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The Golden Cowrie

"Every Conchologist is aware of the existence of this superb shell: its magnitude is considerable, and its colour too conspicuously distinct from that of all other species of its genus to be passed over without immediate observation...For the discovery of this extremely beautiful shell, like many other acquisitions of importance in the cabinet of the Conchologist, we stand indebted to the assiduities of that eminent Naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, and those who accompanied him in the celebrated voyage of Captain Cook around the world. They observed it among the ornaments with which the natives of Otaheite [Tahiti] had decorated their dresses, which were composed of feathers, and the barks of trees. To these garments they were attached by means of a string passing through a hole perforated for the purpose on one side of the shell. The natives were not so easily induced o part with thee shells as the other decorations of their clothing, appreciating them at a much higher value....They said the shells were found near an island at a great distance from Otaheite, and from the direction of the spot towards which they pointed, it was conjectured they meant the Fegee or Fidgi [Fiji] Islands, which are inhabited by the most ferocious cannibals throughout those seas. Our navigators were therefore able only to procure such specimens as were attached to the dresses of the natives, and these being almost constantly perforated for the better convenience of fastening them on safely, at once explains the reason of the Orange Cowry being so rarely met with undisfigured by such perforation."

Edward Donovan, The Naturalist's Repository (1823)

From Donovan's reference to Joseph Banks, it might be assumed that the shell was brought back from James Cook's first voyage to the South Seas in 1768–1771. In fact, what then was called the Orange Cowry or Cypraea Aurora had been acquired on his second circumnavigation of the globe. When, after a three-year voyage, HMS Resolution returned to Portsmouth in July 1775, three specimens of the shell were to be auctioned, "Ye Yellow Cypraea" described "like ye yelk of a Egg, as is also the inside, highly polish'd." The shells likely were pierced, as Donovan had surmised, a strand of coconut fiber having been threaded through a hole drilled in the side, and worn around the necks of native chieftains as a symbol of their power and prestige. Not surprisingly, the significance of the shell in the South Seas was no less when transferred halfway around the world to the polished display cabinets of the British elite, where it continued to function as a mark of social status.

The hand-colored engraving above is from Thomas Martyn's The Universal Conchologist, where an explanatory table briefly describes the shells illustrated there. The Orange Cowry, Cypraea Aurantium (Vol. II, fig. 59) is said to be from the Friendlye Isles. These were the Tongan islands or "Friendly Archipelago," so named by Captain Cook, when he visited there in July 1774, because their "Courtesy to Strangers intitles them to that Name." (More than four decades later, in another account of the islands, it was revealed that the natives had conspired to kill Cook and his crew and loot the ships. Had he "known them in this respect, he would not have misnamed them friendly.")

It is this picture that is referenced in the Catalogue of the Duchess of Portland's auction in 1786 of two such shells, No. 197, a "Cypræa aurora, S. or orange Cowry, from Otaheite, a new species, and very rare," and No. 3831, "An exceeding fine and large Cypræa Aurora, S. or the Orange Cowry, from the Friendly Isles, in the South Seas, extremely scarce." This is the earliest mention of Martyn's book (the first edition of 1784), although the shell he figured there was not her own but from another collection.

In reappraising the illustrations, however, Martyn was dissatisfied that "the more early performances appeared so very inferior to the later" and resolved to start anew "in that improved style of execution, which was ultimately to determine the fate and reputation of the work" (p. 30). Those plates found wanting were rejected and The Universal Conchologist reissued in 1789. In the Introduction, he sought to explain his new system of classification, which he hoped

"will be found to stand on the firm and unalterable basis of truth and nature, so all possible diligence will be employed in the execution of the work, to explain and illustrate that system by figures, in such a manner as to impress intuitively a full and clear idea of the principles on which his new classification will depend....With a view to obtain these desirable purposes in the following work, a series of plates will be given, successively exhibiting every known shell; a spectacle equally novel and magnificent! The long descriptions and details of the generation and properties of Shells, given by most writers on Conchology are wholly omitted here; and the utmost care has been taken that each figure, by being an exact and faithful transcript from nature, shall be sufficiently explanatory of the subject which it presents" (pp. 4, 6).

He also speaks there of the shells as "rare and non-descript" (p. 6) and titles his page Figures of Non Descript Shells Collected in the different Voyages to the South Seas Since the Year 1764. There may be some confusion as to why he would be bother with such undistinguished or insignificant specimens. But that is a modern understanding of the word, and Martyn intended its original meaning: "Chiefly Biology. A species, genus, etc., that has not been previously described or identified," as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term. "Non-descript" shells simply were those that had not been described previously.

But Martyn often was indifferent to such descriptions and preferred to have his engravings convey the character of the shells which were so beautifully figured. He therefore did not always adhere to a binominal nomenclature. Consequently, when Johann Friedrich Gmelin cited The Universal Conchologist in the thirteenth edition of Linnaeus' Systema Naturae (Vol. I, pt. 6, p. 3403, no. 121) and did provide a binomen, it is he who was recognized as the author of the shell which now bears his name: Cypraea aurantium, Gmelin 1791.

    In 1784, une Porcelaine extrémement rare...s'appeller l'Orange (No. 294) sold for 50 livres, the figure penned in the margin of the sales catalog. Two years later, the large Orange Cowry from the Portland auction sold for £3.5sa considerable sum when one realizes that only about three percent of the English population in the eighteenth century had an annual income of more than £200. Then, in the early nineteenth century, prices for the shell began to climb even higher.

By 1823, Donovan could declare that twenty guineas (£21)

"has become the average standard value of a fine shell of this kind for some years past. At present they are more highly prized, because it is now pretty clearly ascertained that they are no longer to be procured among the natives of Otaheite; and for this reason it is much more likely they will reach a still higher price than that the value of them should diminish."

And, indeed, just two years later, at the piecemeal sale of shells from the Tankerville collection, a Cypraea aurantium or Aurora Cowry (No. 2208) sold for £26.5s, which likely is a record. Today, its relative value is about £2,000, more than twice what even a large, gem-quality specimen now would realize.

, the genus within the family Cypraeidae that comprises cowries, derives from the Greek Kypria, one of the many surnames for Aphrodite, the goddess of love (cf. Homer, Iliad, V.458) and is associated with Cyprus (Kypros), her traditional island home. Kteis (literally, "comb") also meant cowrie shell or vulva. The generic name Cypraea chosen by Linnaeus (1758) alludes to this notion of fertility and the perceived similarity between the human vulva and the aperture of the shell—an association that should not be surprising, given Linnaeus' impish predilection to use overtly sexual terms in his morphology of shells.

Looking at the ventral side (this specimen measures 90 mm), the collumellar and labial teeth of the aperture do suggest a comb—as well as the vulva. The porcelain-like gloss to the shell is due to the fact that it is protected by the fleshy mantle of the mollusk that inhabits it. So in French, porcelaine signifies both the ceramic and the shell. The word "porcelain," itself, derives from the old Italian porcellana or cowrie (because of its smooth surface), which in turn evolved from the Latin porculla, or young sow, Roman slang for the vulva (cf. Varro, "for our women, and especially nurses, call that part which in girls is the mark of their sex porcus," On Agriculture, II.4.10). The pecten (Latin "comb") or scallop shell has the same synonymous association.


A note on synonymy in taxonomy: When "Ye Yellow Cypraea" first was introduced to England, the shell was given various names, all of which alluded to its distinctive color. What is popularly known as the Golden Cowrie originally was called the Orange Cowry, Cypræa Aurantium (the Latin equivalent) and Cypræa AuroraMorning Dawn. Writing in 1823, Donovan himself preferred Aurora, comparing the shell's "beauteous fulvous hues fading into white with inexpressive softness, to the warm glowing tints and fainter blushes of an opening morning sky in summer." Cypraea Aurantium was favored by Martyn (Fig. 59) and Gmelin (p. 3403, No. 121), Cypraea aurora by Solander (Catalogue, Nos. 197, 3831) and Lamarck (p. 382, No. 14), Cypraea Aurora Solandri by Sowerby (p. 2, No. 8, Fig. 141) and Chemnitz (p. 34, Fig. 1737-1738). As well as Solander (a Swede who had sailed with Captain Cook on HMB Endeavor and cataloged the Duchess of Portland's shells), there were more obscure synonyms such as Cypræa aurantium, Martyn 1784 and Cypraea aurora, Larmark 1810 (Lamarck, p. 452, No. 14).

When a scientific binomen was established, these early names were rejected, and Gmelin came to be recognized as the author of the shell: Cypraea aurantium, Gmelin 1791. If this nomenclature were to change (for example, Lyncina aurantium, Gemlin 1791), the name and date still remain. In place of Cypraea and Lyncina, another genus was proposed by Schilder in 1925: Callistocypraeaand Callistocypraea aurantium, Gmelin 1791 now is the accepted name of the shell, as recognized by the World Register of Marine Species. In establishing the genus, Schilder himself had cited (p. 104) both aurantium Martyn (= aurora Lamarck) and, somewhat unexpectedly, Porcellana Jouss[eaume]. In 1943, a further subspecies was proposed by Steadman and Cotton: Callistocypraea aurantium turanga. "To distinguish the Fijian specimens we have added the subspecific name turanga, Fijian for chief, as it was the prerogative of Fijian chiefs to wear this shell as an ornament tied to the neck" (p. 330).

Just as the name of the cowrie shell evolved, so did that of the genus itself. Rumphius, the first to propose a taxonomy for mollusks, called cowries Porcellana (p. 113ff), as did d'Argenville (p. 266ff) and Martini (p. 280ff). On the other hand, Linnaeus (p. 718ff) and Lamarck (p. 447ff) called them Cypraea. As to the distinction between "cowry" and "cowrie," the former spelling was preferred in earlier accounts and "cowries" when the plural was used, following the English convention that a noun ending in "y" preceded by a consonant forms the plural by substituting "-ies." In time, certainly by 1884 (OED), the singular came to be spelled "cowrie."

The earliest use of the word did not refer to the genus Cypraea but related to one particular speciesthe Money Cowry (Cypraea moneta), a small yellow shell from the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. For centuries, hundreds of millions were used as a medium of exchange in West Africa and Bengal. (Such shells, of course, would have to be imported, as it would hardly do to collect one's currency on the beach.) In the first half of the eighteenth century, approximately 16,000 cowries were equivalent to one ounce of gold (£4) on the fabled Gold Coast of Guinea which, coincidentally, gave its name to the English guinea (£1.1s). By 1820, as values fluctuated, the number of shells had doubled to 32,000, after which the cowrie was valued against the silver dollar, which was one-sixteenth of a gold ounce or 2,000 shells, a number that could purchase as many as ten live domestic fowl (Guinea hen). It was an exchange rate that extended from the early-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, the lack of depreciation due to the expanding slave trade and a concomitant demand for cowries. Throughout the eighteenth century, 150 tons of shells were imported every year, counting some 800,000 shells to the ton. These were used in partial payment for slaves and usually comprised one-third of the purchase price. In about 1720, this would have been 180 pounds of cowries (there were about 400 shells to the pound). A "head" or sack of cowries was about 20,000 shells or 50 pounds, the weight that a man could be expected to carry over some distance. Such a load also was known as a captif  (slave). Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, when inflation began to reduce the cowries' value, as little as two such loads could have purchased the man who carried them.

References: <Conchology: Plate XXXII, Cypræa Aurora Aurora, Morning-Dawn, or, Orange Cowry> (1823) by E. Donovan, The Naturalist's Repository, Vol. I; Caroli a Linné: Systema naturae per regna tria naturæ, Vol. II, Pt. 6 (1791) edited by J. Frid. Gmelin; The Duchess's Shells (2014) by Beth Fowkes Tobin; Shell Collecting: An Illustrated History (1966) by S. Peter Dance; Rare Shells (1969) by S. Peter Dance; The Universal Conchologist: Figures of Non Descript Shells (1789) by Thomas Martyn; The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery: Vol. II: The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure 1772-1775 (1961/2015) by J. C. Beaglehole; An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, in the South Pacific Ocean, Vol. II (1817) by William Mariner, edited by John Martin; "Thomas Martyn and the Universal Conchologist" (1906) by William Healey Dall, Proceedings of the United States National Museum, 29, 415-432; A Catalogue of the Portland Museum, Lately the Property of the Duchess Dowager of Portland, Deceased (April 24, 1786); The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (1990) by J. N. Adams; Catalogue systématique et raissonné, ou description du magnifique cabinet (1784) by [J. G. Favanne]; Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres, Vol. VII (1822) by [Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck; Cypraea Aurora Solandri (1795) by Johann Hieronymus Chemnitz, Neues Systematisches Conchylien-Cabinet, Vol. XI; "The Value of Money in Eighteenth-Century England: Incomes, Prices, Buying Power—and Some Problems in Cultural Economics" (2015) by Robert D. Hume, Huntington Library Quarterly, 77(4), 373-416; The Conchological Illustrations: A Catalogue of the Recent Species of Cypræadæ, Vol. II (1841) by G. B. Sowerby; "The Cowries (Cypraeidae) of Fiji" (1943) by W. R. Steadman and Bernard C. Cotton, Records of the South Australian Museum, 7(1), 309-336; Annales du Muséum d'histoire naturelle, Vol. 15 (1810) by [Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck; Classic Natural History Prints: Shells (1991) by S. Peter Dance and David Heppell; "Revision der Cypraeacea (Moll., Gastr.)" (1925) by F. A. Schilder, Archiv für Naturgeschichte, 91A(10), 1-165; "Étude sur la famille des Cypraeidae" (1984) by F. Jousseaume, Bulletin de la Société Zoologique de France, 9, 81-100; D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer (1705) by Georgius Everhardus Rumphius; Neues Systematisches Conchylien-Cabinet (1769) by Friedrich Heinrich Wilhelm Martini; Systema naturae, 10th ed. (1758) by Caroli Linnæi [Carl Linnaeus]; L'histoire naturelle, éclaircie dans une de ses parties principales, la conchyliologie, que traite des coquillages de mer, de riviere et de terre [La Conchyliologie] (1757) by [A. J. Dézallier d'Argenville]; "The Cowrie Currencies of West Africa" (1970) by Marion Johnson, Journal of African History, Pt. I, 11(1), 17-49; Pt II, 11(3), 331-353.

Almost all of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century publications that have been cited are available from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, an invaluable online resource for material that otherwise would have been much more difficult to acquire.

See also The Obscenity of Shell Description

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