The Magnificent blue beads of St. Eustatius

“I find it very wrong, therefore, that visitors to the island are allowed to take them away with them and that this is actually promoted to tourists. I don’t know of any other place in the civilised world that actively encourages visitors to leave with its heritage! It is very strange that the law does not forbid the export of our cultural heritage and this should actually change.

“Unfortunately for him, my nephew has me for his uncle. So when he found a blue bead while visiting me last year, he asked me if he could take it with him to the Netherlands. He pleaded and pleaded, but I have to be consistent. I could see how parting with the bead pained him, but he did leave it on Statia. I am very proud of him for that!

“The beads are closely linked to slavery. In fact, they also used to be called ‘slave beads.’ From the arrival of Europeans in West Africa [the Portuguese were the first], beads were used for barter. So in West Africa, they attained the status of currency and for the enslaved Africans arriving in the Americas, this continued. Chemical tests on the six-sided blue beads, as found on Statia, proved that they come from a glass bead factory in Amsterdam.”

According to Raimie M. Richardson, Master’s Degree in History, and who is involved with researching of the beads, said that in the beginning of the European slave trade in West Africa, the beads were mostly made in Venice.

However, when the English, French, Danish, Swedish, Germans and Courlanders (Latvians) joined the trade, Amsterdam – and later Bohemia (Czech Republic) – became centres of bead production destined for trade in Africa. Another term for these beads is therefore “trade beads.” Even English slave traders would stock up on beads from Amsterdam before sailing on to Africa.

Richardson said it has long been believed that the blue beads of Statia were made by Venetian glass blowers in Amsterdam, but recent research on a few specimens showed that they were each made by hand, making no two alike. Venetian beads of the time are all similar in size and model, due to being precisely cut and shaped.

The link of these hexagonal beads to St. Eustatius has sparked the attention of researchers. The beads were once used as payment for the island’s slaves, and the five-angle blue beads are very specific to the island, being found nowhere else in the world.

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