells in their own reality, unsullied by human intent or interpretation. Barnett captures the subtle splendor of these creatures who live and die with no notion of their shells’ fate in human hands:

Once amassed in bags of money, for shell-lovers, cowries are the sea’s coveted bag of marbles. High-polished globes of spun gold, a fawn’s coat, gaseous rings, creamy maps, copper fishnet, cuts of amethyst, oiled mahogany, sundry dots and stripes — colors and markings on just a few of the 250 species known living today — no two look exactly alike. They are rounded on top and flat underneath where the aperture cuts jaggedly across. Depending on the species, the slit at the bottom can be gaping or exceedingly narrow. The teeth might form a harmless, stubby grin like the Money Cowrie, or a fierce-combed trap that looks like it could take a bite of you; the White-toothed Cowrie has such a maw.

[…]

Spreading its glossy matrix over its shell rather than at the opening, the cowrie creates a hump over its spire, each new layer a thicker glaze that hides the last in rich hues that range from creamy to golden to dark chocolate. The animals also evolved striking mantle colors, wildly different from their shells. The soft flesh can be deep purple or pitch black. Some of the animals are camouflaged with the same bright red or orange as the sponges they colonize. Others are colored like a sea cucumber distasteful to fishes. In some species, the mantle flaps are smooth. More often, they are covered with wiggling fingers called papillae that vary in shape and pattern among species. Some wag like separate tentacles. Some grow in tufts.

The mantle patterns of M. moneta resemble black-inked fingerprints reaching up their small white humps. Surely no other shell has been as touched by human hands.

Couple this fragment of the wholly fantastic The Sound of the Sea with the story of how the bit — that other vital unit of the modern world — was born, then revisit the poetic Victorian marine biologist and naturalist Philip Henry Gosse on the wonder of the sea’s most overlooked creatures.