Barter, Blood, Beauty: Beads in the Age of Discovery

February 11, 2007 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Fire House
Fort Mason Center
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, 2 Marina Boulevard, San Francisco, CA 94123

by Wolfgang Schlink

A precis from the lecture by Wolfgang Schlink

Gregory Ghent kindly introduced me at the February FEA lecture as “Dr. Wolfgang Schlink, bead historian”. Well, that I am not.  To set the record straight, “Barter, Blood, Beauty” began as research for a murder mystery that I   always wanted to write. The plot would play out in the murky world of art collectors and dealers. A few years back I actually dreamed major parts of the storyline. But, disappointingly, my dream was not about disputed Greek antiquities or looted multi-million dollar paintings. It involved just trade beads, glass baubles that European explorers and conquistadors, specifically Columbus and Cortés, took to newly discovered territories. Little did I know that my reluctant fact-finding on “Beads in the Age of Discovery” would open a window into the fascinating world of geopolitics, trade routes, navigation, glass making, slave trade, and so much more.

Beads have been critical barter goods for explorers at all times. Lewis and Clark ran into an impasse when Oregon Indians refused to trade badly needed otter furs with the pioneers who did not have blue beads in their barter    arsenal. Henry Morton Stanley, in preparation for his mission to find David Livingston, painstakingly selected eleven varieties of glass beads in the colors preferred by the many tribes he would encounter in Africa.

Beads played a practical part in the Age of Discovery as well. By the mid-1400s, affluent Europeans had developed a craving for luxury goods from the Orient, like gemstones, silks, porcelain, and particularly exotic spices. Muslim merchants were in control of the trade route bottlenecks at Cairo and Constantinople. They also dominated the trans-Saharan caravan routes. The trade with the East had created a significant trade deficit. Europe did not have enough valuable export goods let alone own gold and silver to match the demands of foreign trade.  Oriental luxuries had become unaffordable. As a consequence the race for direct access to the riches of the Orient and to gold was on.

The Portuguese were first out of the gate. They sailed south and ultimately discovered the seaway to India. En route they dipped into the gold supply of Guinea. Outflanking the North African caravans with their fast caravels, Prince Henry’s captains had by 1482 discovered the entire coastline of West Africa. No significant records of bead  exchanges exist. The Portuguese were masters of secrecy. But it must have come as a surprise that Benin royalty used elaborate coral bead costumes, headdresses and neck collars. The famous bronze heads testify to that particular fashion. In any event, it did not take long until   African tribes had integrated European glass beads into adornment, ritual, and ethnic art.

The Spanish Crown followed suit. Christopher Columbus sailed west to find the riches of the East. Whenever the “Admiral of the Indies” pressed local New World dignitaries for information about gold fields, he reached into a supply of special gifts. The records speak of an amber necklace (likely from the Baltic Sea), Carnelians (most probably from India) and mystery beads described as having “many colors”.

The chroniclers of the Mexican conquista report more bead detail. Fernando Cortés repeatedly gave “twisted diamonds”, “blue diamonds”, and “margaritas” as goodwill gifts to high-ranking Aztec officials. The “margaritas” are described as beads “having within themselves many designs of different colors”. The parallel to the Columbus “beads of many colors” is obvious. No doubt, these were intricate Venetian drawn glass beads called at the time “rosetta”. The early version of the rosetta bead displayed seven colored layers starting with an inside clear core and subsequent coats of white, blue, white, red, white and blue again. Since the late 19th century these beads are commonly known as “chevron” annotating their internal zigzag herringbone design.

And what about the blue and twisted diamonds? Today they are called Nueva Cadiz beads, so named after a Spanish settlement on Cubagua, a tiny island off the coast of Venezuela. Discovered by Columbus in 1498 and immediately recognized for its riches of oyster pearls, the island would sadly become the first example of natural resource depletion by Europeans in the Americas. Demand for pearls was high at European courts. Within thirty years the Spaniards had managed to destroy the oyster beds. In 1541 a massive earthquake wrote the final chapter. Excavations at Nueva Cadiz in the 1950s unearthed many drawn blue glass beads. Cortés “diamonds” had found their lasting identity.

A final word on beads as currency in the trans-Atlantic slave trade: An often forgotten fact is that the import of slaves into the Americas was mainly spurred by the European craving for sweets and the introduction of sugar cane into the Caribbean. The Spaniards would not and the feeble indigenous people could not do the hard work needed on the sugar plantations. Strong tenacious workers were needed and were readily available across the Atlantic, in West and Central Africa. The main currencies in this bloody chapter of human cargo were cloth, metal, cowrie shells, guns, and alcohol. Beads were somewhere in the mix, but not as prominent as the often-cited Moses Levin bead sample card (“Blue Beads for Slaves”) of the British Museum seems to suggest.

Back to the drawing board! The bead fact-finding is done, and the murder plot is developing.

Wolfgang Schlink is a gallerist, collector, and lecturer. His TRIBAL EARTh GALLERY specializes in Aboriginal Australian contemporary paintings and in tribal art. He also publishes EAC NEWS, the newsletter of the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles.