Shell Games: Keziah Jones, and Things Fall Apart

by zunguzungu

Keziah Jones’ song “1973 (Joker’s Reparations)” begins with a weird left-turn from the recording of Major Nzeogwu announcing Nigeria’s first military coup in ’66, he suddenly shifts to singing about global currency politics, how (in 1973), the Naira was introduced (“to help the economy”) and noted that, because it was pegged to the dollar at the rate of six per (“the value’s kinda weak”), this “official calculation” would eventually lead to Nigeria’s impoverishment. Such globalization makes democracy a punchline, he sings, and now Nigerians must go begging to those who, with no apologies, devalue currencies and sends all the money to banks in Switzerland.

Right on; Fela for the 21st. But I was struck by these lines:

“Before inflation, we used cowries; we all knew what things were worth; But for mirrors and beads, they sold us a whole nation”

Ah, the cowrie shell! Global capitalism has never seemed more like a shell game than right now, of course, but it can be a dangerous fantasy to imagine a pre-capitalist time (or place) when stuff was actually worth exactly what it was worth, however common the Marxists (and others) have done so, using the figure of the primitive as the figure for pure use value economies. But it’s particularly dangerous to use cowrie shells as your example, should you elect to focus in on West Africa, as Keziah has.

Here’s why. If you’ve read Things Fall Apart – and if you haven’t, for shame! – you’ll recall that before the missionaries show up, Umuofia has a thriving economy based on the cowrie shell, an economy which gets radically shifted around after the white folks start dropping benjamins and palm oil kernal becomes a thing of great price, with tragic consequence. It’s a narrative about falling apart, as the title proclaims, so there’s an easy reading in which the difference between a local economy based on local indigenous production gets crushed and supplanted by outside economic forces. It’s this narrative, roughly, which Keziah Jones is appealing to.

The thing about cowrie shells, though, is that they are about as non-indigenous as they could possibly be: the shells used for money by isolated villages in the backcountry Niger delta, as it happens, came from the Maldives, twelve-hundred islands in the middle of the Indian ocean.

How, you ask, did they get there? Well, I’ll tell you. They were used as ballast by slave ships. If you care to know all about it, you can read Johnson and Hogendorn’s The Shell Money of the Slave Trade, or you can be satisfied with my brief sketch: since the cowrie shell happens to have all the qualities one needs of currency (accurately countable, incredibly durable, and with just the right balance between being cheap but not being of unlimited supply) it went from being a East Indian trade object in the pre-European hegemony era to being (around the turn of the 18th century) the primary merchandise used to trade for African slaves.

A “Dutch Gentleman,” for example, lamented that “Formerly twelve thousand weight of these cowries would purchase a cargo of five or six hundred negroes, but those lucrative times are now no more; and the negroes now set such a value on their countrymen that there is no such thing as having a cargo under twelve or fourteen tons of cowries.” As far back as the 14th century, Ibn Battuta visited the Maldives and described how: “They gather this animal in the sea and then put them in holes in the ground until the flesh rots, leaving the white shell…. They exchange [the shells] for rice with the people of Bengal, who also use them as currency. They also sell them to the people of Yemen, who ballast their ships with them instead of with sand. These cowries are also used in the lands of the blacks. I saw them being sold in Mali and Gawgaw at a rate of 1150 per dinar.”

Paul Lunde tells us that the exchange rate at that time was 400,000 cowries to the dinar (or more), which was 1/350 of the rate those currencies traded for in Mali, “a proportion that gives an idea of the profits possible in the cowry trade if the shells could be transported far enough from their place of origin. And they were transported great distances: After Yemeni ships, Portuguese, Dutch and English ships also carried them as ballast, and huge quantities were auctioned to slavers in Amsterdam and London in the 18th century.” And then, presumably, shipped onward to West Africa.

This is one of those facts that its good to have on hand when teaching Things Fall Apart; after all, treating the novel like a “first contact” story gets a little strained when you reflect that the “pre-colonial” money used by these isolated natives actually connects them to a global trading network that spans centuries. And I’m pretty sure that Chinua Achebe knew this – or if he didn’t I’m going to pretend – because it makes the story of Things Fall Apart a lot more intersting when you recognize Umuafia’s isolation as more apparent than real, a globalizing exclusion rather than a primitive insularity.