Cowrie Shells and Trade Power

Cowrie shells were traded for goods and services throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania, and used as money as early as the 14th century on Africa’s western coast. Because the shells were small, portable, and durable, they served as excellent currency and were almost impossible to counterfeit, appearing in standard weights. King Gezo of Dahomey, now modern Benin, said he preferred cowries to gold for this reason, he would always receive a fair price.

A string of cowrie shells.
Gift of the Family of William & Mattye Reed.

However, cowrie shells were more than money. They also represented power in trade. Europeans in the 16th century were able to use cowries to enter the valuable African trade markets, where they used shells to buy goods, including people. In America, cowries appear in spirit bundles, as parts of jewelry, and on clothing, hinting at their use as amulets. Knowing that Africans used cowries as charms for protection, historians speculate the cowries may have been brought to America as talismans to resist enslavement.