Some beads in African and World History

Since my mum’s death at the start of this year, I and my brother Tim have been going through the family archives of which she was the keeper.

There have been lots of fascinating items amongst this collection of papers and small items. Sadly nothing of much monetary value – not surprising, really, as there seems to be some sort of anti-magnetic force which keeps money and our family well apart. One item, however, is of importance, so far as I am concerned, in connection with the history of world trade. 

The item in question is a small cache of beads. They look quite ordinary beads, but, according to the note appended to them by my great grandfather, they have an interesting back story.


Photo of family beads

He acquired these beads in Ngora, Uganda, in East Africa, in 1909, when he was a missionary there. I’m not sure how he came by them, but they were probably given to him by a local chief. According to the note, they had been an heirloom of the Kavirondo people who lived in that area, handed down from father to son. They must have been a valuable gift, as one bead could purchase one cow.

On returning to England my great-grandfather took them to the British Museum to see if they could tell him any more about them. The curator there said that they had been made in Greece in about 1000 AD – in other words, almost a thousand years before and 3,000 miles away!

My first question, of course, is, how on earth could the British Museum curator give such an accurate (and unlikely) provenance? But, assuming it to be correct (which my brother and I are planning on verifying), the second question is, how did the beads get from Greece to Uganda, and when?

In 1000, Greece belonged to the Byzantine empire. Between Greece and Uganda lay lands ruled by Muslims – an almost impenetrable barrier for travellers at time, but not for trade goods. There were regular hostilities between the Christian Byzantines and the Muslim Arabs to their east, but there was also a great deal of trade. Alexandria in Northern Egypt was a major entrepot for the Mediterranean/Middle East trade, and Christian and Jewish merchants had their own quarters there. It is therefore not really surprising that Greek-made beads should arrive in Egypt at some point. My guess is that they would be snapped up by Muslim merchants specifically for swapping with peoples further south in Africa.


Map of north-eastern Africa in c. 1000 AD – go here for commentary about this map

To the south of Egypt were the Christian kingdoms of Nubia, and exactly as with the Mediterranean trade, there was both on-going hostility AND plenty of trade between Muslims and Christians across this frontier. Beads were amongst the most common of trade goods in pre-modern times, mainly because, being small but reasonably precious, they could be easily used in place of money. As such, they could quite easily have found their way down the Nile valley. 

Similarly, Egypt was the terminus for the Arab-dominated maritime trade route which started in the Red Sea and worked its way southward down the east coast of Africa. By this time the Swahili (mixed Arab/African) trading cities were establishing themselves along this coast, and were conducting a flourishing trade into the interior of Africa. The beads could well have set off along this route.

 Map of Central Africa in c. 1000 AD, showing the Swahili states – go here for commentary about this map

Whichever way the beads travelled, in the centuries around 1000 they would have had to make their way across hundreds of miles of country populated by small-scale, local societies: so another question arises – were the beads swapped from one society to another, gradually moving southwards or inland (or, who knows, zig-zagging their way across Africa before arriving in Kavirondo country); or were they carried by long-distance Arab, Swahili, Nubian or even Ethiopian trading caravans, funded and organized from commercial centres in these comparatively urbanized lands?

Another possibility, of course, is that the beads didn’t make their journey southward until several centuries after they had been made. In the16th and 17th centuries, Greece, Egypt and northern Nubia (or Sudan, as it should now be called) were all ruled by the Ottoman empire, and the Mulsim emirate of Funj ruled much of the rest of Sudan. In the same centuries, organized kingdoms began to multiply in Uganda and other parts of east-central Africa.

Map of Africa in 1789

Map of Africa in 1789, showing the situation in NE Africa and Central Africa – go here for commentary about this map

These developments will undoubtedly have stimulated trade between north and south; perhaps the beads made their journey there during these centuries, but they would have still had to cross much territory inhabited by local tribal peoples.

Another possibility is that the beads travelled with tribal groups as they migrated south from the Nile valley into Uganda. The Kavirondo are, at least in part, a Nilotic people who now live in the Lake Victoria region.

Questions, questions. Whatever the case, if these beads were indeed made in Greece a thousand years ago, then they are living testimony to long-distance trade routes crossing difficult terrain, going back centuries in world history.

By Peter Britton