The Cowrie: Looking Into The Eye Of Africa’s Cultural Past And Present Heritage

Cowrie: Trading has its humble beginnings from the days of a trade by a batter which prompted the story of the cowrie shells, West Africa’s first official/unofficial currency.

The preservation of the value of the cowrie has since been in the memory of many generations and money museums

as a currency and fragment of the past, representing the journey of West Africa’s trade system.

There are roughly about 200 species of cowries in countries across the world. The tiger cowrie stands as the fairest

of them all, being of the mollusk in the family of Cypraeidae. They are originally small sea snails and quite

many in the Indian Ocean.

Cowrie Heritage

Furthermore, in the decades it flourished, the cowrie had a dual function for West Africans. It served as both a legal tender and also assumed the position of spiritual/divine element for the people.

The cowrie further has a robust symbolic attribute because of its shape, which is aesthetic in nature in bearing

semblance to a pregnant woman’s belly; thus, the symbol of fertility. As a result of its deep symbolism,

the wearing of cowries is by the chief priest of Fiji as a symbol of status and rank, while the Ifa priest and priestess

make great use of it in making foretelling.

Again, the gash well is metaphorically believe to ward off evil eyes, since the underside appears like a black pupil against a pearly white surface.

Perhaps, these lingering mythologies/mystical perceptions of the cowrie have fuelled the life it still carries in

our modern world despite its diminished value centuries ago in the world of finance.

Hence the present functionality of the cowrie relies merely on its supernatural properties, having no financial role in economics.

It has since evolved in this age of advancement into virtual money like bitcoins and ethereum, having some

financial experts call it the cowrie integrated system.

This succinctly depicts the evolution of currencies and how this legal tender operates together with virtual money


The Cowrie: Looking Into The Eye Of Africa’s Cultural Past And Present Heritage

More on the Cowrie Heritage

For a while, the cowrie existed with various currencies across West Africa. So, in the 18th century, it usage was extensive in West Africa along trade routes; including the Indians, South East Asia, and the Middle East.

Even the Chinese shaped the form of the cowrie into their pictograph for money.

Apparently, the importance of Cypraea moneta (money cowry) was greater than other geographical areas of origins,

therefore, the grip of West Africans on the cowrie was so strong that in 1907, the French prohibited its usage,

marking the beginning of the end of the cowrie.

The French prohibited its usage in an attempt to demonetize the cowrie in order to avert trade from

the British gold coast to their colony.

However, as a result of the sentimentality of Western Africa to the cowrie, there was a strong resistance that elders

rebuffed the declaration, instead of safeguarding the cultural values of cowrie to be used at traditional ceremonies.

The idea that they were being stripped of their freedom made the conflict linger, hence their sovereignty

had to be defended.


Asides from being a physical entity for financial gains and the ability to acquire diverse commodities,

the worth of the cowrie carried the freedom of the people.

This can be parallel to many secessionist outcries as they come up with their own currency as a representation

of their freedom. An instance is the proposed Fadaka by a sect.

Undisputed, it is an element of spiritual connection to the soul and identity of the people. Thus, the elemental

appeal being symbolic of the traditional beliefs of the people and is seen in the usage of the cowrie

at traditional celebrations by fortune-tellers and diviners.

Tracking the pictorial illustration of Nigerian banknotes and coins, it appears that there was no point in time that they were using cowrie to reminisce the past.

Rather, the money was carrying pictures of landscapes, vegetation, and faces of past nationalists. But the only note thus far that culturally represents the cowrie is surprisingly the recommended Fadaka.

The cowrie, a symbol of the past and culture, has since become represented by some financial institutions with elaborate decorations of the cowrie in their buildings to commemorate what used to be signifying trade and culture. Also, holding on to the past, the printing of cowrie is on currencies of some countries.

Furthermore on Cowrie Heritage

The currency is not just mere paper, but historical documentation of the struggles of a people, therefore the usage of currencies is to tell pertinent stories and beginnings of a nation.

Though cowrie is extinct in one viewpoint, it features in other ways today, being used as a medium of cultural expression to gorgeously adorn the hairstyles of both men and women.

It also thrives in the present era because of its gaining ground in the fashion scene where it is used by some as an activist expression. It is used as a necklace, jewelry, and clothing.

Remember Beyonce’s clothing in her music video “spirit”- that’s an example as a way of libation calling on the African ancestors.

Hence, it has become a favorite artifact, its usage by craftsmen as an ornamental piece for tourists whose attentions are on these rare antiques, not forgetting the ATR believers who use them also for ritual offerings amongst other things.

The beauty of this precious currency formed by nature is one of its core attributes. The cowrie was initially by all the sources of Mother Nature to represent currency before the modern currency spread.

Therefore, through the cowrie, nature’s gift to earth and free of manmade qualities could speak of the divine connection with the human race.

Whether seen from the perspective of its spiritual symbolism or its past connections with economic trading,

it is an artifact that represents the historical journey of West African culture.

Its dual nature enables its usage by persons as average as culture activists,

and as powerful as the Ifa priests.

Its survival from its past usage as a currency, to a symbol of Africa’s rich cultural heritage, speaks of both

its dynamism and potency.

By Taiyelolu A

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