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Book Review


Bin Yang, Cowrie Shells and Cowrie Money: A Global History. New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. xiv + 269. Bibliography and Index. $140.00 (cloth).


    "The ultimate goal of this book is to write a global history of cowrie money," writes Bin Yang in his new book, Cowrie Shells and Cowrie Money: A Global History (14). In this lofty effort, Yang succeeds, crafting an impressive work with an array of themes on a truly global scale over the longue durée. Researchers and instructors from a variety of specialties and disciplines will find several points of entry to better grasp the ways these small shells had a large impact on world history.

     The text, which is divided into ten chapters, is organized by region: the Maldives, India, Yunnan, China, West Africa, the Pacific Islands, and North America, and examines cowrie shells' importance, or the lack thereof in some circumstances, over 1,500 years. Importantly, as Yang notes, "the very study of cowrie money in this book poses a challenge to the boundaries that have formed these regional units" (14).  In his concluding chapter, Yang argues cowrie shells were "the first global money" as he adds a "fresh paradigm" to the world history discipline, named "the cowrie money world" (259), which seeks to enhance and challenge conventional notions of money and commerce, world-systems approaches, and standard spatial and temporal designations.

     Two essential themes detailed in Yang's introduction are the concept of the "glocal" and the reasons to view cowrie shells as a type of money. Yang argues cowrie shells developed into a form of money since they had "a means of exchange" from Bengal to Southeast Asia to West Africa, as well as "a measure of value" as a result of their supply, relatively uniform size, and durability. "[M]oney is formed by a process," he contends, and with varying degrees and paces over time, "cross-regional economic transactions" developed the "cowrie money economy" that facilitated a wealth of transactions (6–9). Global processes of migration and commerce had distinctive characteristics within local circumstances, a point Yang often makes with his frequent references to the "glocal."

     In the second through fourth chapters, Yang investigates the importance of cowrie shells within the Maldives, India, and Southeast Asia. He details the variety of environmental, geographical, and commercial factors that enabled the shells of Cypraea moneta from the Maldives to facilitate a variety of exchanges. Three aspects that led to their popularity were their relatively smaller size compared to other shells, their availability along important maritime routes, and their proximity to centers of commerce in India. Importantly, Yang includes primary source material of Arab, Asian, and European origin regarding the use of cowrie shells, including their purposes beyond commerce. Turning to numerous Southeast Asian localities, he details the uses of cowrie money to connect this region with the Indian Ocean and to push back against the notion of "Southeast Asia as a single economic body" (73). The use of cowrie shells alongside gold and silver formed "a binary currency system" across the region, as evidenced, in one example among many, by the fact that legal fines could be repaid in shells or silver in the Kingdom of Lan Na (northern Thailand) in the thirteenth century (80–83, 90).

     His fifth chapter, titled "Yunnan: an Indian influence in the Southeast Asian-Chinese world," highlights Yang's expertise with this region, on which he wrote his dissertation, and argues Yunnan "was the furthest region touched by the Bengal monetary and economic world" (110). Yang uses the rise and collapse of the exchange of cowrie money in Yunnan to further his emphasis of the "glocal," as well as to disturb the distinction between water- and land-based economies, noting "the deep and far-reaching influence of the Indian Ocean economy in an inland frontier sandwiched by Southeast Asia and China" (117). In the following chapter, "Why not in early China?," Yang pushes back against the argument that the South China Sea was the source of cowrie shells for early China and concludes that cowrie shells did not gain wider use due to the geographical distance between the Maldives and China, as well as the Chinese's earlier start with building a form of monetary exchange (143).

     For many historians, and especially for this reviewer, knowledge of cowrie shells has been closely associated with West Africa and the slave trade within the early modern Atlantic world. Acknowledging this understanding, Yang notes, "Cowrie shells have been occasionally mentioned when the slave trade was examined," perhaps as a means of exchange or as ballast in a ship, "but they have never been placed at the forefront of any world or global history discussion" (14). Yang details in his seventh chapter, "West Africa: Connecting the worlds, old and new," the sporadic introduction of cowrie shells from the Maldives to West Africa in the couple of centuries prior to European contact through a variety of intermediaries, especially those associated with the Mediterranean trade. The shells began to circulate as money by the early fourteenth century, and several decades later this use of cowrie shells developed alongside that of gold in West Africa. Yang then places cowrie money within an "Indian-European-African-Atlantic network" (15) from 1500 to 1900, first implemented by the Portuguese and later by other European powers. During the eighteenth century alone, Yang notes, 25,931,660 pounds (over ten billion cowrie shells) were imported into West Africa in exchange for tens of thousands of slaves bound for the Middle Passage (175–176). Alongside their use as symbols of resistance against European imperialism well into the twentieth century, in many circumstances cowrie shells eventually "became virtually useless" in this region, and the shells came to "serve as a metaphor for non-European peoples, materials and cultures" of the duality of economic significance and personal and communal suffering (197).

     His eighth chapter on the Pacific Islands and North America highlights the uses of cowrie and other shells as wampum and for numerous other commercial and cultural purposes. His discussion in this chapter is geographically expansive, examining New Guinea, early California, New Netherland, and colonial Virginia. Notably, since the shells in these regions for the most part did not originate in the Maldives nor were they generally a part of the Bengal-based cowrie system, he uses them "to provide a local and comparative opportunity to reflect on the creation of money" (204). By examining the uses of shells in various locations in both the Pacific and the Atlantic contexts, Yang notes the multiple ways different communities used the shells as money, like the Kapauku people of New Guinea (207–209), or as a separate, "'informal means of [commercial] exchange,'" as in colonial Virginia (222–224). Ultimately, Yang notes, it is essential for historians to recall that European colonists during their encounters may have incorrectly viewed the shells as money, and for the indigenous population "these processed shells were not treated as actual money" but were still essential units within a larger commercial system (224).

     In the penultimate chapter, "More than just money," Yang analyzes the realm of material culture and places the cowrie shells as objects with profound and varied meanings beyond their use as money. Notable examples include the use of shells within a gift exchange system by elites during the late Shang-Zhou period in China, as symbols of fertility in early Egypt, their inclusion as decoration in furniture in India, and their role in divination among the Yoruba people in West Africa during the early modern era. (Importantly, this chapter is not the only place Yang discusses the shells' non-monetary uses. His related discussions regarding their uses in India (41) and China (139), among other locations, complement this chapter.) He also highlights Western historians' conceptions of cowrie shells in the early twentieth century and their failure to appreciate the meanings of the shells for other populations. Ultimately, while "the cowrie cultural phenomenon was global," their "local cultural and religious dimensions…together with their hidden histories" offer variations, proving the ways "cowries were 'glocal'" (245).

     In Yang's final chapter, which readers would benefit from reading prior to diving into the region-specific chapters, he offers several conclusions. He discusses the ways cowrie shells were "the first global money in human history" and the means by which the forces of the market and the state interacted with "the role of supply in the process of making or failing certain monetary candidates." He also unpacks the ways an understanding of cowrie shells enhances the ever-present discussion in world history of "the rise of the West" and the ways his novel view of "the cowrie money world" could act "not only as a historical space and thus a research subject, but also a paradigm being tested for world history" (248–249). The paradigm, which is separated into four temporal dimensions (pre-ninth century, tenth to thirteenth centuries, fourteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries, and late seventeenth to late nineteenth centuries), traces the ways cowrie shells circulated during these periods and the ways they were conceptualized, used, and remembered by a host of local actors, all with the goal of seeking global connections through these specific examples. For Yang, the paradigm of the cowrie money world "transcends the so-called temporal divide between the traditional and modern." In addition, it eschews certain political or ethnocentric divisions. He even questions the use of "any conventional or unconventional national, regional, or civilizational conceptualization such as South Asia, Southeast Asia, China, [or] the Indian Ocean" (264). (It should be noted, though, that these designations still remained widely used throughout the text.) Yang places his new paradigm in conversation with the world-systems approaches crafted by Immanuel Wallerstein, Fernand Braudel, and Janet Abu-Lughod, offering ways their conceptions should be adjusted by the inclusion of his paradigm (256–257). He also juxtaposes his new conceptual space with Zomia ("the Southeast Asian mainland massif"), popularized by James Scott, and the ways "the cowrie money world" was even more expansive and "all-encompassing" (265–266).

     Researchers and instructors will have much to gain from adding this text to their bibliographies and course syllabi. While specialists reading the chapters pertaining to their areas of expertise will no doubt be aware of a wider historiography than the one Yang included, testing the applicability of this new paradigm to their own research would be a worthy pursuit. For instructors from secondary schools to graduate schools, this text, in part or as a whole, offers constructive ways to tackle important guideposts, designations, and frameworks in world history, especially due to the fact that Yang seeks to disrupt so many of them. This text would also be particularly illuminating for teachers who, following many world history curricula, highlight cowrie shells exclusively while discussing the slave trade originating in West Africa. In addition, teachers could add an exploration of cowrie shells to their list of items in circulation, alongside silver, silk, porcelain, and others. This text also offers teachers another way to engage students on the ways global forces had a variety of local influences, and the ways those local experiences influenced larger structures. Finally, assessing "the cowrie money world" could allow students to consider relevant connections to today, including the rise of global cryptocurrencies and the reasons for why the cowrie shell, once such an essential component of commerce and culture, is now most likely known as adornment for jewelry. Time will tell if Yang's paradigm catches on. Until then, students and instructors of world history will benefit from this important text as they put together the pieces of our global past, one shell at a time. 

Eric Spierer teaches history at Groton School in Massachusetts. He can be reached at


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