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The Rise and Fall of Slave Beads

Glass beads were originally created to ease the passage of European explorers across the African continent. As most African cultures have long histories of crafting and adornment with beads made from wood, bone and shell, the introduction of glass as a bead material was widely and rapidly received.

Trade beads were not of a set form but were produced according to demand, which could vary from region to region, or village to village, resulting in many thousands of different designs. Some were rarer than others. Chiefs or esteemed individuals in a tribe would make deals with traders to not sell a specific type of bead to others, in order to heighten its value. Striped Chevrons (photo below) were the most common product of this era, although Millefiori Beads (second photo below) became a favorite with African tribal chiefs during the close of the 15th century.

Glass beads were valued in Africa, not because Africans were duped into believing them to be precious stones, but because they were the products of an exotic technology, one of which was unknown and not accessible in Africa at that time. The success of this form of currency can also be largely attributed to the high intrinsic value African people put upon decorative items. The beads became precious in their own right and were soon linked to whatever was valued in the cultures of the people who owned and crafted them. They were transformed into a variety of objects to be worn according to custom, as token of social status, political importance and for personal adornment.

Trade beads, also known as slave beads, dates to the 15th century when Portuguese trading ships arrived on the coast of West Africa to exploit its many resources, including gold, slaves, ivory and palm oil. At that time, glass beads were a major part of the currency exchanged for people and products. The beads proved to be a cheap and efficient means of exploiting African resources, especially as glassmaking technologies developed in Europe.

Trade beads are an artifact in the colonization and corruption of Africa’s history. Today, you can find these beads lining the shelves of African trader’s stalls. Below is a quote from Christopher B. Steiner from his book African Art in Transition:

“African demand for trade beads has, in the past several decades, been replaced largely by European demand. Hence, although the consumption of European beads has diminished among Africans, trade beads continue to circulate along specialized routes of transnational commerce. The same beads which for centuries were prized by Africans are now sought by those inhabiting the very shores from which the beads originated.”

To the tourist who buys trade beads in West Africa, though not an indigenous product, thier long history with Africans has made the product exotic, foreign, giving it an image of traditional, old- custom Africa. This attribute is highly valued among tourists because of the “primitive” view African art and artifacts are marketed to the western world.


African Art in Transition by Christopher B. Steiner

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