Tales of Soft Money — The Trail of Beads


Staying in Africa, we continue to explore the work of Karin Pallaver, who on behalf of the British Museum has researched the 19th century extensive use of glass beads on caravan routes stretching from the east coast of modern day Tanzania, to the large lakes in the country's western interior.

Mapping the Trade Networks

Pallaver starts by describing a couple of shifting dynamics in the 19th century East African trade networks. The monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean had for centuries taken goods from India and the Arabian peninsula to Zanzibar and the towns cluttering the coast of eastern Africa. Meanwhile, trade between Africa's interior and these coastal towns had been limited at best. As demand for slave labor rose in the 18th and 19th century, and as Europe and India slowly started to appreciate East African ivory in full, this led market mechanics to push for more and larger trade connections between the coast and the interior. The Nyamwezi people were one of the groups quick to seize on this new opportunity.

As for the monetary systems used along those trade routes, they were complex. Maria Theresa silver thalers, named after the 18th century Empress of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, were used in the coastal towns and on Zanzibar. As were the coexisting Indian silver rupee and the Spanish piastre silver dollar. While these more conventional types of money were demanded in the east, trade caravans had to stock up on slightly more conventional commodities before leaving for the interior. The most common of these commodities were, according to Pallaver's sources, cloth, glass beads and metal wires  -  all of which European observers sometimes referred to as "African money". Especially cloths were used by the caravans to bribe their way through the territories of certain chiefs.

Second only to the cloth goods in demand were glass beads; this demand was especially high far inland close to Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika. The supply of glass beads to the caravans was initially monopolized by Zanzibar-based Indian traders, who according to sources imported these beads to the islands by the tonnes. These beads trickled out to the various trade networks, towards places where they ultimately were scarcer and more valuable. To quote Pallaver:

[...] among the most requested there were the same same, or sami-sami beads, made of red coral, the white beads, popularly known as merikani, the gulabi beads made of pink porcelain, the black beads called bubu, the sungomaji, white and blue beads produced in Nurmberg, and a variety called sofi, Venetian cylindrical beads available in different colours. [1]

Sir Henry Morton Stanley, in his 1871 work How I Found Livingstone, elaborated on these bead-based monetary systems that he had had the privilege to run into while traveling the interior. He found that the red sami-sami would be readily taken in Unyamwezi, the black bubu in Ugogo, the egg sungomazzi in Ujiji and Uguhham, and the white Merikani in Ufipa, Usagara and Ugogo. If valuable in one regional area, the beads were often worthless in many others [2].

Not only did different tribes accept different type of beads; this acceptance schedule changed drastically with time as well, which made the matter even more complicated. Merchants caught owning certain types of beads for too long could see their entire wealth evaporate as those beads 'fell out of fashion' for one reason or another. English explorers Speke and Burton apparently managed to hold one type of beads long enough that they were unable to even give them away as gifts. Henry Morton Stanley complained about the subject as well:

The various kind of beads required great time to learn, for the women of Africa are as fastidious in their tastes for beads as the women of New York are for jewelry. The measures also had to be mastered, which, seeing that it was an entirely new business in which I was engaged, were rather complicated, and perplexed me considerably for a time. [3]

In any case, as soon as the trade caravans had reached the lakes, they generally had sold most of their imported goods, with especially the beads fetching many times the market price as they did on Zanzibar. Personnel costs and tributes on the way back to the coast were mostly paid for in goods acquired in the interior.

Lake Tanganyika - A place where sacrifices in beads were made to local gods. It was here that Stanley's guide warned him that, unless beads were thrown in to the lake, anyone trying to pass would get lost and drown. 

Pallaver makes an interesting observation of the fact that the trade route economy rested mainly on three different monies. Cloths, being the most sought after goods in the interior, were used mainly for high-value transactions like slaves or ivory, while beads and copper wires were, often but not exclusively, used for smaller ones. This, of course, is not random, but the result of saleableness considerations with regards to transactions of differing sizes, just as coins of differing precious metal contents facilitated similar efficiency improvements in more developed parts of the world.

Now, as it is clear what the trade caravans brought in to the interior, and what they subsequently brought back to the coast, let's look a bit closer on especially the glass beads. A common misconception is that Europeans were the deceitful, imperialistic initiators of supplying glass beads to this specific area. The first beads in East Africa, according to Pallaver, originated from East Asia, and the initial attempts to introduce for example Venetian beads apparently failed as no one accepted them as money. Even as Henry Morton Stanley managed to match the supplied bead types with what the locals actually demanded, he noticed to his probable disappointment that some of his beads could buy him vegetables, but not eggs, milk or fowl.

Luckily, in some of the larger financial centers in proximity to the caravan routes (for example Tabora and Ujiji) existed markets where all beads fetched prices in relation to one another. Beads could also in these cities be used to buy food, among other things. German explorer Hermann von Wissmann observed that in the Ujiji market the smallest coins were represented by red and blue glass beads. Cotton cloths and copper represented silver money, whereas slaves, cattle and ivory represented gold. The explorer Joseph Thomson corroborated this as he documented his visit to the market of Ujiji [4].

Pallaver also mentions the missionary Edward C. Hore, who had this to say about the Ujiji beads:

Here for the first time we find a regular currency or money in use by the natives; it consists of strings of blue and white cylindrical beads, each string containing 20 beads. Bunches of 10 strings are called "fundo". From 9 to 11 fundo are given in exchange for 4 yards of good heavy American calico; the value varying daily, according to the quantity of cloth in the market. [5]

Venetian Mechanization

As information on the intricate glass bead trade networks trickled back to Europe and beyond, it became clear that the way to upend them with an inflow of new supply in order to profit was not as straightforward a path as one might have thought. As already mentioned, certain Venetian beads had initially been rejected, so it was established that the African tribes were not going to accept just any type of round glass objects coming their way when their century old bead networks at the time consisted of dozens, if not hundreds of different bead types. This was of course a cause of annoyance among Europeans, some of whom attributed it to the vanity of African women, as is anecdotally indicated by Sir Stanley's comment on their changing taste for beads. It is likely that the ever changing demand of bead types instead was a result of economic realities, like monetary inflation - in other words logical from an economical point of view. The glass replicas of corals, pearls and stones had slowly but surely eroded trust in the scarcity of many of these monies. Pallaver has found a source in the German explorer J. M. Hildebrandt, which aptly may represent this sobering realization:

Bartering with goods is a terrible business. In Europe it is generally thought that the savages of Inner Africa accept a string of beads or a yard of cloth as a sufficient recompense for dozens of elephants' teeth, and that the nourishment of a caravan is repaid by the honour of the visit. These happy days are long since passed. The savages have advanced from the state of childhood to the years of hobble-de-hoyhood. [6]

The happy days may indeed have been over for Hildebrandt, but not for the Europeans more broadly.  

A lavish wooden door in the bead-receiving port town of Stonetown. The rich Indian merchants residing here brought with them the tradition of having elephant protection on their mansions, even if there never were any elephants on the island. 

Building from the expertise stretching back to medieval times, Venetian bead production was by this time an ever increasing juggernaut that from the middle of the 19th century started serious mechanization efforts. These efforts greatly affected output, and was combined with Venetian officials forbidding, on pain of death, the city's bead producers to spread any knowledge about production processes. Apart from the earlier mentioned initial failed efforts to penetrate the complicated East African bead market, the Venetians, according to Pallaver, evidently succeeded based on documented export numbers from the Venetian Chamber of Commerce. Their production centers still had to regularly change the glass bead types every year (sometimes almost monthly), which of course was a real but not insurmountable problem for them. Curiously, the glass bead export was higher to neighboring European countries as well as to India, where they were not used as money, but as accessories on clothes for example. This export is also partially explained by the fact that the beads often continued their journey to Africa from the foreign ports instead.

At the end of the bead trail is the conclusion that helps explain why travelers historically could buy essential provisions with beads, while nowadays it is impossible. This conclusion helps explain why, from being worth their weight in gold in the 19th century Gold Coast, aggri beads are today essentially worthless. The one fatal flaw - an ultimate end-point of most monies - was of course that they would eventually be mass produced, causing high inflation on tribes saving and earning their livelihood in that exact money. As technology advanced and the cost to produce beautiful glass beads from abundant, cheap sand continuously decreased, the room for ever higher profits by producers increased as long as people continued to use these beads as money. The effects of monetization has to be remembered: money is always valued at a premium due to its use also as an exceptionally good medium of exchange. With the production cost cuts, a larger part of this premium could be pocketed.

It should finally be added that glass beads often had many good monetary properties temporarily superior to those of other commodities traded in the regions of the interior (like bulky iron horse shoes or deteriorating bags of millet). Coming in strings, they were in effect divisible. They were also relatively fungible, easy to carry and exchange, did not easily break or deteriorate, and they were easy to use as a unit of account. The lack of hardness, however, had them dethroned as money in province after province. Despite the documented instances where East Africans constantly tried to adopt new types of beads as money, the Venetian seigniorage ultimately caught up with them, and in the fullness of time they had to abandon this type of money altogether in order not to face further poverty or - in the worst case - slavery due to the inability of defending themselves from tribes or nations with harder monies.

[1] Pallaver, K. (2009). 'A recognized currency in beads'. Glass Beads as Money in 19th-Century East Africa: the Central Caravan Road. British Museum Research Publication 171.

[2] Stanley, H.M. (1890). How I Found Livingstone: Travels, Adventures, and Discoveries in Central Africa. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, p.28.

[3] Bennett, N.R. (1970). Stanley's despatches to the New York herald, 1871-1872, 1874-1877. Boston: Boston University Press, p.5.

[4] Thomson, J. (1881). To the Central African Lakes and Back: The Narrative of the Royal Geographical Society's East Central African Expedition, 1878-1880. London: Sampson Low, Marston , Searle & Rivington, p.90.

[5] Hore, E.C. (1883). 'On the Twelve Tribes of Tanganyika', Journal Of The Anthropological Institute Of Great Britain And Ireland Vol.12, p.9.

[6] Rigby, C.P. (1878). Mr J.M. Hildebrandt on his Travels in East Africa, Proceedings Of The Royal Geographical Society Of London Vol.22, p.452. Translated from Hildebrandt, J.M. (1877). Proceedings of the Geographical Society of Berlin Vol.4.