How Money Was Born: The Small Seashell and the Fierce Maldivian Queen That Made the Modern World

Humanity transformed another species into its first species.

How Money Was Born: The Small Seashell and the Fierce Maldivian Queen That Made the Modern World

Money began as a language for expressing gratitude and became the lever of the extraction economy — the currency of aggregate human entitlement. In the golden dawn of modern capitalism, Henry Miller — passionate, idealistic, and broke — sang the thrush song of warning: “The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough.” A century hence, the dilemma has swelled to a carbon cloud of doom — and yet money keeps washing through this pale blue dot no longer capable of regarding itself as a world without its circulating medium.

What is the secret to our success?

We ended up riding on the backs of small marine gastropod, mollusks and in the company of fierce Maldivian queens.

Cash cowries

This is the cow that makes money. Monetaria moneta is the world’s least impressive cowry — so plain it was entirely omitted from the most lavish illustrated encyclopedia of seashells — and its first global currency. Its remarkable story, laced with all the imaginative strengths and moral follies that make us human, comes alive in The Sound of the Sea (public library) — Cynthia Barnett’s wondrous evolutionary-cultural history of seashells. She wrote:

Rehendi Khadijah, an illustrious queen from the 14th century, was the ruler of the Maldives’ islands. One of the earliest women leaders of an Islamic nation, she derived power from both the sultanate and Islam, even as she declined to cover her head — not to mention other parts. Two husbands tried to force her out of power, but she remained the leader of the kingdom for three quarters the century. The effort was unsuccessful for neither man.

All the more remarkable was the Maldivian queen’s role in the dawn of international trade. It was 600 miles from the Indian tip that the centre of global production of the first money came to be in the chain of atolls and coral reefs as well as the lowlying islands.


It was well packed and served as ship ballast. Although it was not made of metal or paper, the tender sparkled brightly in its pocket. It was a species that became the first globally recognized specie.

Ships arrived from all over the world, riding the southwestern summer monsoons, and filled their hulls with the Sultana’s currency, the production of which she oversaw herself. The tenth-century Arab historian and geographer al-Mas‘udi described the process, at once inventive and cruel:

[The Sultana]Orders her islanders cut the coco-branches and throw the leaves onto the sea surface. They attach themselves to these and they are collected on the sandy shore. There, the sun turns them brown and leaves behind only empty shells. These are taken to the Treasury.

Maldivian workers in 16th-century Portuguese paintings

On the eastern winter monsoons, cowry-laden ships sailed to the other corners of the globe in the easterly winter monsoons. More than being perfect ballast, however, the Maldivian cattleries were perfect for currency.

The Money Cowrie — named by Linnaeus Cypraea montetaThe newest classification for a syllogism is Monetaria moneta — makes a glistening shell in the shape of a small shield, with the cowries’ characteristic domed top and flat underside cleaved by a serrated slit. The little ivories are a bit slender and have varying colors, from yellowish to off-white. These ivories are solid and satisfyingly heavy, enameled and pearly. It is irresistible to grab and worry or clack together as dice or coins. These durable, small shells make ideal currency. They are easy to carry and recognize. They are impossible to fake. Perfect for counting — one by one, or by bag or ballast-full. They were uniform in size and shape, so they gave a exact value when weighed.

With the two forces of vanity of humans: superstition, and personal aesthetics, the notion of giving a mysterious ocean shell value was already conceived long before. Since the Stone Age cowries have been used to make jewelry and amulets as well as healing tools. Strings of them — both real shells and gold-cast replicas — were found in Egyptian tombs, believed to bring fertility, protect against the Evil Eye, and bring good fortune in the afterlife.

So accustomed to seeing immaterial worth in these material objects, these vacant homes of tiny lives, people then readily harnessed their practical conveniences — small, light, portable, easy to see, hard to fake — for the perfect fusion of myth and merchandize. (Money, it bears remembering, has always been and will always remain a consensual reality — a handshake of beliefs with no inherent value and no direct equivalence to objects in the material world.)

Maldivian cowries reached Europe and China before the Romans, and even their first coins. In the Pompeii rubble, cowries were discovered. They were the main currency of India by the 4th century. By then, they had traveled to Thailand, Myanmar and Thailand. In some regions, Southeast Asia was their primary currency for over a 1000 years. Soon, Arab traders began to pack and transport them across the Sahara desert. They were still used in Africa’s currency until the early 20th century.

The Maldives map, 16th-century Dutch. This map is available as a printed copy for The Nature Conservancy.

In the first millennium, the cowries drew a Buddhist high culture to the Maldives themselves — that ravishing coral rosary of 1,200 islands, curving northward from the equator for 600 miles, named after the Sanskrit for “garland of islands,” MaladvipaWith an etymological nod towards the old queens of the word mahiladvipa: “island of women.” Shining cowries are strewn throughout the Buddhist ruins across the islands to this day.

But like every technology of thought, money too began as a salve to human life — something to add ease, convenience and, in consequence, contentment — and then, under the deformist pressures of scale, mutated into a tool of exploitation and manipulation.

In West Africa, money cowries became so well-known that by the turn of the nineteenth century they could be used for the purchase of a third the slaves and human beings taken to Americas.

1911 map showing the worldwide distribution of cowries used as currency.

Barnett looks at the paradoxical legacy M. monetaIts global and local impact are both important.

Long before Queen Khadijah’s reign and long after, gleaming shell money from her part of the world turned up in striking human spaces—from fourth-century graves north of the Arctic Circle to the slave-house subfloor at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

Over centuries, shell money was controlled by the Maldives. Yet today, the islands’ ancient cowrie history remains buried deep in coral rock and sand. That’s owing to its idolatrous beginnings, frowned upon in the Muslim-governed nation where nothing “contrary to the tenets of Islam” is allowed.

The memory of a determined queen is also buried with the cowries.

For all their conflicts in human affairs, their true beauty lies in their reality. It is unaffected by any human interpretation or intent. Barnett captures the subtle splendor of these creatures who live and die with no notion of their shells’ fate in human hands:

Once amassed in bags of money, for shell-lovers, cowries are the sea’s coveted bag of marbles. High-polished globes of spun gold, a fawn’s coat, gaseous rings, creamy maps, copper fishnet, cuts of amethyst, oiled mahogany, sundry dots and stripes — colors and markings on just a few of the 250 species known living today — no two look exactly alike. These are flat on the top, and round underneath. The slit at its bottom may be very narrow or wide depending on which species it is. You might see a toothless, short-strung cowrie with a stubby smile, like the Money Cowrie. Or, you could find a trap that is fierce and looks as if it wants to take your bite; such a maw can be found in the White-toothed Cowrie.


By spreading its glossy matrix across its shell, rather than opening it, the cowrie forms a hump. With each layer, a thicker coating that conceals the first in rich shades that include dark chocolate, golden, and creamy, These animals have also developed mantle colors that are quite different to their shells. You can find soft flesh in deep purples or even pitch black. The same bright red and orange colors used to colonize the sponges are also used for camouflaging some animals. Some are distasteful for fishes and colored as a sea cucumber. The mantle flaps of some species are flat. They are often covered by wiggling fingers, called papillae. The shapes and patterns of these papillae vary among species. Some animals wag their tentacles separately. Some others grow in tufts.

The mantle designs of M. monetaThese shells resemble tiny white humps with small black-inked fingers. No other shell is as easily touched by humans.

Couple this fragment of the wholly fantastic The Sound of the Sea with the story of how the bit — that other vital unit of the modern world — was born, then revisit the poetic Victorian marine biologist and naturalist Philip Henry Gosse on the wonder of the sea’s most overlooked creatures.

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