30-Jan-21 Beads

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

I am currently reading David Olusoga’s book ‘Black and British’ (Pan, 2016). The book is brilliant and shocking and it is the author’s ability to pick out the human detail from his research that makes the narrative so vivid.

Olusoga takes us first to Bunce Island, at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River. Here, in the seventeenth century, English slave traders established a slave fortress. Tens of thousands of Africans were brought to this fortress before being take on to slavery in North America and the West Indies. African captives were brought to the beach at the eastern end of the island. From there, the traumatised men, women and children were marched up the path from the beach to the Sorting Yard:

The clearing was where the buying and selling was done. Here the slave-traders displayed their wares – captive human beings, but also ivory, gold and camwood, from which a coloured dye was extracted. The British agents came out to meet their trading partners, bringing with them bottles of wine and rum to help lubricate the coming negotiations. In exchange for slaves and other valuable commodities the British offered glass beads, bundles of cloth, gunpowder, European metal goods, tobacco pipes, bottles of liquor and European weapons. Until a few years ago, the ground of the Sorting Yard was littered with tiny glass beads and fragments of pottery that had been dropped and discarded by both buyers and sellers centuries earlier. Most of these grim souvenirs have been hoovered up here by tourists who travel out to Bunce Island from Freetown, but many more relics of the trade lie beneath the soil, along with iron nails used to attach shackles and chains to African arms and legs, and broken wine bottles. (Olusoga, 2016, p.3)

It was the beads that got me: both the exchange of human life for glass beads and then, the idea of tourists – perhaps not knowing exactly what they meant? – picking up and taking home these tiny remnants of blood and misery. Perhaps in homage to enslaved ancestors, but a dark tourism indeed.

In early December, I showed my first year Criminology students the David Redmon documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China (2008, Carnivalesque Films) You can see for free an abridged version here, with Redmon’s commentary. The documentary is a criminological ethnography exploring the lives of Chinese factory workers who make bead necklaces. The beads are packaged and shipped to the United States, where Mardi Gras participants ‘throw’ the beads from floats and exchange them with fellow revellers.

Alternating sequences between Louisiana (in the US) and Fuzhou (in China), the documentary contrasts the long, relentless, factory hours of the young Chinese women workers, often migrants from rural areas living in onsite dormitories, working unsafe machinery with blistered fingers, trying to keep up the production tally chart demanded by the manager, Roger Wong; with the carefree, noisy scenes on the festival streets, where the crowds cheer and chant for women to show their breasts, and the lights of floats and filming mobile phones illuminates the scene.

Where do the beads come from, the producer Redmon asks the Louisiana partygoers? Nobody knows. Where do the beads go to, Redmon asks the factory workers? They don’t know either.

The journey of the beads reflects the story of globalisation, of inequality and of waste. At the end of the parades, many necklaces are discarded in bins, and on the street. They have little significance to the consumers once the party is over.

I wonder on how many shelves or in how many wardrobe boxes or set into how many pieces of costume jewellery around the world sit the glass beads of Bunce Island. Their owners unaware of the desperate genesis and use of these small shiny objects.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2021.

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