𝗠𝗼𝗻𝗲𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝘄𝗿𝗶𝗲𝘀, 𝗮 𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗻𝘀𝗼𝗰𝗲𝗮𝗻𝗶𝗰 𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗶𝘁𝗮𝗴𝗲 – 𝗽𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝟯
At the mouth of the Mzikaba River in the Eastern Cape lies the remains of an old shipwreck. Geoff Harris discovered the wreck in the late 1960s and in the 1970s Tim Maggs and Chris Auret identified it as the São Bento, a Portuguese vessel that was sailing from India to Europe when it wrecked in 1554. The KwaZulu-Natal Museum acquired several of its cannons in the early 1980s. In the course of conservation work, museum staff made an astonishing discovery.
Deep inside one of the cannons was a secret cache of money cowries. The São Bento cowries probably came from the Maldives. They were destined for trade with West Africa, where many billions of cowries were shipped by sea from the 1500s to the 1800s. Some of the São Bento cowries are on display in the museum.
There is an evil, dark side to the cowrie trade. The cowrie economy was closely tied to the slave trade, and cowries were often traded directly for slaves. If the São Bento’s journey hadn’t been cut short, its cowries would most likely have been exchanged for human lives.
📸The São Bento cowries in the KwaZulu-Natal Museum collections. Photo: Mudzunga Munzhedzi (2019).