Money and the pursuit of wealth: Part 16…the rise of currency in Africa

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THE concept of accumulating wealth is not new, nor is it a Western concept.

The Australopithecus Afrikanus discovered in the Makapan Cave in South Africa had a  bone collection showing an old idea of accumulating wealth in the form of bones as usable instruments. 

Any accumulation or monopoly of goods or items like horns, skins, bark, flint, sheep, cows and shells, among many others, indicate that there was some kind of trade or an ancient banking system in place.

In fact, Africa’s monetary past and present are as diverse as they are neglected. Crossed by trade routes, expanding local States and migrant workers, and linked across oceans to the rest of the world, the regions of Africa have unique, rich and complex interwoven monetary histories.  

Ancient African communities knew how to take ownership of their resources and emotionally defend their accumulated resources or used them in a mutually reciprocal way. 

Our history, as written by foreign scholars, assumes that the Bantu people did not have a monetary or economic system in place – this is not true.

Africa’s economic history is said to be the longest and oldest economic history and there is archaeological evidence of considerable long-distance trade taking place in luxury items such as precious metals, iron, shells and many other items across the entire African continent.

Besides animals that were used as currency, early currency in African societies included a variety of traditional metal objects, used for trade and as a store of wealth, or used for major purchases – like that of land or animals, or to signify a transfer of wealth at major events, such as a birth, coming of age, marriage or death. 

The most frequent use was, however, as bride price (lobola) to strengthen ties between families.

Most of the currency objects were developed from traditional objects that were already in use, such as weapons, tools, bracelets and anklets.  

While some of these continued to be functional for work or ornamentation purposes, most evolved into ‘pure’ currency, used exclusively as objects recognised, prized and widely accepted as payment for goods and/or services rendered.

These objects ranged in size from small cowrie shells, trade beads, Asante gold weights and iron Kissi pennies, to large Tarumba spears, Fulani posts and Afo hoe money.  

Objects could be crude, such as Mumuye bars, or refined and elegant, such as Kwele anchors or Baule, Ekonda and Mbole anklets. 

There were simple shapes such as Mambila and northern Nigerian hoes and complex Igbo coils and assembled pieces, such as money belts, money trees and gongs of the Yoruba people.

Gold, ivory, skins, iron and other objects from Munhumutapa were exchanged with traders from as far as China.  

There were famous classic forms such as manillas, Katanga crosses and Bangala spear tips as well as lesser known Poto, Pakudo and Kuba knife or sword currencies, Lobi snakes and Kusubolokos.  A diverse group of Fang throwing knives, Mangbetu trombash, Mfunte blades, Idoma, Toma and Tuareg pieces were all used as commodity money in Africa. 

All these beautifully wrought pieces were of high technically forged iron, cast or hammered copper or other alloys. 

Raffia and other textiles were also traded and stored as money.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the economic power of the San is recorded on cave art – the wall street of the people.  

Cave art will inform about the numbering system of antiquity; the economics account and scientific sophistication of the bushman, their art and cultural industry.  

Despite their nomadic lifestyle, which is largely hypothetical, the storing of items, such as bark, skin karosses, pottery and iron processing, indicated activities that sustained human life.

The idea of trade and exchange is simultaneously seen with the increase and migration theories of the Bantu people of East and Southern Africa. 

Diplomatic relationships followed the trail of money, and so did trade and barter exchange.  

Arrows, quills, elephant ivory tusks, buffalo skins, gold quills and cowry shells were some of the artefacts found in the caves of the San and later people.  

These were used for trade and as bankable currency.

Shell money was once commonly used as a medium of exchange in many parts of the world.  

It usually consisted either of whole sea shells or pieces of them, which were often worked into beads or were otherwise artificially shaped.  

The use of shells in trade began as an early, direct commodity exchange, the shells having value as body ornamentation.

Evidence of the use of shell money was found on almost every continent and throughout Africa.  

The most widely used shell as currency was the small shell of cypraeamoneta – the money cowry.  

It was found in abundance in the Indian Ocean and collected in the Maldives islands, in Sri Lanka, along the Malabar coast, in Borneo, on other East Indian islands and in various parts of the African coast from Ras Hafun to Mozambique.  

Cowry shell money was important in the trade networks of South and East Asia and Africa, including in Mapungubwe and MaDzimbahwe, with long-standing, mutually beneficial trading relations.  

In the regions of West Africa, the value of the cowry shells was much greater than from where the supply was obtained, thus, the trade was extremely lucrative.  

In some cases, the gains were said to have been 500 percent. 

Up until the mid-19th Century, shell money was legal tender in western Africa.  

Before the abolition of the slave trade, large shipments of cowry shells were shipped to some English ports for reshipment to the slave coast. 

It was also common in West Central Africa as the currency of the Kingdom of Kongo, locally known as ‘Nzimbu’.

In Africa, the use of the cowry currency gradually spread inland from coastal areas. 

Around 1850, a German explorer found it fairly widespread in Nigeria, Benin and even Timbuktu.  

In one ancient division of Bornu, the king’s revenue was estimated at 

30 000 000 shells.  

All adult male were required to pay 1 000 shells for self, 1 000 for every pack-ox and 2 000 for every slave in his possession annually.

In countries on the coast, shells were dependent on Muslim traders from Zanzibar.  

They were usually secured together in strings of 40-100 each, each string representing a denomination.  

However, in the interior, shells were laboriously counted one by one, or, if the traders were expert, five-by-five.

Shells were used as currency in the remoter parts of Africa until the early 20th Century, when they gave way to modern currencies with the arrival of European colonists.  

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.  

For views and comments, email: linamanucci@gmail.com

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