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The Aggrey Bead and itís Namesakes

For centuries, the Muslim merchants of North Africa crossed the Sahara to cities in West African kingdoms to trade for slaves and, above all, gold. What did they exchange?

In the 12th century Yakut said the merchants took, "salt, bundles of pine wood, blue glass beads, bracelets of red copper, bangles and signet rings of copper and nothing else." (Levitson and Hopkins 1981: 69, emphases mine)

Europeans wanted in on the trade. The first to reach West Africa by sea were the Portuguese. In 1482 they acquired the reluctant permission of the local ruler to build a "great house," a fortress made of prefabricated sections brought from Portugal, whose outer wall and tower were largely in place after 20 days of work. Originally named Sao Jorge (St. George), it quickly came to be called El Mina
(the mine), the center of the gold trade (Cuyvers 1999: 58-60).

El Mina changed hands many times, eventually becoming the focus of the slave trade on this part of the African coast (we visited on a cloudy day).

As soon as the Portuguese established trade at El Mina, the local people demanded that they go east in their ships to bring back cori, to trade for gold. The Portuguese sailed from the Gold Coast (southern Ghana) to the Kingdom of Benin (horizontal lines) to buy this bead for their trading partners. Map from Francis 1993.

Cori and its cognates became a staple of the trade. For the next four centuries European visitors to the Gold Cost wrote about it. They didn't always agree on what it was or even what it should be called, but their comments are instructive:

Approximate date of observation (others are dates of publication) * Secondary source
Full references and citations are in
Margaretologist 3(2),1990

Several things should be explained. There is a blue coral in the local waters, but it could hardly have been made into beads, nor are any such known. "Coral" is the word for bead in several languages, including Dutch, from whom many of these writers got their information. These travelers were no better at distinguishing glass from stones as many people are today.

The name of the bead changed over time. In the 16th century it was cori, becoming accori in the 17th (the Fante, who live near El Mina, tend to put a vowel at the beginning of a word starting with a consonant). In the early 18th century, both Barbot and Bosman say that the natives called the bead accori, but that the Europeans called it aggrey, which became the standard name.

As long as the beads were being imported, the source was always to the east of Ghana. Importing had stopped by the early 19th century and the sources were then in Ghana. The Phoenician origin was based on the mistaken impression that chevrons, thought then to be Phoenician, were Aggrey beads.

The reprehensible Bowdich threw the most mud into people's eyes. His account was widely read and his description of "aggrey" beads was simply a list of all the important beads the Asante (Ashanti) owned. After him, chevrons and all sorts of other beads were mistakenly called "aggrey."

Up until Bowdich, nearly everyone agreed that the bead was blue. Brun took a closer look and saw it was dichroic: blue by reflected light and green by transmitted light. This was echoed by the Portuguese Emmanuel Ximenes, who asked the great glassmaker Antonio Neri in the early 16th century how to make dichroic blue/green glass to imitate a "stone" bead popular on the Gold Coast (Zecchin 1964:24)

What does archaeology tell us? Davison et al. (1971) analyzed drawn dichroic blue/green beads found in old trans-Saharan trading cities (Gao, Kubi Salah, Tegdaoust, etc.) and at Ife, Nigeria (where some of them were re-worked). While avoiding the term "aggrey" it is clear that they considered these beads to be the genuine thing.

Along with dichroic beads in the old trading cities was a blue "corded" bead, sometimes dichroic and sometimes not, with a similar composition. They may have once been considered Aggries, too. They have also been found in Fustat (Old Cairo).

Those on the left were imported from Africa. On the strand are also dichroic blue/green beads. Are they Aggrey beads? Could be.

The anonymous Portuguese Pilot in 1640 also wrote of a false Aggrey: "some wear necklaces of glass, which are very similar [to coris] but which will not bear the heat of fire." (Blake 1942: 153) Davison et al. found dichroic beads in newer contexts than the first group. They were heavy in lead, meaning that they would melt at a lower temperature.

These "imitation Aggrey" are well known. They are commonly called koli beads, though the Fante name for them is kor or ekeur, all three names are cognate with cori-accori-aggrey.

These beads are made by dealers in Ghana, who "cook" translucent, drawn European beads to make them opaque and change their texture (what look like "stretch marks" to some are bubbles near the surface breaking out because of the heat).

The same process is (or was) done in Nigeria to make beads called segi. It appears that pre-contact Ife, Nigeria also altered Aggrey beads, generally making them round. Aggrey beads, both altered and not, seem to have gravitated toward Ife, which accounts for so many of them coming from the Niger delta when the Europeans had to fetch them.

Left: The late Elizabeth Bruce of the famous bead dealership Teshie House in Accra, Ghana. She was 91 when I took this picture of her in 1990. She is demonstrating how she used to cook Koli beads.

Beads like the Czech ones they gave me (top right) would be packed in organic matter.
A charcoal fire under the pot was lit. Elizabeth went about her work, checking on the beads and stirring them every 20 minutes or so. After about an hour, Koli beads (bottom left) would be ready to sell to their customers. From
Where Beads Are Loved: Ghana, West Africa.

Koli, Cori, Kor, Segi, Accori, Ekeur, Aggrey. Lots of names to learn. Can we find genuine Aggrey beads? Possibly. One place to look might be the heirloom beads of the Asante kings. They have a blue tubular bead, but it's name doesn't sound anything like "aggrey." It is gyanie (pronounced "jenny"), after the old trading city of Jenne, no doubt. So much to learn.

Author/Date

Name

Color

Material

Source

Pacheo Pereria ca. 1480t

cori

blue

 

Rio de Forcados

Bothelho,1508

cori

blue

 

"the rivers"

Portuguese Pilot

coral

blue

stone

Manicongo (Angola)

DeMarees, 1602

 

blue, black, green

stone

Rio de Ardra

Brun, 1624

accory

dichroic blue/green

coral

Niger delta, Cameroons

Ogilby*, 1670

Akori

bluish

coral

Benin

Dapper*, 1686

Accori

blue

coral

Rio del Rey, etc.

Barbott, 1704

Agrie/Accorri

 

 

 

Bosman, 1708

Agrie/Accorri

blue

coral

 

Isert, 1793

 

blue

2 stones

Arda, Fida

Leyden, 1799

aigri

greenish blue

jasper

 

Bowdich, 1819

aggry

Blue, green, yellow, red, variegated

 

Dankara, Akim, Warsaw, Abante, Fantee

Price*, 1883

Aggri

variegated

 

Phoenicia

Kingsley*, 1887

Aggry

 

 

Phoenicia

Freeman, 1898

Aggri

Variegated, plain

 

Ashanti, Jaman



References:

Blake, J. W.
1942 Europeans in West Africa 1650-1560. London: Hakluyt Society (2 vols.)

Cuyvers. Luc
1999 Into the Rising Sun: Vasco da Gama and the Search for the Sea Route to the East. New York: TV Books.

Davison, Claire C., Robert D. Giauque, and J. Desmond Clark
1971 Two Chemical Groups of Dichroic Glass Beads from West Africa. Man new series 8(4):645-659

Francis, Peter, Jr.
1990 The Mysterious Aggrey Bead. Margaretologist 3(2): 3-8.
1993 Where Beads Are Loved: Ghana, West Africa. Beads and People Series 2 Lake Placid: Lapis Route Books

Levitson, N. and J. F. R.Hopkins
1981 Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zecchin, Luigi
1964 Antonio Neri e le Conterie. Vetro e Silicate 8: 21-24.

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