Tales of Soft Money — The Trail of Beads


Update 2020-02-07: This article is updated with further sources to better reflect its chapter in the book, Money Dethroned.

Opaque Beginnings

The story of glass bead money first loosely intertwines with the journey of 14th century traveler Ibn Battúta after he set out south from Mecca, towards the East African coast. Leaving Arab towns behind him, he ventured around the horn of Africa, hugged the mainland until he reached The Coast Lands, or as-Sawáhil as they were called by the Arabs. It was in the Swahili cities that glass beads - a rather mystical type of money - were later imported. It should be noted that, as with the seashell money observed later, Battúta might at that point have had no clue that such bead money even existed. The first time he mentions beads is much later on his journeys, while traveling the western parts of sub-Saharan Africa:

A traveller in this country carries no provisions, whether plain food or seasonings, and neither gold nor silver. He takes nothing but pieces of salt and glass ornaments, which the people call beads, and some aromatic goods. (Battúta, 1325-1354, p. 322)

Battúta's company, while travelling south from Timbuktu in that late stage of his many travels, purchased goods with such glass beads each night. The story of how glass beads ended up in 14th century West Africa in the first place is a rather opaque one. It has been speculated that the Phoenicians of Carthage, while setting up colonies and trading stations along the West-African coast, introduced beads made of colorful Mediterranean coral to the locals, in exchange for goods of higher standing among Phoenicians. There are extensive but later evidence of coral fisheries in the Mediterranean, for example on Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica, Majorca and in Catalonia. A number of these areas were colonized and subsequently controlled by Carthage over long periods of time. Furthermore, the Amber route, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, supplied the Mediterranean societies with beautiful amber beads that likely found their way further south as well.

As the technology of glass making advanced in medieval Egypt and thereafter spread to parts of Europe - particularly Venice - it has also been speculated that glass beads became a rather convenient bastardization of valuable coral beads, and perhaps amber beads or gem stones in general. The inhabitants of parts of Western Africa, having dealt with scarce, colorful coral beads for perhaps hundreds of years, and with various scarce, uncut gemstones obtained from native riverbeds or open mines, did likely not have the proper knowledge to assess the state of abundance of this latest wave of beautiful glass. A heuristic that once worked well for them, had with better technology in the countries of the Mediterranean been transformed into a severe weakness. A similar vulnerability likely existed among the peoples of the Himalayas, as objects from the far-away sea were naturally scarce there:

The coral which is carried from our parts of the world [the Mediterranean] has a better sale here [in Himalaya] than in any other country. (Polo, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian Vol I, 1271-1295, p. 159)

Hingston Quiggin found that coral beads were used as money in parts of Tibet as late as the 20th century (Quiggin, 1949, p. 223).

Trade-routes to the Interior

With the discussed evolution of coral- and glass beads in mind, it is now worth exploring the work of Karin Pallaver, who on behalf of the British Museum researched the extensive 19th century 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. In observations of those networks lie likely clues to why exactly Battúta observed this type of money and why it is no longer anywhere to be found as such. It may also help explain why Battúta observed both seashell money and glass bead money in such close proximity of one another.

Pallaver starts her work 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 likely to the very towns cluttering the coast of East Africa that Battúta had visited. 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 was one of the groups quick to seize on this new opportunity (Pallaver, 2009, p. 20).

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 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". The metal wire money especially proved an inconvenience to the European Post- and Telegraph Offices in Tanganyika as locals had a habit of stealing that good due to its inflated value (Einzig, 1949, p. 131). Yet it was especially cloths that 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 island 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. (Pallaver, 2009)

Pallaver bundling in coral beads with the rest is an interesting footnote, as it lends support to the theory that the bead trade might have emerged first through the trade of goods like genuine coral, only to be followed by replicas. Yet another vague connection to mythical scarcity was the belief among some tribes that certain beads grew and bred from the very earth itself - likely a result of individuals having found hidden and forgotten bead treasures buried in the ground of abandoned village sites (Quiggin, 1949, p. 38).

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. 

The Bead Puzzle

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. (Stanley, 1890, p. 28)

Not only did different tribes accept different types of beads; this puzzle changed dramatically 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 (Pallaver, 2009, p.25). Henry Morton Stanley complained about this 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. (Bennett, 1970, p. 5)

Paul Einzig's sources mention similar difficulties. One expedition found its black porcelain beads were met with contempt, and after having traded some of its porcelain beads to small blue ones at a considerable loss, the expedition found that the natives suddenly demanded the former (Einzig, 1949, p. 130). Other travelers found that while rose-colored beads were popular, sea-green and white ones were refused, and red ones were rejected as to only fit uncivilized peoples in the north (Quiggin, 1949, p. 101). 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 on Zanzibar. Personnel costs and tributes on the way back to the coast were mostly paid for in goods acquired in the interior.

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 (Thomson, 1881, p. 90).

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. (Hore, 1883, p. 9)

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. (Rigby, 1878, p. 452)

Venetian Mechanization

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

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. 

At the end of the bead trail is the conclusion that helps explain why Battúta and his fellow travelers 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 (Einzig, 1949, p. 154), 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, discussed in the book's first chapter, 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, like seashells discussed earlier, 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.