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Cowry Shells

Cowries from the Maldives, off the coast of India, were a popular currency in the slave trade. They had first been introduced by North African traders, and the Portuguese brought some to West Africa in the early 1500s. In the sixteenth century, six thousand cowries purchased one captive, with the price rising to forty thousand by the 1700s. Most captives were bought with a combination of shells, textiles, guns, ammunition, alcohol, and other goods. From 1700 to 1800, over twenty-five million pounds of cowries were exchanged in West Africa with European traders.

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