Cowry Shells

The deepest emotional impacts so often can arise from the smallest moments and/or objects. As we toured Jefferson’s mansion, one of our guides pointed out that one of the objects that had been excavated from the so-called “Negro quarter” had been a cowry shell. He held up the tiny shell,


which to my eyes seemed so insignificant, and he told us that these shells come from the Indian Ocean, hence, it must have been brought to North America by an enslaved African. To my uneducated eye, the cowry shell looks like a million other sea shells that one can come across on any coast, but indeed, it is not. It originates from the eastern side of Africa and was so treasured that some enslaved person(s) managed to hold onto it all the way across the ocean and to Jefferson’s plantation where she hid it in a pit under her housing. When I was told the story, I was moved, but the detail quickly slid underneath the dense mass of all of the other scenes and narratives of Monticello.


Two days later, however, I was standing in the Brooklyn Museum, and in a startling moment of synchronicity, I found myself staring at a mask,

Bwoom mask from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dated late 19th or early 20th century.

from the region of the Republic of Congo. The neck of the mask was covered in cowry shells. Then, I saw another object,

An object from Nigeria, dated late 19th or early 20th century.

this time from Nigeria, with even more cowry shells. Finally, there was one more mask, from Liberia. The crown of this piece was adorned with three rows of cowry shells.

A mask from Liberia, dated from the early 20th century

Each one is evocative, even though the information on the cards next to the respective masks is scant.  The masks themselves, stripped of their original context though they are, nevertheless manage to convey such a richness of deeply human emotion that the tragedy of the single cowry shell at Monticello suddenly seems to be more than can be borne.


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