Rila Mukherjee | University of Hyderabad, Gachibowli (Inde), School of Social Science – The Pervasiveness of a “Poors’ Money” in Bengal: 13th to 20th century

A first question came from the surprise that coinless societies are still carrying exchanges: in that sense they are not cashless. Second problem: some societies may have access to gold and silver but still prefer use other means of exchange such as cowries. What is the utility of these small medium of exchanges, which explain their use until the 19th c. as a circulating medium, and even in the 20th, still living in popular recognition.

Yesterday papers were from the 16th to the 19th c. Today, we will look at a very long time frame. It is not really money by the poor or money for the poor. Cowries were not intended as a money for the poor, but in time, they became the money for the poor.

Cowries circulated in four qualities (moneta and annulus being the main categories) and in a very wide space. A little bit about the networks of cowries, but we will here concentrate on Bengal.

In India they were not used at all if they were not in perfect shape. See also the new chronology born out from Chengdu discoveries, changing Han chronology, with very old bronze and gold cowries. Not in India. In India, in Bengal and next regions, only original cowries were used. But it is not limited to coastal areas: some are found in Northern India. They are related to a highly agricultural economy, from the 8th century on. Temples were also repositories of cowries: they were not just a circulating media but also religious or accumulated wealth.

All testimonies up to the 15th c. say that there was a lot of gold and silver (Harikela silver) but that people still used cowries. With the Islamic conquest of the East, wars, soldiers had to be paid. And cowries were not enough anymore, while huge commercial networks developed from the 11th c.

In the Western Indian Ocean, from the Indian side, we do not find continual cowry usage, especially after the 13th c. In Bengal, use and hoards of cowries are found until the 19th c. It seems that Bengal was less commercially integrated: cowries supported local trade and maybe regional as well. Bengal was indeed mainly a rural economy. Temples paid tribute and displayed images of means of value and merchant vessels and practices, thus Guns and muskets appeared early in temple imagery.

Is there a link between slave trade and shell money? It has been studied in Africa, but Bengal was also a slave economy: Bengal was depopulated by slavery. But at the same time, cowries and a variety of shell monies circulated here. Is there a relation?

Gold never lost its lustre, nor did cowries. We have archival references where rice and prices were exchanged and settled in cowries.

When British India started monetary reforms in the 19th c., rupees were exchanged, but cowries remained. What was then the significance of the use of cowries? Why despite having coins, Bengalese continued to use cowries? Silver is linked to strong intermediary exchange agents. And the lower class – the subsistence class – used cowries in their everyday life, leaving a linguistic trace up to today.


Marie Stella – Was that comparable to bimetallism?

A.: In India, the monetary system was mainly trimetallic. But there was no copper in Bengal, and cowries fulfilled that function.

Catherine Bregianni – Did shell money played the same role as the billon – link with the rural economy? Copper coins were in use because of the rural predominance of the economy.

A.: The main issue is rural. But that is a static picture of a very long period of time. Let’s go back to Lucassen’s regional variations: in Bengal there would be regional variations too, with the very strong presence of maritime trade from the 13th c. So are there relationships between villages producing staples and textiles and maritime exchange harbours?

Georgina Gomez – Were there prices that would translate amounts in cowries and silver?

A.: Yes but the evidence is fragmented. There are 100 years gaps on this. We also have transport prices with the cost of small crossings that had to be paid in cowries.

Catherine Baroin – What about the decoration aspect of cowries?

A.: No decoration, but in temples, holes existed were treasures were hold – interestingly, the medium was stored in the temple. But these temples were also used as nexus to exchange. And these temples served as marks on the shores for navigation. Maybe were they also storehouses. So a possible merchant economy could be linked to that.

Jan Lucassen – Sometimes we have production figures for coins. Can we derive from trade with Maldives an idea of the volume of cowry production? Slave raiding in Bengal – is there a link with cowries?

A.: No, there are not enough records to make time series. Why is Bengal going to Maldives? Maldives is a rice deficient economy and Bengal supplies rice there against cowries. Yet, the Malabar coast of India (Kerala) – adjacent to the Maldivses – does not use cowries as currency. So this relatively small value currency is transported over a huge maritime distance from the Maldives to Bengal. A glance at the map of India will bear this out. Pietro de Lavalle in the 17th c. was shipwrecked in the Maldives, where he witnessed Islamic ships from Bengal coming to raid the Maldives. At this time Maldives was shifting towards a silver coinage – the lari. Silver was the currency of the Indian ocean; but not of Bengal. Was this Bengali invasion an attempt to retain the Maldivian cowry system?

It is very speculative, but there was a link between cowries and the slave trade in Western Africa. Is there a possible link in Bengal also, where slave raids were organized by Portuguese and Arakanese?

There is no representation of cowries in wealth and temples. And when Ganesh or other gods depicting wealth are decorated, they do not use cowries. However, cowries played a part in death rituals in Bengal, when dead bodies were cremated a few cowries were put in the shroud, this was called “cowries of the last passage” (parani in Bengal—depicting a riverine passage) or journey.

The French archives on Bengal (Alfred Martineau, Correspondance du Conseil Supérieur de Pondichéry et de la Compagnie etc.) reference land bought by French Individuals and also the company in 18th c. Chandernagor using “ganda”—(that is an unit of 4 cowries). Was this just a unit of measurement or actual exchange value? This is not clear.

Jérôme Jambu – In my opinion, the role of cowries in the slave trade has been exaggerated. We have indeed a problem of sources about the French slave trade: never, in the records, do French ships bring cowries to Africa in order to buy slaves – and this is an important part of the slave trade; being the second most important slave traders in the Atlantic world, French do not use cowries. Do people exchanged cowries for something else? Did they not circulate locally instead of being used in the slave trade?

Sophie Laligant – On this issue, see Josette Rivallain.

A.: There was slavery on the African West coast but not on the East. The Swahili kingdom was much more developed. Textiles were used to buy slaves. In Bengal slave traders were not buying slaves, but raiding them. Then, there was the horse trade – you could not buy horses with cowries, but cowries were exchanged for silver to buy horses.

Jan Lucassen – Slaves were bought with clothes, but traders also exported cowries and beads for local circulation.

Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
rganization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021

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