Were Yorubas sold for beads during The Atlantic Slave Trade? Did Yoruba speaking people sell others for beads?

pink slave beads
Venetian slave beads


Various accounts mention beads being exchanged for humans in West Africa.

” Glass beads were a regular cargo from England to Africa.  In the 1770s they made up between 25% and 50% of the value of cargoes shipped by the Liverpool merchant William Davenport to the Cameroons. Davenport also supplied other slave traders and in 1766 – 70 sold beads worth about £39,000″ – Credit/copyright: National Museums Liverpool

beads slave
Venetian slave beads


” One slave merchant reported receiving a prime Negro in return for 13  beads of coral, half a string of amber beads, 28 silver bells and 3 pairs of bracelets”– The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440 – 1870

Venetian slave beads

Yoruba Bead  Manufacturing Industry

But here and there distinctions are made about  the Yoruba and their manufacture of beads made from local glass sources  at the time when European beads were being sold to Africans in exchange for Africans. The author of the last paragraph Hugh Thomas goes on to say that –

“Some beads had always been known, and even made in Africa. For example, the aggry bead of hard glass had apparently been made, from an early date, at Ife in the territory of the Yoruba.”

“The two types of beads produced in Ife were the blue, dichroic glass beads known as segi, and the red tubular type known as iyun” – Stephen Adebanji Akintoye,  ‘ A History of The Yoruba People’


yoruba beads segi
Yoruba Segi beads, manufactured in Ife

Evidence has shown that the Yoruba have a history of glass bead manufacturing  dating as far back as the 6th Century AD ,  and that this industry came into its own in the 11th century.

You can read the previous post on this here.

European beads started to enter the slave trade triangle in the 16th century  and by this time Yoruba already had a flourishing trade in amongst other local products, indigenous beads.

Stephen Adebanji Akintoye says in his book ,  ‘ A History of The Yoruba People’ that “Increasing volumes of beads in head-loads left Ife along trade routes” 

Beaded headgear can be seen depicted on the naturalistic bronze/brass and copper castings of Ife, and on many of the terracotta sculptures. The beads are in the style of the indigenous Yoruba beads long and/or tubular in shape. 


Vanity of vanities?

To elevate the glory of the monarch before the people of the new city, Oduduwa is said to have turned to lavish use of beads in the royal regalia – in his crowns and clothes, as bracelets, wristlets, anklets etc.” – Stephen Adebanji Akintoye,  ‘ A History of The Yoruba People’


Oduduwa lived  in the 11th century . Would  the desire for beaded finery and  adorned deities  have remained as keen, and would it  have been  as or more pressing  to Yoruba kings of the 18th century than the need for ammunition?

To understand Yoruba priorities at the height of the foreign bead import into West Africa  in the mid 1700s, should one consider  the atmosphere in the Yoruba homeland of the same period?



Many of Yoruba lands were in violent throes of conflict and disarray. A succession of Alaafins trooped through the  Oyo Aafin   in the 1700s owing in part  to the ambitions of the notorious Bashorun Gaa, culminating in the Fulani  jihadist routing of hitherto Yoruba  Ilorin in the  1820s.

So given that

a) Yoruba had their own indigenous bead manufacturing industry dating as far as the 6th Century AD which  later was part of a flourishing trade  with West African neighbours dating from the 1500s  ;      and

b) that the bulk of foreign beads were brought into West Africa in the 1700s, which coincided with the century that Yoruba experienced mass upheaval,  Jihadist threats from burgeoning Islamic caliphates in West Africa, unprecedented violence and  political intrigue in the ruling  Oyo Empire,

and  c)    this would have necessarily relegated finery, pomp and pageantry to the  lowest of priorities for Yoruba royalty and people,

is it reasonable to conclude that comparatively few Yoruba would have been exchanged for beads during the slave trade?

iyun beads yoruba
Yoruba Iyun beads

Would any Alaafin  of the tumultuous 17th /18th Century  have been naive enough to swap prisoners of the many  Oyo battles for not guns and/or horses but beads??  Would such a vain decision even have gotten past the Oyo Mesi council without challenge?

More likely, what  Yoruba military and kings required at that time  of serial warfare were soldiers, guns and horses. So did Yoruba kings trade  humans for guns and gun powder?  That’s another post….










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