Cowrie shells as cash – who knew?

It is not my usual practice to post on fiction and non-fiction in the same one. But these two books elide so well that I am breaking the mould.

I was reading A Fistful of Shells intermittently while gorging on the Booker Longlist, so I have not yet quite finished it, but have read enough to know that it is fascinating, infinitely readable and full of stuff I had no idea about.

I did not know that West Africa had a thriving trade and diplomatic relationship with Portugal, long before English traders industrialised the slave trade.

I did not know that cowrie shells were the accepted currency for many nations until the enormous amount of gold pouring from West Africa, through Europe and the Middle East, changed the nature of international currency once and for all.

I did not know that pilgrimages from West Africa to Mecca were famous and appear in all sorts of documents going back to the early 1300s,

a Catalan atlas [made in 1375] speaks of networks and pathways of connection that have been covered over by the dust of time. The idea of Jewish mapmakers of the Balearic Islands having connections in distant Mali startles…

The map in question shows a camel and rider on a trading route, facing him is the Emperor of Mali enthroned with sceptre and golden crown, dressed in elegant robes extending a gold nugget to the trader. The whole map is crisscrossed with lines indicating trade routes through Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

West African history has been subsumed into the catastrophe of the slave trade, and its effect on subsequent generations. This book by Toby Green shines a bright light on the past and blows away the dust of centuries.

The novel, by Amitav Ghosh is also a peregrination, but one that starts in India in the Sundarbans and Kolkata. Summoned by a member of his extended family, Nilima Bose, the antiquarian bookseller, Dinanath Datta (Deen or Dinu), is told of a little known shrine dedicated to the Gun Merchant, or Bonduki Sadagar. Dinu is known to be interested in the myths surrounding Chand Sadagar and his flight from the goddess Manasa Devi, and this story is remarkably similar. So Dinu goes off in search of the shrine.

Gun Island is like many of Amitav Ghosh’s novels more than one story. So partly it is that of pursuing the Bonduki Sadagar myth, but also more relevantly today, the reports of migrants arriving in Italy from Egypt. For a colleague and friend of Dinu’s, Professoressa Giacinta Schiavon, is also interested in this from a different point of view. Venice, her city, has long been a centre for immigration going back centuries and she wants to show Dinu how this relates to the different parts of the Bonduki Sadagar adventure.

The Blue Boat carrying hundreds of migrants arrives in Italian waters just as the political situation alters and the government decides to prevent anyone landing on Italian soil. There is a stand off (if you can have such a thing on water) which involves the team made up of many of the characters in this story also in a boat together with protestors both for and against the migrants.

I do not want to spoil anything for the reader, but only to say that in following up one story, possibly a myth, Dinanath comes upon an explanation which turns his whole perception upside down. In the process he undergoes several strange adventures or coincidences, mood swings that are both inexplicable and also anxiety provoking.

But is he also escaping from Manasa Devi, goddess of snakes and spiders and if not, why does he keeps having miraculous escapes from poisonous examples of both these?

Ghosh’s descriptions of landscape and weather are glorious, if you have not already sampled this in The Ibis Trilogy, then I strongly recommend this novel. It has everything that you might desire and more. Thrills, spills and drama on almost every page; as well as a serious message about migration and climate change. What more do you need?

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Filed under Books, Environment, History, Politics, Travel, Uncategorized

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