Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

Barter, Money and “Primitive Money’’ in Ethiopian History

Barter, very simply, is the exchange of goods for goods. A classic example in old-time Ethiopia might be a peasant in possession of grain, exchanging it  with a nomad for a sheep or a goat  – but, for cultural reasons, not of course for a pig. In another very different context a lady with an Applemac computer might exchange this piece of hardware with a gentleman in possession of a tortoise – Very unlikely!” you will rightly say, but it would still be a barter operation.

Money-based trade is, as the term suggests, based on the use of money. The latter is issued by the State to facilitate trade. Money usually takes the form of a metal disk or a piece of paper, suitably identified by a brief text and an image.   Produce is exchanged for money, which the consumers spend, to acquire the articles of consumption that they wish to consume.

But what about “Primitive Money?” What is it?  What is “primitive” about it, you may ask; and where does the “primitive” come in?

To answer these questions our economics theoreticians tell us what we all already know only too well, namely: that everybody wants money, and that everyone will therefore accept it in exchange for anything anyone wishes to dispose of. Money, we are told, is thus unique (or at least virtually unique) and therefore differs from most other articles (including articles used in barter) in that it is in “Universal Demand”. 

Our peasant with grain might refuse to accept the sheep or the goat (not to mention the pig) because he was a vegetarian, but he would willingly accept money because he knows that he could exchange it for anything he wants – or could even use it to pay his taxes.

And that brings us to our first evidence of Primitive Money and Barter in the Ethiopian context – and does so, way back in the early 6th Century AD (by which time the rulers of Aksum, had been issuing coined money for half a millennium).

Aksum in the Early 6th Century AD

Let us now turn to an early 6th century eye-witness account of the gold trade from Aksum, recorded in a contemporary manuscript, the Christian Topography which was written by Kosmos Indikopleustes, an Egyptian merchant-cum-monk.

Kosmos, who is generally reputed to have been a good observer, states that the Aksumite merchants and others took along with them to the mining district, (probably situated west of the capital, near the source of the Blue Nile):

“oxen, lumps of salt, and iron, and when they reach its neighbourhood they make a halt at a certain spot and form an encampment, which they fence round with a great hedge of thorns. Within this they live, and having slaughtered the oxen, cut them into pieces, and lay the pieces on top of the thorns, along with the lumps of salt and iron, Then come the inhabitants [of the area] bringing gold in nuggets like peas… and lay one or two or more of these on what pleases them – the pieces of flesh or the salt or the iron, and then they retire some distance off. Then the owner of the meat approaches, and if he is satisfied, he takes the gold away, and upon seeing this, its owner comes and takes the flesh or the salt or the iron. If, however, he is not satisfied, he leaves the gold, when the native, seeing that he has not taken it, comes and either puts down more gold, or takes up what he has laid down, and goes away. Such is the mode in which business is transacted with the people of that country because its language is different and interpreters are hardly to be found”.

The above is the passage that is generally taken to establish the character of the Aksumite gold trade.

What can we say about this passage?

1. It makes no mention of money although the Aksumite rulers are known to have been minting coins for hundreds of years – in gold, silver and bronze.

2. As we have seen, the local people bringing up the gold, exchanged it for salt, iron and meat (by means of an elaborate ritual on the fence). These three commodities, which unlike ordinary money as we know it bore no State insignia, thus played a commercial role comparable to that played, under less exotic circumstances, by money.  Commodities used in such barter exchanges would therefore be referred to in academic jargon as “Primitive Money”.

Kosmos, claims, as we have seen, that the transaction was a means of overcoming linguistic problems, particularly important because of a dearth of interpreters. This may well be true, but there is possible additional explanation: the ceremony on the fence had the obvious advantage of avoiding language-based disputes and quarrels. It may thus have been designed as an element of what may be called Aksumite Peace.

As for Kosmos’s references to enforced silence at the fence, we may note that this is a phenomenon often associated with “Primitive Money”. Those discussing this form of economic activity refer to it by two equally meaningful terms; “Dumb Commerce” and “Silent Trade”.

We hope, dear reader, to jump a millennium or so in a later article, looking at the different forms of barter  as reported by Portuguese and Spanish observers in 16th and 17th century Ethiopia, and also the use of such forms of exchange in modern times.