Glass Beads for the African Trade

African Trade Beads Mid-19th Century

A favourite currency among European and African alike during the 19th century was glass beads. Inexpensive and portable for the European explorer or trader and having a high intrinsic value for the natives, it was used extensively for the exchange of goods and services. It would prove invaluable for those engaged in long-distance expeditions as explorers often remained completely dependent upon the foodstuffs provided by the local inhabitants. Although employing porters often numbering in the hundreds to carry the equipment and supplies required for treks lasting months or even years, it goes without saying that it would be impossible to bring an adequate amount of food along from the very start. Potential carrying capacity would also be reduced on behalf of the biological peculiarities of Central Africa with the Tsetse fly barring the use of beasts of burden, making human porterage the only viable option. Another popular bartering tool was brass wire, this however posed a greater logistical challenge due to its bulky nature.

Source: TNA, FO 84/2097

With the opening of the African interior during the Scramble, demand for hard currency in the form of beads increased and Italian suppliers such as ‘Ceresa-Millin’ eagerly offered their services. Being shrewd businessmen they advertised their services much the same way as being done today, sending marketing material directly to potential customers. Identified as one such client was the Africa department in the Foreign Office, where ‘Ceresa-Millin’ offered ‘Glass Beads for the African Trade’ in ‘every kind, size & colour’.

Source: The National Archives at Kew, FO 84/2097


About J.F. Gjersø

PhD in International History, LSE.
This entry was posted in Economic History, Imperial History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Glass Beads for the African Trade

  1. notinuse007 says:

    Great informative article you got here. I already knew glass beads were used as currency in the past but didn’t realise some of the other bits you mentioned…thanks.

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