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European Trade Beads Trading Routes

Trade beads have played a pivotal role in the development of trade networks between Africa and the rest of the world. Yet, while we know much about the origins of European trade beads, rather less is written about how they came to be associated with specific regions in Africa, or how they got there.

One of Africa's key trading routes during the 19th century was the Taghaza Trail which dissects the Sahara, starting at the North West town of Aoudaghost, Morocco, running all the way down the Atlantic Coast at Freetown in Sierra Leone. The trail encompassed numerous regions renowned for European trade beads, including Ghana, an important center of trade for Venetian Trade Beads such as Millefioris and Chevrons, and Bamako, known for its amber and Mali Wedding Beads. In Ghana, beads were exchanged for slaves, oil, art and palm nuts, while in Bamako, they were used as currency for oil lamps, dates, salt and gold. As the number of European merchants visiting Africa increased, so too did the number of sub-Saharan routes running from the north to the south.

The route crossing the Tenere Desert in Niger was significant in the development of trade between the historic cities of Djenne, Agadez and Benin, as all three were en route to Egypt in the North. Running east, the Kanem-Bornou route to Ethiopia allowed a variety of new elements to be introduced to the region – including copper, now used to make Ethiopian Heishi Beads. Despite these additional routes, it was the connection between Mali and flourishing Timbuktu that became one of the primary routes for European traders. Djenne and Timbuktu were two of Africa's most important trading centers, and it was here that Tuareg merchants could get significantly more in exchange for slaves and oil than at Agadez or Benin.