Money History
Africa And Oceania

In the contemporary world, coins and paper money have become a part of life in almost all countries across the globe. Nevertheless, it is interesting to learn that in parts of Africa and Oceania, the use of coins and paper money is restricted only among a few belonging to the affluent classes, especially those residing in the urban areas. While people in several regions of the world are still ignorant about cheque books, credit cards, telephone banking and various other modern monetary modes used by people in the developed world, the way some of these people use coins and paper currency would appear to be strange to any person living in the West.

Culture of currency and salt

When travelers from the European nations visited different regions of Africa and Oceania and came across people who did not have any coinage system or were ignorant about currency, they carried stories and descriptions of different items that these traveling Europeans believed were used as pseudo-currency by people living in the backward regions of Africa and Oceania. And, interestingly, most of the accounts of these travelers included salt, which they believed was used as money in many regions of that part of the world. Later, writing an account of his tour, missionary Francis Alvarez an early day Portuguese explorer, who was sent to Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) as the king's envoy between 1520 and 1526, narrated how the local people used salt as a mode of payment for products and services. In his account, Francis Alvarez mentioned that people living in a vast area ranging from Red Sea to Congo on the West Sea used salt in lieu of currency. Elaborating further, the Portuguese missionary mentioned that salt was hacked from the mountains and sliced into smaller lumps.

Years later, when a British trader Alexander Hamilton went to Ethiopia during the early parts of the 18th century, he too came across people using salt as a form of money. Writing an account of his Ethiopia visit, Hamilton too mentioned that he found salt to be the prevalent money in the region. According to the British merchant, people in Ethiopia dug out salt from the mountains in a manner of how people elsewhere removed stones from the quarries. Several European merchants carried silver dollars and gold ducats to different ports of the Red Sea around the end of the 18th century and brought them to use together with salt. Some of these currencies also infiltrated into the surrounding regions. Although Abyssinia did not mint any coins, many coins from different nations were in use in the region. Hamilton had written that there coins included the Imperial or Austrian dollars and the sequins from Venice. According to the British trader, when people needed to make heavy payments for goods or services, they used gold bullions that were weighed up according to the Abyssinian ounce known as the Wakea. On the other hand, for making payments in smaller amounts, the Abyssinians used salt blocks dug out from the mountains or mines and 80 such salt blocks were considered equivalent to one Wakea or Abyssinian ounce of gold.

The Portuguese missionary Francis Alvarez, British merchant Alexander Hamilton and others who visited Ethiopia and later wrote accounts of their tour of the region were all of the view that the uses of a natural substance such as salt as a form of currency instead of any valuable metal coinage demonstrated how primitive the Abyssinians as well as other communities in this backward region were compared to the Europeans of the day vis-à-vis money. Contrary to this view, the fact remains that the kingdom of Ethiopia did have its own coinage long back. Inspired by the Romans, the Ethiopian kings of Aksum had issued a gold, silver as well as bronze coinage between the period of third century and seventh century A.D. At the same time, coins from the Islamic world also made their way into Ethiopia through the coastal region from time to time.

It is a coincidence that the views of the European travelers who visited Ethiopia during the 18th century regarding the region's primitive coinage corresponds with the ancient Chinese opinion about the people residing in the interior and inaccessible regions of the country. The Chinese, who had their own coinage since long, were of the opinion that people residing in the remote regions of China were more backward and used salt and cowrie shells for coins. Even the Chinese historians are of the view that cowrie shells were used as currency before the people of the country actually came across real coins. They are also of the opinion that the ancient Chinese living in the remote southern part of the ancient Chinese Empire used salt as money to make payments for services and products. Fan Chuo, the Chinese writer who lived in the ninth century, has mentioned about the pecuniary system prevailing in the southern regions of Sichuan Province on western China. In his account of that era, Fan Chuo said that all business transactions carried out by the people of the region were done in exchange of salt that was a form of money for the people.

In addition to Ethiopia and China, we also find mention of salt being used as a form of money to make payments in ancient Sahara in Africa. According to the 14th century Arab explorer Ibn Battuta, while he was going to Timbuktu, he had located a salt mine at a place called Taghaza (now situated in Mali). He wrote that people of the region dug out blocks of salt from such mines for carrying long-distance trade with the kingdom of Mali, situated towards the south of Taghaza. Ibn Battuta further wrote that the negroes used salt to barter it for gold and silver in other places. People of the region hacked the salt into smaller blocks and used it for different business transactions.

'Different' types of money

In addition to salt, cowrie shells and metals, various European explorers who explored different regions of Africa, Asia, America and the Pacific have talked about several substances that they found the people of these areas using as money in their writings detailing their visit to these places. It is interesting to note that some of these European travelers found people in some areas using extraordinary items like huge rocks, wooden pieces, feathers, shells and even human skulls as money!

In fact, travel descriptions of various writers as well as historians mention about people in many regions of North America having used shells as money. In his account about the people of Virginia in North America, English historian Robert Beverley wrote in 1705 that prior to the English reaching the place, the Red Indians virtually possessed nothing that they could describe as their wealth. The only wealth that the Red Indians could boast of at that time were Roenoke, Peak and other insignificant items made from Cunk shells. According to Robert Beverley, these items not only substituted valuable metals such as gold and silver for the Red Indians who used them both as money as well as material to make ornaments. The early Europeans who set up colonies in the locality named the ornaments made by the Red Indians from clam shells as wampum. On the other hand, records maintained by people from Spain who set up initial colonies in Central America refer to the usage of small axes made of copper and cocoa beans by the native Mexicans shortly after the region was conquered by Spain.

It needs to be mentioned here that even though the history of coinage in South Asia is as old as that in Europe, many European travelers in the past have found the prevalence of cowrie shells as a mode of payment in this part of the world. According to travel descriptions of many European travelers, in addition to their coinage, people in South Asia used small shells that they called 'cori' as money and were frequently used in making small payments. Following large-scale and rampant export of cowries from Gujarat in western India to Africa, there occurred an acute shortage of these small shells and hence, people began to use almonds as a form of money and a substitute of cowries. Records maintained by the European travelers mention that the people in South Asia began using almonds in place of cowrie shells to make small payments or whenever there was requirement for small money since these shells become short in supply.

While the usage of cowrie shells in South Asia is quite old, in the 19th century even the natives of New Britain, an island located north-east of New Guinea also reportedly used shell money that they called 'tambu' that was made from little lumped shells stringed onto a firm rattan rope. According to the records maintained by these European travelers, the 'tambu', also known as 'diwarra', was considered to be the national money similar to the coinage of any developed nation. All these forms of quasi-money notwithstanding, what surprised the Western travelers the most was the use of feathers as money by the inhabitants of the Santa Cruz and Banks Islands in the remote areas of the Pacific. According to a travel account of a Western explorer, natives of Santa Maria and Meralava situated in the Banks Islands in Vanuatu used feathers for special purposes. Diminutive feathers found near the eyes of the poultry are attached together by strings and normally colored in a fine crimson hue. In addition to be used as ornaments - necklaces and anklets, they were also used as a form of money.

The most pertinent question, however, is the fact whether salt, shells, feathers and human skulls were actually utilized in a similar manner as the Europeans used coins and currency issued by the banks. It may be mentioned here that at one point of time in history, the Europeans, especially the English, viewed everything from their intellectual standpoint. They considered their culture to be the hallmark of human progress to all and assessed others and their cultures from this point of view. In fact, in the earlier discussions on the history of money we find that the Chinese as well as the Arabic writers also did not differ from the Europeans when it came to assessing native pecuniary arrangements in other parts of the world. In fact, such a tendency to view unfamiliar groups or cultures from the point of view of one's own has been prevalent in the Western society till the 20th century and this largely affected people's perception of the non-coinage fiscal systems. To some extent, many in the West still hold on to this tendency. When contemporary intellectuals dealing with the history of money portray all such non-coinage financial systems as 'primordial', it generally seems to imply that all such monetary systems were less progressive compared to the coinage system prevalent in the West and some other parts of the world.

However, the efforts as well as the work done by the anthropologists and ethnographers have helped to discard as well as amend this view to a great extent during the 20th century. Several researches undertaken by the anthropologists and ethnographers over a period of time have not only brought to light an extensive assortment of human civilizations and their respective fiscal systems, but also helped us to have a proper understanding of these hitherto unknown subjects. In addition, these researches have probed the dual perceptions of evolution of the human development from uncomplicated to multifaceted as well as the supposition that the monetary systems prevailing in the West, or for that matter even the East, were superior to the non-coinage fiscal systems adopted by some cultures.

Currency and ethnography

As early as the 1920s, the West's concept of the 'primordial' monetary systems of the indigenous societies came under severe criticism from anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. According to Malinowski, the precise views expressed by the Europeans and other authors in their respective writings that the monetary systems followed by the natives in certain parts of the world were not only primitive, but also an underdeveloped structure of trade and barter were wrong to a large extent. Ever since Malinowski made his observations public, several anthropologists have endeavored to investigate the payment and barter methods followed by the locals and the communities in which they functioned. Having explores these aspects, anthropologists came out with startling findings that may be called anything, but underdeveloped. The most important aspect of their findings was that they established that the indigenous societies had their own fundamental variety of social development that suited their individual requirements. At the same time, they recognized that it was wrong to presume that the Western perception of currency actually inspired these tribal societies around the world to develop their monetary systems later.

Hence, it would be absolutely erroneous to presume that unlike in the West where people used coins and paper money for universal objective, salt, feather money or other forms of money were all precisely used in the same manner and for the same purpose. The primary dissimilarities between the economic systems of the indigenous societies and the Western monetary systems is the degree to which business concerns decide the rationale of making different types of payments. In fact, no other society is as focused on trade and exchange as it is in the West vis-à-vis their monetary system. According to many experts, the view that the Western society and its fiscal systems are a long way from being 'natural' and are in fact a historical irregularity with their obsession for profit is a highly debatable issue. If this view is considered to be correct, then it is a bigger fault of the Western society to believe that their monetary system is superior to those of the indigenous societies that they describe as 'primitive'.

It may be mentioned here that noted British anthropologist Mary Douglas lived among the people of the Lele tribe in the Kasia district of Belgian-occupied Congo, presently known as Zaire, between 1949 and 1953. Later, in 1958, she published an account of her stay in the region and mentioned about the used of cloth money by the Lele tribe. This was something startling considering the fact that the Belgians, who have been using coins, had colonized the region for long. In fact, some societies in Congo have been using cloth money since long and it was first revealed way back in the 17th century by a French government agent in Africa named Jean Barbot. During her stay in the region in the 20th century, Mary Douglas had found that the members of the Lele tribe weaved cloth with leaf fibers of the raffia palm tree. She noticed that each men of the tribe were able weave two to three raffia cloth daily. The small pieces of cloth made from the leaf fibers of the raffia palm tree were stitched together and worn by the natives. Alternately, they were also used for imbursements usually in the multiples of ten. It is interesting to note that the notes made by Jean Barbot over 300 years before Mary Douglas resemble the latter's observations.

Although members of the Lele tribe used cloth money, they were well acquainted with coins and paper currency in the valuation of francs and centimes prevalent in Belgian-occupied Congo. Although the indigenous people of the region were supposed to pay taxes and fines to the Native Tribunal in francs and centimes, actually they usually paid them in cloth to the tribunal with the certified exchange rate being 10 francs for every piece of cloth. Members of the Lele tribe were also familiar with the European currency and coins as the young men from their society who worked for the colonial authorities received their wages in those denominations. It is important to note that despite being familiar with the Belgian Congo and European currency, members of the Lele tribe did not use these foreign currencies during transactions within their own society with the only exception being making payments as an alternate for cloth money. And in such instances, the worth of these foreign currencies had to be converted into their value in cloth money before using them.

While members of the Lele community used cloth money for making small payments, they used items such as salt, copper ingots, camwood (wood from a small shrub-like tree with hard wood that is used to prepare a red dye) and even goats to make large payments. The Lele society even used slaves to make high value payments before the 1930s, but then each item was converted to the value in cloth money before any transaction. Mention of slaves and camwood being used as a form of money to make payments was first found in the accounts of Dutch writer Olfert Dapper some 300 years ago. In his writings, Olfert Dapper mentions that people in the kingdom of Kongo used slaves and camwood along with small bits of cloth and trinkets or bagatelles whose value to them was somewhat equivalent to the worth of gold and silver to the Europeans.

During her stay with the members of the Lele tribe, Mary Douglas noticed that the use of cloth money and camwood by these indigenous people was different from the manner in which the Europeans used currency. In her writings, Mary Douglas notes that in the absence of an economy based on the market, most goods were actually distributed among the people depending on their respective standing in the society and nothing had to be bought within the community. On rare occasions, the Lele members traded goods through barter using cloth money or francs and for making payments for 'expensive' or high value goods with members of outside societies. Douglas noticed that the only occasion when the members of the Lele tribe actually sold the cloth within their society was while paying for the services of carvers and other skillful artisans. However, there was a binding in such cases too and that was the purchaser should not in anyway be a relative of the seller.

Although the members of the Lele tribe held cloth is the same esteem as the Europeans valued gold and silver, payments were made in cloth money only in diverse situations because compared to the Europeans, the society of these indigenous people was incredibly dissimilar. And the special conditions under which payments were made with cloth were usually social in nature and not commercial or profit-making in disposition. It is also interesting to note that even after coins and paper money entered the Lele community, these indigenous people used them in a similar manner as they used cloth money in their society. They never used the coins and paper money while dealing amongst themselves, but only to carry out transactions with the local government. This way, the Lele members endeavored to maintain the reliability of their 'own' monetary system in spite of the social changes ushered in by the dominance of the colonial powers from Europe.

Transformation of money

It needs to be mentioned here that the political as well as the financial subjugation of vast lands around the globe by communities using coins and paper currency definitely led to intense consequences on the native or original monetary systems prevailing in those regions. Having said this, it is also imperative to point out that to a great extent even the colonial rulers as well as the interfering traders too had to familiarize themselves with the systems prevailing in the local regions with a view to carry out trade with the communities that they desired to take advantage of and eventually exploited.

It is likely that the most outstanding instance of such changes and exploitation is evident in different regions of Africa. In his accounts, 14th century Arab traveler Ibn Battuta has mentioned that the Arab traders traded in cowrie shells in the Mali kingdom in West Africa where the people used cowrie shells as local currency. Even the records maintained by the most preliminary Portuguese travelers mention that cowrie shells were also traded in the kingdom of Songhay that reigned over vast areas of western Africa after the fall of the Mali kingdom in the latter part of the 15th century. Although it is not precisely known as to how the Africans used the cowrie shells, but the fact remains that merchants from different European nations took advantage of the natives' cravings for cowrie shells and bringing in large amounts of cowries from the countries located in the Indian Ocean area and the Maldives Islands to exchange them for slaves and other valuable goods. It is interesting to note that by the latter part of the 17th century, traders from European nations like Portugal, Britain, France and Holland had created such an extreme requirement for cowries in the west African regions, that they virtually drained out the shells from India to meet their growing demand in the African market. Incidentally, at that point of time, cowrie shells were also used as local money in many parts of India and such large-scale drainage of the shells created their shortage compelling the people to use other items as money.

From the past records we are able to known that compared to coins, cowrie shells were more popular in Africa and they were successful in breaking through the conventional payment procedures of the indigenous societies as these shells were also important as personal ornaments for these people. Taking advantage of the African natives' weakness or desire for cowries, the European traders imported huge amounts of cowrie shells and used them more and more in making payments while dealing with the Africans. The Europeans imported such massive amounts of cowrie shells into western Africa that these shells virtually replaced the conventional money in many places of the black continent. The large-scale import as well as the widespread use of cowries in making payments disturbed the conventional practices in most African regions much in the same manner as the colonial currency of the Belgian-occupied Congo affected traditions of the Lele tribe. While the European traders used the cowrie shells only for business transactions, the natives of Africa obtained the shells for several reasons. Since the European traders regulated the supply of cowries, they also governed the cowrie money system. Consequently, this had a tendency to destabilize the local financial traditions.

It has been, however, noticed that the changes ushered in by the induction of the European modes of making payments as well as the financial approached have not always proved to be detrimental for the native monetary systems. For instance, the European and Arab traders introduced silver coins in Madagascar through export and import of goods from and into the island nation. Later, when Madagascar came under the occupation of the French colonials in 1895, these silver coins turned out to be an imperative mode of payment on the island, especially in the monarchy of Merina. However, the silver coins brought into the island by the European and Arab traders were found to be too big in size for carrying out routine or daily transactions. Hence, the people cut these silver coins into smaller pieces to make them functional for their daily requirements. The value of each small part of the silver coins was determined according to their weight and not on the basis of their denomination.

What was, however, significant in the entire process was that the silver used by the natives of Madagascar was derived from coins and not from bullions ensuring the immaculacy or pureness of the metal. It is interesting to note that the natives of Madagascar not only used the silver in conducting business and exchange, but the metal also played a crucial part within the society as the people used it to worship their ancestors. People generally preserved the whole coins and presented them to their monarch as an oblation with a view to gain the consecrations of their ancestors' spirits that the king was extremely capable of bequeathing. Even in contemporary Madagascar, especially among the Betsimisakara natives, when even an animal sacrifice is made, some people make entertaining discourses and the listeners donate silver coins to the orators as an acknowledgment of their articulation and also for being associated with the benediction process that of course includes the animal sacrifice itself. For the above discussion it is clear that the natives in the Malagasy society used the coins for dual purposes - as a currency as well as in religious rituals. When used as a currency, the coins were utilized to make payments and for religious rituals, they were generally used as oblations.

Money as a social event

Going through the history of money, one would find that the basic utilities of the Western currency are traditionally associated with a specific interest of the Europeans for yield of objects and income or proceeds from it. This trend is more obvious during the contemporary times. However, this is something very different from the general nature or attribute of mankind worldwide. Having said this, it remains a debatable issue when we state that the contemporary society in the West is traditionally irregular in its focus on the human enterprise related to money and its utilities.

Here, one needs to bear in mind that any effort to create a superficial division between the developed/ industrialized world and the non-industrial, native socio-economic patterns is not bereft of a palpable peril, but we may still endeavor to take a broad view of the dissimilarities between the monetary systems of the two 'worlds'. We find that the contemporary Western currency has been more and more inclined to permit the computation of comparable cost and worth between different and all kinds of available goods and services. Such an inclination may be attributed as an accompanying aspect of the increasing significance of a market-based financial system in the industrialized and developed nations where purchasing and selling are the two basic methods of obtaining and allocating articles of trade and where payments for labor or services is made with currency.

However, we find that beyond such a market-driven financial system the use of money, irrespective of it form, is inclined to be limited in capacity to specific social background and in the purview of barter to business deals concerning particular kinds of commodities. In fact, development and continuation of societal ties by way of presenting gifts and exchanges and imbursements through religious and social rituals have often been more imperative compared to a market-inclined exchange as issues influencing the manners in which the local financial systems have functioned in these indigenous societies. The variety and utility of the economically developed societies swayed over the monetary systems prevalent in many indigenous communities owing to the political and monetary authority of these industrialized communities. However, the political and economic authority of these developed societies always did not change or disturb the monetary systems of the local or indigenous societies. For instance, the Lele community in Belgian-dominated Congo is an ideal example of how some of the indigenous societies had supple economic systems that could dynamically adapt coins and paper currency to suit their individual objectives. In fact, during the process of adapting to coins and banknotes, members of the Lele community changed the utility of foreign (European and Arab) money from the widespread objective of making payments and carrying out trade to objects that could be assimilated into social customs that were already prevalent in their society.

Most common definitions of money or any general concept of currency refers to it as a 'means or medium of exchange'. However, such a definition or concept of money is not only erroneous, but also has its shortcomings. For instance, if we consider money merely as a medium of exchange, it would eliminate the cloth money prevalent in the Lele community in Belgium-occupied Congo for we have already discussed earlier that this native society seldom used their cloth money for exchanging commodities. In such a situation, defining money as a 'medium of making payments' is perhaps more appropriate than describing it as a 'medium of exchange'. Defining money in this manner would enable us to take into consideration all such monetary systems where money was not essentially used to exchange goods or the primary objective of money was not to purchase commodities. When we define money as a 'medium of making payments' money, irrespective of its form, should be able to function in a traditionally familiar imbursement method that necessitates making use of precise articles that are normally acknowledged, but do not essentially have any designated significance.

In the event of permitting a complete assortment of prospects for money, it is essential that we also consider that the character of the payments may differ drastically. The possibilities may range from the simple business of repaying a balance due for any product or service acquired to bindings and conditions in the society vis-à-vis allocation and transfer of proprietorship from one person to another or from man to God. In a similar manner, even the specific articles and substances selected as the means of imbursement of payment may vary remarkably from one society to another. It is interesting to note that while people in the industrialized West are in possession of a pecuniary system that has come into existence owing to their penchant for valuable metal, inhabitants of the different islands in the Pacific Ocean had a definite weakness for different kinds of shells and hence used it as their native money. And that both the Westerners as well as the Pacific islanders highly valued the precious metal and the shells respectively and each used them for ornamental functions both in worldly and spiritual milieu can not be called a sheer concurrence.

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