Maldives Culture -
Maldives Culture - maldives island
Latest Updates arrow Pyrard - Maldives 1602-1607 arrow Pyrard - Maldives - Vol.1 - Chapter 17
Latest Updates
Advanced Search
Free Dhivehi-English Dictionary
Presidency of Mohamed Nasheed
Gayyoom's Dictatorship 1978-2008
Buddhism and Islam
Ibn Battuta 1343-45
Pyrard 1602-07
Rosset 1885
Maldives 1900-1922
Maldives 1924-1953
Majlis rule 1954-57
Suvadive Republic 1959-1963
President Nasir 1969-1978
Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik
Maldives History
Maldives Art
Scripts of Maldives
Maps of Maldives
Traditional Stories
Magic - Fanditha
Photographs - Modern
Photographs - Historic
Ships of the Indian Ocean
Social Customs
Modern Stories
PDF Print E-mail
The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil
Francois Pyrard de Laval
translated into English in 1887 from the third French edition of 1619 by Albert Gray assisted by H.C.P. Bell

Vol.1 Chapter 17

Of the revenues of the king, money, traffic, and commerce of the Maldives; and of the merchandise imported and exported.

Royal Taxes
The revenues of the king consist of his domains, many islands being held of him in seignory; next of the dues paid by his subjects of the produce of the land, that is to say, the fifth part of all grain sown; a certain share of the coconuts and lemons has also to be paid; but they compound with him by a fixed annual contribution of honey (jaggery) or fruit.

Besides these dues, the king imposes on his subjects an ordinary tax, according to their means, consisting of coconut cordage, of shells called boli, of which I hve spoken, and of dried fish in those islands where it more abounds and the fishing is best - for they never pay him these dues and taxes in money, except when they buy rank or office, or the permission to don their braveries.

Also he requires the inhabitants of the islands to make and furnish annually as much cotton cloth as he delivers to them of raw cotton: this is for the use of the soldiers, to whom he gives these cloths three times a year, besides their pay. (Footnote 1887: 'A payment of cloth and mats is also exacted from atolls where these are manufactured,' writes Bell. Christopher says that the Sultan makes an annual distribution of red cloth to the Viziers for the soldiers under their command, each man receiving a piece of cloth and 30 pice in money.)

The king's revenue consists also of merchandise; for all ships that put in there in the first instance report themselves to him and declare their cargo; then he compounds with them at a certain price for what he wants to take, and this is most often the greater portion: afterwards the people buy the rest at a price fixed at higher rates than the king has paid, and then the king distributes his merchandise abroad among the richer islands at such prices as he pleases, though they have no need of the goods, while he takes from them in exchange such merchandise as he wants at no more than half its value. (Footnote 1887: The Sultan still asserts a right of pre-emption at low rates on all cargoes imported from foreign parts.)

Royal enterprise
Often, too, he despatches ships to foreign parts, laden with the merchandise of his island, insomuch that his revenue cannot with any certainty be told, for it is variable, now more, now less; and sometimes he has a loss, chiefly when his ships are wrecked, or fail to make a good port.

Royal claims
Besides these revenues, the king has certain dues appurtenant to him - for instance, all that is found on the sea-shore belongs to him: a man dare not touch such a thing with a view to keeping it; he is bound to collect it, and bear it to him, whether it be wreckage, timber, chests, or other casualties; or ambergris, called by them 'goma', and when prepared, 'maavaharu', of which more is found there than in any of the East Indies; it, too, belongs to the king, and he that would dare appropriate it would have his hand cut off.

It is the same with a certain nut, cast up by the sea from time to time, and as big as a man's head, which one might liken to a couple of large melons joined together: this they call 'thavah kaashi',' believing that it comes of certain trees under the sea: the Portuguese call it 'coco des Maldives'; it is an article of medicine, and fetches a high price. Often at the season for this thavah kaashi, or for grey and black amber (as this too is found there), the king's servants and officers harass the poor people when they suspect them of having found any; nay more, when they have a grudge against a man, they impute to him this charge, as they do here that of false money, to the end that he may be searched; and when one becomes suddenly rich, it is commonly said that he has found 'tavarcarre', or amber, as though it were treasure. There is also a plentiful fishery of black coral, 'endheri', which belongs to the king, and he keeps numbers of men employed at it.

  bent-over silver larin, Maldives, from Bell 1887

The coin of the realm is silver only, and of one sort. These are pieces of silver called larins of the value of eight sous or thereahouts of our money, as I have said, as long as the finger, but doubled down. The king has them struck in his island, and stamped with his name in Arabic characters. All other coins are foreign, and though they are current, they are only taken at their just value and weight, and they must be gold or silver; all others are rejected.

For in India and the adjacent parts, where there are many kingdoms and lordships, there is a great variety of money, both as to form and stamp, not only of gold and silver, but also of another metal called 'kalin', Malayan tin,' which is white like tin, but harder, purer, and finer, and much used in the Indies: coin is also made of iron. But this kind of money is only current in the territory of the prince that coins it; so that, in this matter there is great diversity, by reason of the multitude of duchies, in such wise that the Portuguese at Goa struck coin of kalin or of iron, which would be of no use in Portugal, nor even at the town of Cochin, which also belongs to them in India, and is not far from Goa; so that there they likewise employ a peculiar coinage.

But gold and silver, of whatever form or stamp, is taken in all the kingdoms at its proper value, which nevertheless is very different from ours, seeing that silver is in greater demand, and is dearer than here, and gold cheaper. Spanish reals fetch a high price, the silver being very good. Now to return to the Maldives: the king coins larins only; other pieces of less value he coins not at all; insomuch that for the uses of trade they cut the silver and pay by weight for the value of the goods bought: but this is not done without some loss, for in cutting the larin they lose a twelfth part. They take no silver without weighing it and trying it in the fire to prove it; and everybody has weights in his house for this purpose.

Then, in place of copper and small change, they use the shells of which I have said somewhat above, and will presently say more; 12,000 of them are worth a larin. For the rest, all the gold and silver comes from abroad; there are no mines in the islands. In all the public markets and in their private traffic they most frequently barter one thing for another.

copper larin coins from Maldives, Bell 1887

Trade destinations
There is a great trade at the Maldives, and they are much frequented for their commodities. You see merchants from all quarters, as Malabar men from Barcelor, Onor, Bacalor, Cananor, Calicut, Tananor, Cochin, Coilam, Cael; Gujeratis from Cambay, Surat, and Chaul; Arabs, Persians, men of Bengal, St. Thomas, and Masulipatam, Ceylon, and Sumatra, who bring goods that are in demand there, and take away what the Maldives produce in abundance.

First, of the coconut palm, which grows naturally at the islands without any cultivation, they make many sorts of goods in demand with the foreigners: for instance, cordage, with which all the vessels of the Indies are equipped; the coconut fruit, which is carried in such quantity to the coasts of Arabia and Malabar and throughout India, that more than a hundred ships are laden with it every year, as well as with the oil and honey of the same palm; and the leaves which serve for sails: but the greatest trade is in cordage.

  cowrie shells - money variety
Cowrie shells

There is another kind of wealth at the Maldives, namely, certain little shells containing a little animal, large as the tip of the little finger, and quite white, polished, and bright: they are fished twice a month, three days before and three days after the new moon, as well as at the full, and none would be got at any other season. The women gather them on the sands and in the shallows of the sea, standing in the water up to their waists.

They call them 'boli', cowrie, and export to all parts an infinite quantity, in such wise that in one year I have seen thirty or forty whole ships loaded with them without other cargo. All go to Bengal, for there only is there a demand for a large quantity at high prices. The people of Bengal use them for ordinary money, although they have gold and silver and plenty of other metals; and, what is more strange, kings and great lords have houses built expressly to store these shells, and treat them as part of their treasure. All the merchants from other places in India take a large quantity to carry to Bengal, where they are always in demand; for they are produced nowhere but at the Maldives, on which account they serve as petty cash, as I have said.

When I came to Male' for the first time, there was a vessel at anchor from Cochin, a town of the Portuguese, of 400 tons burthen; the captain and merchants were mestifs, part Portuguese, the others christianised Indians, all dressed in the Portuguese fashion, and they had come solely to load with these shells for the Bengal market. They give 20 barrels of rice for a parcel of shells: for all these boli are put in parcels of 12,000, in little baskets of coconut leaves of open work, lined inside with cloth of the same coconut palm, to prevent the shells falling out. These parcels or baskets of 12,000 are negotiated there as bags of silver are here, which between merchants are taken as counted, but not by others: for they are so clever at counting, that in less than no time they will take tally of a whole parcel. Also in Cambay and elsewhere in India they set the prettiest of these shells in articles of furniture, as if they were marbles or precious stones.

Maldive Fish
The Maldives have also an infinite abundance of fish of all kinds, as I have said before. And so rich is the fishery, that not only have they always enough to fill their own bellies withal, but they also sell a large quantity, both cooked and dried, to foreigners. This commodity is in great demand in all parts of India, notably in Sumatra, whither whole shiploads are carried.

Tortoise shell
Tortoise shell, called 'kahambu', is much valued in the Indies. It is found at the Maldives, and is largely traded in. It is a tortoise of an uncommon kind, found only there and at the Philippines. It is pretty and highly polished, and quite black, with much natural marking. It is in greatest demand at Cambay, where it is made into women's bracelets, and into pretty boxes and caskets set in silver.

The people of the Maldives likewise make a good traffic in rush mats, 'tudu kunaa', of perfect smoothness, which they make very prettily of various colours, adorning them with patterns and figures so neatly that nothing can be nicer. The Portuguese and Indians alike prize them, so that there is much trade in them.

Woven cloth
So also with cloth of cotton and silk, which is brought to them raw, and by them worked up. They do not make white cloth, but only patterned and figured, and in small pieces of an arm's length and a half in width for their dress, and other kinds for the women, and for turbans, all exceedingly beautiful and fine.

So the Maldives are frequented from all quarters for their commodities, inasmuch as they possess so many things that foreigners prize and require. In exchange, everything that the islanders are in need of is imported from elsewhere, such as rice, white cotton cloth, raw silk and cotton, oil of a certain odoriferous grain, used only to rub the body after bathing; areca for chewing with betel, iron, steel, spices, porcelain - in short, everything they have not; and all these at favourable prices, by reason of the number of ships touching there, and the easy access.

Gold and Silver
Gold and silver are also imported, and, once entered, never allowed to leave the country. They would not give the least bit of it to any foreigner, but keep it as treasure, or make it into trinkets for the women.

Footnotes 1887:

Each atoll is bound to pay yearly a certain portion of its produce, said to be levied as a poll tax upon every male or female over twelve years of age, at the following rates: 1 kotta (12,000) cowries, 12 kajangs (matted coconut fibre sections), and 1 tula (28 lb.) of coir for every woman and girl, and for each man and boy the same, with the addition of 50 dried fish, 100 coconuts, and 50 aduba (50 litres) of jaggery... Native money is now occasionally accepted in lieu of produce.


'Goma', the Maldivian name for ambergris, is also Sinhala for cow-dung, which it somewhat resembles in appearance and consistency. No doubt they thought it was whales' dung, as did the Japanese, according to Koempfer. 'Maha vahara' is the 'very sweet smelling' substance.

Ambergris, the origin of which was so long obscure, is now known to be a secretion formed in the stomach or intestines of the Physeter macrocephalus, or sperm whale, it is found chiefly in those whales which appear torpid and lean, whence it appears to be the product of disease. It is opaque and soft, and when heated gives out a peculiarly agreeable perfume. It is now used only for perfumery, but was formerly employed in medicine as a cordial and an aphrodisiac.

The first notion as to the origin of ambergris seems to have been that it was a kind of fungus, produced at the bottom of the sea. The knowledge that it came from the whale is, however, found in Masudi. Marco Polo states the same, and that in his time whales were killed with harpoons for the possession of their ambergris. Friar Jordanus, in the fourteenth century, mentions it as embar, and says it is like wood. Barbosa, who says that large quantities were found at the Maldives, relates that the moslems informed him that it was the droppings of birds, which, torn from the rocks by storms, floated on the sea, and was afterwards swallowed by whales.

Koempfer says it is chiefly found in the intestines of whales, but retails the current stories of its nature, as birds' dung, a sea-sponge, and also a bituminous substance, or a kind of earth or clay. Garcia de Orta does not believe that it comes from the whale.

Sir R. Hawkins states that some think it to be found in the bowels of the whale, or voided by him, 'and maintain for certain that the same is engendered by eating a herb which grows in the sea. This herb is not in all seas, say they, and therefore, where it wants, the whales give not this fruit.'

P. Vinceuzo says that it is produced at the bottom of the sea, and afterwards refined in the whale's belly. Though so much was known, Tavernier thinks its origin still an open question - 'there is no person in the world that knows either what it is, or where or how it is produced.'

Ambergris is of several descriptions. Barbosa mentions the white (ponabar), the greyish (puambar), and the brown (minabar). The lightest in colour is the best, though Herbert says the grey is better than the white. It was always rare, and fetched high prices, and being a product of the sea, was generally (but not in Japan, according to Koempfer) regarded as royal property. It may be superfluous to note here that the anbar of the Arabs, and of all these travellers, was solely the whale secretion.

The application of the word to the yellow amber, as we now use it, is modern.

Large pieces of ambergris were occasionally found. Koempfer speaks of a piece found in Japan weighing 100 kattis, or 130 lb. Dutch, and of another weighing 185 lb. sold by the king of Tidore to the Dutch East India Company for 11,000 rix dollars, or about 2,000 English pounds.

Tavernier mentions two pieces of 33 and 42 lb. respectively as being large. Capt. Hamilton saw a piece belonging to the Raja of Cananore 'as big as a bushel, and valued at Rs.10,000, or 1,250 pounds sterling.'

But these are small compared to that recorded by J. los Santos as having been found on the coast of Malindi, which was so big that a man could hide behind it!

Tavernier states that the governor of Mozambique was in the habit of getting 300,000 pardaos of ambergris during his three years' term of office, one pardao being equal to about 2 shillings 6 pence. Its value in the Portuguese time is difficult to determine, owing to its variety of quality.

Ambergris is found throughout all the tropic seas, and, in former times at least, was occasionally washed ashore in Spain and England.

Sea Coconut, Coco de Mer
This is the celebrated sea coco-nut (coco de mer), Lodoicea Seychellarum. From the mistake as to its habitat it was termed 'Cocos Maldivicus' by Rumphius, and, from its fancied medicinal properties, 'Nux medica' by Clusius. The species Lodoicea grows only on the Seychelles; the palms being close upon the sea-shore, the fruit is floated across the Indian Ocean, and being occasionally picked up at the Maldives, was supposed, at first, to be a product of these islands, and afterwards, when the palm was not forthcoming, of a species which grew under the sea.

coco de mer, male pod and female nuts
Coco de Mer - female nuts with male pod.
Photo: Adventures Unlimited

The Maldivian word for tavarcarre, as Mr. Bell informs me, is 'thavah kaashi', or 'lava kaashi', i.e. the 'hard (shelled) nut'.

Like many other products, the sea coconut was a remedy for all manner of ailments, such as the flux, epilepsy, and apoplexy, colic, paralysis, and nervous infirmities. Above all, it was an antidote to poison; and Faria-y-Sousa says it is 'a greater antidote against poison than bezoar stone'; while de Orta, with greater medical experience, believed the bezoar to be better.

The shell was made into goblets for kings of the East and West, and set in gold and diamonds, and it was supposed that those who drank a poisoned draught out of those marvellous cups would escape unhurt. According to de Orta, the Queen of Portugal sent every year for these nuts. The Emperor Rudolf II is said to have offered 4,000 florins for a single specimen.
It is thus described in the Lusiads (x, 136):
'Nas ilbas de Maldiva nasce a planta
No profundo das aguas, soberana,
Cujo pomo contra o veneno urgeute
He tido por antidoto excellente.'

The name tavarcarre (from the Dhivehi 'thavah kaashi') is given in Piso's Mantissa Aromatica, and also by Sonnerat and Thunberg; and no doubt they borrowed it from Pyrard. Sonnerat says the meaning of the word is 'treasure', but it is clear that he has mistaken the passage following, where Pyrard says that when a man becomes suddenly rich, he is said to have found tavarcarre, or amber, as though it were treasure.

This coin takes its name from the city Lar, in Persia. The earliest mention of it by a European writer is, so far as I am aware, in in 1525, and the following table is given:
2 fules =1 dinar;
12 dinars =1 tanga;
3 tangas 10 dinars =1 new larin;
3 tangas 9 dinars =1 old larin.

At Cambay, the same writer says that 1 tanga larin = 60 reis, and that 45 of these larins weighed 1 Portuguese marco, i.e. 50 grammes each.

We get the following values from Antonio Nunes (1554): 'At the port of Bengala, 80 cowries =1 pone; 48 pones = 1 larin'. Taking a marco of silver in the reign of Joao III as being equivalent to 2,500 reis, notes that the larin would then be worth 51.012 reis.

The early Portuguese writers do not mention the shape of the larin, but there is no reason to doubt that it was as Pyrard describes it, that is, in the form in which it was current all over Western India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The earliest Dutch authority describes it as current at Goa and the Malabar coast.

In Pyrard's time the larin was worth a little more than the tanga; he says a larin was worth 8 sous, and a tanga 7 sous. The early Dutch record likewise gives a pardao as being 6 tangas or 5 larins.

Mendelslo, in 1637, in describing the money of Persia, indicates that the larin which was formerly coined by Shah Ismail was then no longer minted; but Tavernier, about the same time, states that the Arabian merchants coming to Persia take nothing but larins for their goods.

Chardin, at the end of the seventeenth century, states that the larin was no longer minted, but was still current all along the Persian Gulf.

fish-hook larin from ceylon, Bell 1887  
In Ceylon, the larin is traced almost into the present century. Valentyn says that the cinnamon and cardamoms of Ceylon were exported to Persia, and paid for in ready cash: this cash was in all probability larins. Tennent says that the Ceylon larins are stamped with Persian characters; but this cannot be true of them all, for Knox (1660-79) writes: 'The shape is like a fish-hook; they stamp what mark or impression on it they please'. Thunberg was informed that larins were struck by the king of Kandy; he describes them thus: 'It consists of a silver cylinder, hammered out, which in the middle is bent together, the ends being afterwards turned up like a hook, and the upper end distinguished either with certain letters or stars, or else with engravings. One of them which I procured by barter cost 12 Dutch stivers, and another, of a smaller size, 9; both of them were of fine silver.'

Fra Bartolomeo thinks the larin was introduced by a modern king of Kandy, and describes it as 'a piece of silver wire rolled up like a wax taper. When a person wishes to make a purchase, he cuts off as much of this silver as is equal in value to the price of the article.'

According to Davy, it had a definite value equal to 7 pence English. There are some interesting papers on the larin in the Numismatic Chronicle, namely, by Mr. W. B. Dickinson, in vol. xi, at p. 161; vol. xii, p. 82; vol. xiii, p. 61; and by Prof. H. H. Wilson, in vol. xvi, at p. 179.

The first-named writer gives some excellent illustrations of various forms of the larin in vol. xi; and Prof. Wilson gives a plate of some specimens of a parcel of 397 larins found at Sangameswara, in the Ratnagiri collectorate Ceylon, in 1846. These latter seem to have been all of the straight variety, i.e. bent only once. The legends of most were illegible, owing to the silver being too narrow for the stamp; but, by collation of various specimens, Prof. Wilson read the legend of one side as 'Sultan Ali Aadil Shah', and of the other, 'Zarb Lari — Dangh Sikka', i.e. 'Struck at Lari' (or rather, 'a Lari', as Mr. Thomas suggests - 'stamped tanga', and of date A.H. 1071, i.e. A.D. 1659.

Notwithstanding this legend, the probability is that the coins were struck at Bijapur. Mr. Vaux read, on some larins of the British Museum collection, the legend, 'Muhammad the Prophet of God', and the word 'Melek', king. There is no sufficient proof of the currency in India of the larin in the eighteenth century, as Prof. Wilson believes, in reliance upon a Sattara document of 1711, wherein is mention of 'Dabul larins', as, long before this time, the word had become a mere expression in the territories where Portuguese influence prevailed.
The illustration above of a Maldive larin obtained by Mr. Bell (it has long since gone out of use) shows that it was identical in shape with the Persian coin (see the illustrations in Tavernier, and in the Premier Livre, etc.). The Ceylon coin, as will be observed from Thunberg's description, was first doubled flat, and then bent in the shape of a fish-hook, as stated by Knox. To the present day it is known in Ceylon as the 'fish-hook' coin. Illustrations of it will be found in Davy's Ceylon, and in Tennent, as well as in the Num. Chron., ubi supra, and in Mr. Rhys Davids' article in Numismata Orientalia. The British Museum possesses between twenty and thirty specimens, most of them presented by Mr. Marsden, but, unfortunately, it is not known where any of them were found, and the characters of but few are legible; I am therefore unable to say whether the Ceylon hook form is common to the larins of other countries.

Although, as stated above, the silver larin is now obsolete at the Maldives, the name has passed to copper coins of the ordinary shape. These are of two kinds, the bodu laari (big lari) and the kuda laari (little lari) — 25 of the former and 100 of the latter going to a rupee.

Bell has specimens of these larins dating from 1716 down to 1877.

Kalin (Calin)
This was, in fact, Malayan tin. The word is originally Malay 'kalang'; it appears in Arabic as kala'i, and in the Portuguese writers as calaim. The form calin seems to have been adopted by French writers from Pyrard. As to the history of the word, it will be seen that other writers of the period, like Pyrard, conceived it to be a distinct metal. Tin coin was in use at Malacca long before the Portuguese conquest. A calaim there was worth 100 caixes, or 11 Port. reis. The metal was introduced into the Portuguese coinage by Albuquerque, but chiefly as an alloy with lead, aud the name calaim as a coin then disappeared.

Boli, cowrie shells
Cyproea moneta, M. 'boli'; cf. Sin. 'bella' (animate), and pl. boli, 'shells' (inanimate); well known as a very ancient and still the most widely used shell money. The earlier geographers, the two moslems of the ninth century, Masudi in the tenth, and Edrisi in the twelfth, all describe the cowry as being taken by casting wood or branches into the sea, the creatures fastening themselves thereon in great numbers. The same method is stated by de Barros, and by Capt. Hamilton early in the eighteenth century.

Ibn Batuta does not say how they are taken, but mentions that they are placed in pits in the sand in order to rot. According to Pyrard, corroborated by Mr. Bell, they are taken by men wading up to the waist.

In the Arab 'Relation', i, p. 5, cowries are said to be called 'al kabtaj' on the islands; Edrisi writes 'el kendj'; and Albiruni refers to the Maldives as 'Diwa kandha', i.e. Cowry Islands.

Ibn Bat, calls them 'wada', a frequent Arabic word for them. The Portuguese, Dutch, and English have all adopted the word cowry from the Hindi, 'kauri', though the Portuguese commonly referred to them as buzios, 'shells'.

All these quoted writers state that a large trade was carried on from the Maldives in these shells, that they formed the king's treasure, and in fact were used as money. Ibn Batuta is the first to give measures and values. He describes them as sold by the syah (100), fal (700), cotta (12,000), and bostou (100,000).

At the Maldives, the market value ranged from four to twelve bostou to a dinar of gold, probably = 10 shillings 6 pence. In Ibn Batuta's time, it seems cowries were current all over Africa, distance adding greatly to their value; for Ibn Batuta adds that a dinar of gold, which would purchase four to twelve bostou at the Maldives, was given in the Sudan for only 1,150 shells.

It is somewhat strange that, though these shells have been for so many centuries current coin in Bengal and all over Africa, they seem never to have been adopted for monetary purposes on the neighbouring coast of Malabar, nor even in Ceylon. The Portuguese bought cowries at the Maldives by the cotta, 4 cottas being taken as weighing a quintal: the price in Portuguese currency is not stated.

Nunes, the author here quoted, however, gives the value at the ports of Bengala, where of course the price has always been much higher. There, in 1554, cowries were current coin, 80 = 1 pone (= pan, which is still used in Bengal for 80 cowries), and 48 pones = 1 larin; and a quintal was worth 700 reis. In Bengal, therefore, a larin purchased only 3,840 cowries, while at the Maldives it would purchase 12,000.

Pyrard gives the current price as 12,000 = 1 larin = 8 sous, which would, at the then rate of exchange, equal about 7 pence English.

Cowries and Slavery:
The period of Dutch supremacy in Ceylon, which included the suzerainty of the Maldives, was also the great period of the African slave trade, and large quantities of cowries were exported via Ceylon to the European markets, to be thence employed in purchasing human beings on the Guinea coast.

In 1740, the Dutch Governor fixed the price at 2 rix dollars for a cotta of 24 lb. The annual home demand was then 400,000 lb., which, he says, would sell for fl. 1,100,000 (8,300 pounds), but even then was not a profitable business.

If the price so fixed was what the Dutch paid the Maldive Sultan, it results that the impetus given by the slave trade had sent up the market for cowries.

But the most interesting account of these shells in connection with the slave trade occurs in the narrative of an anonymous Dutch gentleman, published in English in 1747 ('A Voyage to the Island of Ceylon, etc.,' by a Dutch gentleman, London, 1754):

'The Dutch drive a considerable trade with the inhabitants of the Maldives for those little shells called cowries, where are prodigious quantities of them, and not only on the shore, but in the very ground, being probably deposited there at the time of the Flood, and left there when the ocean receded from the land.

'What we call money being arbitrary, and its nature and value depending on a tacit convention betwixt men, these shells, in several parts of Asia and Africa, are accounted current money, with a value assigned to them. This is established by a reciprocal consent, and those who are pleased to show a contempt of them don't reflect that shells are as fit for a common standard of pecuniary value as either gold or silver; they certainly forget that they themselves are obliged to do what they ridicule, and take them for ready money.

'In 1740, 2,400 cowries (probably 24,000, or 2 cottas) were equal to a rupee, or about a crown at three guilders of our money. But their great currency is on the coast of Africa, particularly Guinea, where the negroes value them as much as gold and silver, and call them bougies. An instance of the great consumption of these shells, that the French merchants of the kingdom of Whydah usually give forty pounds of these cowries for every piece of common linen manufactured by the natives, and proportionably for the products of the country, as wax, ivory, gold, etc. The company it is which supplies the European nation with the far greater part of this negro money, if I may be indulged the expression.

'The esteem in which these shells are on the coast of Guinea must appear surprising. They are not only, like gold and silver, the measure and instrument of commerce betwixt the negroes, but worn as ornaments in necklaces and bracelets, strung in one or more rows, which looks something odd, yet not amiss, by the contrast of the whiteness of the shells with the blackness of their skins.

'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 payments in this kind of specie are attended with some intricacy, the negroes, though so simple as to sell one another for shells, have contrived a kind of copper vessel, holding exactly a hundred and eight pounds, which is a great despatch to business. However, the Maldives must not be thought the only place which affords these shells; they are also found in the Philippine islands, but they don't come up to the Maldivian, either in colour or clearness.

'The chief European market for these shells is Amsterdam, where there are spacious warehouses of them, the French and English merchants buying them up to send to Africa.'

The rate of exchange in Bengal at the end of last century, given by Fra Bartolomeo, was 60 to the pice, or 3,840 to the rupee. In 1820 the Bengal rate was 6,000 to the rupee, i.e. Rs. 2 the cotta; the same price obtained at Male' in 1835. In 1843, the exchange in Bengal was at 64 cowries to the pice, which would now purchase about six times the number. At Male' the price in recent years has generally been R. 1.50 the cotta = 25 lb., or Rs. 5 the cwt. It is a far cry from Masudi to Mincing Lane, but I may conclude this note with the following extract made by Mr. Bell from a recent Produce Market Report :-" Cowries, Maldive small, 15s. to 18s. per ton; medium, 10s. to 12s.; large, 6s. Very dull. Bombay large common Maldive, 8s. to 10s. per cwt.; medium Calcutta, 20s.

Tortoise shell, kahan'bu
The tortoise shell of commerce is, according to Mr. Bell, supplied by the 'hawksbill' variety (Caretta imbricata). Pyrard describes it more fully hereafter in his Treatise (vol. ii). The natives take it both on land and as it floats on the water. The price of this article, as we shall see later, was 1 larin for the gau (= quarter lb.). Maldive tortoise shell is of first-rate quality, and always finds a ready sale in Ceylon and Bengal. What is purchased at Male' at Rs. 16 to Rs. 25 per cwt., is sold in Ceylon at Rs. 5 to Rs. 10 per lb. The average value of the annual imports into Ceylon since 1856 is 1,296 pounds; in one year, 1875, they amounted to 2,184 pounds.

Maldive mats, tudu kunaa
The well-known Maldive mats are made only in Suvadiva atoll, from a rush which thrives best there. In delicacy of pattern, in happy combination of the only three colours adopted, black, yellow-brown, and white, - and in permanency of dye, the fine mats surpass anything in the same line the world over, and have justly obtained unqualified commendation. The best quality are worked up on Gaddu island, the ordinary mats at Havara-Tinadu, and a small kind o Gemanafushi. The large fine mats are valued at Rs. 5 to Rs. 6 even at Male', and can rarely be procured in Ceylon under Rs. 8 to 10.

Cotton cloth
Two or three qualities of cotton cloth are woven, chiefly in Malhosmadulu (Edafushi island), Addu, and Suvadiva atolls, though occasionally made elsewhere for private use. A peculiarity in this article consists in the uniform tasteful colouring of the waist and headcloths, sometimes plain red, or blue edged with red an inch wide, but more commonly of a rich chocolate colour, relieved by a black stripe between two of white On either side, and finished at the ends by a narrow yellow silk border and a neat fringe.
The dyes employed are excellent, particularly the red and chocolate, which are extracted from a root, 'ahi' (Morinda citrifolia).
The black dye is obtained by boiling gall nuts and rusty iron together in coconut water.
The price of cloths of native manufacture is much higher than that of the various coloured ones imported from India, in consequence of the demand induced by all persons being expected on public occasions to wear the former. The natives also spin a large quantity of foreign cotton. The spinning machine (tatun) is simply a large and small wheel of light framework.

<Previous   Next>
top of page

Maldives Culture, Powered by Joomla!; free resources by SG web hosting