This is the first post in a five-part series on the different uses of African trade beads. Today we are discussing the use of beads in African culture.
For many years, African Trade Beads formed part of a fundamental currency in Africa. Merchant ships originating from Spanish, Italian and Dutch shores frequented Africa en-route to the undiscovered Americas and Asian territories. Notable explorers such as Christopher Columbus are affiliated with the development of the bead-currency custom in exchange for the riches Africa had to offer. These ranged from exotic spices, scents and ingredients, to furs, animal hide and a variety of trinkets.
Tribal leaders and regional governors were given the role of liaison between the merchants and African tribes-people, often holding considerable authority as educated, even bi-lingual spokespeople who were able to trade as aggressively as the merchants. It's perhaps for this reason they were also the most decorated of their tribe. They already held esteem as an alpha or dominant individual, yet this new skill brought the tribes greater reputation, improved economy and welfare – something rather new to the developing world. It is probably due to this greater esteem among their people that tribal chiefs began to decorate themselves more flamboyantly. African Trade Beads brought colour, denoted successful tradesmanship and became symbolic of increasing wealth and status.
Throughout the history associated with African Trade Beads, we can pin-point several variants that were regarded as rarities to the people of Africa. During the 15th Century, blue Prosser Beads (not dissimilar to those we have here at the Bead Chest) were held in high repute for being rare. Chevron Beads also began to form a multi level currency – the 12-15 layer variants being the most coveted. Between the 15th -18th Centuries, African Trade Beads brought from Venice became highly sought after, namely those with russet and scarlet hues. These were made from a gold composite. Tribal chiefs in possession of such beads were few and far between, therefore these beads became symbolic of powerful African leaders and tradesmen.
Today, African Trade Beads still play a vital part in the culture of many African tribes. Mali Wedding Beads, (many original strings of which we have right here at The Bead Chest) were symbolic of fertility and purity to the women of Ghana. It became customary for the giving of such beads on a woman's wedding day along with the marital blessing of longevity and fruitfulness (perhaps relative to child-bearing).
Similarly, inhabitants of the Krobo region still regard Krobo Beads to hold great symbolism within the rites of passage for teenagers, which have led to these beads remaining a fashion trend. Traditionally, a ceremony is held for children of both genders upon entrance to puberty, and the beads presented as a symbol of maturity into young adult life. The children of the Krobo region still proudly wear Krobo Bead necklaces – a testament to the history and custom of their culture.