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Toussian Cowrie Shell Currency Armlet

Toussian Cowrie Shell Currency Armlet

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Toussian people, early 20th century, Burkina Faso, West Africa.

Magnificent and aged currency shell armlet or bracelet with 44 cut cowrie shells are strung on a double chain cotton twine. Shell money is a medium of exchange similar to money that was once commonly used in many parts of the world, and usually consisted either of whole sea shells or parts of them, which were often worked into beads or were otherwise shaped. Cowrie shells, particularly the species Cypraea moneta and C. annulus, were traded for goods and services throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania, and were used as a means of payment as early as the 14th century on Africa’s western coast. Because the cowrie shells were tiny, portable, lightweight, and easy to handle, they served as excellent currency. Until the 16th century, the main source of cowries was the Maldives and the cowries had to be transported across the Red Sea, to North Africa and across the Sahara Desert to reach West Africa, especially in regions of modern Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria.

The first Portuguese shipment of Maldivian cowries took place in 1515. In exchange for this shell money, West African tribes provided the Europeans with slaves, gold, and other commodities. From this point forward, European traders brought hundreds of millions shells to West Africa, where they became the "shell money of the slave trade". By 1522 cowrie shells had become as important as manillas in Portuguese trade with Benin. Owning cowrie shells became crucial for the accession and exhibit of social and political status across the African continent. The shells symbolized power, prestige and wealth. Shell money was used until the 20th century. Eventually, currency became an ornament. Shells are threaded into jewelry and hair ornaments, sewn onto prestigious garments, used in religious rituals and as protective protective charms (gris-gris). The Toussian people, also known as Tusyan, are a small ethnic group residing in the southwestern region of Burkina Faso, but also in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali.

Good condition. Expected nicks, loose threads, abrasions, fraying, and softening of detail, all commensurate with age and use. Lovely dark patina. Size approx. 25,0cm x 1,8cm x 1,2cm.

Provenance: Dutch private collection.

For a similar example see:

Cowrie money, The British Museum, Accession Number: SSB,155.4 (

References and further reading:

Shell Money: A Comparative Study, Mikael Fauvelle, Cambridge University Press, 2024

Cowries, the currency that powered West Africa, Karin Pallaver, ADP ReThink Quarterly, Issue 7: Equality, 20 January 2023.

The Shell Money of the Slave Trade, Jan Hogendorn & Marion Johnson, African Studies Series 49, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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