Links between Africa and the Maldives, though never pronounced, have been surprisingly long-standing. It has been suggested that the Maldives-as well as the Seychelles-may have played a role as mid-oceanic staging posts in the Indonesian migrations to Madagascar thought to have occurred during the fourth and fifth centuries AD, though this remains purely speculative. Similarly it is possible that the mid-Indian Ocean archipelagos, including the Maldives, played a part in the westward spread of such staple crops as the banana and the coconut.
Of more certain significance to the whole of Africa, however, has been the trade in Maldivian cowries.
As early as the mid-ninth century AD, the Maldives were known to the Arab merchant Sulayman as a producer of cowries (Cypraea moneta), the tiny shells once used as a medium of exchange in Bengal, China, Southeast Asia, and throughout large parts of Africa. Although there are no indications of a direct trade in cowries between the Maldives and East Africa, it is known that huge quantities of these shells were taken to the ports of Southern Arabia as ballast in Arab dhows crossing the Indian Ocean from Southeast Asia by way of Male. These cowries must have been re-exported to Africa via Sinai, the Red Sea, and the ports of the Somali and Swahili coasts. It is also likely that dhows sailing to Africa carried cowries as ballast, exchanging them for slaves and local produce in ports such as Mogadishu, lamu, Malindi, Mombasa and Kilwa.
The profits attached to the cowrie trade were substantial. Ibn Bauuta, who visited the Maldives in 1343-4 and again in 1346 (and who did some trading in cowries) records that cowries sold at Male for between 400,000 and 1,200,000 to the gold dinar. Seven years later this ‘Traveler of Islam’ was to see similar cowries, almost certainly of Maldivian origin, selling at 1,150 to the gold dinar in the West African Kingdom of Mali-a tidy profit margin indeed!
With the arrival of European vessels in eastern waters during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Arab domination of the cowrie trade between the Maldives and eastern Africa was rapidly superseded first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch. During the 16th and early 17th centuries Maldivian cowries were generally shipped in bulk to Bengal, often aboard Maldivian vessels, and then re-exported in European ships to both the east and west coasts of Africa.
During the latter half of the 17th century the Maldivian cowrie trade was largely re-routed via Ceylon, which had fallen under Dutch control between 1640 and 1658. The Dutch did very well out of this trade, and each successive governor of Ceylon was urged by the Dutch authorities at Batavia to supply larger quantities of Maldivian cowries for the rapidly expanding slave trade on the West African coast. By the middle of the 18th century, when the West African slave trade was at its peak, Dutch control of the traffic in Maldivian cowries was long-established and their value in West Africa, although still substantial, had started to fall. An anonymous Dutch account published in 1747 draws attention to this development in the following matter-of-fact teens: ‘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.’
Maldivian cowries made less of an impact on the east coast of Africa, probably because they faced two serious rivals, the local cowries (Cypraea annulus) and the established cattle standard of the interior (in cattle areas, especially where iron was fairly abundant, there was less demand for imported currencies). When, however. Maldivian cowries first made their appearance in the lake regions of eastern Africa, the Arab slave-traders from Zanzibar and [3agamoyo were briefly able to make staggering profits. According to one authority at the beginning of the 19th century it was possible to buy a woman for two cowries in the Buganda region. The high value placed on cowries in this area was short-lived, nevertheless, and by 1860, following several decades of cowrie importation, it required 2,500 cowries to purchase a cow at the capital or on the main trade routes of Buganda. whilst a woman was valued at between four and five cows in the same places.
Although during the 19th century Zanzibar and other places on the East African coast developed a cowrie industry of their own based on the lindigenous Cypraea annulus, Maldivian cowries continued to find a good market in eastern Africa. This was probably because the blue Zanzibar cowries are larger than the white Maldivian cowries and the latter were reckoned considerably more valuable, both because of the higher cost of transport to the East African coast and also because once in Africa, they could be transported more easily and cheaply owing to their lighter weight. Maldivian cowries continued to be used as currency in parts of eastern Africa until as recently as 1921 when they were finally displaced by the rupee.