When two cowrie shells could buy a woman

Saturday February 14 2009
mago sub 3 pix

Cowries shells. A cow was equivalent to 2,500 cowrie shells. Photo/LABAN WALLOGA

In a paper titled, The Evolution of Currency in Uganda, Charles Enyondo, Bank of Uganda senior archivist, notes that, “From earlier date, before coming into contact with the outside world, a currency (sanga and nsinda) existed in Uganda in addition to the barter trade.

The standard of the currency was set by the value of a cow.

Ivory and slaves were indeed of more value than cows, but they were reckoned as worth a certain number of cows each.”

In his book, The Baganda, first published in 1911, John Roscoe wrote: “Before the introduction of cowrie shells, a blue bead, nsinda, was used; this was very rough and badly made, but it was considered to be of great value; one bead was equal in value to one hundred cowrie shells.

“Still earlier, before the introduction of the bead, a small ivory disc was used, known as singa; one of these discs was valued at one hundred cowrie shells.”

The central coins, cowrie shells, blue beads (nsinda), and the small ivory discs (sanga) used as currency in Uganda, had holes in the centre.


It was in the early 19th century, during the reign of Semakokiro (1797-1814), Kabaka of Buganda, that trade goods like dark blue cotton cloth, copper wire and cowrie shells reached the hinterland of Buganda from the East African coast.

The cowrie shell is the shell of a small marine mullusc, Cypraea Moneta, common on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

At its introduction, according to Roscoe, “Two cowrie shells would purchase a woman.” He gives the value of currency during the reign of King Suna Kalema (1832-57) … “A cow was equivalent to 2,500 cowrie shells. Five goats were exchanged for a cow…”

Enyondo writes in a paper published in the Bank of Uganda: 40 Years of Service (1966-2006) newsletter, “With this kind of uncertain coinage, money supply could not be determined or controlled because cowrie shells were gathered from the shores without much effort and by anybody who cared to take the time to do it. The core central bank function of issuing this legal tender currency was left in the hands of nature.”

Furthermore, the “natives” were allowed to pay government taxes in cowrie shells, but as Harold B. Thomas and Robert Scott write in Uganda, “After 31st March, 1901, the government refused to accept cowries (then reckoned at 800 to the rupee) in payment of taxes, and on 8th of July, 1901, upon its becoming known that canoe loads were converging on Uganda from German East Africa (present Tanzania mainland), all further importations were prohibited, and the government’s own stocks of shells, to the value of 7,692 British pounds, were eventually burnt for lime.

“Nevertheless, the popularity of the cowrie as a medium of inter-native exchange for petty produce waned slowly and had not fully expired by 1909.”

In 1902, after “demonetising” the cowrie, and after government stocks had been disposed of, it was estimated that shells to the value of 20,000 British pounds were still in circulation.
At the rate of conversion of 1,000 cowries for a rupee, this figure represents some 300,000 shells. One hundred British pounds was exchanged for 1,500 rupees.

“The rupee was introduced but its effect was not felt and it remained unknown. Furthermore, old habits die hard. The cowrie, which had been around for longer, was favoured by the natives,” Enyondo adds.

On September 3, 1888 the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) was granted a Royal Charter of Incorporation by Queen Victoria to take control of East Africa; this mandate was later extended to Uganda.

Until the advent of the IBEAC Uganda had no official currency, but the Indian rupee had reached the country from Kenya and was in use, together with other forms of money including the cowrie.

One of the early steps the company took was to introduce its own silver rupee, with its subdivisions, equivalent in value to the Indian rupee.

The company currency consisted of a rupee, half-rupee, quarter-rupee and two-anna pice in silver and a copper pice or farthing.

It is from the pice that pesa, the Swahili word for money, was coined.

The copper pice was the smallest coin the company minted; 64 pice was equal to 16 annas (pence), which were equal to a rupee.

On the African coast, as many as six varieties of pice were in circulation. At the time, a rupee was equivalent to one British shilling and four pence.

The Indian rupee became the dominant medium of exchange because of the strong commercial influence of Indians in Zanzibar, the hub of East African trade in the 19th century.

The rupee, however, could not support trade in the interior, so cowrie shells were dominant.

In Tanganyika, another currency, “heller,” was also in circulation.

“Although the East Africa (currency) Order in Council, May 19, 1898, established the silver rupee of British India as the standard coin of the East Africa Protectorate (now Kenya), no similar order was extended to Uganda, which remained without currency regulations until 1906.

In the last years of the 19th century the media of exchange, even in the more central districts of Uganda, were still, for the most part, cloth, cowrie shells, beads, iron and brass wire, while in the outlying districts, trade was carried on entirely by barter,” Thomas and Scott wrote.

On declaring Uganda a protectorate, the British government initiated a currency reform which eliminated the IBEAC copper pice.

This reform was effected by the East Africa and Uganda (Currency) Order-in-Council of 1905, by which the rupee comprised 100 cents.

The order also authorised the establishment of a currency board to issue the protectorate currency.

Coins in denominations of one cent, five cents and 10 cents were introduced in 1907.

Soon after World War One, the silver rupee began to gain value over the British pound for reasons unrelated to activities in East Africa.

In a desperate bid to arrest the decline of the sovereign, an Order-in-Council operative from July 21, 1920 was passed.

The order sought to achieve stability by means of a florin currency — one rupee equalled one East African florin, and 10 florins equalled one pound sterling.

The florin ceased to be legal tender after December 31, 1931 and the shilling has ever since been Uganda’s official currency.

Coinage in circulation at the time consisted of a one-shilling piece, a 50 cent piece, 10, 5, one and half cent coins.

The development of African money began with a system of weighted metal in ancient Egypt.

Coins were in circulation by the fifth century BC and their changing designs reflect the coming of Christianity and later the spread of Islam.

Africa’s power and influence before the arrival of European colonisers and slave traders is demonstrated by the wealth of Mali, Great Zimbabwe and the Swahili Coast.

In the 20th century, independence and the end of apartheid have brought a new range of symbols to banknotes and coins.