June 21. with thoughts of Juneteenth
My mother and I had a special hobby in Zanzibar during the 8 years that I lived there: we collected cowries. My mother would select the days and times of the low spring tides and we would venture onto the exposed coral reefs in search of the cowries under the rocks. We tried to be conservative in our collecting. We left shells that were on eggs; only collected ones that we did not have and always turned the rocks back over so that the myriad creatures thereunder were protected. I learnt all the Latin names of these Indian Ocean cowries. When I was back in boarding school, my mother would write and tell me of her special finds. The rare tiny golden Cypraea globulus was one of these: it is found in coral clumps on the reef edge.
While in Zanzibar, my father had a shell cabinet made for us. I arranged the shells by size and name, mimicking some museum presentation. I still have that cabinet: for 60 odd years it has travelled with me, from Zanzibar to Durban to Sydney, to Melbourne and to Adelaide. The cabinet is not particularly beautiful and the shells no longer shine as once they did. Their scientific labels are in disarray: I plan to resort the shells during this lockdown.
One of the commonest shells on Zanzibar reefs was the money cowry, Cypraea moneta, a thumb-sized creamy-yellow shell with a slight hump. Nowadays, it has no specific value but this shell is famous, or maybe I should say, infamous.
I only discovered the fascinating background to the international trade in the money cowry when I met Marion Johnson in Windhoek, Namibia. It’s a long story, but the short version is that Marion and her colleague, Jan Hogendorn, became interested in the role of this specific cowry played in West Africa as the regular market currency. Their determined research led to them writing a book: The Shell Money of the Slave Trade. (African Studies Series 49. 1986). Marion said what had intrigued her first was her find of isolated cowries in the old middens of the Bushmen people of Namibia. How had these shells come there – thousands of kms from the coral reefs ringing the islands of the Maldives?
Cowries do not inhabit the reefs along Africa’s west coast. These beautiful china-like shells travelled from the Indian Ocean to West Africa with Arab traders through the Sahara long before the arrival of the Portuguese.
Then came the European rush to find a way around Africa to purchase the spices of the ‘Indies’. In the process, Portuguese sailors ‘discovered’ West Africa. The old wooden sailing ships needed ballast and one thing led to another. Starting in 1515 these ships were filling their hulls with vats of shells – money cowries. Traders had discovered the value placed on the money cowry in the lands soon called the ‘Gold’ or ‘Slave’ coast. They discovered how easy it was to trade a ‘head’ of cowries for the ‘head’ of a captive man or woman.
Due to the prevailing winds along the West African coast, the ships from the Maldives sailed via the western Atlantic Ocean to returned to Europe with their spice cargoes and ballast of shells. The shells were washed and cleaned – the word is ‘garbled’ and auctioned in great trading halls to the merchants on their way to deal in slaves. The volumes grew to a peak in the 1800s. The trading halls of Amsterdam (the VoC) and London became the centres of this business. The British soon gained ascendancy.
The numbers are staggering. From 1800 to 1825 the annual average of British cowry exports to West Africa was 123 tonnes or 271,163 lbs. Astounding! Almost all were used for purchasing slaves to ship to the West Indies. Bear in mind how little a single shell weighs!
As time went on, more and more shells were needed to buy a ‘head’. Inflation had set in, and it became inconvenient to manage such volumes. Other currencies began to be used: copper and gold. What happened to the vast quantities of shells in the community – now virtually valueless.? Many were simply buried in heaps, but some found their way into ornaments and clothing. If you examine West Africa tribal art you will often see money cowries incorporated into the fabric.
Let me turn to Zanzibar. The money cowry is found there as well as the similar ring cowry, Cypraea annulus. Merchants tried to export these shells to West Africa but the Zanzibari shells were unpopular as they were too big. The Maldives cowries had grown smaller over centuries due to dwarfism or the ‘island rule’. Smaller cowries weigh less and if you are carrying thousands around, that is an issue to consider.
But what the mainland of Africa close to Zanzibar did provide was slaves and copious ivory from the once extensive elephant herds. And so, Zanzibar has the infamous history of being the centre of the East African slave trade. The slave trade was finally outlawed in 1876 with an agreement between the British and the Sultan of Zanzibar – although owning a slave was not illegal until 1897.
When the slave market was closed, the Anglican Christian Mission was given the site by a local Hindu. A cathedral was built. Sultan Barghash donated the tower’s clock. There is more symbolism in that the cathedral’s altar is the reputed site of the slave whipping post and the wooden crucifix in the nave is made from the tree under which David Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia.
Nowadays, there is a statue outside the Cathedral, a memorial to those thousands of slaves that were traded through Zanzibar. You will be asked, when you arrive, to pay a few US dollars to a guide and he will explain the horrors of slavery. Such tourism is providing many jobs for locals. The stories have become a drawcard to add extra spice to one’s visit to Zanzibar. What the guides do not tell you is the involvement of the Americans in the East African Slave trade, nor the approx. 12.5 million Africans shipped from West Africa by the European slave trade.
When I lived in Zanzibar, before the 1964 revolution, we attended this Anglican Cathedral. I understood little of the symbolism surrounding me, nor did I realise how the dungeon-like basement floor of our old Arab house was once used. I should have used a little imagination: large iron rings remained there, imbedded in the coralline walls.
The question of slavery and culpability led, in part, to that 1964 revolution and genocide. The Zanzibari African party (ASP) narrowly lost the 1963 elections, organised by the British Colonial government, to the Zanzibari Arab party. It’s hard to designate one as ‘Arab’ and the other as ‘African’ as there was much intermarriage on the island and there were other ethnic groups and religions. However, the island people were 99% Muslim. Slavery had been one of the arguments the ASP had used during the campaign and they repeated horrific stories of abuse.
Nothing is simple in history, but when the revolution occurred, a month after independence, a deranged man called John Okello took charge. Using the radio, he incited mobs to attack Zanzibaris Arabs and anyone who got in the way. Thousands were killed and dumped in mass graves. And even now, 56 years after the revolution, historic slavery is used to explain, to justify, the overthrow of that legitimate government and the years of despotic rule that ensued.
Slavery is not forgotten with the passage of time. It was and is a blight on our world.