Mudzunga Munzhedzi/KwaZulu-Natal Museum archaeology assortment, Accession no.1982/004 Field 2
Within the archaeology storerooms of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, lie two containers full of seashells.
The shells kind a vibrant and glossy mass that makes a satisfying, virtually metallic sound once you run your fingers via them. The complete pattern weighs 18.7 kg and contains roughly 16,500 particular person shells.
They’re cash cowries, from Monetaria moneta, a species of sea snail native to the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean.
Cash cowries are pure objects – every shell is a hint of an animal’s life. They have been additionally, as their frequent title suggests, circulated broadly as a type of forex.
The KwaZulu-Natal Museum specimens have been discovered among the many stays of a sunken ship mendacity on the mouth of the Mzikaba river in what’s right now South Africa’s Japanese Cape province.
The stays have been lengthy considered of the Grosvenor, wrecked in 1782. However within the early Eighties they have been recognized because the wreck of the São Bento, a sixteenth century Portuguese vessel. The São Bento sailed from Portugal to India in 1553, the place it loaded a brand new cargo to tackle its journey homeward. It departed from the port of Cochin in February 1554 with items destined for commerce into Europe and West Africa.
The ship encountered tough and stormy situations and was in all probability too closely laden – greed and threat performed a big position within the Portuguese buying and selling enterprise. By April the São Bento was struggling across the south-eastern nook of Africa. It drifted onto a reef-and-island cluster adjoining to the shoreline and broke up within the tough surf.
It will be centuries earlier than the wreck was investigated; within the late Sixties, divers fashioned an beginner salvage and analysis group to discover what remained. Quite a few gadgets have been accessioned into the KwaZulu-Natal Museum’s archaeology assortment, together with seashore finds similar to ceramic sherds and carnelian beads, and bronze cannons recovered from past the reef.
The cache of cash cowries was discovered throughout conservation work within the deepest recesses of the barrel of one of many cannons. The shells have been packed tightly into the barrel, as if stashed there in secret. They in all probability signify a small (presumably pilfered) fraction of a a lot bigger cargo that may have been swept away by the present after the accident.
Their presence, as I’ve outlined in my analysis, tells a richly layered, unavoidably darkish story concerning the West African slave commerce. By means of the story of the cowries, a minimum of some small a part of this historical past could develop into extra tangible.
Cash cowries have been used for hundreds of years as forex throughout the Indo-Pacific world, however launched into Atlantic industrial networks comparatively late. The Maldives was a significant supply, with its large-scale, sustainable cash cowrie business.
Within the 1550s cowries have been nonetheless a comparatively new commodity for Europeans, they usually have been destined primarily for commerce with West Africa. The Atlantic market picked up swiftly and billions of cash cowries from the Indian Ocean have been shipped to the Bight of Benin on the West African coast between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Cowries have been exchanged immediately for slaves all through all centuries of the sea-borne commerce of slaves out of West Africa. Nigerian archaeologist, anthropologist and historian Akinwumi Ogundiran describes this commerce by way of a “human-cowry conversion”.
Actual numbers are inconceivable to calculate, however at a attainable charge of round 6 kg of cowries (5000–6000 shells) for one slave, the São Bento cache may have been used to buy three slaves.
A protracted view sheds contemporary mild on the historical past of the Yoruba individuals in West Africa
The São Bento cowries had one other intimate affiliation with slaves: based on the report by survivor and chronicler Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo, slaves made up round two-thirds of the ship’s 470 passengers. This point out is intriguing as a result of little is understood of the transport of slaves across the southern tip of Africa within the sixteenth century. The Indian Ocean slave commerce is much older than the Atlantic system, however it’s a uncared for space of historical past.
Exploring the Indian Ocean as a wealthy archive of historical past – above and under the water line
Early Portuguese shipwrecks with oriental cargoes just like the São Bento may contribute to our understanding of this deeper historical past of slavery, and the connection between the 2 ocean worlds.
Extra analysis would possibly decide the place the São Bento slaves got here from, and even what it meant to be a slave on this context. Regardless of the particular scenario for the São Bento slaves, the sinking of the ship may need opened different choices up for them. Finally solely 23 individuals have been rescued by a Portuguese ivory-trading vessel on the finish of a gruelling 800 km stroll from the wreck website to Delagoa Bay on the southeast coast of Mozambique. Simply three of them have been slaves.
Regardless of its sinking, then, the entanglement between slaves and cowries was so basic that the São Bento nonetheless effected a type of human-cowrie conversion: three surviving slaves shipped out of Delagoa Bay half a 12 months after the accident for 3 slaves’ price of salvaged cowries bequeathed to a museum over 4 centuries later.
There’s one other type of entanglement at play, too. Cowries weren’t simply forex: they started to function a uncooked materials in West Africa for making artwork. Among the many Yoruba, Ori shrines which facilitate the realisation of self-hood got here to be constructed from giant numbers of cowries. Even on this re-purposed context, the confluence with Ori certain cowries to an individual’s future.
An enormous legacy
Now as museum objects in South Africa, the brightness of the São Bento cowries of their containers appears at odds with the heaviness they carry from their historic affiliation with human slavery. This unsettling lightness is amplified by the sinister elusiveness of the specifics of this story, paying homage to histories of slavery extra usually. Irrecoverable, hidden, unstated, and but such an unlimited legacy.
Justine Wintjes works on the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, the place the São Bento cowries are housed and a few are on show. The analysis this text relies on arose from the workshop 'Ilha de Moçambique: Considering Oceanically / Pensando a Partir do Oceano' hosted by Oceanic Humanities for the World South and Kaleidoscopio in 2019.