Early beads would have been fashioned from bone, stone or horn. Brightly coloured glass beads came later, mostly with the arrival of Europeans and these glass jewels have been traded throughout the continent for hundreds of years. Bone, ostrich-shell and metal beads have been recovered from late Stone Age and Iron Age sites in Africa. There was a trade in stone beads in the western Sudan by the first millennium A.D.
In more recent times, about five hundred years ago, scheming European explorers and colonial nations needed a currency to trade with the inhabitants of Africa. Since African people of had no need for money, items that were readily transported and easily traded for palm oil, ivory, gold and other valuables of Africa were sought. The resulting bead trade flourished for over 400 years and right up until the 1920s.
The fact that many of Africa’s people led pastoralist or semi-nomadic lifestyles meant that personal adornment was a well-established part of their material culture. Trade in glass beads saw a logical pairing of the visitors’ desire to trade with indigenous peoples’ favouring of items of adornment. Glass beads were relatively cheap to produce, hugely variable in terms of design and relatively easy to ship over land and sea. It didn’t take long for the trade in beads to become established.
The first glass beads arrived in West Africa before the 15th century via the trans-Saharan trade with North Africa. The importance of such trade was recorded in the writings of Arab travellers during the 12th to 14th centuries. By medieval times the trans-Saharan trade was well established. Early Saharan rock art dating from the 1st millennium and depicting chariots suggests that contact with the north dates much further back in time.
Glass beads in the archaeological record
Beads have been used in Africa for Thousands of Years, Ostrich shell beads excavated from Blombos cave near Cape Town in South Africa have been dated as being 75000 years old.
Pharaohs were buried with beads around their necks.
One of the earliest sites for glass beads in sub-Saharan Africa is the site of Igbo-Ukwu in Nigeria. It was excavated by Thurstan Shaw in the late 1950s and gave up some 150 000 glass beads. Radiocarbon dating revealed these beads to date from the 9th and 10th centuries.
Similarly, early European beads have been discovered in Zambia, Malawi and Southern Africa suggesting that the trade in glass beads has been established for near on five hundred years. It’s hard to be precise about such trade. 4th century Roman beads are difficult to tell apart from beads manufactured by the Dutch in the 17th century. Bead traders based their designs on beads already circulating on the African continent and so being precise about the origins and age of beads is a tricky business.
There are references in early European documents about the importance of beads in West African societies. The advent of mass bead production in Murano, Italy, home of the millefiori bead, saw the trade in Africa reach unprecedented proportions. Brightly coloured glass beads with complex patterns fitted with the demand African cultures had for personal adornment.
While beads fashioned form ostrich shell have been found dating back 39 000 years in other sites in Africa, the ability to craft beads from glass was virtually unknown. It’s easy to see how the colourful beads made in Bohemia, Amsterdam and Murano were well received in Africa.
The Dark Side of Bead trade
It is well known that the slave trade also became tied up with the trade in more intricate and expensive beads. The European beads became so valuable that they were traded for human lives.
Certain beads were reserved to be worn by African royalty, others became important heirlooms, were used for dowries and were passed from generation to generation. In both Ghana and Kenya beads were handed to youths as that grew up and denoted their age group and status within respective communities on different sides of the continent. Maasai warriors are given a stand of small seed beads upon achieving adult warrior status.
One of the most valuable beads to be traded were the Chevron beads made in Murano. Value was determined by the size and number of layers of glass. Large beads were reserved for trading with male slaves whereas smaller beads provided currency for female slaves. Trade beads were often referred to as “slave beads”.
An early account of British colonials tells how they traded beads for a tract of land with a chief of Togo. The land they secured later became known as Ghana and wasn’t even the Togolese chieftain’s land to give away. Of course, that didn’t stop the unscrupulous Brits from claiming ownership which eventually brought them into conflict with the Ashanti empire. Bead trade is far from being a moral tale...
Types of Glass beads traded
In West Africa millions of beads were traded with Africans for commodities and slaves. Certain beads were manufactured in Europe specifically for the African trade. Researchers travelled to Africa to establish what colour schemes and bead types would be favoured by a specific ethnic group. Millefiori trade beads, chevrons, striped melon beads and eye beads were some of the more popular kinds.
Padre beads were adopted by the pastoralist tribes of East Africa for their collars and were imported from Germany and Czechoslovakia. The Turkan people had used Ostrich shell beads as a currency for many years and so the change to brightly coloured glass beads was an easy transition to make.
Of all the beads being traded in Africa the Venetian beads made in Murano dominated the market. There were as many as 17 factories in Murano- exporting hundreds of tons of beads per year.
Between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries beads became the currency of wealth, an important sign of status, and were literally a currency. People were buried with their beads- giving them the necessary trappings for safe passage in the next life.
Africa wasn’t the only place where trade in glass beads flourished. Beads were traded with the native American peoples, in Nepal and as far afield as Papa New Guinea. The first record use of Trade Beads in America is that of Christopher Columbus.
Today we continue to make and trade in beads. Our passion for these man made gems continues…