Strand of glass beads "Venetian millefiori"
Venice/Ghana, West Africa, late 18th to mid. 19th century, private collection from Finland.
Trade beads are beads that were used as a medium of barter within and amongst communities. They are considered to be one of the earliest forms of trade between members of the human race. It has also been surmised that bead trading was one of the reasons why humans developed language. History of African Trade beads dates to the 15th century when Portuguese trading ships arrived on the coast of the West-Africa. The glass beads and other trade items were exchange for gold, ivory, palm oil and for slaves. At that time glass beads were major part of the currency exchanged for people and products. That’s why these glass beads are also called for ”slave beads”. The production of trade (slave) beads became so popular that literally tons of these beads were used to this purpose. Beads were used even as ballast in trade/slaveships for the outbound trip. 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 Papua New Guinea. The first record use of Trade Beads in America is that of Christopher Columbus. In February 2021, a new study published in the journal American Antiquity asserts that the glass objects are among the oldest European-made items ever discovered in North America. The discovery indicates the wide reach of 15th century trade networks. Venetian glass trade beads had been found at three prehistoric Eskimo sites in Alaska, including Punyik Point. The area was on ancient trade routes from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean and archaeologists estimated their arrival on the continent to sometime between 1440 and 1480, predating Christopher Columbus.
The beads proved to be a cheap and efficient trading currency, especially since there were already well-known glass bead making factories in Venice, Bohemia and the Netherlands, that just increased their production as a result of the growing African demand. The success of this form currency can largely be attributed to the high intrinsic value African people put upon decorative items. Glassmaking was not common in Africa. Africans used beads for currency, wealth storage and for the symbol of the social status. Although there was hundreds of glass bead designs, some of them were particularly popular. 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, rosetta/ chevron, lewis & clark, vaseline, 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. Trade beads were used as a currency until the end of the 19th century. After that they took on new roles within West African society primarily with respect to their aesthetic value. The quantitity, quality and the style of beads one possesses or wears shows one’s importance and wealth in Ghanaian and West African society. An inventory of antique beads is given only to someone who will appreciate this remarkable historical legacy and understands its value.
Superb strand of antique glass trade beads, including large Millefiori and Chevron beads. Good condition. Hemp string is modern. Beads have beautiful old patina with some chips & digs. Traces of handling and wearing over many years. Strand are c. 47,5cm long with 28 unique glass beads.
References, citations and sources:
A Brief History of Glass Beads in Africa, African Odyssey (https://www.africanodyssey.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-glass-beads-in-africa)
The BeadSite. (http://www.thebeadsite.com/welcome.html)
A Precolumbian Presence of Venetian Glass Trade Beads in Arctic Alaska, American Antiquity, Michael L. Kunz & Robin O. Mills, Cambridge University Press, 20 January 2021.
Collectible Beads: A Universal Aesthetic, Robert K. Liu, Ornament, Inc., 1995.
African Odyssey, A Brief History of Glass Beads in Africa.(https://www.africanodyssey.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-glass-beads-in-africa)
Venetian Glass Beads May Be Oldest European Artifacts Found in North America, Nora McGreevy, Smithsonian Magazine, February 10, 2021. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tiny-blue-beads-european-artifact-north-america-old-180976966/)