A Brief Historical Review Of Traditional African Beadwork in Africa, South of the Sahara

It is generally assumed that African beadwork in regions south of the Sahara has its origins in the comparatively recent past when the colonisation of Africa opened up the Dark Continent to traders from Portugal, the Netherlands and England. Further south, in what is now KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Province of South Africa, the trade in beads is supposed to have had an even more recent origin. Henry Francis Fynn, who came to Port Natal (now Durban) as a trader in 1824, was possibly the first Englishman to have offered glass beads as standard merchandise to the North Nguni, best known of which was the Zulu, whose colourful beadwork is unique because of it's singular eloquence in the way messages dealing with male-female relationships were traditionally woven into it's design.

Even further to the south in what is the Transkei region of the Eastern Province, the South Nguni - of whom the Xosas, Pondo and Thembu are well-known sections - have had close contact with the British ever since the first settlers arrived in Delagoa Bay ( now Port Elizabeth) in 1820. Obviously, glass beads were common commodities offered by those early traders to Africans of the region whose beadwork, different in some respects from that of the Zulu, are in many ways as spectacular as the Zulu product.

The beadwork tradition did not, however, begin with the traders of the early nineteenth century. The market for glass beads already existed in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Province. Fynn at Port Natal and British traders operating from Delagoa Bay merely supplied it, meeting a need for a commodity that had been well known to their customers long before they arrived in what is now KwaZulu-Natal and the Transkei.

Glass beads appear to have been a by-product of the discovery of glass, said to have occurred in Egypt during the rule of the pharaohs as well as amongst the Chaldeans and Sumerians some 30 centuries ago. The Egyptians, favourably placed to trade with Africa to the south, were probably the first to peddle for gold, ivory and slaves. The Egyptians, who knew and valued precious stones, might well have assumed that the less sophisticated African to the south could be misled to believe that the beads, too, were gems of singular value.

The Egyptian glass beads, as well those from other sources with access to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, were transported by Phoenicians, a seafaring nation known to have circumnavigated the cape long before the Portuguese led by Dias and Da Gama. From the Nile Delta in the far eastern Mediterranean to Carthage and on to the Straits of Gibraltar these Phoenician mariners carried cargoes of glass beads in addition to other merchandise, shipping them to every port along the North African coast and the ancient Negro kingdoms of West and Central Africa.

With the passage of time, the Arabs succeeded the Phoenicians as traders and continued to supply beads to Africans along the East Coast and India, having in the meantime become a supplier of this commodity. To this day, red cornelian beads of Indian origin are washed out on the Transkeian shores from ancient Arab vessels that fell victim to storms and sank. From the North African coast on the Mediterranean, camel caravans criss-crossed the Saharan desert to trade with the African kingdoms south of the Sahara.

The Arab traders were ousted by the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and these in turn were succeeded by the Dutch and the British.

Glass beads were valued in Africa, not because Africans were duped into believing them to be precious stones, but because they were the products of an exotic technology, of which the equivalent was unknown in Africa at that time. Beads, therefore, became precious in their own right end were soon linked to whatever was valued in the cultures of the people who owned and crafted them into a variety of objects to be worn according to custom, as token of social status, political importance and for personal adornment.

The West African kings of Ghana, Songhai, Mali and Nigeria are known to have worn beaded regalia so heavy that they had to be supported by attendants when rising from their thrones to move about in the course of their duties.

In the Cameroon, beaded patterns and colours are remarkably similar to those found amongst the Zulu of KwaZulu-Natal covered the regalia and badges of office used by Cameroonian rulers, so that entire thrones - examples of which may be seen in the Linden Museum in Stuttgart - were covered entirely with beads. Closer to home, Ndebele beadwork, often sold on the streets and pavements of Pretoria and Johannesburg, is well known. Traditionally, certain beaded items were worn to distinguish young girls from their more senior sisters, to identify girls engaged to be married, or to adorn brides and young mothers after the birth of their first children. Among the Xhosa of the Transkei, special beadwork marks off peer grounds of different age-sets while distinctive regalia is reserved for the bride and groom at weddings and for guests closely associated with them.

What make Zulu beadwork unique, however, is the code by which particular colours are selected and combined in various ways to shape messages that at the same time are woven into decorative geometrical designs. The geometric shapes themselves have particular significance and the craft itself forms an intricate communicational system devoted entirely to the expression of ideas, feelings and facts related to behaviour and relations between the sexes.

It is sometimes difficult to decide whether beadwork is a craft, an art, a communicational system similar in principle to a written language or part of a symbolic code used for their own purposes by specialists in traditional magic. Zulu beadwork, because it's close relationship with weddings and engagements where the major actors are identified by the beaded finery they wear, has at times been presented as evidence in court cases where the responsibilities of parties to marriage contracts are in dispute. Beadwork, as an art form, thus intrudes into the fields of social relationships, the practice of law and the communication of ideas. Beadwork is the exclusive terrain of Zulu women, so that they become in some ways communities of their own, using the beaded items as technical instruments to follow their own interests. Amongst women, beadwork is also an educational tool, teaching young girls how to conduct themselves in their relationships with males.

All this indicates that Zulu beadwork is closely integrated with Zulu social organisation, the technology of specialised craftsmanship, religious beliefs and magic, educational objectives, communication and even recreation, because the craft itself provides plenty of fun.

Zulu beadwork tells us a lot about the way in which the Zulu have constructed their society. One soon understands that they have produced a closely integrated system in which all institution - religious, social, economic, educational, technological, communicational, recreational, legal, political as well as those designed to give aesthetic satisfaction in the form of art - are mutually supportive. This makes it a very powerful system, highly resistant to change.

Unfortunately, it is in this very strength that danger lurks; Zulu tradition, as in so many other African territories, will resist change until the impact of rises above the optimal margin of tolerance, at which point there is the very real possibility that social values will fall apart, resulting in serious socio-economic damage.

What this means is that the impact of change, whether generated by the need for economic development, technological advancement or improved educational levels, should be carefully controlled so that the margins of tolerance are respected. If this is not done, all development programmes are likely to fail.

Page Last Updated: 30/6/96
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(C) Stan Schoeman 1996 Pages hosted by Marques Systems.