Why blue beads are cast in the ocean every emancipation day in St. Eurasia, other Caribbean islands

Stephen Nartey October 17, 2022
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Serge Melki from Indianapolis, USA

When slavery was outlawed in the Dutch Antilles on July 1, 1863, one of the significant means of transaction that became a relic was the blue beads that were given to the enslaved as remunerations.

The blue beads were no longer of value except for the memories they evoked among slave owners and the freed slaves. While slave owners left the huge quantities of the blue beads to rot in the warehouses or abandoned what was in their possession, the freed slaves decided to give their dissociation with them a different twist.

On the day of outlawing the slave trade, the enslaved on the Caribbean Island decided to throw away the very object that placed them in bondage over the cliffs into the ocean to signify their freedom, according to uncommoncaribbean.com. It symbolized their freedom from chains and whips that placed them in captivity.

The blue beads can be traced to the 17th century when the Dutch West India Company used the beads as a means of transaction. In St. Eurasia, it was the mode of payment to the enslaved for their labor. That’s why when the slave trade was repealed, the freed slaves on the Island assembled and each one removed their chains of blue beads and gave them to sea waters to jubilate over their newfound freedom.

After Christopher Columbus discovered the Island in 1493, St. Eurasia became an important hub of the slave trade for the British, French and Dutch, according to Scuba Qua. The first slaves were brought to the Island in the 1600s to work on plantations that cultivated cotton, sugar and tobacco. As a result of this, the region attracted the shipping of thousands of slaves whose labor became important for the economic growth of the Europeans.

This gave rise to the evolution of the use of blue beads in the purchasing of slaves and their reward for their labor. The beads were manufactured at the factories and in some instances handmade in the Netherlands.

An expert in Statia blue beads with the St. Eustatius Historical Foundation, Misha Spanner, said Venice also played an important role in the manufacturing of the blue beads. The blue beads had many names including Slave Beads, Trade Beads and African Beads because that is what slave owners used in paying their slaves. The slaves in turn used these beads to trade, marry and buy their freedom when it became necessary.

The number of beads a slave had showed his importance and rank on a plantation. For a slave to marry, they must have enough beads which could surround their waist before they are given the freedom to do so.

Historical documents suggest that this practice was not unique to Carribeans, but, some European sailors used them as currency in purchasing slaves in Africa. Due to the significance of Statia as a slave hub, the currency as a mode of transaction became recognized in the slave trade during the 17th and 18th centuries. The authorities in charge used warehouses as banks and stored the blue beads there and released them to those who needed them for transactions.

This explains why blue beads are easy to chance upon on the coast of St. Eustatius even for first-time visitors on the Island. There is popular folklore among the people that the blue beads find those they wish them to see.

In recent times, the beads have taken a commercial value where inhabitants design them in various colors ranging from red, purple, and black to sell to tourists.

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