By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai
From around 943 AD till about 1830, there was a flourishing trade between the Maldives and Bengal with the cowrie as the currency.
At that time, the term “Bengal” meant present day West Bengal, Bangladesh and Odisha put together.
It was the Persian traveler, Sulayman al Tajir (9 th.Century), followed by Arab traveller Al Mas’udi (943 A.D.) and Alberuni (1020 A.D.) who had made the earliest reference to trading with the cowrie as currency in the Maldives.
Alberuni noted that the islands off “India’s west coast can be distinguished by their chief products, the Diva Kudha- islands of cowries, and the Diva Kanbar- islands of coir, between the Maldives and Laccadives.”
In 1240 AD, Tabakat-t-Nasiri and Ibn Beithar (died 1248) also noticed cowrie trade between the Maldives and Bengal and Odisha in Eastern India. Ibn Battuta was in the Maldives around 1343 and during his 18 months’ stay there he witnessed cowrie trade at close quarters.
The cowrie was shipped mainly to Bengal. But some found their way via the Red Sea and across the Sahara to West Africa’s Savannah. It was currency within Maldives itself.
By the time the Portuguese arrived in the 17 th. Century, cowrie trade had become a significant part of the Maldivian economy. But on the Malabar Coast and in Ceylon, cowrie trade was very limited. Ceylon witnessed cowrie trade only during Dutch rule towards the end of the 17 th Century and in the 18 th. Century.
British Civil Servant, H.C.P. Bell (who was posted in Ceylon), spoke about a Dutch monopoly of cowrie trade between Ceylon and the Maldives. In his “Maldive Islands”, p 98 and 229) H.C.P.Bell writes: “In 1640, a vessel was sent from Ceylon to Maldives with rice to explore cowrie trading possibilities and trading began soon after.”
According to Bell, Maldivian vessels would sail “late in August or early in September, annually, having the South-West monsoon in their favour, and return in December and January with the North-East monsoon.” Port dues and charges at Male were collected by “royal officials, payable in rice in the seventeenth century and in cowries in the nineteenth”.
In 1885, C.W. Rosset in his article On the Maldive Islands, (p.102) added that there “was a 12% tax on imports only, paid in rice, cloth, and cowries.”
Rice was the most important item for barter.Ibn Battuta in the 14th century,Gasper Correa in 16th century, Pyrard in the early 17th century, and C. W. Rosset and H.C.P Bell in the 19th century all noted the import of rice by the Maldives from Bengal .
Ibn Battutah had observed that the “islands were incapable of producing sufficient starchy staples for subsistence, while Bengal commonly produced a substantial surplus for export.”
For nearly two centuries around this time, Balasore (in present day Odisha) was the main port for trade with the Maldives. Many passages in S. Bhattacharya’s work on Bengal’s economic history refer to Balasore as the port where cowries were purchased. Thw writings of Bowrey in the 1670s had also stated that “The Nabobs and Some Merchants” in Balasore had six or seven vessels regularly bringing cowries and coir from the Maldives.
Data about departures from Balasore in 1680-1681 to 1706-1707 and arrivals in 1670-71 to 1704-5 showed the significance of this trade route.
Hamilton had noted that the town of “Ballasore drives a pretty good trade to the Islands of Maldiva.”
“Those Islands … have no rice or other Grain of their own Product, so that Ballasore supplies them with what Necessaries they want, and, in Return brings Cowries and Cayar for the Service of Shipping.”
The East India Company also used cowries as currency especially in slave trade in West Africa. By 1700, the British were lobbying Bengali merchants to increase their shipping to the Maldives so that cowries could be secured.
British interest in cowries died gradually in the 1830s with the abolition of slavery in Britain. But trade between the Maldives and Bengal continued as before – rice for cowries.
The flourishing cowrie-based trade declined gradually from the beginning of the 18 th. Century when Balasore’s commercial significance started to wane. The decline of slave trade and also the introduction of copper currency further sealed the fate of the cowrie.
Jan Hogendorn referred to copper coin introduction in The Shell Money of the Slave Trade (p.-64-65). Copper coins were introduced in Odisha in 1807, and by 1781-82 in Bengal.
Warren Hastings (Governor-General of India from 1773 to 1785) had ordered the minting of copper ‘pice’ to save a friend, Johannes Matthias Ross of the English East India Company, who on his own account had become heavily overstocked with copper.
Though the ‘pice’ had little success at first, it gathered momentum after the Boulton works at Soho in Birmingham started turning out coins. Holden Furber says that the cowrie was “ in retreat and the millions of cowries slowly gave way to the millions of copper pice cut out by the machines of Messrs, Boulton and Watt.”
But the market for Maldivian cowrie shells in West Africa did seem to recover temporarily in the 1830s with the growth of palm oil trade. In 1844, cowrie shells were still coming from the Maldives to Ceylon and Bengal through Chittagong and Calcutta which had replaced Balasore as the main ports in the Bay of Bengal. By World War I cowrie trade between the Maldives and Bengal had vanished.
(The featured image at the top shows cowrie shells which were an early form of currency in international trade)