Akori Beads, Hyper-inflation & Ancient Citadels of Western Africa

An Introduction

One of the most interesting examples of monetary debasement that I’ve stumbled across is the rise and fall of Akori beads as a form of money in Western Africa from 300 AD up until the European colonial era of the 1900s. The oldest beads discovered in Western Africa are made of a silicate glass slag - the by-product of smelting iron ore. However, the origin of the iron used to make these beads is unknown, with some archaeologists hypothesising that it may originate from meteorites. The beads themselves may have originally been exchanged by Egyptians and Sumerians to West African merchants in the ancient citadel of Ghana (located in modern-day Mauritania).

From the 16th to the 20th Century, the market for Akori beads suffered several hyper-inflationary shocks caused by the importation of glass beads manufactured in Europe (particularly Venice) and traded by Europeans for slaves and precious resources along the west coast of Africa. During this period, the Akori bead became so closely associated with the slave trade, that they are often referred to as “slave beads” in European texts and museums. This association of the beads with slavery is not unwarranted, but it fails to appreciate the fascinating history of the beads, long pre-dating the European conquest of Africa.

In what follows, I’ll provide a relatively short history of these beautiful beads and analyse their role as an early form of money.


The mysterious origin of the Akori bead

“Akori beads represent one of the unsolved enigmas of west African history.... Akori were beads of oval or cylindrical shape, highly appreciated on the Gold Coast, but also known in other parts of west Africa— this is all that is certain.” — Milan Kalous (1966), A Contribution to the Problem of Akori Beads

Akori beads are typically blue, green, yellow, or red in colour; made of glass, coral, or porcelain-like material; cylindrical or round in shape; and generally about the size of a marble. What makes these beads so unique is their intricately layered “mosaic” design. Today, if you travel to any traditional market in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone, you’ll likely come across colourful beaded necklaces that imitate the Akori bead.

Photo from Augusto Panini’s Middle Eastern and Venetian Glass Beads - Eighth to Twentieth Centuries’ (2007). The subject of the photo is not identified, but is most likely from Ghana or Côte d'Ivoire.

An eloquent description of the Akori bead is given in 1874 by British explorer and journalist, Fredrick Boyle:

“No one knows exactly where this jewel of West Africa was made. It is dug up from the earth, somewhere in the interior, and forms part, no doubt, of sepulchral ornaments. It is of various shapes, and shows almost every combination of colour, but fashion ordains that the yellow varieties shall be most esteemed. Endless are the patterns upon the ground colour, stripes and spots, and rosettes, and a little device which looks like a flower. Most observers have concluded that the material is porcelain, and many believe that the pattern is produced by mosaic work. It certainly goes all through, and this peculiarity it is which drives European imitators to their wits' ends… In fact the aggrey bead so famous and so valuable is of that substance which has been called ‘Egyptian porcelain’, and every Nile traveller has had offered him for sixpence, a dozen of the beads worth five to ten shillings apiece on the West Coast.” — Fredrick Boyle (1874), Through Fanteeland to Coomassie: A diary of the Ashantee expedition

As you might anticipate from Boyle’s description above, the specific origin of the Akori bead is the subject of fierce debate by historians and archeologists alike. The term “Akori” is interesting in itself, as the word has no easily ascertainable meaning in west African languages nor European ones. Instead, the term seems to originate from a phonetic misspelling by Europeans of the Twī word “cori” which translates to “blue coral” (Twī is a native language of Ghana). We see the terms “agrie”, “aggrey”, “accori”, and “akori” first appearing in the writings of European explorers, detailing their experiences in west Africa. For instance, Willem Bosman, a Dutch official on the Coast of Guinea from 1688 to 1702, described the beads as “a sort of blew Coral, which we call Agrie, and the Negroes Accorri, which being moderately large, is so much valued, that 'tis generally weighed against Gold.”

These early European accounts of interactions along the coast of west Africa provide a limited, but nevertheless interesting perspective on the origins of the term “Akori bead”. Over time, the term came to describe many different kinds of valuable beads in west Africa.


Trade in Akori beads prior to European influence

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 15th Century, Western Africa traced deep trade links with the mediterranean world, with the Akori bead potentially providing a key medium of exchange in the trans-Saharan trade. Indeed, there is significant evidence that blue beads resembling the Akori bead were a dominant form of money in the ancient west African empire of Wagadou (also referred to as the “Ghana Empire” located in present-day Mauritania) from 300 AD until the early 1200s.

The ubiquitous presence of the Akori bead is illustrated by several ancient Arabian sources. For instance, Yāqūt Al-Hamawi’s Dictionary of Countries or Mu'jam al-Buldan (circa 1124), which attempts to summarise all medieval knowledge of the physical world, describes merchants from Siljilmasa (a medieval Moroccan city) travelling to the ancient Ghana Empire. The merchants carried with them an assortment of goods for trade, including glass beads. Yākūt writes:

“Their wares are salt, bundles of pine wood… blue glass beads, bracelets of red copper, bangles and signet rings of copper, and nothing else.” — Yāqūt Al-Hamawi (1124)

Yākūt’s account is corroborated by Ibn Battuta, the legendary 13th Century Moroccan scholar and explorer in his extraordinary memoir, A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling (circa 1354). An excerpt from Buttata’s work provides practical advice for those journeying to Wagadou (the ancient Ghana Empire):

“The traveler, in these countries has no need to burden himself with provisions for the mouth, or mets or ducats, nor of drachmas; one must carry with him a morsel of rock salt, ornaments or trinkets of glass, which they call nazhm.” — Ibn Battuta (1354)

The final word here “nazhm” can be translated from Arabic to mean “blue bead” or “eye bead”.

From the above sources, in addition to archaeological evidence, we can begin to imagine the role of Akori beads as an early form of money allowing for trade and commerce to prosper across the ancient citadels of Western Africa, from Kumbi Saleh (Ghana Empire), to Gao (Mali Empire), and Sijimasa (Almoravid Empire).

A map of the Trans-Saharan citadels and trade routes of the 13th Century. Archeological evidence indicates that Kumbi Saleh was likely the capital of the ancient Ghana Empire, while Gao was the capital of the Mali Empire. Source: Asia's Maritime Bead Trade: 300 B.C. to the Present (2002), Peter Francis.

European imitation, hyperinflation & the slave trade

Now, let’s turn our attention to the imperial endeavours of Europeans in west Africa. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Akori beads in the transatlantic slave trade. By many estimates, from 1500 to 1870, between 15 million and 20 million slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas, in exchange for beads, cloth, copper, iron and gold. The vast majority of these beads were manufactured in Europe specifically to imitate the design of Akori beads.

From the earliest interactions of the Portuguese slave traders with indigenous nations along the west coast of Africa, we can trace the importance of Akori beads. For instance, Jean Barbot, who served as a commercial agent on French slave-trading voyages to West Africa from 1678 to 1682, writes:

“The main export of this Coast was slaves, cotton cloth and blue stones, called agoy or accorry, very valuable on the Gold Coast [modern-day Ghana].” — Jean Barbot (1732), A Description of the Coasts of North and South Guinea

Additionally, Barbot provides a detailed description of the price paid for “two-hundred and twelve slaves, men, women, boys and girls”, which includes “beads: five hundred and forty-six pounds; four pounds making a bunch”. To this day, Akori beads are often referred to as “slave beads” in British, French, and Dutch texts, stemming from their role in facilitating the purchase of slaves from the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana), along the Bight of Benin, to the mouth of the River Niger. This coastal region was referred to by colonists as the Slave Coast of West Africa” into the 1900s.

This map from 1914 published by John Bartholomew & Son (a long-established Edinburgh-based mapping company) still refers to the western coast of Africa as “Slave Coast” (source).

In Europe, from the 15th Century onwards, beads played no monetary role and glass-making technology was commonplace, while the same technology was rare in west Africa. This created a disastrous dynamic for the local African populations, whereby European merchants imported glass beads manufactured in Venice (and later Birmingham) and traded these beads for scarce resources, including slaves. Anthropologist, Arnold Cardinall, unwittingly captures this perverse market dynamic:

“To-day this particular bead, which was manufactured by the Societa Veneziana per L’Industria delle Conterie of Venice in the fifties of the last century, is being eagerly searched for and bought by Ashantis [a nation of Ghana], who have found a market for it in their home towns. I have met members of this enterprising nation on their way north to the Niger either to Gao, or to Timbuktu with the sole purpose of buying these beads and others which we would call aggrey.” — Arnold Cardinall (1925), Aggrey Beads of the Gold Coast

Perhaps, the most interesting illustration of the erosion of the purchasing power of Akori beads is given by the discovery of the Henrietta Marie ship wreck. The Henrietta was a slave ship that carried captive Africans to the West Indies. The ship wrecked in 1700 on its return to Britain, but was only discovered by divers in 1972. To the surprise of maritime archeologists, the wrecked ship held over 30,000 glass beads in its hull.

An investigation of the wreck and corresponding diary entries from Jean Barbot (a French slave trader and owner of the Henrietta’s twin vessel, Albion' Frigate), were used to determine the origin of the beads. Manufactured in Venice, 10 pounds of these beads could be used to purchase one slave (and in total, the beads on the Henrietta weighed 2,074 pounds). This discovery clearly illustrates how imitation Akori beads, manufactured in Europe, were used to facilitate the transatlantic slave trade, and in doing so, naturally led to hyper-inflation of the money supply.

Imitation Akori beads found in the hull of the wreckage of Henrietta Marie, a British slave ship. 30,000 of the glass beads were recovered from the wreck. On the right, we see iron shackles, called Bilboes, used by slavers to restrain captives below deck in pairs. Source: Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

The proliferation of imitation Akori beads eventually came to be well understood by indigenous peoples. Today, these imitation beads are collectively referred to as “koli” beads in Twī (also called “ekeur” beads in the Fante dialect of coastal Ghana). However, by the time local populations learned of the inflationary impact of the importation of these beads, a transfer of wealth from west African nations (those that could not produce glass beads cheaply) to European nations (those that could produce glass beads cheaply) had already taken place. Akori beads slowly lost their monetary value over time, as imitation beads flooded local west African markets.


Akori beads in west Africa today

Today across several countries of west Africa, including Ghana, Benin, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Guinea, beads of several forms play an important role in cultural ceremonies, even though they play no formal role as currency.

In Ghana, the adorning of Akori beads is an essential element of the journey into womanhood of Krobo women (from the Eastern region of Ghana) in the traditional Dipo Ceremony. On the final day of the ceremony, the initiates, referred to as dipo-yo, are dressed in beautiful kente cloth, and adorned in Akori beads around their neck, waists, and arms. The decorative bead industry still thrives in the Krobo region of Ghana, particularly in the lead up to Dipo.

Similarly, in Nigeria coral beads play an important role in traditional marriage ceremonies, particularly in Yoruba and Igbo culture. Along with cloth, sheep, and goats, decorative coral beads form a substantial part of the dowry transferred from the bride’s family to the grooms family during the wedding ceremony. The beads used in these ceremonies are referred to as Iyun, Lagidigba, or Àkún, but rarely as Akori beads (the term “Akori” is more common in Ghana, Guinea, and Benin). However, the beads share many similarities with Akori, such as mosaic designs, and illustrious blue, green, and yellow colour-ways.

A Krobo woman of the eastern region of Ghana is adorned with Akori beads as part of the Dipo Ceremony, celebrating her transition into Womanhood. Captured by photographer, Nyani Quarmyne.

Final thoughts

As we enter a new period of monetary experimentation in the form of quantitative easing ad infinitum, it is important to reflect on the lessons of the past. Money printing is not a new invention, it is an ancient peril.

The story of the Akori bead is one of insidious plunder. Hyper-inflation of supply in the market for these beads, orchestrated by European slave traders and merchants, led to a long-term wealth transfer from west Africa to Europe, and eroded the purchasing power of indigenous peoples. This slowly unwound the basic fabric of communities, and paved the way for colonisation.

Today, the annualised inflation rate in Zimbabwe is approaching 1,000%, reducing the US dollar value of the monthly pay for the average high school teacher to $30 (as of July 2020). In South Africa, the Reserve Bank announced in late March that it will embark on its own experiments with quantitative easing, printing South African Rand to buy government debt. This policy is unlikely to boost economic growth; instead it is highly likely to cause a devaluation of the Rand against the US dollar. As a result of these developments, I fear that we’re on the brink of entering a new period of hyper-inflation in many African states. If this comes to fruition, the consequences will be devastating. Now, more than ever, we need courageous leadership and thoughtful policies to solve these problems, otherwise we risk repeating tragedies of the past.


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References & further reading

Books

Augusto Panini (2007), Middle Eastern and Venetian Glass Beads - Eighth to Twentieth Centuries (read more)

Fredrick Boyle (1874), Through Fanteeland to Coomassie: A diary of the Ashantee expedition (read more)

Ibn Battuta (~1354), A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling (read more and complete translation)

Ila Pokornowski (1974), Social Significance of African Beads: Case Studies of the Yoruba and Bini Peoples (read more)

Jean Barbot (1732), A Description of the Coasts of North and South Guinea (read more)

Martin Hall & Stephen Silliman (2006), Historical Archaeology (read more)

Peter Francis (2002), Asia's Maritime Bead Trade: 300 B.C. to the Present (read more)

Willem Bosman (1704), A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea (read more)

Saifedean Ammous (2018), The Bitcoin Standard: The Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking (read more)

Yāqūt Al-Hamawi (1124), Dictionary of Countries (or Mu'jam al-Buldan) (read more)

Articles

Arnold Cardinall (1925), ‘Aggrey Beads of the Gold Coast’, Journal of the Royal African Society’ (Vol. 24, No. 96) (read more)

Anon (2020) ‘For a few dollars more: Zimbabwe’s worst economic crisis in more than a decade’, The Economist (read more)

David Moore & Corey Malcom (2008), ‘Seventeenth-Century Vehicle of the Middle Passage: Archaeological and Historical Investigations on the “Henrietta Marie” Shipwreck Site’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology (Vol. 12, No. 1) (read more)

Milan Kalous (1966), ‘A Contribution to the Problem of Akori Beads’, The Journal of African History (Vol. 7, No. 1) (read more)

Milan Kalous (1979), ‘Akorite?’, The Journal of African History (Vol. 20, No. 2) (read more)

Nick Szabo (2002), ‘Shelling Out: The Origins of Money’, Satoshi Nakamoto Institute (read more)

Suzanne Gott (2014), ‘Ghana's Class Beadmaking Arts in Transcultural Dialogues’, African Arts (Vol. 47, No. 1) (read more)