anm document

Lem, "Note sur l'utilisation des cauris" (1937)
in ANM 1 D 215 fonds anciens.

© 1999 by Jim Jones, Ph.D.

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This folder contains a single long typewritten document concerning the use of cowries (sea shells) as currency. The cover page has a couple of handwritten notes:

"Annexe à la lettre n°64 de debut Juin 1937 de M. Lem, Président du groupement juridictionnnal à Senoufo, transmis par n°708 du 4 Juin 1937
du Cmdt. du Cercle de Sikasso"

"La redaction de cette note a été suggerés à M. Lem par les nombreux litiges pécuniaire se présentait durant les tribunaux et dans le réglement desquels les cauris jouent la plus grande röle en tant que le numeraire."

The full title appears on page 1: "Note sur l'utilisation des cauris au Soudan Français comme monnaie et les inconvénients que cette utilisation presente économiquement et juridiquement." The document is signed by F.H. Lem, Adjoint des Services Civils, Sikasso May 31, 1937.


(p1) The information on the use of cowries is based on inspection tours in Ouahigouya, San, Sikasso, Koutiala and Tougan. Despite the presence of French money, cowries are still the currency of choice among the African people. The first part of the document lists reasons for this.

(p2) Reason #1: The amount of cowries in circulation remains relatively constant while that of French money fluctuates. That makes the value of a cowries more stable. However, during the period 1922-1927, the local economy expanded just as the franc became devalued, so more cowries were imported.

Reason #2: The value of a cowrie was determined by local market conditions, such as the size of the harvest. Since the number of francs in circulation continually increased, its value with respect to cowries fell accordingly.

(p3) In 1908, Delafosse calculated the exchange rate between cowries and francs in the " pays Senoufo " at either 800 to the franc or 1000 to the franc. By 1936, the rate was 150-120 cowries to the franc.

Reason #3: Cowries have an esthetic value that the French money lacked. They were solid, nearly indestructible, were of good size for manipulation by hand, the white color made them easy to count against dark earth and they had a nice surface. "Ces qualités, qui facilétent la circulation, permettent aussi la thésaurisation." (In other words, the characteristics of cowries that made them useful as money also encouraged people to hoard them.)

(p4) Cowries serve as jewelry, and in fashion and art, much like precious metals. According to Arab historians, cowries were first imported into the Soudan in the 11th century.

The report comments on the symbolic value of the cowrie: "Dans le cauris s'est inclué un valeur de richesse; c'est un signe de liberalité, de puissance, une offrande agréable aux dieux; il alimente le trésor des associations, il orne les fétiches, qualités analoques à celles de ... le jade, l'ambre, le bronze, l'or, l'argent." (Cowries embody the values of wealth, generosity, power, and respect to the gods. They increase the value of associations and decorate spiritual objects in the same way as jade, amber, bronze, gold and silver.)

(p5) Cowries are the traditional money for settling all African contracts, especially the payment of the "dot" (bride- price). According to the region of origin and the status of the bridal pair, bride-price payments were calculated in multiples of cowries: 40 times 800 cowries, 80x800, 100x100, 50x100, etc.

(p6) Africans calculate all prices in cowries and then translate that into francs, just as they think in Bambara before speaking in French. To Africans, the franc is just another commodity whose value fluctuates annually. Also, some French coins, like the 2-franc piece, are shunned because they interfer with normal counting operations.

Reason #4: The cowrie's small value is better suited to the size of most transactions in the African market.

(p7) The smallest French coins were 5 and 10 centimes, too large for many purchases of spices, fruit and small quantities of mil. "Notre système monetaire conçu pour une économie qui est la nôtre, ne convient pas à l'économie indigène beaucoup plus pauvre et beaucoup plus restreinte. Dans ce domaine, comme dans biens d'autres, nous avons procédé par simple superposition de nos institutions et de nos techniques à celles du milieu indigène, rien d'etonnant qu'il n'y ait pas eu pénétration et qu'à défaut d'un contact imposé toute relation cesse."

Reason #5: There were not enough francs in circulation, and the francs that did make it into circulation remained there only briefly. Francs entered African hands in payment for crops at harvest time and returned to French hands at tax time, or less frequently, for the purchase of imported goods. Very few francs were left to use in trade between Africans.

(p8) Even in the best years, Africans tended to hoard their francs instead of spending them, so that they would be prepared to pay taxes even if the following year was poor. This annoyed European merchants who hoped that Africans would make purchases in their stores.

(p9) Reason #6: The cowrie was accepted throughout Africa, including the British colonies, while the franc was not.

(p10) Reason #7: The cowrie-franc exchange rate varied a great deal according to the time of year. Using the 1936 value of "la coudée de bande de coton de fabrication indigène" (a quantity of cotton cloth) in Sikasso as a standard, the exchange rate between cowries and francs in April 1936 was 240 to 1. However, by September, during the rainy season, when Africans had no great need for French francs, the exchange rate was only 160 to 1.

(p11) Consequences: The author recommended that the French outlaw cowries, but admitted that this was impossible, since the destruction of large amounts of cowries would only raise the value of those that remained.

(p12) There will be no change until the two economies became fully integrated and the French economy offered something that Africans truly needed.

(p13) The author described the impact of French civilization on Africans as extremely superficial, even amongst evolués . French francs were only useful for paying taxes.

Judicial consequences: The work of judges was greatly hindered by the variable exchange rate between cowries and francs. Their decisions often required payment of fines, but if these fines were levied in cowries, they would support a system of currency that the French needed to abolish. If fines were levied in francs, then the changing value of the franc made it possible to speculate in currency and thereby reduce the amount actually paid. Dioulas had already obtained a large reputation for money changing and speculation.

(p15) Conclusions: The French government should increase the amount of francs in circulation.

(p16) The government also needed to instruct the local Chambres de Commerce to issue one centime coins, and to make those coins large enough to handle easily. The coins should be manufactured with a small hole through their center so they could be carried on a string.

(p17) Finally, all financial transactions by the colonial administration must be carried out using francs.