Seashells and slavery in Dutch history


This video of an aquarium is about a money cowrie snail.

Money cowries are seashells in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Ring cowries are a related species, from the same oceans.

Yet, today, one can sometimes find these two shell species on Kaloot beach, in Zeeland province in the Netherlands.

How do they get there, thousands of miles away from their native seas?

They were brought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by ships of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company. Some of these ships shipwrecked, taking the cowry shells with them to the bottom of the Scheldt river estuary. Every now and then today, these shells wash up on beaches like Kaloot.

Why did the Dutch East India Company transport these shells? They played a role in their slave trade.

Wikipedia writes about money cowries:

Shells of this cowry were commonly used as a medium of exchange[9] in many areas of Africa, Asia and the Pacific islands until the late 19th century.

The Maldives provided the main source of cowrie shells, throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast. Huge amounts of Maldivian cowries were introduced into Africa by western nations during the period of slave trade.[10]

It was also traded to Native Americans by European settlers.

The advantage of cowries over coins was that counterfeiting them was harder. Wentletraps, another type of seashell sometimes used as money, were counterfeited sometimes with rice.

This blog has written before on the Dutch role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Often, people think about the Dutch 17th and 18th century slave trade that only the West India Company did that, to Suriname and the Antilles. However, also the Dutch East India Company (VOC) did it.

In the Dutch trans-Atlantic slave trade, sugar and war against Portugal, Spain and others played a major role. In the lesser-known VOC Indian Ocean slave trade, cowries played a big role.

After the intercontinental slave trade stopped in the nineteenth century, cowries were no longer used as money.

7 thoughts on “Seashells and slavery in Dutch history

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