On this day in 1706, Thomas Bowrey received a bill for the customs duty on cowries and tea he had sold. He endorsed the bill customs on unrated goods.
At the time, drinking tea was a new fashion and it was extremely expensive. Bowrey had sold 1018lbs of his tea for £827 and paid £189 duty on the tea. However, he sold just 271lbs of cowries shells for £1128 (the equivalent of nearly £175,000 today) and paid £170 duty on them. Why were cowrie shells so valuable?
Cowrie shells were used as currency in many areas of the world. Many of the Chinese characters for forms of currency contain the symbol for the cowrie shell. The shells had been used as currency in China for thousands of year before Bowrey’s time in the East Indies. Cowrie shells were used as money in Orissa, India as late as 1805. In Thailand, the exchange rate of the cowries to the baht set the value of a single cowrie shell as 1/6400 of a troy ounce of silver. Silver was in short supply in the England of 1706 but needed for the trade with the East.
Despite this, the cowrie shells were abundant in the countries around the Indian ocean visited by Bowrey’s ships. His years of experience in this area of the world enabled Bowrey to recognise this more unusual trading opportunity.