Jewels of a pharaoh! Thus the Louvre in Paris exhibited its blue beads. A temple treasure from 600 before Christ! Thus a museum in Palermo. Medieval beads from Kolpahur and Kondapur in India, transported by Asian mariners to Masingo, Southern Rhodesia! Thus runs the Indian version. A treasure from two-thousand-year old temple on the island of Flores! That is what Indonesia wanted to make believe. Blue beads also formed part of a necklace worn by the famous Zulu king Dingaan, who was murdered by South-African Boors on December 16, 1838. Thor Heyerdahl reports the discovery of similar beads during excavations on the Easter Islands in one of his books .. and in a jar in Northern Nigeria, 2700 of the blue glass gems were found.
It was, however, the Dutch chemist and scientific investigator W.G.N. van der Sleen, who discovered the collective origin of the mysterious blue beads. He obliged museums and other agencies all over the world to adjust their descriptions. The beads found in the Netherlands, France, Italy, India, Indonesia, Africa, New York and on St. Eustatius turned out to have been made in the glass factory of Jan Henrixz Soop in Amsterdam. In all the cases, potash was the raw material, and not the usual soda. Due to this, experts all over the world were put on the wrong track and ascribed the most peculiar origins to the beads.
From 1660 until 1670, Soop's factory made mirrors and rosary beads for the Dutch East India Company, especially for the "primitive peoples". For the production, glass makers were recruited from Murano and Venice. The Company's ships took the beads to all parts of the world. In order to prove that they all had the same origin, Van der Sleen wrote to many institutions and had bits of the beads investigated by the Experimentale del Veto in Venice. It established one and the same origin. Further investigation showed that the beads were always found at the surface, and precisely in the vicinity of places where the Dutch East India Company had traded from 1660. According to the ships' manifests the blue pieces of glass were transported as ballast.
At the time, St. Eustatius was an important trading centre between Europe, Africa and the two Americas. Discovered in 1493 by Columbus, it passed 22 times into other hands, alternately from the Dutch, French and English. In the 17th and 18th centuries, approximately 150 ships called at the port of St. Eustatius. The island flourished and got the name of "The Golden Rock". Among the commodities were also African slaves. The same beads with which slaves were bought,
later served, when they were liberated, as tender for their labour.
Just as other artefacts on St. Eustatius, like fragments from Dutch, English and French earthenware and stoneware, the blue beads can now still be found on the beaches of the Windward island. The beads are five-sided. The longest ones measure approximately one inch (2.54 cm). The glass products were made in long strings and subsequently broken. In addition to single specimens, double specimens are also found, in which the strings are not broken. The local tourist industry once again makes jewels from beads.
Observant walkers can comb the beach and find beads to make their own chains.
The Museum of The St. Eustatius Historical Foundation possesses, as a matter of fact, an extensive collection of "blue beads" on which Mrs. Gay Soetekouw-McAllister, the curator, can give even more details than has been done so far.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Herald, 11th October 2001
Our thanks to Andrea Greer for passing this information on to us
In St. Eustatius these beads are known as Seabeads or Landbeads
Our thanks to our friend Craig for supplying this up-to-date and historical account of the beads and of St Eustatius .. where he lives for most of the year.
We've all got seabeads or landbeads, as we call them, depending on where they are found,
but none of course have ever been to Africa.
The general thoughts on Seabeads are that they were lost overboard during transhipment of cargo from the ships via lighters or longboats to the shore, one of the reasons being that there is a shallow depression about 1/3 of a mile offshore, where when diving especially after a storm quite a few used to be found, in fact its called Blue Bead Hole. However in the past ten years or so, they are becoming much rarer as they are only occasionally found.
Landbeads as the name explains are those that were lost, buried or .. after the abolition of slavery .. thrown away, as they were such a strong reminder of the slavery days. Typically these are etched by oxides and as a result pitted, rather like the blue beads found in Africa.
St Eustatius [Statia] under the Dutch was the hub of Caribbean free trade in the 1700's and was the first of the free ports set up by the Dutch in 1757. The island is only 8 km long by 3.2 km wide, but so lucrative was the commerce that the island was nick-named "The Golden Rock." Every European power lusted for possession of the bustling trading post. It changed hands no less than 22 times over two centuries as the French, British and Dutch wrested possession of the tiny island from each other.
From official documents and shipping manifests in the Rijksmuseum and Maritime museums in the Netherlands it is known that in the islands’ heyday at times when the port was full, there were 15 -20 thousand people on the island. The volume of international trade that funnelled through that port can be judged by the fact that in 1779 over 3000 ships from Europe, Africa and the Americas weighed anchor in Oranjestad's bay to load and unload merchandise. As many as twenty ships might arrive on a single day and two hundred ships might be in port at any one time ! In that year, for example, sugar production on the island totalled 500,000 pounds, but official port records show that shipments of sugar from the island totalled 25,000,000 pounds!
In the late 1770's large amounts of arms and ammunition were traded from Statia and Martinique to the US during their war for independence from the English [1775 -1783] however after France and England declared war in 1778 it became the main Caribbean
port of supply for the revolutionary army of the United States.
On January 27, 1781 the British government informed Caribbean commander Vice Admiral Sir George Rodney and Major-General Sir John Vaughan that Britain was now at war with the United Provinces (Holland) and recommended as "first objects of attack” St. Eustatius and St. Martin. As a result the British Caribbean fleet attacked the island on the 3rd of February 1781 and sacked it.
Rodney is recorded as making off with in excess of 3 million pounds in loot from the warehouses, capturing and raiding 148 ships which were in port at the time of his attack. He then continued to fly the Dutch flag over the island and captured another 138 ships that came in during his army's ten months on the island. This equates to plunder with a modern day value in excess of $230 million.
The majority of merchants were deported and a number of British and American traders either hung on the spot or taken back to America or England to stand trial for treason. Further he appears to have been violently anti-Semitic, as approximately 100 Jewish merchants were purposely separated from their families and deported.
After effectively destroying the sea wall which had been built to protect the lower town and the majority of its 200 warehouses, he departed and this signalled the end of Statia as a major trading port.
In 1939 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented a plaque to St. Eustatius. Mounted on the ruins of Fort Orange, it reads, "In commemoration of the salute of the flag of the United States fired in this fort November 16, 1776 by order of Johannes de Graff, Governor of St. Eustatius in reply to a national gun salute fired by the U.S. Brig-of-war Andria Doria. Here the sovereignty of the United States was first formally acknowledged... to a national vessel by a foreign official."