ILHA DE MOZAMBIQUE, Mozambique — The sun arcs down on to the white beach and Jackson Minitu squints through the glare with a practiced eye. He walks hunched over, stopping now and again to reach down into the soft sand.

“Now I found another one, a blue one,” he says with satisfaction, digging lightly near the broken coral heads that pop up through the white sand. “This place is a very fun place because I find different beads.” He says with a smile lighting up his face.

Minitu is digging for ancient trade beads found in the sand in this remote island (see map below) and he is finding a lot of them.

The Island of Mozambique, called in Portuguese, Ilha De Mozambique, or simply, Ilha, has been at the center of trade, politics and nation building in southern Africa for at least a thousand years. Glass and ceramic beads were the legal tender of this trading system, and they were exchanged for gold, ivory and slaves.

When Vasco Da Gama arrived at the island in 1498 he started a long period of Portuguese influence and occupation. Soon after his arrival and the Portuguese settlement that followed, the oldest European-made building in southern Africa, the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, was built in 1522. The country of Mozambique gets its name from the island which in turn got its name from Moussa Al Bigi, an Arab trader who lived there, and dealt in beads and many other trade goods.

Today, there is a new trade in beads. Young men like Minitu find beads on the beach and sell them. The beads come from shipwrecks that litter the area off this once-thriving commercial center. Little blue and white beads from Holland, colored like Dutch porcelain, lie next to pottery shards and blue glass.

In some places it is impossible to step in the sand without standing on little broken pieces of the past. Near the port, which is being reconstructed, the beach is just glass and porcelain, and beads can be found everywhere. At the Anchor restaurant in town, a magnificent mural made from pieces of porcelain shards adorns the main bar. Minitu explains it only took a day to find the thousands of pieces that make up the intricate facade.

In the old days, a few beads might buy a life, and thousands of Africans in chains were marched from the African interior to the small fort on a coral head off the coast. They were then paraded at low tide from the beach and up to the slave market, held on a rock overlooking the sea. It was here that captains of trading vessels bought the slaves, often for just a small string of little glass beads.

The slave traders came from Holland, Portugal, China, Arabia and many other countries and regions. Some of them crashed into the coral reefs that surround the Ilha. Today as the storms and waves strike Ilha’s beaches, the little beads from the holds of their wrecked ships wash up like messages from the past to be collected by young men like Minitu.

History is alive on Ilha De Mozambique. At the lighthouse on Ilha De Goa, which guards the dangerous narrow shoals that lay treacherously in wait for ships that land at Ilha, weather charts lay forgotten on the old desk. The charts, dating back to the 1800s, are strewn around, and though moldy, are in surprisingly good condition. On the 9th of September, 1824, at noon, the wind was from the south, blowing at four knots, the visibility was clear and unlimited. The brilliantly scrawled writing harks back to a time when fancy penmanship was valued, a time before computers and remotely-operated meteorological stations.

Walking up to the light itself, the old bevelled glass shards from the ancient light lay strewn around like spilled candy from a pinata. This is not a tourist area — this is history unadulterated, straight from the past without any hazy museum glass to water it down.

Standing in the lighthouse you imagine the terror of a ship in a storm, its hold full of precious cargo (including valuable beads representing millions of dollars in today’s economy), its mast down from a storm, being pushed by the wind onto the terrible coral shoals that protect Ilha De Mozambique from the worst of the Indian ocean weather.

The trade beads of Africa were not just currency, explains Alexis Schoeman at South Africa's Univeristy of Pretoria. They were, like the crown jewels of England, a symbol of power and influence. In Africa’s vast interior, networks of trade had been established for hundreds of years before modern day European explorers started to map and divide the continent. Owning a string of beads was symbol of who you knew and how connected you were, says Schoeman. They explained who your friends were and, by association, how powerful you were. Smaller beads were smelted into larger, more robust and attention-grabbing artifacts. So, they were also a symbol of access to technology. Their value was not only symbolic though. In some places a string of just three red beads was enough to purchase a cow.

The beads of Ilha De Mozambique tell a story of world trade, conquest and tragedy, and it is by charting their movement across southern Africa that scientists can build up a picture of how Africa’s nations came into existence. The ancient trade routes that beads followed connected empires, which became centers for more trade. Beads from Ilha de Mozambique have been found in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, gold fields of Mapungubwe and at Great Zimbabwe. They are symbols of early trade, and even now people like Jackson Minitu make their living selling them, because they are still a valuable commodity in today’s globalized society.

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