African trade beads were exactly that - beads used in trade as a form of currency. The beads were wildly popular as Africans loved adornment and became skilled beaders. Their other name slave beads tells of their shameful past. The beads were used as ballast on ships on the outward journey to Africa which were then loaded up with human cargo as well as other trade goods for the journey back.

Two sources of trade beads existed in the 1800's. Indian made beads were sent to Africa where they were perforated and strung on palm-leaf fibre. The European-made beads were largely Venetian, the most popular of which were their millifiore ones. These trade beads played an important role in the European exploration of Africa in the nineteenth century. One such explorer was a remarkable Englishman, Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), the first European to set eyes on Lake Tanganyika.

Richard Burton vestido de árabe. PinturaIn Arab clothes via WikipediaBurton was a gifted linguist - he spoke 29 languages and several more dialects - as well as a soldier, author, poet, scholar, diplomat,orientalist, ethnologist and fencer. He is best known as the translator of the Kama Sutra and the Arabian Nights. His other achievements include travelling to Mecca disguised as an Afghan, a feat made possible by his exotic looks and his intimate knowledge of the language and customs. He was also an undercover British spy during a period of Anglo-Russian rivalry and conflict in Afghanistan which the British called the Great Game.

Photograph of Richard Francis Burton in AfricaBurton in Africa via WikipediaHe kept detailed notes of everything he encountered, the geography, the culture and even the sexual habits of people. He carried a legacy of his dangerous adventures - the scars on both cheeks, evident in his portraits, from when he was impaled by a Somali spear.

During his 1857-58 expedition in search for the source of the Nile, his party had to be well stocked to last several months. The list was long which included all manner of camp furniture, arms and ammunition, medicines, instruments as well as beads, cloth and wire for gifts to trade along the way for supplies and for porters' wages. To Burton's credit, he tried to prevent his porters from using beads to purchase slaves. Even slaves could own slaves, an observation which filled him with disgust.

Each porter could carry a maximum of 70 lbs in addition to his weapons and marching kit! But the stringed beads were more awkward to pack so they could only carry 50 lbs of those at most. A single load of beads did not last past a month. Just how many beads did he take for his expedition? In his book "Lake Regions of Central Africa", he said he was stocked with 20,000 strings of white and black, pink, blue, and green, red and brown porcelain beads much of which was bought from local markets in Zanzibar, his starting point. There were 400 varieties with different names. He also ordered in a stock of Venetian beads.

Burton was without doubt, a brave and adventurous man but even he, with the gift of languages (he learned marketplace Swahili in a month) struggled to keep current of bead styles and their relative worth. The cheapest and trade staple were the round white porcelains. The most desirable and expensive were small coral beads - red enameled on white. These were three times the cost of white ones. They were sometimes called kimara-p'hamba (food-finishers) because a person would forgo food to get hold of them or kifunjya-mji (town-breakers) because women would beggar themselves and their husbands for them. Pinks and blues were the next most popular while black was near useless. A good price for 2 lbs of a kind of nut similar to almonds in taste, was a khete (string) of coral beads, the same for a hen or 4-5 eggs or a small bunch of plantain bananas. A single ferry trip - 1-5 khete of beads.

African Trading BeadsAfrican Trade Beads by Kevin.Souza via Flickr Burton reported averages because the actual costs could vary from place to place due to tribal preferences for certain beads. The Wajijis for example prefered large blue beads above the corals at an exchange rate of three times more. The pinks were on par with the corals. The Wabuha liked blue and coral but rejected black and white beads. So it was very important for him to learn the prices of all the beads before entering a strange village. In modern terms, he had to know the bead currency exchange rates for every area he explored without banks or the internet to help him figure it all out.

Burton and his companion, John Speke, arrived back at the coast virtually destitute - all the beads were gone despite them being careful with their trade goods. They were both in very poor health but survived to explore other places.

Burton was in many ways, an unconventional man who scandalised society in prudish Victorian England. He was controversial in his lifetime but fortunately for us, he did leave behind a tremendous body of work.

Picture and map source

Before You Go:
Edward Rice (1990). Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton : The secret agent who made the pilgrimage to Mecca, discovered the Kama Sutra and brought the Arabian Nights to the West. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Chris and Janie Filstrup (1982). Bedazzled : The Story of Beads. Frederick Warne.

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