Cowries and the Slave Trade in Bengal

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    Who would have thought that a common sea snail would one day be worth its weight in human lives? Found in abundance in shallow tide pools in the Indo-Pacific region, the ‘Cypraea’ type of sea snail, or the ‘cowrie’, was the engine that drove the slave trade in Bengal.

    And it wasn’t just slaves whose worth was measured by the cowrie. Perhaps the following line, hurled repeatedly by villains at the hero in Hindi movies, will strike a chord: “Tum do kaudi ke aadmi ki aukaat hi kya hai jo hum se sawaal poonchha?” (“When you are worth but two kaudis, what right do you have to question my authority?”)

    Cowries or Kaudi are hardy, portable, largely uniform and difficult to counterfeit, and were used as currency in East Africa and many countries in South Asia including India since ancient times. This was a time before money as we know it, particularly metal coins, was invented. ‘Cypraeamoneta’ or ‘money cowries’ continued to be used as a medium of exchange even after coin currency began to evolve, and formed a parallel monetary system. In fact, if you were a trader in India, particularly in then Bengal Presidency and Malabar coastal areas as recently as the mid-19th century, you could have bought quite a variety of goods with this shiny shell money.

    In the ancient world, cowries were also widely used as jewellery and other types of personal ornamentation in India, Africa, the Middle East, South and South-East Asia and Oceania. Despite their simplicity, they have always had a special place in many cultures, and even in mythology.

    Kaudi, in Sanskrit, is kapardak. Some historians believe that kapardak also referred to Lord Shiva’s matted hair. It was so called as his rope-like tresses looked like elongated rows of kaudi shells strung together by a thread. This is probably why Shiva is also known as ‘Kapardee’ and Parvati ‘Kapardine’.

    Amazingly, the names of male children in some communities in Eastern and Central India relate to the kaudi. So, for instance, names such as Tinkari, Chhakari and Nawkari literally mean three kaudi, six kaudi and nine kaudi. This naming tradition is derived from a religious ritual performed by Hindus who promised a specific number of kaudis as a mark of obeisance to a deity while requesting for a male child, an heir. The kaudi is still regarded as a symbol of prosperity – the symbol of Goddess Lakshmi, or the Goddess of Wealth. On the occasion of Lakshmi Puja in West Bengal, a basket is worshipped which is full of clams. This basket also contains garland, thread, comb, mirror, vermilion, iron ring and is called Lokkhir Jhapi or 'Lakshmi's Basket'.

    There are many Indian customs woven around the kaudi, like some bridal traditions in West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh, where a kaudi is tied to the kankan (bangle) of the bride as symbol prosperity and fertility in marriage. In Odisha, the bride's parents present her a basket called Jagathi Peti, which contains everyday items including a kaudi, as a symbol of wealth. This custom is also observed in some parts of Andhra Pradesh, where the basket is called Kavida Pette.

    It was the Persian traveller, Sulayman al Tajir, followed by the Arab Al Mas’udi (943) and later on by Al Biruni, the Persian polymath of the 11th century (1020) who had made the earliest of references to cowrie as currency in India. Al Biruni had also noted that India’s coastal areas are engaged in cowrie trade. In CE1240 Tabakat-t-Nasiri also noticed cowrie trade between the Maldives and Bengal and Odisha in Eastern India. Later, Ibn Battuta was in the Maldives around 1343 and during his 18 months’ stay there he witnessed cowrie trade at close quarters.

    The east coast of India has always been dotted with trading ports and the kaudi was the main currency in what is now the eastern state of Odisha, until 1805, when it was abolished by the British East India Company. This was one of the causes of the Paika Rebellion in Odisha in 1817 when among the many administrative changes they introduced, the British abolished kaudi currency and insisted that taxes be paid in silver.

    Kaudis were used as a currency not only in Odisha but also in Bengal. From 943 CE till 1833, for nearly 900 years, Bengal traded with the Maldives mainly to procure cowrie money. The Maldives had the largest breeding grounds of Cypraea in the region, and traders from India used to exchange rice, spices and silk for this marine mollusc.

    There was an enormous boom in demand for cowries in the 16th century, when Europeans used this shell currency in the slave trade. European merchants – mainly Portuguese, Dutch, French and English – needed cowries from the Maldives to buy slaves from African brokers and body shoppers. Spotting a lucrative opportunity, traders in Bengal began to procure cowries for them. As a result, Calcutta became an important slave trading port.

    In 1823, the Calcutta Journal called attention to the slave trade and its Editor wrote, ‘ This great capital is at once the depot of the commerce and riches of the East, and the mart in which the manacled African is sold, like the beast of the field to the highest bidder,’.

    As per Numista – an online world coin catalogue, in 1821 CE, 2560 Kaudis was equivalent to 1 Rupee. The Maldive cowrie industry is a fascinating page of economic history, furnishing as it did the major currency of West Africa and also Bengal. The importation of Kaudi to early 19th century Bengal Presidency was valued over 30,000 rupees each year. Important question: what was the system of valuation of this commodity? The law of supply and demand, one of the basic laws of economics, played a dominant role. In areas far away from Bengal in upcountry India, a few cowries would buy a cow whereas, in the Maldives, the heart of the production centre itself, a few hundred thousand equalled a gold dinar. Slavers paid around 25,000 shells for buying an African.

    Chitpore Road in Kolkata and Budge-Budge in 24 Parganas had ‘slave markets’ till the early 19th century. Slaves were actively bought and sold throughout Chitpore, mostly on the riverfront. Portuguese slave ships also moored at Budge-Budge, just south of Kolkata. From here, the slaves were taken to the city by road or on small riverboats. Then, they moved up-country, to Delhi and beyond.

    The slaves brought to Kolkata were generally acquired through piracy. The Bay of Bengal was once a hotbed for pirates from a wide range of nationalities. The most notorious of them were the groups led by the Mog (Burmese), the Portuguese, and the Dutch, who plundered ships in the commercial highway that the Bay of Bengal then was and sold the survivors into slavery. Apart from the pirate ships, Dutch, English, and French commercial vessels often went rogue and plundered the coastal countryside, imprisoning men, and women. These captive slaves, both men and women, were thereafter sold off in various ports, ending up as domestic servants, cooks, barbers, coach drivers, entertainers, and some girls were even put into prostitution. The geographical location of Kolkata as a port city at the Bay of Bengal - made it as profitable as New Orleans, London, and Bristol in the slave trade. Reference to slave markets in Kolkata are abundantly available in the Persian and Arabian travellers’ travelogues, East India Company records as well as in old slave trade-related English newspaper advertisements which were printed and circulated throughout the then Kolkata city in the 1780s and 1790s.

    There was a great demand for African slaves – known as Kafri, particularly Abyssinians, known as Habshi – in royal and aristocratic households throughout Asia, including India and the Middle East. These slaves worked as soldiers in the army as well as guards in the royal harem and zenana, the royal and aristocratic quarters for women.

    Apart from Kolkata, the other ports of the then Bengal involved in slave trading were Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) and Balasore (now in Odisha).

    There were primarily two kinds of slaves in Bengal—agrestic slaves who worked in the land and domestic slaves. Women slaves were expected, and often coerced, to perform productive and reproductive labour for their masters. Slaves were a signifier of the malik's social status as well, as the number of slaves in employ indicated wealth and prosperity for the owner. Both Hindus and Muslims held slaves. Hindus called their slaves Das or Kritadas whereas Muslims called them Ghulam or Nafar. Moreover, slaves were mentioned in the wills and inventories of the then rich and influential Anglo-Indians which demonstrates that slaveholding was ubiquitous.

    All these procurements took place largely through the cowrie. The kaudi suffered a crippling blow in Bengal when the British Parliament abolished slavery in its home country and in all British colonies in 1834. Also, metal coins started replacing cowrie shells as currency in Bengal by 1830, rendering ‘Cypraeamoneta’ redundant. However, the East India Company who had legitimised and took part in the slave trade were opposed to this move. For example, take Governor-General Lord Auckland's argument against the legislation banning slavery, he says that slavery provides ‘mutual advantages’ to both the slaves and the masters. And, in a sense, the abolition of slavery would take many decades in Bengal, even after the enactment of the Act to end the practice of slavery. However, it laid the foundation for eventual abolition. Making imports and exports of slaves illegal was the first crucial step and eventual cleansing of this societal evil.

    As the tide turned, the cowrie came full circle – from an ordinary sea snail to becoming the anvil of human lives, to being dropped back into the tidal shallows, where it remains unmoved by the swirling chaos of the modern world.


    Devasis Chattopadhyay is a corporate reputation and brand management strategist, columnist, Kolkata history buff and author of Without Prejudice.

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