University of Cambridge > > African Economic History Seminar > ‘A Global Moment: The Circulation of East African Cowries across Land and Oceans (18th-19th Century)’

‘A Global Moment: The Circulation of East African Cowries across Land and Oceans (18th-19th Century)’

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Gareth Austin.

This is a joint meeting with the History and Economics Seminar

In 1845, the Hamburg-based firm, A.J. Hertz, purchased a small load of cowrie shells (M. annulus) in Zanzibar, shipped it to West Africa and sold it at Whydah, in the Kingdom of Dahomey. It is well-known that this apparently trivial operation had enormous consequences on the economies and currency systems of West Africa. In a few decades, 16 billion shells were introduced into the region causing inflation that gradually rendered cowrie shells ‘useless as currency’ (Hogendorn and Johnson . The so-called ‘great cowrie inflation’ has become an iconic moment in the historiography of West Africa. The conditions and contingencies under which West African traders ‘decided’ (Cooper 2001, 205) to accept East African shells and the resulting shifts in the production, circulation and consumption of cowries beyond West Africa have remained largely unexplored, however. This paper begins from this gaping hole in the literature and proposes to consider the import of East African cowries in West Africa as a ‘global moment’ (Conrad 2016, 155-6). The exploration of the synchronic and diachronic context of this ‘global moment’ can be an eye-opener revealing the connections among events and processes which were happening simultaneously in different locations, but whose interconnectedness is obscured by limiting the analysis to only one region. Through a multi-sited space of analysis – formed by Zanzibar, the Buganda kingdom, the palm oil-producing area in West Africa, the Maldives, and the slave plantations in Virginia – this paper follows East African cowries across land and oceans to show how the choices, initiatives and actions of African consumers and producers drove global processes of production, trade and exchange.

This talk is part of the African Economic History Seminar series.

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