|At Rio dos Forcados, in Benin territory, barter takes place, chiefly in slaves, cotton cloth, and a few
leopard skins, and palm oil, and certain blue beads with red lines, which they call coris. These things we
buy for brass and copper armrings, and all of this is of value at the Castle of Jorze da Mina, and our
chief’s factor sells it for gold to the Negro merchants. — Pacheco Pereira (1506)
|The above quotation, from the dawn of the Atlantic trade to the west coast of Africa, is the first recorded European
reference to what has come to be known as the "aggrey" bead. Now, nearly five hundred years later, identification of
Pacheco’s "cori" or aggrey bead is still the subject of academic debate, the issue having been increasingly obfuscated
over the centuries by both language problems and a general expansion of the definition to include virtually any old bead
of value found or traded in West Africa. The purpose of this paper is to identify the cori bead described by Pacheco.
|Previous aggrey studies have focused on either the etymology of "aggrey", the material from which the bead was
made, or interpretations of numerous historical references, beginning with Pacheco’s observations. Authors of these
previous studies almost always lacked in-hand candidate beads or photographs of candidate beads from which to draw
conclusions, thereby reducing most of their work to speculation. The general impression put forth in the literature is
that the bead is extremely rare, if, indeed, it can even be found.
|However, three authors, Davison (1971, 1972), Euba (1982), and Francis (1990, 1993) have, in principle, solved the
problem. Davison performed chemical analyses of certain beads that are proving to be the "original" aggreys, but
stopped short of making any definitive claims. Euba argues that the "segi" beads of the Yorubas were the beads
involved in the early Portuguese trade, but she does not adequately describe these segi beads, of which several
varieties exist. Francis seems to have deduced the correct bead from the literature, but does not show it. This paper
clarifies the findings of these three writers and presents, for the first time, photographs of what, in all likelihood, are
the beads first observed by Pacheco.
|The etymology problems have been resolved. Pacheco reported that the bead was called "cori" by the Africans, and
throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans referred to the bead as "accori", "accory", and other
variations using a "c" or "k" to indicate a "k" sound. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, "g" words, such as
"agrie", "agry", and "aggri", began to appear. In 1708, Bosman, as quoted by Francis, referred to beads "we
[Europeans] call Agrie and the Negroes Accorri". Francis concludes from this statement and a similar statement by
Barbot in 1732 that there must have been a linguistic shift from a "k" sound to a "g" sound, thereby linking the cori
words to the aggrey words. Other writers, notably Jeffreys (1961), have drawn this same conclusion, that aggrey
evolved from cori. For purposes of more closely conforming to African lexicography, cori is better spelled "kori".
|The origin of the word "kori" itself is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, but need not concern us at this time. At
any rate, resolving the etymology problems does not contribute much to our identification of the "original" kori bead.
A second common theme in kori studies concerns the material with which the bead was made. Francis, who has
summarized adequately the arguments, concludes, as do most other writers, that the bead had to be of glass. Other
proposed materials, including coral, cowries, tektites, metal slag, and minerals or stones, all fail when matched to
other criteria put forth in the historical descriptions.
No blue coral suitable for beads exists in West Africa and, otherwise, coral would not survive long in the wet acidic
earth of the forest zone from where the beads are said to have been excavated (Euba), nor would it pass the "fire test"
(to be discussed below). Yet, coral has been proposed because 1) the word "kori" is close to the word "coral"; 2)
beads of any material are often called "coral" in many European languages; 3) the alleged shape and other visual
characteristics of the kori suggest pipe coral; and 4) the association of the kori with water deities in Yoruba religion
and other West African belief systems suggest an aquatic origin.
Cowries, even the so-called "blue" cowries, which are really violet, are the wrong color and, like coral, would not
survive long in wet ground, nor would they pass the fire test. Cowries are the wrong shape and do not lend
themselves well to shaping into cylinders. Tektites would be much too rare, even if any existed in the right color,
while specimens of metal slag beads of any description have yet to turn up. Cordierite, a pleochroic mineral, is the
wrong color(s), while lapis lazuli is not translucent and is not found in West Africa. Speculative literature on
alternatives to glass as the material of the kori is extensive, but even the authors of these works usually concede the
improbability of these various substances. Finally, Pacheco’s description of the beads as having "red stripes" almost
unilaterally proves that glass is the actual material.
Ryder (1969), quoting a certain Bastiam Fernandez, reported that coral, glass beads, and cowries were traded for
koris in 1522, thereby eliminating coral and cowries as candidates and introducing presumably cheap European glass
beads as trade goods for the genuine article, whose composition at this time was still mysterious. Other Portuguese
trade statistics of the sixteenth century suggest large quantities of koris in the trade. Ryder further mentions a
Portuguese agent at Elmina who received tens of thousands of koris in the four-year period from 1532 to 1535. The
magnitude of these statistics goes far to eliminate as candidate kori materials the more exotic substances, such as
tektites, metal slag, minerals, and stones, which would have been much too rare for such a commonplace commodity.
The third common theme in kori research concerns the "consensus" definition. Francis (1990), for example, has
tabulated more than a dozen historical references to kori beads, as has Davison (1970). While these references
confirm the importance of the bead in the early centuries of the Atlantic trade, the fact that imitations or substitutes
were present from at least the early sixteenth century indicates that many of the "sightings" could have been
erroneous. However, around 1540, a certain anonymous Portuguese pilot left a valuable clue as to the nature of the
This pilot did not recognize the material as glass, but indicated that, at this early date, imitations were already extant
and described the fire test as a means of identifying the true kori bead. To this day, Krobos use the fire test to
differentiate their various "koli" beads.
Pacheco and the anonymous pilot are the only historical references one needs to narrow the field of kori candidates,
although later references to the bead’s dichroic trait provide further weight to our argument, but as mentioned, the
further one progresses in time, the more suspicious the references become with respect to our mission of identifying
Davison, Euba, Francis, and van Landewijk (1971) generally agree that the original kori was:
| 1. blue translucent glass;
2. less dense than other materials or glass imitations;
3. relatively impervious to fire;
4. cylindrical and corded; and
5. sometimes dichroic (blue in reflected light, but green or yellow in transmitted light).
Certain logical assumptions should also be added to the consensus:
6. common enough to figure prominently in sixteenth century West African trade;
7. old enough to be established in trade prior to the coming of the Europeans;
8. colored and/or shaped in ways that confuse observers as to its material; and
9. in limited supply, leading to their disappearance by the eighteenth century and engendering imitations.
|Kori beads in reflected light.
||Kori beads in transmitted light.
|The beads pictured here match this consensus definition in all respects. These beads match Davison’s Type A and are
called segi among the Yorubas, as discussed by Euba and as personally confirmed in Nigeria. The bead Francis
deduces as the first aggrey matches Davison’s Type A and one of Euba’s segi beads. How does this bead compare to
the consensus definition?
Concerning the logical assumptions, we note the following:
|* * *
In discussing segi beads as kori candidates, Euba is incorrect in stating that all segi beads were made at Ife. There is
no evidence of glassmaking in medieval Yorubaland, only glass working. The so-called "crucibles" excavated at Ife
certainly contained melted glass, and it is possible that this melted glass was used to make varieties of segi beads, even
drawn segi beads, but not the more fire-resistant beads that are so frequently found in Mali. We must be careful to
differentiate the drawn segi beads made in Yorubaland from the drawn kori beads that have attained the same name,
the true kori, which was so valuable in trade, been made in Yorubaland, supplies of them would not have dried up so
quickly, nor would the workmanship have declined so markedly. The elusive Yoruba glass bead makers would have
gone right on making them, but this was not the case.
gone right on making them, but this was not the case.
Euba’s contention that segi beads found in sites of the old savanna kingdoms were traded north from a manufacturing
site in Yorubaland is not supportable. Among her segi beads, the only ones found in the dated savanna sites are what
we call Pacheco’s bead, not the lapidary, powder glass, or Yoruba drawn types. If this northward trade occurred, it is
unlikely that only one type of bead would have been involved and, indeed, there is little evidence to support a
northward trade in beads in medieval times. Pacheco’s bead was the currency of the trans-Saharan trade, traded south
for gold and other products of the forest, including kola nuts from Yorubaland. There would be no economic incentive
to trade beads back to the north.
At the beginning of the Portuguese era, only one variety of Euba’s segi beads supplied the European coastal trade.
These were old beads that reached Yorubaland from the north, and only when the original segi beads were depleted
did the Yorubas begin to produce other beads from scrap glass. These other beads were made of glass that would
more easily melt in fire using lapidary, drawing, and powder glass technologies. These latter beads, also called segi and
valuable in the Yoruba context, would not have had the same value on the Gold Coast where the gold producers were
long accustomed to receiving the exogenous blue variety from the north.
Kori beads were likely carried by migrants in the east-west movement of groups from Yoruba areas toward what
became the Gold Coast. These migrant groups would include Ga-Adangbe, including Krobo, Ewe, Popo, and others
with probable roots in the east, in Yorubaland and beyond. Kori beads are still important to all of these groups,
although the beads now have different names. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that these migrant groups were supplying
Akan gold producers with beads prior to the arrival of the Portuguese because the groups had not yet made significant
contact at this early date. Yet, there was a demand for koris on the Gold Coast because the Akan gold producers had
already been trading gold directly to the north, probably for centuries, in exchange for beads. The Akan groups had
migrated from the north in the centuries preceding the European arrival on the Coast and already had long exposure to
the blue money beads of the trans-Saharan trade. Francis does a fine job summarizing the role of blue beads in the
trans-Saharan trade and correctly notes that the Ashantis call their blue bead "gyaneeh," a term he says may be derived
from Djenné, an important trade town in the savanna.
Upon their arrival on the Gold Coast, the Portuguese learned that the gold producers would accept certain blue beads
in exchange for gold. In 1487, when the Portuguese reached the Bight of Benin, they found a source of the blue
beads. Where gold could be had for these beads on the Gold Coast, the beads could be had for trinkets in the Bight of
Benin. That there was such a disparity in the value of these beads is evidence that Africans had not yet made contact
along the Coast.
The African traders in the Bight of Benin, who had no gold, but who were relatively close to a source of koris (the
digs in Yorubaland), traded the beads rather cheaply for "brass and copper armrings" (manillas) to the Portuguese, but
just three hundred miles to the west, the beads took on a whole new value, trading for equal weights of gold. This vast
difference in value made possible a highly lucrative coastal trade and quickly attracted imitation koris, for anytime it is
possible to trade glass for gold, imitations must soon be attracted. Thus, by the eighteenth century, the market became
flooded with European products, while, at the same time, supplies of the "true and original" koris were exhausted. The
graves yielded only so much.
What about the red stripes mentioned by Pacheco? Not only do the red stripes virtually seal the case in favor of glass,
they also further limit the list of candidate blue beads. Although Pacheco was the only observer to mention these
stripes (he also mentioned plain blue ones), he was apparently reporting accurately because some of the beads now
considered the first koris have red stripes. The beads shown in the accompanying photographs are identical in all
respects, aside from the red stripes.
Where these beads originated is still an open question, but at least we can be sure which beads were observed by
Pacheco and figured so prominently in the early Atlantic trade of West Africa. Davison suggests "first millennium
Christian Europe" as the origin of her Type A bead, while Francis seems to lean toward a Middle Eastern origin. At
this point, there is little evidence upon which to base a conclusion as to their origin, except that Africa, and Yorubaland
in particular, should be ruled out. Pacheco’s bead is trans-Saharan.
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West Africa". Man 6:4 (1971): 645-59.
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Results of X-ray Fluorescence Analysis". Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, 1972.
Euba, O. "Of Blue Beads and Red: The Role of Ife in the West African Trade in Kori Beads". Journal of the Historical
Society of Nigeria (December 1981-June 1982): 109-127.
Francis, Peter Jr. "The Mysterious Aggrey Bead". The Margaretologist 3:2 (1990).
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Graham, J. Erskine Jr. Cape Coast in History. Cape Coast, Ghana: By the author, 1994.
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Van Landewijk, J.E.J.M. "What was the Original Aggrey Bead?" Ghana Journal of Sociology 6:2 and 7:1 (October
1970 and February 1971): 89-99.
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