Beads have been used worldwide since they first became available through trading – from Egypt as early as 1500 BC. Glass beads are a by-product of the discovery of glass, which occurred in Egypt during the rule of the pharaohs some 30 centuries ago. Egyptian glass beads were transported by the Phoenicians (1500-300 BC) from the Nile Delta to every port along the North African coast and the ancient Negro kingdoms of West and Central Africa. The Arabs succeeded the Phoenicians as traders and continued to supply beads to Africans along the East Coast. To this day, red cornelian beads of Indian origin are washed out on South Africa’s shores from ancient Arab vessels that fell victim to storms and sank.
Beadwork in Sub Saharan Africa has a much more recent history dating to the 17th century with the colonization of Africa by the Portuguese, Dutch and English. The Zulu people (or North Nguni) were offered glass beads by an English trader, Henry Francis Fyn who came to Port Natal (now Durban) in 1824. The South Nguni – of whom the Xhosas, Pondo, and Thembu are well-known tribal groupings, located further south in the Transkei area of the Eastern Cape Province – had close contact with the British ever since the first settlers arrived in Delagoa Bay ( now Port Elizabeth) in 1820.
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 sub-Saharan Africa at that time. Beads, therefore, became precious in their own right and were crafted into a variety of objects to be worn according to custom, and as a token of social status, political importance and for personal adornment.