Photos courtesy of Grace Norris.
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African trade beads originated from Europe and were in the past used for trading purposes in Africa in the period between the 17th century and the early 20th century. Before the abolition of slavery, these beads were historically used by chiefs as currency in exchange for slaves, as well as gold and ivory. African trade beads were also popular amongst the African men and women of social standing as they were also a symbol of wealth.
One of the most common materials used to make African trade beads in the past was Venetian glass. Other materials included wood, metal and coral. Today, African trade beads are becoming common accessories on the bodies of discerning females. Both girls and women, whether African or not, are embracing African trade beads and adorning their bodies with exquisite jewelry items such as bracelets and necklaces. Hobbyists also indulge themselves in beading projects using these beads, while African history enthusiasts are fast becoming avid collectors as well.
African trade beads came about as a result of the need for traders along the route between Europe and Africa for a currency to trade with the Africans. Beads fitted here as the most appropriate medium of exchange due to the affinity that African people had for various types of beads. The trade beads were therefore used for purposes of battering goods of value from the peoples of Africa such as ivory, gold, and palm oil.
The history of African trade beads dates as far back as the fifteenth century with the coming of the Portuguese. Upon arrival in West Africa, the Portuguese discovered just how important beads were to the African people. The beads they found were crafted out of various objects and materials including gold, iron, ivory, organic objects and bone. At the same time, the Portuguese discovered that the resources that the European market was desperate for were in abundance in Africa. The traders therefore decided to use glass beads as a medium in bartering for goods and raw materials with the Africans.
Glass beads were particularly singled out because glass working technology had not yet been discovered in Africa. Therefore, the African people were in awe of the exquisite beads of glass that the European traders had to offer. Because these beads were also used in bartering slaves, they were to later earn the name “slave beads” or aggry beads. Europe responded to the popularity and increased demand for African trade beads by increasing production in cities such as Venice which is today still famous for its unique and rare glass beads.
How to Craft Glass Beads
To clean most African beads use a small amount of Mineral Oil (found at your local grocers) on a clean cloth and rub. Not recommended for old or Antique beads as their dirt is well earned and adds to their history.
Cleaning agents such as soap are not advised.